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Finding your mentorship

Written by Ellen KW Brennan

Your advisor does not have to be your only mentor.

There. I said it. In fact, I’ll go even further to say that your advisor *should not* be your only mentor. However, how do we find other mentors?

The relationship between advisor and student is one of the most important aspects of graduate school. A good relationship can make everything easier, while a bad one can make everything harder. Yet what took me three years into my PhD to realize is that one mentor-mentee relationship, no matter how good, still may not be enough.

In my case, I realized that my current career trajectory was not what I wanted, and the field I planned to enter was outside that of my advisor’s. To learn more about this new field and the careers I might pursue, I had to find mentors in that community. In other words, while my advisor was indeed a phenomenal mentor, I needed other sources of mentorship as my PhD experience progressed.

There are many other cases when one mentor won’t feel like enough, too. Perhaps your research project takes an unexpected turn, and you begin using new techniques outside the repertoire of your current advisor. Or perhaps your advisor is great for research, but you want mentorship from someone who shares some of your identities. Or, in the worst case scenario, your advisor is not a good mentor, and you want guidance from someone with your best interests at heart.

Beyond these examples, there is this simple point: If we acknowledge that research and discovery benefit from the input of a wide variety of people and perspectives, then why would we fail to recognize that our personal development can benefit from the same? Simply put, having a team of mentors supporting you is stronger than one single advisor. So how do we find other mentors outside of our advisor’s bubble?

Here are the top tips I learned for finding mentors that were not part of my advisor’s network:

  1. Figure out what you need in a mentor. Is it career advice? Personal? Research? Just a space to feel comfortable and supported? Once you know what your current mentoring is missing, it’ll be easier to identify what can fill those gaps.

  2. Attend professional development and/or wellness workshops hosted by your university. Often, the people leading these workshops *want* to help---that’s why they assemble the workshops in the first place! Connect with them after the event to see how you can engage further. Maybe they can be a mentor, or perhaps they know someone else who is likely to meet your needs.

  3. Go to conferences that host the types of mentors you are looking for. Conferences are bustling places where collaborations and networks are formed, so approaching someone you have not worked with before is normal here. It might still feel awkward or scary, but the environment supports these spontaneous conversations. You got this.

  4. Is there a professor or faculty member you’ve met who makes you feel comfortable? Great! Ask them to be a mentor. It doesn’t matter if their research or career is related to your goals. Having a person at your university who is in your corner and can provide a comfortable space is valuable.

  5. Look to other students! Faculty aren’t the only people who can provide quality mentoring. Other students can be excellent sources of support and knowledge, and they might even connect you to a new network of potential mentors you hadn’t considered.

  6. Is there someone at your university who has a career you’re considering? Or doing research you’d like to explore? Ask them for an informational interview! Even if they don’t become a long-term mentor, you can learn valuable insights about your next steps from these informal conversations.

  7. Talk to the support staff in your program! Program staff are there to support every single member of a program, which means they also know the program better than anyone else. If there are specific resources or people who would be able to better support you, the staff are often the most likely people to know.

Hopefully, these tips provide ideas for where you can start your search for more mentorship. Remember, graduate school is about finding *your* path as a professional in your field. Explore everything that excites you, and soak in the knowledge and experiences of others. The Ivory Tower may sometimes feel like an intimidating place, but there are always those who would be happy to help you navigate your path. Now you just need to go out and find them.


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