Undergraduates need career mentors, as well as academics (opinion)
I was fortunate to have a positive mentoring experience in my graduate program. My mentor was attentive, responsive, and frankly, emotionally there for me when I faced some significant challenges outside of my undergraduate program. All in all, I was lucky.
However, I didn’t feel completely comfortable talking to him about not wanting to be a faculty member. I avoided interviews and even collected a few academic job applications, but in my heart, I knew I wanted something else. A career mentor would have been helpful in my process. Specifically, it would have been helpful to have someone who was not affiliated with my department or university with whom I could talk about my career path.
The truth is, many graduate students and postdocs feel the same way, especially when looking at the ultra-competitive and scarce faculty job market. However, in many departments, the sense is that the doctoral career is the default. or PhD is still a postdoc teacher. If that’s the case in your department, I can easily understand why you don’t see your thesis advisor as someone to talk to about exploring your career.
I have also noticed that career exploration often has to be done in secret and on the student’s time. But that has to change. Collectively, we must move the needle to make career exploration and development an integrated part of the undergraduate and doctoral experience.
The role of mentoring
Now, six years after graduating, I work as an education specialist to support PhDs and postdocs in their careers and professional development. And I spend a lot of my time thinking about the importance of mentoring, but not just academic or research mentoring.
Through my role at the University of California, Davis, Health, I have created mentoring programs and led many mentoring workshops. Mentoring Academy for Research Excellence. In these workshops, which we offer both for mentors and mentees, we work on effective communication, cultural competence and awareness, conflict resolution, etc. Our goal is to improve mentoring relationships on our campus. An additional outcome of my work with academia is to normalize conversations about mentoring and create a culture of collectively improving mentoring relationships.
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Let’s take a moment to deflect the word “mentor.” National Academies’ The Science of Effective Tutoring in STEMM It defines mentoring as: “A professional working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development and success of their relationship partners by providing career and psychosocial support.”
There are some overlapping components between the definition of a mentor and a faculty advisor, as well as some notable differences. A faculty advisor who serves as a mentor supports the mentee’s growth, development, and success. However, it is important to emphasize that there is a power differential between teachers and students, and the student’s academic performance and performance usually informs how the tutor views future employment and funding. Furthermore, when teachers have their name on the project, they have a vested interest in the outcome of the project, potentially creating a conflict of interest as a mentor. In fact, there are enough fundamental differences that I suggest using the word “mentor” in a way that matches the above definition.
Having multiple mentors
Semantics aside, whether you’re an undergraduate or a postdoc, it’s important to note that a mentor probably won’t be able to meet all of your mentoring needs. Your thesis advisor or principal investigator may be the best source of mentorship to provide feedback and guide you through your project. That said, you should also think about what’s next in your career path, and those conversations may need to happen outside of your department.
You may also need a mentor whose identity or life experiences are similar to your own. When I build mentoring programs, I always ask people if they have any special requests that they want in a mentor. Someone might say they want a mentor who is a woman and a parent, for example. I accept these requests first because I recognize the value of shared identities and experiences in the mentoring relationship.
All of this means that I recommend a multi-tutor approach. In our mentoring workshops, I set aside time for people to think about where there are gaps in their mentoring landscape. If you’re reading this and sense a gap in your mentorship experiences, consider creating more mentorships. the commission following these steps:
- Ask yourself, what do I usually talk about with my mentor? What am I not comfortable talking about? What is missing from my current mentoring relationships?
- Identify gaps or unmet needs in mentoring relationships.
- Take a moment to think about what needs will be best met by finding a mentor.
- Find a mentor who can help you focus specifically on your career.
One of the mentoring programs I created, in fact, specifically for career mentoring. I leveraged over 100 professionals in our database and matched them with PhDs and postdocs. The mentors maintained regular contact for a year, focusing on the mentee’s needs, providing feedback on resumes and cover letters, as well as advice on networking, interview preparation, and more. Because their mentors were impartial and removed from the mentors’ degree programs, participants felt safe to have conversations between mentors and their PIs that might not have otherwise occurred. If your organization offers a career mentoring program, take advantage of that opportunity. If it doesn’t, you may want to take steps to find a career mentor on your own.
For a career mentor, identify someone who is caring and compassionate. You may also want to find someone with a shared personality or background, who shows cultural humility, who inspires you, or who is in a position you want to achieve. You should also look for mentors who are actively involved in improving mentoring.
Places to find a career mentor are:
As a mentor, it is up to you to take mentorship. You know best what you need, and it’s crucial to advocate for developing the skills and resources you want.
Finally, as an undergraduate student or postdoc, you will undoubtedly serve as a mentor to others, whether formally or informally. So take some time to think about what kind of mentor you want to be. Make time and space to talk to your mentors about career exploration, and help them do so. And when they feel out of their comfort zone, suggest they find additional mentors, maybe even a career mentor.