Why You'll Want a Mentor Outside the Ivory Tower, Too

Friday, December 7, 2001
By Robin B. Wagner

Copyright 2001, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Posted with permission on aas.org. This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

Once you move on from graduate school to a postacademic career, your new work environment will present you with a host of challenges. You may be learning new jargon, new technologies and tools, and even a new culture. Gone will be the rules you clearly understood for the academic game, and in their place will be wholly unfamiliar ones. You may want a native guide -- a mentor -- for your new career.

In the nonacademic world, you'll have bosses and supervisors, and sometimes even trainers, who will teach you how to perform parts of your job. However, it is the rare work environment that will present you with an experienced colleague to serve as a mentor -- someone who doesn't control your raises or promotions but who can offer advice as you navigate your way through your new job and your new career.

The trick is to learn how to identify a potential mentor and develop a productive relationship with that individual.

A good place to start searching for a mentor is within your existing network -- that same pool of friends, alumni, and other contacts who helped you during your job search. While it may not be practical or desirable to maintain all of these relationships past your job search, you will certainly want to deepen your relationship with a number of them -- for instance, the ones whose own careers are most similar to the direction you've chosen, the ones who provided valuable job leads and contacts, and the ones whose interests most closely resonated with your own.

Yet you probably work with few if any of the folks in your personal network. Sending an occasional note to pass along personal news or an interesting article is a good way to deepen a professional relationship with someone who is not an everyday colleague. And for the ones who live in the same city or in one you plan to visit, don't hesitate to arrange coffee and lunch dates. Don't worry about only being on the receiving end of these relationships, either. As you grow in your career, you will have contacts and insights of your own to share with the people who once helped you find your start.

In addition to your original set of networking contacts, you'll also want to look for a mentor among the new acquaintances in your work life. One danger of a new job is that you may become so focused on your immediate responsibilities that you neglect to learn about the larger context and culture of your new employer or profession. Take advantage of opportunities to meet people within the organization or the profession as a whole. As a new employee, you may need to ask around to learn what those opportunities are: regular brown-bag discussions, social organizations, and professional association meetings are all typical possibilities. Set a concrete goal for yourself to meet new work- and career-related colleagues on a regular basis. Yes, people are often busy, but most appreciate the invitation to get to know a new colleague over a cup of coffee.

After you develop a circle of professional friendships, you'll notice that one or two of these individuals not only have a wealth of experience to share, but also an ability to engage with you on your own experiences and professional aspirations. These are the colleagues who have the potential to become your mentor.

Once you have identified your potential mentor, what should you be looking to learn from him or her? Since most work environments are very different from academe, you will probably look to a mentor for an explanation of the mores of your new office. A mentor may also be able to provide a take on the profession or the organization different from your boss's own views. As your relationship with a mentor deepens, you may even find that he or she can help shed light on the inevitable conflicts that can arise with your boss and colleagues.

Mentors have much to gain from these relationships as well. A senior staff member often learns valuable insights into the organization through the eyes of a talented newcomer like yourself. And these one-on-one coaching opportunities allow the mentor to crystallize and reflect on his or her own experience and career lessons.

Over the long haul, mentors and professional networks can affect your career choices in unpredictable ways. You may not meet frequently, and it may take a long time to develop a relationship that takes the form of a true mentor. However, as your career unfolds and your professional interests take shape, you'll begin to see how your mentors can assist you in moving in the direction you choose.

Perhaps you'll look to mentors for encouragement and guidance as you seek a promotion. Or you might find that they are helpful in pointing you to valuable resources and professional-development opportunities. Other mentors may help you identify new job leads if your professional interests change. Whatever the nature of your conversations, having a mentor will help you feel connected to your profession.

For a different take on mentoring, I encourage you to read "An Unorthodox Guide to Mentoring" and other articles on FastCompany.com. The online version of the business magazine Fast Company features complete archives of past issues, including many articles that touch on the role of mentors and career development. The magazine also sponsors local networking groups, called the "Company of Friends."

Robin B. Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career- and placement-services office of the University of Chicago.