Finding a Mentor
In some departments and schools, it is assumed that mentoring relationships will simply occur naturally. Although new faculty members may be encouraged to find mentors, they are often left to their own devices to seek out both the individuals and the help they need.
Other departments and schools are more proactive and assign mentors, or even a committee of mentors, to new faculty members. Often, in such situations, the faculty member has considerable discretion as to how he or she works with the assigned mentor(s) and is encouraged to find other faculty mentors who can offer additional perspectives. Therefore, even faculty members who are assigned mentors may need guidance in finding additional mentors.
The advice below comes from faculty members who have been or currently are being mentored, as well as from department chairs and other academic leaders.
Beginning the process of finding a mentor
Use informational interviews as a way to assess potential mentors. Finding the right mentor can be challenging. A good way to begin the process is simply to have conversations with faculty who are in your department or who share your interests. Ask more senior colleagues to coffee or lunch; get a sense of their interests in areas in which you may need mentoring. It is also helpful to tell them something about your interests and experience. Individuals who show interest in you and seem helpful may well make good mentors. However, it is often a mistake to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” at a first meeting. Take time to explore the relationship and see whether the two of you share common interests and are compatible before asking someone to commit time and energy to assist you on your professional path. Build the relationship slowly through specific requests.
While it may not be appropriate to ask for an open-ended, overall mentoring commitment right away, if you think a faculty member will be responsive, it is advisable to make a relatively small and specific request for assistance. For example, ask the person to read an early draft of an article, observe your teaching for one class session, review your CV, or discuss a specific problem with you. In this way, both parties can assess the working relationship before making a long-term commitment.
Get advice from others about who might be a good mentor. Often, a discussion with your program or department chair can be helpful. The chair may suggest people with whom you share common interests. Colleagues who have several years of experience in your department may be a good source of information about the mentoring strengths and weaknesses of specific senior faculty members. You might also seek advice regarding potential mentors from faculty outside your department or school and from campus-wide groups, such as the CFE or the Association for Women Faculty and Professionals.
Use work-related opportunities to assess potential mentors. Sometimes a mentoring relationship will grow out of work on a joint project with a more senior person in your department. If you are proposing the collaboration, it is a good idea to discuss each other’s interests in the project to make sure you bring complementary strengths and also to agree on a division of labor and appropriate credit on the final work.
Pay attention to social cues. If someone seems to be too busy to assist you with small requests, he or she is probably too busy to be your mentor. Similarly, if you get the message that you are imposing on someone, that individual probably is not a good prospect. An ideal mentor is an individual who understands the importance of the mentoring relationship and who is at a point in his or her career to find time to be of assistance. Seek out mentors with a track record of forming good mentoring relationships. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Identifying whom an individual has mentored in the past and the extent to which that relationship was mutually beneficial may be of great value. Mentoring well is a skill, and it does take time. It may be that an individual is already successfully serving as a mentor to one or more individuals and, as a result, may not have time to also mentor you. However, an individual who successfully mentored a junior colleague in the past may well be looking for another person to mentor.
What to look for: characteristics that suggest good mentoring potential
Find mentors who are genuinely interested in you. Seek out individuals who are likely to help you make important decisions because they want you to be successful. For example, one UNC-CH faculty member recalls, “I looked for people who could be a voice of reason when I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed and who could give me opportunities, like becoming the editor of a journal.” Find mentors who can be good coaches. There are times when a mentor should see potential in you even when you fail to see it yourself. A UNC-CH faculty member who participated in a CFE-sponsored panel discussion on mentoring stated, “I looked for people who would celebrate my successes but also would listen to me complain about my failures, and then encourage me to move on and give me ideas about how to move on.” Seek mentors who will support your interests.
It is important for mentors to separate their own interests from those of the individuals being mentored. A good mentor will look for what you find exciting and what inspires you. Identify mentors who, upon hearing and seeing your genuine interests, will encourage you to explore those topics. Look for senior faculty who can “open doors” for you. Mentors are often at a point in their careers where they can be generous and can give you opportunities that, earlier in their own careers, they would have taken themselves. This may be introducing you to prominent individuals in the field, identifying special opportunities for grants, or assisting you to become a member of a board or high-level committee. Seek out mentors from very different areas. Consider choosing mentors who are different from you (e.g., different disciplinary orientation or style of thinking) of whom you can ask, “Why do you think this?” Also, consider seeking out different mentors for the different aspects of your professional life. You may well find one mentor to assist with publications and scholarly work, another to assist you with the promotion and tenure process, and yet another mentor to assist with teaching.