How to find quality mentors in your PhD and beyond

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At this point in my graduate career, I have been fortunate to find and maintain various mentors that have not only supported me throughout my schooling, but also pushed me to reach beyond what I thought my limits were. Below you will find some tips and tricks which I’ve gleaned through my experience that may help you on your own journey through a PhD.

What is a mentor? This word often gets used to refer to a variety of roles that a specific individual may play in your life. I personally think of my mentors as those who are more experienced in the field that I am seeking advice in, and whom I have developed a relationship with in order to be advised more personally. Let me share a few examples of mentors I currently have:

Starting in undergrad, I was able to build a strong connection with a professor, Dr. Cody. I took many courses with him and eventually joined his lab doing microbiology research. Dr. Cody was highly influential in my decision to pursue a PhD program and he opened my eyes to the many opportunities available to me in the sciences. To this day, now four years out from when I graduated, he continues to offer words of wisdom and guidance when grad school seems unbearable at times, helping me to reach my full potential in my field.

When I entered graduate school, I was tasked with finding the right lab, the right project, and ultimately, the right mentor. I was told once that graduate school is likely the only time you get to choose your boss, and thankfully, I chose very well. My current PI, Babak, is very supportive of my career goals, my science, and my desire to maintain healthy boundaries between work and personal life. In the mentor role, he takes the time to sit with me each week to discuss project progress and direction to make sure I am on track for my goals. Outside of my project, he also provides mentorship in my career goals, reviewing my IDP (an individual development plan is used to help you focus your professional development; here’s the one I use: https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/) and helping me get in contact with those that can offer the best advice for my future career in industry. 

As I am in the final years of my program, I am starting to look for additional mentors, particularly to help navigate the transition from academia to industry. Within this process, here is the advice toward forming mentorships that I am reimplementing and want to share.

Identifying quality mentors. Now that I have given a handful of personal examples of mentors in my life, it begs the question of how do you find a quality mentor? While the specifics will vary person to person, generally you want to look for these key qualities when identifying potential mentors: 1) they are knowledgeable and more experienced in the area you need help in, 2) they take your background into account before advising (sometimes advice is not universal!), 3) they have the time to commit to mentoring you, 4) they have similar values to your own, and 5) they balance criticism or reality checks with encouragement and support. Finally, a very important aspect of choosing mentors is more subjective in nature and that is whether you personally feel comfortable interacting with and receiving constructive criticism from them. A mentor/mentee relationship is like any other relationship— the benefit you receive is going to be affected by how much you get along and are comfortable with the other person. Opportunities to start forming these initial interactions and identify mentor candidates is through networking events, conferences, or informational interviews. This is then followed by building and maintaining the relationship.

Building a mentor relationship. You shouldn’t enter into a conversation looking to walk out with a mentor immediately; these types of relationships take time to build. To start, identify people that could offer help in certain aspects of your professional life, build a relationship with them through repeated contact and conversation (both formal and informal) and mentorship will naturally grow from that. Next, build trust with your mentor by following through on action items they suggest or offer advice on, and always do your best work. With consistency, you build valuable trust with your mentor and establish a stronger relationship moving forward.

To foster a mentor relationship, consistent contact is necessary. In-person meeting are great and valuable to fully form the mentorship, however, between more formal meetings, using social media could offer a no-pressure interaction on a more regular basis. Using Twitter or LinkedIn to share interesting articles or industry news is a great way to keep in contact with a mentor. Personally, I am also a fan of email updates on my professional development or “small wins,” especially when I have time or distance constraints limiting the ability to communicate in person. Frequent contact is invaluable.

Over time, this mentorship will grow and hopefully benefit both people. The last advice is to be proactive! The only way to form a mentorship is for you to seek it out and actively maintain it. 

If you have additional advice you’d like to share about forming a mentorship, comment below, we’d love to hear from you!

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