Finding Mentors as an Undergraduate

Mentoring Conversation

Everyone agrees that mentoring is important at every phase of an academic career, but finding mentors and growing in mentoring relationships can be a challenge. In follow-up to and to expand upon Resource for Grad Student mentoring of Undergraduates (5/29/2012). I’ll be doing a series on finding and growing in mentoring relationships as an undergraduate and grad student. I’d welcome comments and stories.

Later in the series I’ll give a few thoughts on finding mentors as a graduate student, maintaining and growing in mentoring relationships, and mentoring others in turn. But for the moment, here are a few ideas on finding mentors while you’re in undergrad. In this post, I’ll give a few general suggestions. In the next post, I’ll turn to ways of finding Christian mentors in your field as an undergrad.

 1.    Pray for good mentors.

Years ago, I was looking for someone who could mentor me in creative writing. I was an English major, but my undergraduate school didn’t really focus on creative writing, so I didn’t know where to look. Feeling a bit lost, I prayed about it. Not too long after that, I went to a teaching job interview. The headmaster of the school noticed on my resume that I was interested in writing, and during the interview he mentioned that his wife was a poet. I later met her and started working on writing with her. Her advice transformed my style and convinced me to write poetry, something I’d always been afraid of. A decade later, I still write poetry, and I still learn incredible things from the friend God sent me when I prayed for a mentor.

2.    Take advantage of obvious opportunities to spend time with professors and graduate students who may be willing to mentor you – office hours, gatherings that are aimed at your entire department across career stages, undergraduate research programs, etc.

This point sounds obvious, but it amazed me as a graduate student how few undergrads turned up to office hours and other opportunities to engage with older members of the department. I know it can feel as though you’re interrupting when you go to a prof’s office, but I was really happy when students did come to office hours. I wanted to get to know members of my classes as people, not just as names on the roster. I also wanted to help with individual questions and difficulties, which is easier to do during office hours than in hurried conversations before or after class (though I certainly understand that not everyone can make the schedule work to attend office hours). My department also made an effort to welcome undergraduate attendance at various special events. Since few undergrads actually came to many of these events, faculty and graduate students really noticed those who did. I realize that it can be intimidating to go to a lecture or a celebration where most of the attendees are grad students or professors, but most of the time they’ll be delighted that you came, and more likely to offer advice or take an interest in your work.

3. Remember that mentoring relationships often grow organically from a common interest or shared work.

Even if you faithfully turn up to office hours and attend department events, it can sometimes be hard to find the mentoring relationships you’re looking for. If that’s the case, something deeper might emerge from a common interest or shared work. Volunteering for things within your department that genuinely interest you is often a good way to find and engage with mentor figures you admire. If your department needs volunteers for a conference on a topic that really interests you,  you may meet some interesting people from your own department while handing out name tags or guiding visiting professors to the main lecture hall.

Mentoring Conversation

Some departments also have undergraduate research programs, where a few undergraduates can work on a research project with a faculty member. Faculty members who sign up to work on these typically want to mentor students, so becoming involved in the program is a great way to find mentors. If your department doesn’t do that, there’s a good chance that it does offer independent study opportunities, another great way to get to know a professor better and learn from his or her expertise.

4.    Balance respect for a mentor’s time with a willingness to accept the gift of time.

As a younger student, I tended to worry that I was taking up a professor’s time if I stopped in the hall to have a conversation or sent an email. It is true that professors are busy, and it’s important to respect their time. But I also found that many of my professors really enjoyed thoughtful conversations with students; in fact, such conversations were often one of the biggest reasons they went into teaching. Many graduate students and professors want to give the gift of their time. With most instructors, you can indicate your willingness to respect their time with a sentence or two at the beginning of an email or a conversation. Once that’s established, profs will usually tell you if they have time at a particular point or not. If they do, you can enjoy the conversation. If they don’t, you can try again at some other point. As I learned to balance respecting time with accepting the generosity of my professors, better relationships emerged and I learned a lot from my instructors.

Mentoring and being mentored is an art, and I’ll talk more about that art in later posts; but beginning a friendship with a mentor can be one of the most satisfying things you do as an undergraduate. Does anyone have stories about finding a mentor as an undergraduate? Advice on approaching possible mentors?

Also in this series (7/18/2012 update): Finding Mentors Who Share Your Faith, The Art of Being Mentored. The Art of Learning Wisdom from Mentors, The Art of Maintaining Relationships With Mentors.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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    Micheal Hickerson commented on June 7, 2012 Reply

    Excellent advice, Hannah. Thank you! I’ll share three stories from my own undergrad days as an English major, one in which I took advantage of a mentoring relationship, another in which I missed a gracious invitation because of my inexperience, and finally a brief “caution.”

    First, following your point #2, my school offered an opportunity to do an honors thesis as a senior. There was a professor I had gotten to know through his involvement with the honors program, then through classes under him, and he agreed to serve as my advisor for my senior thesis. His own specialty was Tudor and Elizabethan literature, and I did my thesis on Shakespeare’s Romances. Our working relationship throughout the 12-16 months of the project gave me an opportunity to get to know him better, and also gave me great access to learning what it would be like to become a professor, which was the career I was considering.

    Second, because I was a young and arrogant undergrad, I once missed an obvious signal from another professor. A visiting prof in creative writing gave me his address at the end of the semester and suggested that we stay in touch. He mentioned helping me find new poets to read and helping me develop my craft. Foolishly, I thought he did something like this all the time, and didn’t realize the opportunity until it was too late to stay in touch. So my advice to undergrads is that if a faculty member makes you an offer, your default answer should be “yes.” Don’t take these things for granted!

    Finally, I’d suggest holding your mentors lightly as an undergrad. There was another professor whom I grew to respect as a teacher, even though her opinions were often the exact opposite of mine. I asked her to write a letter of recommendation for me a study abroad program, which she agreed to do. But at the deadline, there was no letter, and I soon gathered from other faculty that unreliability was standard operating procedure for her. In retrospect, I could have saved myself the disappointment by simply mentioning to another professor in the department, “Say, I’m thinking of having Dr. X write a letter of recommendation for me.” Any of her peers would have likely steered me in another direction.

    Hannah commented on June 8, 2012 Reply

    Thanks, Mike, for such a thoughtful reply! It’s great to hear about your experience as an undergrad and what it taught you about finding mentors.

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