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Because Your PI/Advisor Isn’t Enough: students & postdocs don’t need a mentor – they need five of them.

The first thing students and postdocs should know about mentors is that they don’t need one – they need five of them. Why? Because it’s almost impossible for anyone to find a single person who can offer the full range of mentorship that every professional typically needs to succeed. So, rather than seek out a single mentor, it’s wise to find multiple mentors who embody different aspects of the five types of support that define well-rounded mentorship.

I think it’s important for students and postdocs to ask themselves whether they have all five types of mentors in their life:

1. A field mentor: someone who knows your area of work
This mentor is a content expert who helps you learn the information and skills required to develop as a professional in your field. They are the ones you go to when you have been stuck on some aspect of your work, and you need a second pair of eyes who understands both the specifics and the larger context of the work you do well enough to assess, critique, recommend approaches and resources. Their input offers you insight and ideas that improve your content knowledge and your skills.

The biggest mistake professionals make in choosing a field mentor is picking someone who is well regarded, but unavailable. Field mentors are defined not by their seniority, but by their willingness to give you their time, attention and advice to help you achieve your personal and professional goals. So if you have a big-name but too-busy mentor, consider rounding them out with a second, more accessible field mentor.

Field mentorships have various life spans. Your relationship might be a micro-mentorship of a few weeks, limited to the length of a particular project or work experience, or span your entire professional career.

2. A career mentor: someone who knows your career path
This mentor offers guidance on how to position yourself to pursue a particular career path. In a perfect world, your field mentor and career mentor would be the same person. But unless you’ve chosen the exact same career path as your field mentor, they probably won’t have the background or knowledge required to offer you sufficient direction, opportunities, and contacts. So an Associate Director of PR/Communications at a university might have a field mentor who works in communications in the private sector to troubleshoot technical issues, but a career mentor who is the director of communications at another university to tells her about professional opportunities.

You often find career mentors by networking at conferences and professional association meetings. You can initiate these mentorship relationships with informational interviews, which are conversations with people about their career paths. LinkedIn is also a useful tool for students seeking career mentors, because you can find professionals by using keyword searches that pair your current field and future career path setting, such as, “Communications/University Public Affairs,” “Health Outcomes Research/Government,” and “Sales/Pharmaceutical Industry.”

3. A guide mentor: someone who knows “how things work here”
This mentor is a person shows you the ropes when you join an organization. Everyone needs a guide mentor, because new jobs often have a steep learning curve, both in terms of the content and the culture you need to understand. Any insight you can get about the environment, the quirks and abilities of the different staff and the organization’s norms.

To engage a guide mentor, just ask small pieces of advice. What’s the quickest way to get something done? Who are the people who have the key information you need? Where’s the best place for lunch? How accurate and reliable is that advice? The person you want as a mentor will steer you in the right direction and tell you how to avoid common mistakes. As a result, you’ll get up to speed more quickly and have early successes required to launch yourself in the first 100 days.

You can often find these mentors through social or community activities at your organization, though you can also just keep an eye out for people in your new setting who seem approachable and have a strong track record of getting things done.

4. An inspirational mentor: someone who has a quality or skill you admire
Perhaps you know someone who always keeps their cool and communicates skillfully during contentious or stressful situations. Or you admire the way they think or organize and present their work. These mentors are people who consistently impress you and inspire you to do better.

Notably, you don’t need to personally know these mentors – you just need to watch them. Observe not just what they do, but also assess how they do it. How did they organize their presentation at that last meeting – why was it so strong? Or, what did they do or say that disarmed the difficult client? Pinpoint both the specifics and their overall approach that makes them so effective. Then integrate what you learn into your own work.

You can also foster relationships with inspirational mentors. One professional I knew consistently asked a particular colleague for presentation feedback made a point of incorporating their advice into each subsequent presentation.

5. A friend mentor: someone who knows you
The best way to describe this type of mentor is as someone who thinks you’re great, but not perfect. Because they appreciate your strengths, you trust them enough to share your weaknesses. For example, when they say you’re being too hard on yourself or being too rigid, you can hear them without your defensive shields going up.
This mentor’s value lies not in knowing your area of study or career path, but in knowing and accepting you. Other mentors may require a certain level of guarded professionalism, but this mentor is a friend, perhaps one you knew before your time in your current profession, or an individual with whom you’ve been through something significant that forged a trusting, personal relationship. This mentor gives you the space to celebrate your successes and work out your fears.


So, to summarize; the five type of mentors students and postdocs need are a:

  1. Field Mentor: Understands your work and can give you critical feedback to help you improve.
  2. Career Mentor: Pursuing your career path. Career direction, opportunities, and contacts.
  3. Guide Mentor: Shows you the ropes, and can explain the culture, organizational norms, and the team.
  4. Inspirational Mentor: Impresses you with some skill or quality they embody and inspires you to do better.
  5. Friend Mentor: Appreciates your strengths and you trust them enough to share your weaknesses.

Finally, after discussing the five types of mentors, I usually encourage students and postdocs to consider which of the five types of mentors they already have in their life and brainstorm how they might find one of their missing mentor(s) over the next three months. Finally, appreciate that they have probably served as one of the fives types of mentors to others in their professional community. Pay if forward!

photo credit: niallkennedy via photopin cc