Now that we’ve explored some ways to find mentors as an undergrad, I’d like to transition and focus on some elements that make up the art of being mentored. I hope that what I say here will be helpful across a range of mentoring situations, but I think it’s particularly applicable to graduate students. Since many graduate students spend more than four years in their programs, mentoring relationships in grad school are often long-term. Professors frequently begin to treat you more like a junior colleague and less like a student, so mentors are often a bit more open about their professional interests and challenges, and about the balance of their work and personal lives. Being mentored in this way is an art, one that needs to be honed over time just as much as skills like academic writing or teaching large lecture classes. The first art I’d like to address is the art of recognizing and engaging with different kinds of mentoring.
There are many styles of mentoring, and recognizing which one a particular mentor figure gravitates to is really helpful in building a successful mentoring relationship. Some mentors are most interested in passing on a particular skill set or knowledge base about which they’re passionate. Others are more interested in advising students on shaping a career arc across time. Still others prefer a more holistic approach and will be happy to pass on what they’ve learned about managing a career and family life or balancing personal time with the stresses of an academic job. A large part of building healthy mentoring relationships is figuring out which kind of mentoring various people are offering you. Ideally someone who spends a lot of time with you, such as your advisor, would be interested in mentoring you in many ways. However, you can learn a lot from a variety of mentors. If a member of your department is thrilled that you want to learn medieval Latin or the Lisp programming language, you can probably grow a lot by studying with that person, even if she’s not interested in teaching you how to balance generating publications and squeezing in family vacations.
Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what kind of mentoring relationship you’ll have with a particular person. It usually makes sense to keep cultivating the mentoring relationship and to see what grows as you do so. Most mentors will give you some cues as to how they see the relationship growing over time, in the kinds of topics they choose and the types of advice they give. As they open the door to a wider range of conversations, you can follow their lead. Other mentors may prefer to stick completely to the professional side of things, and you can learn a lot from that as well.
Whatever kind of advice your mentor figures want to give, how do you learn well from it? That’s the topic of my next post, on learning wisdom from mentors.
Also in this series (7/18/2012 update): Finding Mentors as an Undergraduate, Finding Mentors Who Share Your Faith, The Art of Learning Wisdom from Mentors, The Art of Maintaining Relationships With Mentors.