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How to Find an Academic Mentor

It can be challenging as a PhD student or postdoc to start building a successful academic career. Having someone who can share their wisdom with you and offer encouragement is an invaluable asset. While your supervisor can fulfil some of these functions, many PhD students and postdocs also choose to seek out an academic mentor.

There are several benefits to having a mentor. They can, first and foremost, help you achieve your professional and personal goals. A mentor can act as a sounding board and offer advice when you are facing a challenge. As someone in a more senior position, a mentor can share valuable insights about the profession. Your mentor can also facilitate important networking opportunities.

Before you start looking for a mentor, spend some time thinking about what you want to get out the mentorship experience. Why do you want a mentor? What are your career goals? A mentor can be particularly useful when you are transitioning to the next phase of your career. Also think about what sort of skills would you like to learn. Mentorship is a great way to fill essential gaps in both technical and soft skills.            

Once you have established why you want a mentor, it’s time to start thinking about who you want as your mentor. Try to find someone who can help you achieve the goals you have set for yourself. Your collaborators are often a good place to start as you already have a professional relationship with them. Your colleagues might also be able to suggest researchers they think you would get along with. Here are some tips to keep in mind when seeking out potential mentors:           

  • Your mentor shouldn’t be someone who directly manages you. Your supervisor will undoubtedly fill some of the functions of a mentor, but you should also seek out someone external.
  • While not as established as a more senior professor, junior faculty can be incredible mentors because they have been in your position more recently.
  • Don’t limit yourself by only seeking out mentors at your university. Consider mentors from other institutions who will have a completely different network than you.
  • Consider mentors working outside of your current research area. They can bring a valuable new perspective to your work.
  • If you are a member of a group that is underrepresented is academia, such as a queer person, a person of colour, a person with a disability, or a woman, you may want to seek out a mentor who will share your perspective.

Now that you have some potential mentors in mind, reach out to them and see if they are open to meeting with you, ideally in person. Contact a couple different people You want to have multiple mentors who can each support you in different, complementary ways. Invite your potential mentors to an informational interview so you can decide if the two of you are a good fit. While you might be a good match on paper, your personalities may clash in real life. After your meeting, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they understand your goals?
  • How often are they available to meet?
  • Do they have the same philosophy towards work/life balance as you?
  • Have they been a successful mentor in the past?
  • What is their mentorship philosophy?
  • Do they seem supportive?
  • Do you get along?
  • Would you feel comfortable coming to them with a problem?

If you determine that you’re a good fit, make a personal development plan together. Identify areas and competencies you want to work on and determine what steps you are going to take to improve. Decide how often the two of you will check in on your progress. You should maintain regular contact with your mentor so that you stay on track, but also to cultivate your relationship. Don’t forget that mentorship isn’t a one-way street. You should also be adding value to the relationship by sharing your skills and expertise with your mentor. Even though you have less experience, you can still bring a new perspective.

Good luck in your search for an academic mentor!


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