How to find an academic mentor

April 30, 2015 Lynda Tait

Early career researchers face a steep learning curve to become academics. Often working in isolation, and typically within a competitive academic culture, research, teaching, service and governance need to be understood.

In short, developing an academic career is challenging!

Finding a good academic mentor is one of the best things you can do to achieve success in academia.


Source: Lynda Tait
Source: Lynda Tait

The Value of an Academic Mentor

A mentor can share their understanding and experiences of the academy. They can share with you their institutional knowledge and area of expertise, as well as offering support and guidance when needed. They can teach you about academic life, unlocking the secrets to developing a successful academic career.

A good mentor will find time for you to discuss important issues with them, often acting as a sounding board. Although success can be outside of personal control, guidance from a good mentor can give you a sense of direction, improve your skills and confidence, and advance your academic career.

What could be more valuable than that?

1. Find an Academic Mentor via an Institutional Scheme

Research intensive universities usually have a formal list of faculty members willing to be mentors. But it’s your responsibility to be proactive. Invest time in finding a good mentor who can show you the most effective ways to build a successful academic career.

The following are useful ways to help you find a good mentor:

• Clarify why you want a mentor

• Seek information from potential mentors

• Seek information about a potential mentor

• Seek information about a mentor’s research profile

2. Clarify Why You Want a Mentor

First, ask yourself questions to clarify what you need from a mentor. This sets up a “real purpose” for the mentor relationship.

For example:

• What are your short and long-term goals?

• What are your most important values?

• What specific skills do you want to learn?

• What would a successful outcome look like?

Setting priorities and clarifying your goals and expectations can help find the right mentor for you.

When you know the answers to your questions, you can discuss relevant issues with a potential mentor that will ensure you get the best information to make the best choice.

3. Seek information from potential mentors

Invite a potential mentor for a brief chat; you want to be able to choose someone with similar values. Be open about the need to find out if you are a good match to each other. Ask a potential mentor questions to confirm the qualities you are looking for. For example:

• Do they seem supportive?

• Do you have anything in common?

• What are their expectations of mentorship?

• How often will they meet with you?

• How will you schedule meetings?

• Will meetings be informal?

Don’t underestimate the importance of finding a good fit between your values and those of a mentor. Not all mentor relationships work out. I’ve heard of experiences where early career researchers have been bullied by a mentor, caught up in pernicious politics, or the mentor relationship was extremely competitive rather than supportive. So be aware of personality and professional reputations, and spend time thinking about what a potential mentor can offer.

4. Seek information about a potential mentor

Have several frank conversations with others about a potential mentor. Seek out previous mentees to ask them about their experiences with a potential mentor.

For example:

• Were they happy with their mentor relationship?

• Did they get the advice they needed, when they wanted it?

• Do they keep in touch with their mentor? If not, why not?

• Is there anything they wished they had known before choosing their mentor?

• Would they choose the same mentor?

Have these conversations face-to-face rather than by email. For obvious reasons; colleagues and mentees are less likely to provide honest opinions via email.

Spot “red flags” such as colleagues or previous mentees having nothing positive to say about a potential mentor. It’s natural to want to talk about good experiences, so look out for what’s unsaid, and use that information to avoid someone on the mentor list.

5. Seek information about a mentor’s research profile

Check out a potential mentor’s career trajectory, publication, and service record. Look for markers of academic esteem, such as first, last and corresponding author of research publications, including editorials; and invitations to speak at national and international conferences.

A research-productive mentor is more likely to be resourceful and well-connected. Someone with a solid reputation will be able to offer developmental opportunities to you, and introduce you to their extensive network.

It is important also to be aware of their expertise and skill set from which you could develop a wider range of skills associated with your research field or professional discipline. Learn from the best!

To recap, being selective, asking questions, and talking to potential mentors as well as to others can help ensure that you find a mentor who is right for you. A good academic mentor can provide institutional knowledge, support, and guidance, beneficial to developing long-range plans for career development. Access to a nurturing relationship within academia can help to drive your motivation and help you achieve a successful academic career.

Good luck with your search for an awesome academic mentor!

What other strategies have you used to find a good academic mentor? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @WileyExchanges.

Related post:

The 3 Essential Qualities of an Awesome Academic Mentor

About the Author

Researcher, Nottingham University // Dr Lynda Tait is currently collaborating with Dr Maria Michail at Nottingham University, in the area of youth mental health. She is also working as a freelance research consultant in the area of postpartum psychosis with Dr Jessica Heron, University of Birmingham.

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