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The Dos and Do nots of Building a Mentoring Relationship

Renée Rioux, CADRE member

Don’t expect to get a mentor from simply going up to someone whose work you admire and asking "will you be my mentor?"

While this approach may work in some cases, it is generally not the best way to go about finding a mentor. First, some individuals, especially scientists who often tend to be a bit introverted, find this kind of directness to be off-putting. Second, it is difficult to build a mentoring relationship from nothing. It is far better to build a rapport with the potential mentor first. Then they will have a better idea of your potential and will know that you are worth the investment.

Do take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to meet potential mentors.

The opportunities are made abundantly available by APS. The divisional and national meetings are a great chance to meet and get to know potential mentors. Further, there many events directly aimed at connecting graduate students and early career professionals to established scientists; including the graduate student and industry luncheon, the early career professionals social, the diversity and equality workshop, leadership training, and idea cafés—to name a few. CADRE is also in the process of establishing on-line mentoring resources for your use. These include a mentor matching program that will pair you with potential mentors and a mentoring forum where you can ask professional development questions that will be answered by experienced APS members. Outside of APS, a lot of other societies and many companies have mentor-matching programs. These are worth checking out and can make the process of finding a mentor much easier. Research other networking opportunities that will allow you to meet potential mentors and attend these. The broader you cast your net, the more likely you are to find the right mentor!

Do follow up with potential mentors you meet at networking events.

It is much more likely that you are thinking about wanting them as a mentor than they are thinking about wanting you as a mentee. When you meet the individual, be sure to ask them for a business card so that you will be able to contact them. You can even ask if they’d be willing to stay in touch to discuss a specific project, idea, topic of conversation etc. This gives you a nice in for re-opening the conversation. If you did not do this, that’s okay. You can still send them an e-mail or give them a call, but be sure to mention something personal about the conversation you had with them to jog their memory (Hey! There are a lot of people and conversations at these meetings). Also, remember to be straightforward and professional when contacting your mentor.

Don’t expect this to be a one-way street.

Obviously you want a mentor to help you navigate your professional life, advance your career, make connections, etc. but none of these things necessarily do anything for your mentor. Instead of just asking what your mentor can do for you, think about what you can offer your mentor. Get to know their goals and how you can be of service in achieving them. As your career grows, help your mentor by introducing them to people you know that could be beneficial for them to know as well or by including them in collaborative projects related to their work.

Don’t be disappointed if it does not work out.

A mentoring relationship requires mutual trust and respect. You have to be compatible individuals in order for this kind of relationship to work. Though someone may look like the perfect mentor on paper, it can turn out that you just do not mesh. And that’s fine. It is better to keep searching for the right fit than to try to force a relationship.

Do know what you want out of a mentoring relationship.

Once they get to know you, your mentor may be able to help you mold and refine your goals, but they cannot be expected to figure them out for you. Knowing what you want and having a basic plan for how to achieve it will help you and your mentor make the most effective use of the time you have together. In addition, be able to show your mentor progress that you are making towards your goals.

Don’t limit yourself to mentors who are late in their career and where you think you want to end up.

There are lots of great plant pathologists, and others outside the discipline of plant pathology, who are great mentors. They are not all late in their careers. In fact, many of them are graduate students and early career professionals; in addition, many of them could be doing something you may not ever see yourself doing. These things do not mean they cannot be great mentors for you. A mentor is someone you can trust who is willing to listen and encourage you. They do not have to be the greatest expert in your field. In fact, it is more important that they have a personal connection and investment in you. Therefore, a peer may be just a good a mentor as someone who has been working in your field of interest for twenty years. If you find a good role model, who encourages and supports you to be your best, then you have found a mentor. Even if they are not in your field of interest, they can help you to succeed. Embrace this form of productive relationship and see where it will lead you.

Do accept offers to help.

Sometimes an individual will reach out without being asked and offer to provide advice or assistance. If you ever receive an offer such as this, by all means, TAKE IT! This sometimes occurs in the hiring process when an individual is unable to hire you, but wishes that they could. Their offer to help indicates that you made a good impression on them and that they take a personal interest in your success. Don’t pass these opportunities up!