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Career Advice

Mentor me!

Having good mentors can make a huge impact on what happens in your academic career, particularly your progress through graduate school


What is mentorship?

At its most basic, mentorship is getting help from those with experience. From funding opportunities to reference letters to advice on programs, conferences and journals and even on whether to continue an academic career, mentors have been there, done that, and can give you the view from a higher vantage point.

“The one thing a student can get from a mentor is an unvarnished view of what their progress or prospects are like,” says Sunny Marche, acting associate dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University. Kate Eichhorn, assistant professor in the department of English at Ryerson University, says some students come to the table with a stronger mix of ingredients in the “academic elixir.”

“Some students arrive and know how to network and how things operate, but some students don’t feel comfortable, and they are at a disadvantage,” says Dr. Eichhorn. But, she stresses, good mentorship can make up for these and other shortfalls. Mentorship is not just about academic work itself, but also with navigating university life. A good mentor can guide you through the labyrinth of written and unwritten rules at the university. “There are the rules you can’t break and then there are the rules that no one follows. It’s good to have someone who can point to which ones are which,” says Dr. Marche.

Anatomy of a good mentor

A good supervisor and a good mentor have similarities because these roles overlap. But mentors are not limited to your supervisor or committee. Dr. Marche notes that a good mentor is frank, trustworthy and committed to the mentoring relationship. “You need to find out who is helpful and reliable,” says Dr. Marche. “There are people who are overcommitted and say yes to everything.” A good mentor also has an interest in your work.

“A good mentor is a really good close reader and is enthusiastic about your research,” says Dr. Eichhorn. Often this means that a mentor shares research interests. But this doesn’t mean that a good mentor is necessarily a well-known name. “Students often think the best person to work with is the person who is the most well known. Often the most well known people are not on campus much, they work all the time. It’s better to choose someone who has time to meet with you than someone who has a name,” says Dr. Eichhorn.

But a good mentor also needs a good mentee. It is important to go to a mentor with specific and answerable questions in mind. “People want definite actions, but the world doesn’t work like that,” says David Skinner, assistant professor in the division of social studies at York University. “[They] expect that the world is simple and they often have simple, but unanswerable questions for a mentor.”

You need to clearly define your questions and make sure that they are not too large in scope. Go to a mentor with a specific request such as a reading list on a certain topic or advice on whether a certain course might be beneficial given your research interests.

Finders Keepers

So you know what makes a good mentor, and maybe you even have one in mind, but how do you start a mentorship? James Nemes, former dean of graduate and postgraduate studies at McGill University, says that his school likes to encourage graduate students to work with a thesis supervisory committee, in part to increase mentorship possibilities and to make the mentorship more formal. “Sometimes, if it isn’t formalized to some degree, students feel that they’re going around the supervisor to talk to someone else. This helps make it more comfortable,” says Dr. Nemes.

However, Dr. Marche advises that there are advantages to having a mentor who is not on your committee. Conflicts can arise if the student is having difficulty with the supervisor or committee, or if the supervisor and the student have different goals for the research. This may be a particular risk in the sciences where students often work on their supervisor’s research. “That argues for having a mentor outside of your committee,” says Dr. Marche.

But with an informal relationship, the commitment can be less clear, and approaching someone for mentorship can feel awkward. Dr. Marche stresses that while it may feel awkward at first, it is the only way to set up a mentorship. “There are three ways to get what you need. You need to ask and if that doesn’t work, you need to ask, and if that still doesn’t work, you need to ask again,” he says. If you aren’t comfortable asking someone to be a mentor, then you likely won’t be comfortable asking that person questions about your research and your career. While not all mentoring relationships need to be this formal, if you want to get a commitment out of someone, you will need to ask.

Defining the Edges of the Relationship

Because mentorship is a unique and often evolving relationship, it can be a difficult one to define. But the edges of the relationship need to be clear. There are two main ways that a mentoring relationship can cross boundaries. One is when a student becomes overly reliant on a mentor’s advice, and the other is when the professional nature of the relationship slips.

“Mentorship relationships get messy or problematic when students look to mentors to define their work,” says Dr. Eichhorn. This is especially a problem in the humanities, where students even at the master’s level are creating and defining their own research. If they are overly reliant on a mentor, students aren’t doing their own work.

But the second problem is both more common and more problematic. If you overstep the boundaries of the professional nature of a mentorship, you risk alienating the very person who has been helping you out. “I believe in being clear about the professional nature of the relationship,” says Lynne Van Luven, associate professor in the department of writing at the University of Victoria. “Students and I cannot be friends because I would compromise my role. It clouds the issue and makes it very difficult for me to say what I have to say. It’s not that I don’t want to know them, but I want to keep a professional distance,” she says.

Dr. Nemes adds, “I’ve had students ask if I could loan them money. Even if I could, I wouldn’t” says Dr. Nemes, who warns against asking mentors for personal favours. However, he does temper that by saying that if there is a personal issue going on, students should inform their supervisor and mentor. “At least then they know that there’s something going on.”

Keeping in Touch

Mentorship is often a long-term relationship. “I still have students from a decade ago that I’m in touch with. It seems to me that it’s part of being helpful, but also part of human curiosity,” says Dr. Van Luven. “If you bake a cake, you want to see how it comes out of the oven. You invest in students and you want to see how they turn out.”

And a good mentoring relationship has two sides. “The best mentoring relationship is a two-way street,” says Dr. Marche. “The mentor gets to have a positive influence on somebody and the mentor can get some very positive energy out of the conversations. Wise mentees make mentors realize how important the role is.” He stresses that students should show that they have been listening to their mentors, let them know what advice they have followed and how it has been helpful. “You want to recognize that the time and attention mentors put in is very valuable.”

Keeping in touch with your mentor after you’ve graduated will change the relationship, and at some point, it will evolve from a mentorship to more of a collegial relationship. But likely not until after years of benefiting from their advice and support.

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