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Careers Café

How much do you owe your mentors?


If you’re lucky, you have mentors. They may have come into that role officially – as supervisors or dissertation committee members. They may be personal Yodas you’ve picked up unofficially – that grad student whose unflappability you’d like to cultivate, or the colleague who knows how to make meetings useful.

The balance of giving and receiving is pretty obviously tilted in mentor-mentee relationships. You get to bask in the sunny rays of your mentor’s time, energy and advice.  So, what do you owe your mentors in return?

Thanks. It may seem obvious, but thanking your mentors on a regular basis is a nice touch. Specific thanks go a long way to showing that your appreciation is genuine and that the time that your mentors spent with you has been meaningful to you.

Respect for their time. Accommodating your schedule to theirs, and acknowledging when requests are last minute are among the basics.

Well-thought out and reasonable requests. Knowing what you’re hoping for – what situation you’d like advice on, limiting how much time you’re asking for, and keeping requests in line with what each mentor has offered in the past help ensure that your mentor will be comfortable with your requests. If your mentor has offered to put in a good word for you, that’s great – go ahead and accept their offer. If someone has offered a smaller favour, such as meeting with you once to give you advice, you’d be crossing a boundary if you asked that person to attach his or her reputation to yours by putting in that good word.

What’s not on the table. What you don’t owe your mentors is control over your career direction. Your mentors may come to feel invested in your career direction. After all, they’re probably mentoring you because they’re excited by the potential they see in you, and they can’t wait to see you achieve it.

But your mentor will not be the one doing your job. Whatever you sign on for, you’re the one who will experience it each work day. Your mentor may well believe that the direction they’d like you to move in will bring you satisfaction. If you believe otherwise, don’t do both of you a disservice by pursuing a career path you don’t want.

Mentorship relationships are less transactional than you’d expect: mentors usually pursue mentorship because they find it inherently rewarding. Chances are that your mentors wouldn’t take the time to support your career unless they also had an interest in you as a person. If you continue to enjoy what you do, or if you take steps to get closer to what you enjoy, your mentors will likely support you, no matter how wistful they feel for the future they envisioned for you.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. John / October 31, 2013 at 00:40

    Thanks, Liz,
    This is superb. I’ve been on both sides of the divide, if I dare call it a divide. I began mentoring in excruciating circumstances, stumbled through the codependent catastrophes, learned, still am. I’ve often been thanked one way or another, but seldom in words. Prefer it that way.
    Generally searching out research, I avoid blogs. Glad a mentor of mine posted this to me.
    Keep up the great work,

  2. Liz / November 14, 2013 at 21:09

    Thanks, John!

    I appreciate your kind comments – and think there must be one heck of a story behind the brief reference to codependent catastrophes.


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