You may have many expectations and objectives you hope to achieve through your mentoring relationship. You will determine with your mentor, precisely how they can be of assistance to you. Remember, a mentoring relationship is not for the purpose of finding employment. Mentors are not to be contacted for job interviews. Be receptive to feedback and coaching, be respectful of your mentor's time and most importantly ask questions! Before contacting an individual, consider the following:
- What am I hoping to gain from this experience?
- What are my expectations and objectives?
- Are there specific questions I would like answered - who can answer them for me?
- What can I give back to my mentor?
- What specific skills/background/qualifications do I want my mentor to have?
Identifying Potential Mentors
Consider the following suggestions when seeking a mentor:
- List faculty members with whom you have taken courses and whose work has inspired or influenced your intellectual interests.
- Attend lectures on campus to familiarize yourself with other faculty members outside your courses. Not all of the learning on campus happens in classrooms!
- Check departmental websites for up-to-date information on faculty research interests and publications. This is a great way to learn about your discipline.
- Consider locating some of the publications listed on faculty Web pages at the library and read them for a more in-depth background before approaching the potential mentor.
- Visit departmental offices and request information from staff on faculty research interests and availability. The departmental assistants may be especially good sources of information.
- Ask other faculty members which of their colleagues share your research interests.
- Talk to fellow students, especially those involved in research to find out which faculty members specialize in areas of interest to you. Other graduate students and graduate assistants are an especially good source of information about faculty research interests.
Approaching a potential mentor
Once you have an idea of the mentor's research, you are ready to contact him/her. You may choose to initially contact the mentor by email or to send him/her a packet of information containing a letter of interest and some data about yourself. In some cases, you may be able to contact the mentor by going in person to his/her office or lab or by calling them on the telephone. In an initial contact with a potential mentor, you may want to consider the following:
- If the potential mentor you contacted does not respond to your email, phone call or letter you will want to contact them again after about one week or so. If you initially emailed the mentor, you might want to try sending a letter this time or calling them on the phone. Getting in touch with a mentor often takes several tries. Don't be discouraged if you don't hear back from them immediately or if you cannot reach them right away. Keep trying! Although mentors are extremely busy people, they are almost always happy to talk to students about their research and professional development. Once you are able to contact the potential mentor, you should ask if they received information that you sent them about yourself and your research interests, restate your interest in getting involved in a research project and ask if they might be interested in meeting with you to discuss the possibility of your working on a research project with them.
- Do your homework before you go to office hours; inform yourself about the faculty member’s research interests, areas of specialization and/or publications. Be able to state why you are seeking out this particular person’s advice.
- Before speaking with a faculty member, know what you wish to get out of the meeting – Assistance with PFF requirements? Feedback on a research or creative project idea? Help defining the purpose or scope of a project? Suggestions for further background reading? Advice about designing a research instrument or plan? Information about laboratory facilities or equipment? You are running this meeting, so it’s important to have an agenda, both to use time efficiently and to show that you are serious about your purpose.
- Don’t go empty handed – bring background information about yourself - including your name, address, phone number, email address, your area of research interest, your educational background, any previous research experience. You may find that a simple one-page resume is the best way to organize this information and to make a good impression on the potential mentor. Many mentors also like to see a copy of your academic transcripts. You may also want to include a paragraph or two summarizing your research interests/project, and a list of specific questions/requests for guidance.
- What did you read about the mentor's research that particularly intrigued you? Also, you likely want to identify a general area of the mentor's research you read about that you might like to work on.
- What is your motivation for pursuing your area of interest. What have you learned about in your course work that fascinates you and interests you in a more in depth investigation of it?
- Before leaving the meeting, think about what kind of follow-up you would like to have with the faculty member. If you have established a good rapport and would like to develop an ongoing working relationship, ask if he/she would be willing to meet with you again to look at a draft of your research proposal, to answer additional questions about a topic you have discussed, or for some other specific purpose.
- If there isn’t a good match between your interests and those of the faculty member, ask him/her to suggest other colleagues you might approach. Even if this particular individual has been very helpful, it may be useful to ask for additional suggestions of people to speak with, since the more input you get in developing your proposal, the better.
- Be confident and assertive about asking for help, but keep the length of your meeting within the established time limit (e.g. 15 minute or 10 minute “slots”). It’s important to be considerate both of the faculty member, who faces many demands on his/her time, and your fellow students waiting outside the door.
Popping the Question
Once you have identified a faculty member with whom you wish to work, you will need to ask that person to make a commitment to serve as your faculty mentor, sponsor or advisor. Clearly communicate what kind of time commitment you are asking for and what tasks will be entailed for him/her.
If a faculty member declines to serve as your mentor, don’t be discouraged! A negative response likely says more about the professor’s prior commitments than it does about his or her interest in your work. Ask the professor for recommendations of other professors who might work well as your mentor. Mentoring highly motivated students who actively seek productive mentoring relationships makes the work of being a professor worthwhile.
Getting the Most Out of Your Mentoring Relationship
You may want to consider the following suggestions as you work with your mentor:
- Meet regularly - you should insist on meeting once a week or at least every other week because it gives you motivation to make regular progress and it keeps your advisor aware of your work.
- Prepare for your meetings - come to each meeting with a list of topics to discuss; a plan for what you hope to get out of the meeting, a summary of you have done since your last meeting, a list of any upcoming deadlines, and notes from your previous meeting
- Email him/her a brief summary of EVERY meeting - this helps avoid misunderstandings and provides a great record of your research progress. Include (where applicable) the time and plan for next meeting, a new summary of what you think you are doing, a to do list for yourself, a to do list for your advisor, a list of major topics discussed, and a list of what you agreed on.
- Communicate clearly - if you disagree with your advisor, state your objections or concerns clearly and calmly. If you feel something about your relationship is not working well, discuss it with him or her. Whenever possible, suggest steps they could take to address your concerns.
- Take the initiative - you do not need to clear every activity with your advisor. He/she has a lot of work to do too. You must be responsible for your own professional development, research ideas and progress.
Questions You May Want to Ask Your Mentor
- What are the most important skills someone should have to find success in this occupation?
- What types of part-time, full-time or summer jobs should I be doing right now which may prepare me for this career path?
- What avenues did you explore to find job openings in your field?
- What kind of experiences contributed to you getting position(s) in this field?
- How long should I expect to stay in a non-tenured position?
- What are the opportunities for advancement?
- What professional development experiences do you find most relevant to your day-to-day work?
- Who helped you to get into and progress in this field?
- What professional associations or organizations are useful to belong to in this field?
- What journals are important to read in this field?
- What do you do in a typical day?
- What kind of a salary can I expect as a new faculty member?
- How would you describe the culture of academia for professors?
- How many hours is the typical workweek?
- What is the usual hierarchy of authority in the academic setting?
- Who had the most significant impact on your choosing this career?
- What are the things you find personally rewarding in your career?
- What are the things you find frustrating or disappointing?
- What extra-curricular activities should I pursue to help me prepare for this career area?
- Why did you get into this field?
- How stressful is this occupation?
- How do you personally balance home and work?
- What was the most surprising part of your transition from being a graduate student to being a new faculty member? What was the biggest challenge?