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Career Advice

Are you my mentor?

A thoughtfully chosen mentor is a crucial part of a grad student’s success.


“The narrow focus of a literal ‘apprenticeship’ to become a professor, combined with the little contact with the world outside of academia, leaves little question why many PhD graduates feel at a loss after graduation, especially once they decide to pursue a non-academic path.”So you want to Earn a PhD? The Attraction, Realities and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate, HEQCO, 2013

In the children’s book Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman, a little hatchling must leave its nest and explore the world in order to find nurturing guidance and a supportive role model. Like the hatchling, today’s promising graduate students will also have to leave their academic nests and venture into the professional world around them to find the key person that will help them develop their own unique path to independence and success.

Many students go to graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor. In turn their academic supervisors are keen to train the next generation of researchers and scholars and to serve as role models. But, what if becoming a professor is not in the cards? Supervisors are often ill prepared, or perhaps uninterested, in offering career advice outside of the academic track that they know so well. This leaves graduate students in the difficult position of transitioning alone from academia to the workplace. That’s where mentoring comes in.

Keep Calm and Find a Mentor

“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nunsbent down and helped us pick up our boots.” – Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

Mentoring is the personal one-on-one guidance and encouragement given by a more experienced person to a novice in an open, honest, respectful, sensitive, confidential and consistent manner. And while supervisors should act as mentors, graduate students also need someone outside of the supervisory line of authority that they can turn to for advice.

Here are some strategies students can consider in seeking out a mentor:

  • If a student is interested in a faculty position, they should link up with a junior faculty member – perhaps outside their home department or university, who was recently recruited and moved successfully through the tenure process.
  • For non-academic mentors, connect with alumni working in an area of professional interest. Graduates are often keen to reconnect with their home department.
  • Learning to do cold calls and informational interviews are essential skills. Students should use their research skills to find someone doing a job they might like and then find out if their idea of that career matches with the reality. Following up with a short thank-you email, and further leveraging professional networks like LinkedIn will help form invaluable connections.
  • Learn to build a network and build it strategically. A powerful network is not about having hundreds of Facebook friends. Rather, students should seek out someone who is willing to meet on short notice and give advice on a major career decision.

A Mentor’s Role, or 10 Things a Mentor Does:

  • Shares experience and knowledge
  • Provides insightful and confidential advice
  • Helps set realistic and achievable goals
  • Encourages strategic thinking
  • Imparts specific skills
  • Provides networking opportunities
  • Upholds professional standards and ethics
  • Provides conflict resolution techniques
  • Gives moral support
  • Remains honest and open

It is important to note that it is not a mentor’s responsibility to get jobs, intervene in disputes, raise money for a student’s cause, speak or apply on one’s behalf, or become a student’s best friend.

Mentoring Resources

Most universities have mentoring resources for students through their graduate schools, faculties, departments, career centres and student organizations.  Some of these resources include:

An Individual Development Plan (IDP)

Students should not expect supervisors or mentors to come up with all of the answers to their career questions. Students need to take charge of their own career trajectory while in graduate school. A great place to start is with an Individual Development Plan or IDP. This plan will allow students to perform a self-assessment, develop their professional skills, set achievable goals and map out a career path. Importantly, this plan will also prepare students for the unexpected. Like the hatchling that eventually found its mother, finding a mentor will help keep students on their road to success.

Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, FCAHS, is a professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and a special advisor to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Graduate Professional Skills and Engagement.


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  1. Nana Lee / November 16, 2015 at 23:58

    Thank-you Dr. Reithmeier! To trainees, as mentioned, most university career centres have “extern” programs in which you receive training in cold contacts and then given a list of alumni to request informational interviews. If your university does not have one, use your professional linkedin profile to make contacts with alumni who already have your dream career. Some industry networking organizations, like Life Sciences Ontario, have an official tutoring program.
    If any of you train further in the States, you also have access to Mentornet.
    Also, once you find mentors, don’t be shy in helping them out too! Send them articles, grant information, and press releases they might be interested in. With time, you will eventually gain a personal mentorship board who can help you in all aspects of your career and life.

  2. Liam O'Leary / November 17, 2015 at 09:54

    Thank you for drawing attention to the vital roles that mentors play. It it true–none of us got to where we are today without a little help a guidance and support. Higher education can only benefit through the promotion of mentorship.

  3. Jen / November 18, 2015 at 13:30

    Advisors are not mentors! Shout it out loud. Advisors (supervisors) *may* be mentors, but they aren’t necessarily so; these are different roles. So often we confuse the two and end up with neither good mentoring nor good advising. Glad to see this piece, which helps clarify the point of a mentor.

  4. Ash Lim / November 26, 2015 at 02:03

    Indeed a very interesting article!
    Finding a mentor outside the academic world is the most challenging task which requires one to build a strong network. Supervisor can guide you well if you desire to enter the academic world but for non-academic field, one need to find the right mentor that can provide you proper guidance. In this case, I think connecting with alumni is the best possible answer. Alumni from a non-academic field can introduce you to that world in a better way. Also joining professional networks like Linkedin can also help you the same way but here again finding the relevant connection is not that easy as it sounds.

  5. Masha Cemma / April 12, 2016 at 13:02

    I can’t agree more that mentorship is crucial for success in graduate professional development! One thing I would like to add is that grad students can become better mentees and networkers through mentoring high school and undergrad students (not necessarily inside the lab). In my limited experience, I found it to be super helpful. In fact, only after mentoring high school students for a few years, I developed meaningful mentorship relationships where I was a mentee.

    And I echo Dr. Lee’s point that grad students should be thoughtful about how they can help their mentors – it’s a two-way street.

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