The Art of Finding a Mentor

This article of mine was featured in the July 2013 issue of the CSA News Magazine (Crops, Soil, and Agronomy professional society publication). Since this is geared only toward professionals in my field, I thought it was valuable to get a bit more of the word out to others.

The Art of Finding a Mentor

I am lucky enough to have an affliction of being relatively unafraid of rejection in a public sector. I never set out to find a mentor; it was actually a total accident. I was in Europe and needed to write a 60- to 80-page paper on something to do with sustainable agriculture. I showed up on the doorstep of the Scottish Agricultural College promising free labor and wound up with an enthusiastic soil physicist as a mentor. Having an ebullient personality, this scenario has repeated itself throughout the years.

Fear not oh introverts! This article is dedicated to the art of finding and keeping mentors.

What is a Mentor?

In short, a mentor is somebody you admire and want to learn from. Be it for their personal skills, their professional success, their outreach activities, or some combination of these. Even the most informal mentoring relationships require time on both sides, but the mentor/mentee relationship can be mutually beneficial to both parties. Mentors are there to help you develop your career because they see your potential and believe that the time worth investing in you is worth the cost. In turn, mentors get to share your enthusiasm and gain new perspectives about a topic they love. Mentors want to help you solve problems and pass down their knowledge.

I often make the joke that I have a “crisis mentor phone tree.” I have mentors that help me become more professional, mentors that help me negotiate career advice, mentors who help me calm down, and mentors who challenge me (insert adviser here). I even have a mentor for crazy ideas! Before you contemplate finding or cementing a mentoring relationship, you need to know what you want from it. I tend to blend the line between mentorship and networking, and some of my mentors may not even know that they serve in that capacity. Sometimes, relationships just happen.

The relationship with my adviser and my mentor for crazy ideas involves a lot of back and forth and is time intensive. Trying to replicate this dynamic with someone who is not in the same building or even the same state is very difficult. I had an amazing relationship with the adviser for my master’s degree; however, when I graduated, the dynamic of the relationship changed with distance and other commitments, and so I adjusted my mentoring expectations accordingly. I even have mentors who are only active via phone calls, email exchanges, or at the Annual Meetings.

How to Get a Mentor

A lot of people approach mentorship the wrong way by putting too much pressure on the relationship right away. Mentoring isn’t about finding the most powerful person in your field, but it is about finding somebody to emulate.

Talk to People

There are around 4,000 people at the Annual Meetings, and each one is a potential conversation target. Sometimes, it feels very intimidating to talk to the worldly and authoritative folks that chair divisions, are leaders, and have published more papers than years that you have been alive. But remember, these people put their pants on one leg at a time too, and most appreciate being recognized as a source of information (ever meet an academic that didn’t like talking about their subject?).

Don’t Approach People with the Intent of Making Them Your Mentor

In romantic relationships, this is like asking somebody to marry you after your first date. The relationship needs to grow into trust. I have mentors that I never explicitly asked to be my mentors, but because we have a similar personality, it was a natural progression.

Approach People Outside of Your Discipline

Your adviser can be a very valuable mentoring asset. However, you can never have too many mentors. Look outside of your department, and even outside of your field. One of my mentors works for the Girl Scouts Council. She helps me with teaching practice. Another is a PR rep for IBM who helps me with professional etiquette.

How to Keep a Mentor

Once you went through all of the hard work of finding a mentor, don’t blow it. Keep these five tips in mind.

  • Tip #1: Mentorship is a mutual relationship, and like any other relationship, it needs nourishment.
  • Tip #2: ACT on your mentor’s advice. Your mentor isn’t always correct—only you know what is right for you. Use the mentor for a sounding board, and thank them for their advice. If I don’t take their advice, I let them know why. Don’t be afraid to be honest.
  • Tip #3: Don’t be a pest. It is ok to initiate contact and check in with your mentors, but be patient in waiting for a response. Treat them like a friend.
  • Tip #4: Don’t leave when you are challenged. NOBODY likes being criticized, wrong, or otherwise humiliated, but you sought out your mentor to help you get better.
  • Tip #5: Keep it professional. This will vary among relationships, but keep in mind that this person could potentially hire you or be a reference. If they know about your <insert name of vice here>, they may be less inclined to hire you.

I fully admit that some people have insurmountable egos and can be aloof and awkward. If they aren’t interested in talking with me, there is somebody else out there who wants to. Smile and take risks talking to new people. Having a mentor, especially one who isn’t your adviser, can really help get you through tough times. Graduate students need mentors, but you can have mentors at ANY stage in your career. Remember that graduate students can BE a mentor as well. Fellow students, undergraduates, and those in the K-12 grades and even experienced folks that chair divisions can always use somebody who can give advice or support. Remember, passion resonates loudly—you have it or you wouldn’t be in graduate school.

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