October 2, 2017

Finding a college mentor

Becky Wai-Ling Packard

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If you’re a smart woman (and you are), you’ve probably already heard this advice: Find a mentor who is willing to invest in you and your future. Research shows that mentors help you identify your strengths, persevere in school, gain access to new opportunities, and, ultimately, achieve greater satisfaction in the work you do.

Student and professor
But the part no one tells you about is how to get started. It’s awkward to approach a stranger and ask, “Will you be my mentor?” And yet you need to drive the process proactively to make it work for you. Here is some practical advice gleaned from years of research on the topic and working with college women to develop leadership and seek college mentors.

Students and professor

  • Mentoring doesn’t have to mean a long-term relationship.

    Think about mentoring as one conversation at a time. You don’t have to ask anyone to enter into a committed relationship! Mentorship begins with a conversation that enables both of you to appreciate the exchange, but then exit gracefully if there isn’t any “chemistry” or the person’s expertise is different from what you thought.
  • Start conversations that broaden your perspective on a specific topic.

    For example, “I am interested in learning more about [your field/taking a gap year after college/a PhD in psychology]. Could we talk sometime so I can hear about your experience with this?”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for an introduction to someone else.

    “I remember the last time I visited, you shared that one of your friends [enrolled in that program/traveled to X country/is active in that foundation I am passionate about]. Would it be possible for you to introduce me to that person? I am hoping to schedule an informational interview.”

Professor and student in lab

  • Look for opportunities to improve your skills.

    “Your [public speaking/coding/research skills] are so advanced. I wonder if I could shadow you one day or schedule a time to get feedback on my skill set? I am hoping to improve in this area.”
  • Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect mentor.

    Looking for a very specific type of mentor—e.g., a woman with children from the same cultural background working in exactly the field you hope to—might set you up for disappointment. The reality is that you will not find one person who has it all exactly as you want it (and has time for you). Instead, look for someone who has one or two of the characteristics that are most important to you. Better yet, initiate conversations with multiple interesting people. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Students listen to professor

The concept of mentoring as just one conversation may seem counterintuitive to you, but remember that you don’t need to settle for just one mentor. There are countless people in the world you can learn from!

One word of caution: Be wary of individuals who have an old-fashioned idea of mentoring or who relish taking on the role in a way that feels parental, prescriptive or overly controlling. The mentorship should feel like a healthy partnership in which both sides benefit. You have insights to offer the other person based on your experience, too. Good luck!

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Becky Wai-Ling Packard has served as a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College. She also served as the director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, where she oversaw a range of mentoring and leadership initiatives. She is the author of numerous research articles and “Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented College Students,” a step-by-step, research-based guide for higher education faculty and administrators.
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