A mentor guiding a postdoc up some stairs

Choosing a mentor comes up a lot when I’m talking to postdocs.

Either they come to me and say, “Oh, I need a mentor”, but haven’t really got an idea what that might involve. Or their situation is making me think “you need a mentor”. I’m going to lay everything out straight on the topic of what a mentor is, how to find them, how to work with them in this blog post.

A mentor is not your mummy. This phrase comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. A mentor, although it might feel a bit like a parenting relationship, is not there to sort out everything for you. They’re not there to tie your shoelaces. They’re not there to tell you exactly what to do. What they are there to do is to bring their experience and their expertise into a relationship with you to help you navigate your career.

The mentor relationship is about them providing advice. Different to a coaching relationship, where the coach is trying to get you to develop your own solutions. When I help people with applications, it’s probably more mentoring than coaching, I would say, because I’m bringing my experience to them. I’ve said “This has worked in the past. Why don’t you try this?”. My simple definition of a mentor.

Is the chemistry right?

Making sure that you’re going to click with your mentor is really important. I found the following gem in  “Miss Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women”. I think the following advice is great for all – not just women. What she says is she applies three filters to people in her network.

  • The first one is, do I like this person? You’re going to be having a one to one with that person. So, do I like them? Do I enjoy their company? Would I be happy if they were stuck on a train journey to Scotland with me? * for me that’s a long journey!
  • The second one is do I admire this person? This is about thinking what is attracting me to this person as a mentor. What skills and experiences they had, that I really need to know about so that they can help me?
  • The final one I think is really important is: do I trust this person? This trust might be gut instinct at first, but it will ultimately be based on experience, I usually have to meet them several times.

My advice for picking a mentor is firstly going find someone who has the skills and experiences that can help you. Now they might be like you. In my case, a female physicist turned trainer with kids. There are more of us than you think! Or they might be completely different. I’ve had some fantastic male colleagues in the past who have been really good and helpful mentors to me. We’ve both been in the training industry but in very different sectors However they still provide some really great advice, help and mentorship.

It’s not dating …

You can have more than one mentor! There is no written rule in the universe that says you can only have one mentor. If you’re going down the official mentorship scheme route, you can only have one mentor because they’re trying to match people together. Throughout my career and people I’ve worked with who have used mentors successfully have had several. Either serially or in parallel – it isn’t dating! Different mentors bring different things to the table. Just in the same way that if you were doing some research, you probably wouldn’t just read one paper on the subject. You would read several papers and then you draw together your own hypothesis based on that.

With mentors, I think you can look at people who bring different aspects into your world. I currently have someone who I can go to with all things business and also some personal stuff. She’s fantastic, very much my top mentor. I’ve got other people who I can go to about understanding the university sector and what’s currently happening. They’re really plumbed into the vibe; I wouldn’t necessarily go to them with a business problem because they’re in a university. I’ve also got other people who I could tap in to talk about coaching in more detail, and training, design, all sorts of people out there. Some of these people I will talk to very regularly.

A mentor isn’t for life

If you think about academia, people move around. Location isn’t a big issue, virtual communication has made more possible than ever before. But role change is. People’s attention shifts as well. If someone was mentoring you when they were a fellow and they’ve just moved to be a new lecturer at the university – they will be having a super busy time. Therefore, they might not have the time and space for that mentoring relationship in quite the same way as before. I’m very much a believer of everyone has the right time for a certain person in their life. It’s okay for a mentoring relationship to end. You will have both moved on in your careers.

Don’t be scared about asking for a mentor – they gain from the relationship too. One of these new phrases is ‘reverse mentoring’, where you’ve taken a very junior person in the organisation and you pair them with the senior person, so that the senior person really understands what it’s like to be the junior person. Quite often, the junior person is more in touch with the day to day practicalities of the business. I predict that as a postdoc, you are probably at this point in your life, the most in touch with your science day to day that you will ever be. Because as you climb up that ladder, you’ve got people to manage, you’ll be doing less of your science yourself. As you become the lecturer you then add teaching and administrative responsibilities, all of which slowly take you away from that day to day research endeavour. You do bring that fresh aspect to conversations with your mentor. There might be things that you bring to that relationship that they have no idea about. Don’t be afraid to raise them!

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