Will You Be My Mentor? Finding and Asking for Mentoring Support

By Joanne Kamens

 “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”

- Abigail Adams, 1780

Mentor mentee  talk over coffee

There are potential mentors all around you. This third article in the Addgene Blog Mentoring series will cover 2 of the 7 mentoring questions I set out to answer. First, I will describe some of the many ways you can approach finding someone to give you advice and guidance. Second, I will offer some advice on how to “make the ask” once you have found someone you admire and want to learn from.

Check out Joanne's Reddit AMA

Who should I be looking for?

Be on the lookout for friends or colleagues that have the training or skills you want to learn. Mentors can be senior to you or peers you admire.  If you see someone who gives a great talk, ask them for advice on speaking. If you see someone with a great professional presence, approach them for advice on what makes them that way. Is there a senior person whose career path you are interested in following? Someone you admire for their insight and way of expressing it in meetings?

The more people you meet, the more potential mentors you will identify. Finding potential mentors is one of the many reasons to always be growing your network. If you don’t feel that you are an expert networker (or if you just aren’t doing it at all yet) watch my webinar, “Not Networking 101-Building Relationships for Success”. Choose 1-2 tactics to try. One of my favorites is making the pledge to have lunch or coffee with someone I don’t know very well at least twice a week. I have done this with people I work with and people from outside my work for almost 20 years. It is good to be a bit random because you never know which relationships will take off, or who your new contact will connect you to. Sometimes, it is not who you know but who knows about you.

I found some other great tips for finding mentors in this recent blog 5 Strategies for Finding Your Ideal Mentor. One of the best was to notify your network that you’re on the hunt for career advice. Your family and friends know you well and might have good ideas for who you should connect with.

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her mentoring style.

Mentors at home and away

We should all have a “posse” of advisors who can help us in different ways and in diverse areas. It is helpful to have mentors from your current organization but also important to build relationships outside your organization. The mentor in your own workplace is able to:

  • Help you identify specific skills you need for your current position
  • Understand your interpersonal challenges if they know some of the people you work with
  • Give more informed feedback (for example, they may be able to hear you present or see your work product in action)
  • Can help you learn the local “ropes” and become an insider faster

A mentor that works elsewhere is able to:

  • Help identify the skills you will need to make a change
  • Provide perspective on core values at another company/department
  • Give more candid feedback and be able to discuss more confidential topics
  • Broaden your network

Take advantage of formal programs

A formal mentoring program can be a great way to get started with mentoring. Read this Catalyst Report “Making Mentoring Work” to learn about what makes a good mentoring program. If your organization has a mentoring program, consider tapping into it and helping make it work by being an educated mentee. Other opportunities:

  • Try virtual mentoring at Mentornet.net. This is an online database of mentors you can tap for email discussions. It is also a great place to practice your mentoring skills. Online mentoring can work if both parties are diligent about replying and thinking about good questions and answers.

  • Professional networking groups will often have mentoring programs. The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association hosts an excellent group mentoring program in many of its chapters. Find out what other groups have going on locally.

  • Your university probably has an alumni directory. Alumni who enter their information in these searchable databases are usually offering their contact information so you can tap them for advice. As a future alum, these are people you can “cold call” and ask for some of their time.

  • There are many professional coaches who charge for their advice and time. Consider this option but be cautious and make sure to choose one that comes highly recommended from someone you trust. A good coach can make a big difference, if you can find one.

  • Create your own peer mentoring circle. This type of program has many advantages and I am seeing a lot of success at universities around the country with groups who are piloting this. Watch for my upcoming mentoring post in which I describe how to organize a successful peer mentoring circle.

Asking someone to be your mentor

Mentoring is a “loaded” word.  If you ask someone to be your mentor, it may sound like a big responsibility or commitment. Start by asking them to have coffee. This is much less threatening! If they say no, don’t worry about it. It is a compliment to ask someone to share their wisdom and they might just not have the time. Thank them anyway and move on.

If they say yes, be prepared with questions and topics to discuss. The mentee is responsible for leading the discussion and for being “coachable”. That means the mentee needs to be open to change and constructive suggestions and feedback. The best thing to do to make your mentor want to keep working with you is report back with progress. Tell them how their advice made a difference, helped you make a change for the good or resulted in a leap in your skills.

If a first meeting goes well, you can say, “This was really helpful, perhaps you wouldn’t mind doing it again next month?” Some mentoring relationships grow naturally out of friendships or work interactions. Watch for the people that are already teaching you and see if there are other ways they can help you grow. Mentoring relationships can last for an hour or for a year. Some click and some do not. These are all normal outcomes. If you have a broad range of mentors you will always have people you can turn to for help and advice.

If you missed the first two posts in the series, get more advice on mentoring:

Topics: Science Careers, Mentoring for Scientists, Early Career Researcher

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