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At a recent networking workshop (not one of the "just don't be an introvert" ones, an actually helpful one with applicable ideas) I learned that it is supposedly very common to have a (career) mentor in academia. This is not meaning a supervisor or a former supervisor you are still in contact with, but a person a few years further in their career than you, not necessarily exactly working in the same field but well established and experienced in some aspects of academia and academic careers where the mentee is in need of guidance (networking, public outreach, being from a similar minority, whatever is important to the mentee).

I promptly started to figure out what I would need in a mentor, who could be a good mentor and now how to approach them. But the questions come back nagging, because while this all makes sense and an online research came up with many tips and mentoring schemes I still have never met someone who said they had a mentor in this way.

So the question is: Do people have mentors in academia? If so, what are your experiences as a mentor/mentee? And would it be appropriate to ask someone who you have never met before for an informal conversation because you feel they might just be right for you?

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I won't try to guess how common it is, suspecting that it is quite common. But it is very useful in any case.

But there are two (at least) scenarios.

The first is that your "mentor" doesn't even know that s/he is your mentor, but you just take cues from them about how to behave in any academic and personal situations that you observe. How do they lecture? How do they respond to questions? How do they interact with colleagues. I've had many mentors of this kind. I was lucky enough to meet up with one of the most important ones later and thanked him for providing the role-model I needed as an academic. He was in the same field, but his research area was very different from mine.

The second is more personal. This is someone that you specifically interact with, though not necessarily in a research sense. But someone that you are comfortable asking questions of. Even somewhat uncomfortable questions. Someone who you trust will give you good feedback and not be shocked it you ask a strange question that you might not ask a stranger. These relationships are harder to arrange and must, IMO, develop over time.

The second sort of "formal" mentor can be more instrumental in promoting your career, of course, since they know you well and, having taken on the role, are likely to be supportive when asked.

If you are a grad student, I strongly suggest that you seek out one or more professionals as mentors of either kind. Even better, is to seek out a circle of people who are mutually supportive - but for the right reasons. People who respect one another and help when they can.

  • But if a formal mentorship relationship must develop over time, can I kickstart it with someone I have not met yet but think could be a good fit... because I don't have specifically good fits in the people closer to me (or else I guess I would already have a mentor).? – skymningen Jun 24 at 8:01
  • The other person needs time to become comfortable with you just as you need to do with them. – Buffy Jun 24 at 10:32
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I was not a postdoc, but I worked for almost 25 years in the media before being hired as a professor of professional practice by my university in 2011. Even thought I had been a part-time lecturer during the three years prior to my hiring, I had no clue on the inner workings of academia and the specific culture of my new workplace.

In my first year, I invited at least a dozen professors for a coffee to ask questions related to a wide variety of issues. All seemed happy to help me. Some I came back to many times (I nicknamed one «le vieux lion», the old and wise lion).

A few years after, when I was given administrative responsabilities, I also turned to support staff for advice. They were mentors too. Some told me it was the first time a professor consulted them beforehand for general advice. These sessions were extremely useful.

Now, we just hired a new prof who's been a professional in our field for the past 30 years. I will do my best to be his mentor. It'll be my way to "give next".

  • I am definitely hoping to make sure it could be both ways eventually and I would be more than happy to give next as soon as I can. – skymningen Jun 24 at 8:02
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Finding a mentor rarely happens out of thin air. A mentor may be someone whose work you admire, but who might not be one of your main advisors. Perhaps a PhD candidate a few years ahead of you in your program, a post-doc, or someone who you run into at conferences. By being familiar with a researcher over time, you'll find out whether or not they're a role model for your career path. If you haven't found anyone organically, several conferences I've attended recently have mentorship programs for graduate students: usually brief meetings to discuss your work, CV, or general questions about academia with a young or mid-career scholar.

  • I am over the graduate student phase. Unfortunately there does not seem to be that much structured mentoring for postdocs around. – skymningen Jun 24 at 8:03
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I personally think it is rare. There has a gazillion things been written about mentoring, but when I talk to friends (early, mid and late career), a small minority has/had a mentor. Most people slog ahead on their own.

  • In a way that is what I experience. But I feel the people without a mentor think nobody has one while the people with a mentor also think everybody has one... hard so solve. Slogging ahead on my own will potentially not work out much as a young woman in a still male-dominated field. – skymningen Jun 24 at 8:05

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