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Responsibilities May Include

How to craft a mentoring journey that suits you in grad school

Your needs are unique and you must take the time to reflect on who would best serve you as a mentor (hint: it probably shouldn’t be your supervisor).


A mentor (which is derived from Mentor, the character from Homer’s Odyssey who guides and advises Telemachus while Odysseus is on his epic quest to get home from the Trojan War) is an experienced and trusted adviser who will counsel, support and train you to achieve your career goals.

Mentoring can encompass various activities: a mentor might support your career exploration by helping you set goals, build your network and pursue professional development activities to help you move toward the goals you identified. A good mentor makes visible the hidden curriculum (the implicit rules ) in their organization, pulling back the curtain that prevents you from identifying key strategies to success. They can provide you with training, motivation and advice to support you in moving in the direction that matches the trajectory you envision for your career. A good mentor is also someone you can trust to provide honest feedback, allows you to reflect and challenges you. A good mentor will also be available for regular meetings or to connect and ask questions in other ways. Conversely, your supervisor oversees your scholarly activities and focuses on your success within an academic program, such as meeting the requirements for graduation. Their research overlaps with yours creating an inherent conflicting interest; even if they are mentoring you, this relationship alone is not sufficient.

The quest. Now that you understand and value why mentors are critical to your success, I invite you on a quest: to discover your mentorship needs, identify mentors that can meet those needs, approach those people and successfully walk the path of the mentoring relationship. The goal of your quest is to find a mentor as good as Mentor and, like Odysseus and Telemachus, keep that relationship strong on your own epic journey.

The need. So, first, let’s do some self-reflection to establish your roadmap. What do you need to progress in your career? Which advice would help you? Which field (industry, academia, nonprofit, government, community)? Which type of company/institution? Any professional organization? Is there a specific life (personal growth, work-life balance) and career trajectory that you are pursuing in which a role model could help you? Consider finding someone who shares your lived experience or identity to navigate certain aspects of academia. Once you have identified the “profile” of the mentor(s) you need, you must find them. First, look in your immediate work environment: conferences, seminars and meetings. Second, online, particularly on social media (X (formerly Twitter), LinkedIn, or some field-specific Slack groups. Lastly, an excellent way to meet a potential mentor is to be introduced to that mentor by someone you already know!

The approach. Now that you have identified a mentor, the first steps to contact them might be overwhelming. First, don’t be afraid and take a deep breath; most likely, this person was in your shoes before! Then, prepare your introduction: be specific, clear and impactful. Introduce yourself (who you are, your education, and what you want; for example, you can request feedback on your career plan, your cover letter, seek advice on additional training or certification); alternatively, you can add a short CV (a page or two), and offer to (e-) meet. Reaching out to a mentor must be a genuine step; don’t come with a secret agenda (such as being hired by this person or obtaining a collaboration).

Setting up your roadmap. Once you find a mentor, you must create that mentoring relationship. Identify your short- and long-term goals and share them with your mentor. Consider the mentoring meetings’ style, frequency, time and place. Are you more of a planner or somebody spontaneous? Do you need an agenda and a program, or do you go with the flow during the mentoring sessions? Discuss what your mentor agrees to bring you and what their expectations are towards you. Lastly, discuss what happens in an emergency (such as a major conflict that compromises your personal or professional safety ): can you call a meeting outside the regular meetings? Do you have a safe and rapid discussion channel? In all these steps, trust, safety and confidentiality are critical to a successful mentor-mentee relationship.

The journey. You get out of a mentoring relationship what you put in. Each mentor might have a “plan” with their mentees; however, your needs are unique, and you must steer the ship towards the direction you want and need. For example, you can create a mentoring plan for the year, identify the areas you want to discuss with your mentor and submit the plan for their review. Following an individual development plan (IDP) is a great way to shape and express your mentoring needs and track your career development progress. Preparing an agenda for each meeting (with some flexibility) can structure the mentoring sessions and optimize the use of your mentor’s time! During the interactions with your mentors, be open and express what works and does not work for you. Have courageous conversations and be open to feedback. You will improve and grow by owning your mistakes and being open to criticism. As a side note, not all mentoring duos (mentor-mentee) work; one way to assess the effectiveness of the mentoring process is to perform an evaluation, for example, using the Global Measure of Mentorship Practices framework. If needed, end the relationship politely and professionally and do not burn bridges!

Homeward bound: Passing the torch. Having a mentor provides an incredible support network that can help you grow your career, and it would do the same to others. As a graduate student, you can be an excellent mentor for high school students or undergraduate students. Likewise, postdocs are a fantastic source of support and advocates for graduate students. In addition, peer-mentoring programs are incredible for accountability and building relationships with like-minded individuals. Offering  reverse mentoring, which means that, as a “junior” person in your field, you provide some mentoring to a senior, is also an effective practice that can facilitate approaching a mentor. As an effective mentor, don’t forget to:

  1. streamline your communication
  2. lead by example
  3. inspire confidence
  4. respect diversity, and
  5. be accessible.

In summary, having a network of mentors with your best interest in mind and supporting your career development is critical to your success. Reaching out is easier than it looks and can be a game-changer in your journey.

Claire Kamaliddin
Claire Kamaliddin is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Calgary, researching infectious diseases using translational approach. She is also the co-leader of the Immigrant and International Women in Science network in Calgary.
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