I am a first-year PhD student. My lab is very small and quite disconnected in terms of research from other groups in my department (we're interdisciplinary, the other groups are not)

There are some postdocs from other institutions that I often email/Zoom for advice, but only if I have a fairly specific question. Other than that, I don't have a "mentor" (see this related question https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/132263/131374 ).

Of course, my PhD supervisor does provide advice, but I would like to have an academic mentor, beyond them. Perhaps outside of my subfield, I'm thinking some of the professors from my department whose classes I've taken. I think I'd find it useful to get impartial advice and it'd also allow me to be more honest.

Is there an etiquette for asking someone to mentor you? Can I just cold-email them? if so, what do I say? Should I stick with the postdocs and not bother the professors?

why do (busy) academics mentor younger researchers? Why should they mentor me, and not someone else? Of course, I've seen some people listing "mentor for X" in their CV, but I'd bet that's not the reason they do it.

1 Answer 1


Mentorship need not be formal. It doesn't actually need to be known to the mentor for many purposes. I had a number of mentors over my student career (and maybe later) without much thought given to it.

Find someone you admire for something important, such as their teaching, their research, their relationships,..., whatever. Observe what the do and try to emulate it.

Use what opportunities are open to you to talk to them and interact with them in informal settings, though even in class can be good in some instances. But visit them in the office if that is open to you. Ask questions about things that concern you, not just coursework. If the environment is informal, develop a first-name relationship, though that isn't essential. Early on that wouldn't have been possible for me, but later it was.

But, such things can lead to situations in which they become, not only mentors, but sponsors in some ways for your career, both in giving you advice and in supporting your career efforts.

Don't force it. Let it develop, like any lasting human relationship. Support them as well when any need arises.

In some cases, mentors can become collaborators, though that never happened to me. I've known it to happen however. I did become "fishing buddies" with one of my mentors, however. And had the opportunity to return later to thank him for his support at a critical time as well as his example as a professor.

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