Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mentoring II - Finding Mentors

I decided to write this post after a comment to my first post on mentoring. After reading that comment, I noticed that one of the things I mentioned in an off-hand way is that I got good mentoring on how to get good mentorship, and that I didn't really address what that was. So here it goes. Dr. Crazy's guide to finding/getting mentors. (Obviously this is not in any way exhaustive, but this is where I'm coming from when I talk about this. Others, feel free to chime in with your own experiences.)

1. The first and most important thing is having the confidence to seek out mentorship.

Easier said than done, right? It is very difficult to have confidence when you're the low person on the totem pole and you feel like you're clueless, which is why you need a mentor in the first place. But I learned, pretty early on in undergrad, that what it takes to give you that confidence is preparation. See, I was a first generation college student, so I didn't have ANY clue as to how to negotiate academic hierarchies. I've always been a pretty confident person, but at the same time, natural confidence isn't enough in these situations. Because I was lucky enough to be in a really good honors program, I got some guidance as to how to approach people for what I needed. For example, they gave us a 5 or 6 page form to fill out and to distribute to any person from whom we wanted a letter of recommendation. They didn't expect that we'd know on our own what recommenders needed, or that all recommenders would be specific about what would be helpful to them. So the first time I needed a rec. letter, I used that form. And you know what? It worked! The person knew what I wanted, the form reminded them of who I was so that they could write an effective letter, and it was a totally positive and judgment-free transaction. For me, that was a formative experience, and one that I applied in other areas. I learned that if I went into situations where I needed something from somebody, and I felt like it was weird, that it would totally go better and I would feel more at ease if I went in with something to hand them, something to show them. Also, I found that they then saw me as responsible and dependable, which ultimately increases confidence, right? So having the confidence to seek out mentorship involves, primarily, doing homework beforehand. Something we all know how to do, right?

2. Don't think that all mentors come in a particular kind of package.

This comes to mind because sometimes we're not sure what homework we need to do to approach certain kinds of potential mentors. For example: let's say that you want to ask a certain faculty member to direct your dissertation. You've never done this before, you've never written a dissertation before, and you're not really sure what you'd need to gather in order to approach the person in a way that will dazzle and confuse them into accepting the position of director. In this case, you actually need ANOTHER mentor in order to show you the ropes of how to get the dissertation director. And that director need not be a faculty member at your current institution. It can be a more advanced student in your program. It can be a professor from when you were an undergraduate with whom you are more comfortable. It can be someone whom you met at a conference. In other words, yes, you need somebody with special knowledge about this particular situation, but the person need not be Professor Fancypants himself, or the equivalent.

3. Choose mentors whom you genuinely respect and with whom you genuinely have a rapport.

Sometimes, it is better to go in search of a person with a personality to which you feel attracted than to the person with the biggest name on the block. Example: I wasn't entirely sure on my field of specialty when I entered my PhD program. Finally, I narrowed it down to the field that I currently call my own. Now, in doing so, I took a bit of a risk. My diss adviser doesn't actually work on any of the things that I work on. (His first book was related to the period of my specialization, but it was not on the actual authors that I chose to examine.) I could have chosen to work with a named chair who has done work more closely related to mine (who was inches from retirement) or I could have chosen another field altogether with Fancier Advisor Possibilities. I didn't go that route. Rather, I chose the person with whom I thought I could work most effectively and for whom I thought I would do the best work. Now, I realize the diss adviser example doesn't work perfectly in other disciplines, but what I'd say to that is this: your diss adviser need not be your mentor. You can have other mentors, and you can have more of a teacher-student relationship with your diss adviser. My point here is not to propose a one-size-fits-all model for this stuff. Rather, I've just found that my true mentors have come in all shapes and sizes and that they do not necessarily have identical interests to my own.

4. The worst answer you can get if you ask for mentorship is no, and even if the person says no, you're no worse off than before you asked.

This kind of goes back to the confidence thing. Of course, it's embarassing to ask people for stuff. One is afraid that one will look like a dummy or that one will be judged. That said, let's face it, in this profession, we're judged all the time, and people will decide you're a dummy as often if you don't speak up as if you do. The trick is to have a plan when you ask and to leave the person a gracious way to say no. Now, it doesn't feel good if somebody says no (obviously) but more often than not, if you go in with a solid plan for what you need from them that makes sense, they will say yes. So you may as well try. And if they say no, then they may direct you to somebody else, which is great, or you may need to go back to the drawing board and come up with another plan or another person. Still, you lose nothing. Or, in a weird tangential quote from a Seamus Heaney poem that comes to mind, " Your lose more of yourself than you redeem/Doing the decent thing. " You've got to turn off the internal critic and put yourself out there. Sometimes, the results will suck. But many times, they will be great.

5. Don't be afraid to follow-up on suggestions to contact people. Don't be afraid to follow-up with people whom you meet in non-everyday contexts.

Now, this is one that I try really hard to follow but sometimes drop the ball on. If you meet somebody fantastic at a conference, don't be afraid to send an email reminding them of your meeting and talking about their work. If another mentor suggests that you contact somebody you don't know, don't be afraid to follow that advice. You never know when a person who seems out of your league or too busy for you or too important for you or even just too much of a stranger to you will be your next mentor. (This is one I've learned more and more about since finishing the PhD.)

6. We all need many mentors, not just one.

No one person can be all things to all people. Cultivate different mentoring relationships for the different things that you need. In my department, we choose a senior faculty mentor within our first year on the t-t. I did that, but he's not the only person to whom I turn for advice or, well, mentorship. Similarly, when I was on the market for the first time, I turned not only to my diss advisor but to other people in the department.

I'm sure I could come up with more, but this is getting long. Feel free to comment and add things, readers.


chris said...

Dear Dr. Crazy,

You are a text generating maniac - a machine, i say! I can barely keep up with reading you.

Good posts on mentoring.

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, this is what happens to Crazy when she is both freaking out and procrastinating. She babbles on and on like a fool :)

Estrella said...

Dr. Crazy,

I've really appreciated these mentoring posts because I'll be looking for a job in May. You wrote of a packet you used for requesting letters of recommendation. My own professors have advised my colleagues and me to provide copies of our resumes to the letter-writers. What other information would you recommend submitting to a potential letter-writer? (My degree is K-12 Music Education.)


Dr. Crazy said...


Thanks for your comment, and here are the sorts of things that were on the form, and now the sorts of things that I ask students for when I write for them.

1) First, I'm sure to tell students they need to ASK for the letter, thus giving me a way to say no if I can't write a strong one for them. Ideally, I like for this request to be in writing, too, just so that I've got a record of it. (Asking in person is fine, but I forget what I say yes to if it's not in email, which is why I stipulate that in writing for the initial request is best.)

2. I ask that students make requests with at least one month between when they ask and when I need to have the letter written by.

Now for the informational stuff:

3) Date by which the letter must be received, person to whom it should be addressed, and any recommendation forms if those are required.

4) A description of what it is I'm recommending you for, why you want whatever it is you're applying for, and why you think that you are particularly suited to this position (or scholarship or fellowship or program or whatever).

5) A description of what you believe are your academic strengths/weaknesses, your personal strengths/weaknesses, and your plans for the future, making connections between those plans and what you're applying for.

5) A current resume or c.v.

6) A sample of your best work from class(es) you took with me. If I had you even just a semester ago, I'm not going to remember the specifics of the paper you wrote. Providing recommenders with the paper that you wrote for them (or project you did for them, or whatever) with their comments if possible, really helps the recommender to write a specific and glowing letter.

7) Any specific things that you would particularly like the letter to address. (For example, you might have a person who's writing you a letter that focuses mainly on your service to the community or something, and so you'd want me to focus more on your academic accomplishments or personality or something.)

Finally, and this is the most important thing I ask of my students:

If you don't hear from the recommender within two weeks of the deadline, send an email reminder. If you don't hear back from them after that that they've sent the letter, then at the one week mark, that is the time to hound the recommender, dropping another email, trying to catch the person in office hours, calling them up. This is not you being annoying. If the person agreed to write for you, they want to write for you. But it's very easy to put letters of rec off no matter how excited one is about the person whom one is recommending. I actually appreciate reminders from students in this regard, and I think that's true of most people who have a lot of letters to write along with their other responsibilities.

I hope that this helps!

negativecapability said...

My advisor is a fantastic advisor (for me) precisely because I don't think of him necessarily as a mentor in the sense of talking about how to deal with grad school and life - it's all about my work.

My strongest mentor in grad school was a senior student who worked with my advisor - now she's got a great T-T job.

I also think I found a lot of what I needed in the blogosphere - especially when you, New Kid, Profgrrl and a couple of others were just starting out, I was able to read with fascination what profs who could have been me five or six years ago *really* thought.

Estrella said...

Thank you!