From a career exploration standpoint, it’s crucial to talk to people who do what you want to someday do. Mentors are a wealth of advice, industry knowledge, and personal guidance. Things you don’t learn in school—like, that you may fall intellectually in love with a subject, but find that the work realities are very different from what you thought—are often discovered through mentor/mentee interaction. Conversely, you might be looking for a particular thing in your work life—e.g. interaction with people, public speaking, variety—but find that the areas you’ve so far considered don’t necessarily offer what you’re looking for in terms of tasks.
Prospective mentors are everywhere: former adjunct professors, former internship supervisors, family friends with interests similar to yours, fellow graduates of your alma mater, leaders of professional organizations, and professionals you’ve heard give presentations are all people potentially well poised to mentor you.
Mentors can serve as your passport to a professional community and you need to become part of a professional community if you hope to one day make a professional impact. Others in your field will need time to get to know you, and mentors can broker valuable introductions. You also need time to build up your knowledge and expertise; as you work in more entry level positions, your mentor can provide access to events and information that you might not otherwise have access to. As recent college graduates and members new to a profession, you especially need to build contacts in the community since you may not yet have the experience to compete with others in the field. “It’s who you know” can be a tough adage to hear, but the good news is that anyone who makes the effort can know somebody. Besides, why hover around the cheese plate at a networking event (although, I’ve met some havarti that was difficult to walk away from) when you could be meeting someone new or discussing things you’re passionate about at the event instead?
You can never have too many professional contacts. Someday you’ll be the experienced one and it’ll be important for you to have a referral network in place. Start building that network now. The earlier you start getting involved with things like mentorship and networking, the sooner people will begin to recognize your name and think of you when opportunities that you’d be well suited for arise.
Mentorship Traps to Avoid
There’s a right and a wrong way to treat mentors. Don’t think of mentorship as an opportunity to ask for a job, the minute you do this, you narrow the opportunities for learning about your profession and you potentially alienate people who’d otherwise want to help you. As difficult as it may be, avoid letting the short term distract from the big picture. Besides, if you’re a recent graduate, you’re mentor knows you’re job seeking without you having to say it.
Don’t expect your mentor to do all of the heavy lifting. Set goals for the types of things you hope to explore with your mentor. When asking a presumably busy professional to take time out of her day to talk with and advise you, be prepared to do your part: research trends in the field as well as professional organizations you’re interested in; arrive for meetings prepared to ask educated questions; and take time to learn what your mentor really does.
Don’t let great opportunities dwindle on the vine. Getting in touch is just the first step, staying in touch is what you’ll really need to work at. Both you and your mentor are busy people, but don’t be deterred by that; carve out time to work on important relationships. You may find that your mentor has different interests from you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t form a successful mentor/mentee relationship. Talk to your mentor about how she found her passion and how she knew her job was right for her, discuss work-life balance, and recognize that your mentor knows more professionals than you do so that you can ask her to introduce you to people in areas that interest you.
The Right Way to Approach the Mentor/Mentee Relationship
Master the art of acquaintanceship; approach mentors in much the same you’d approach other relationships. Be prepared to listen, you’re building a relationship with this person because she’s been where you are and knows things that you don’t. Engage and be open minded, every person you speak with will have different advice to give, not all of it will work for you, but it’s important that you carefully consider and even try particular tactics before disregarding them. Keep your mentor posted on things that might interest her. Be considerate, your mentor’s time is extraordinarily valuable so keep appointments, do what you can to minimize inconvenience to your mentor by meeting in places that are convenient for her, and be as flexible with your schedule as possible; your mentor will likely appreciate this effort and will be all the more excited to help you in whatever way she can, knowing that you value her time.
Keep in mind that there’s a right way to ask for a favor. Recognize that your mentor does not have unlimited time and resources so be patient with your communication (don’t expect immediate email replies, be prepared to wait for appointments). Do important legwork—if you’d like to ask your mentor for her advice on how you can better explore a particular field, make sure you’ve done some research first and can tell her what you’ve tried thus far. Because asking educated questions is important, becoming educated on topics will be a precursor to much of your mentor/mentee dealings.
Even though research is important, there are benefits to being a novice. Though you should always “do your homework,” if you’re new to a particular field, you have the right to not know everything. So even though you’re aiming for educated questions, don’t be afraid to ask simple questions too, such as, “What is this work really like in the day to day, and what do you love about it?”
Make a plan to pay the goodwill both forward and back. At an early state in your career paying back might be difficult, you might not have much to offer your mentor in the way of career advice, but you can offer a number of other things. Your appreciation, for example. Mentoring takes time and effort, but it’s something many people will be very willing to do, as long as they know those efforts are appreciated and being put to good use. The best way you can show your appreciation is by following your mentor’s advice and letting her know when something she’s told you has worked out really well for you. Your friendship is another thing you can offer. Be an active participant in the relationship: Stay in touch, send updates, ASK for updates, keep track of what’s going on in your mentor’s life. You may be able to provide your mentor referrals. As you meet more and more professional contacts, be prepared to share them with your mentor. Finally, you may have insight to share about things related to the industry that your mentor isn’t well versed in. One example is when speaking with veterans in a profession who know all there is to know about the nuts and bolts of the field but want advice on blogging, viral marketing, social networking, and a number of other things that you, the mentee, may have more knowledge of than does your mentor.
Paying the goodwill forward is a must. You will be the seasoned professional one day, and you need to know now, that mentorship is a part of who you’ll be in your career. Just like volunteer service, it’s important to commit to doing this early in your career, rather than waiting for the perfect time—since the perfect time will never come. Start by staying connected to your alma mater, and to colleagues and contacts you’ve met throughout your career.
You don’t need to wait to become a mentor yourself, if you’re one step ahead of someone else, you may be able to offer her something in the way of mentorship. Make this type of relationship building a priority.
People who understand the nature of give and take will flourish, even in the toughest of times.