My last post ended with a section on following up with mentors, and I’d like to expand on that a bit here. In this post, I’ll look at a few ways of maintaining mentor relationships over time. Sustaining anything over years is a challenge, and maintaining mentoring relationships can be hard, however appreciative you are of a mentor’s gifts to you. It’s difficult to catch up with people, especially in academic life where there are so many time pressures. But here are a few thoughts on staying in touch with mentors.
Figure out a style that works for both of you.
Communication styles vary. Some professors find that writing long emails takes away from their energy for writing scholarship, so they prefer to catch up via occasional phone calls. Others like email because they can respond at their leisure and don’t have to worry about squeezing a phone call into a very complicated course schedule. Some people would much prefer a more substantial email every six months to a quick note more often, while others would rather hear from people more frequently even if that means less detail. As you spend time with your mentors, pay attention to what communication styles they prefer. Many professors will tell you up front which styles are most manageable for them; if not, you can often figure out from the way they tend to communicate with you. And of course it’s perfectly appropriate to ask a professor what’s the best way of keeping in touch, especially when you’re at a transition point such as graduating or moving to a different locality.
Adjust your style for various life phases.
The style of communication that works for a particular mentor (and for you) might change depending on life phases as well. Adjustments in family situation, research schedule, and career point can all change what kind of communication is most manageable. If your professor generally likes long letters but is currently balancing a second book and a growing family, switching to shorter emails could be exactly right. Academic life also has some points where mentors may have to take time off from advising you in order to meet a book deadline or manage research in a foreign country. If a mentor can’t catch up for a while, it’s usually not a sign of disinterest in you or your work. Just try again at a later point, and most likely the relationship will pick up where it left off.
Have a manageable plan for keeping in touch.
Though I love hearing from friends and mentors, I often feel overwhelmed by the number of phone calls and emails to keep up with. Lately I’ve found it really helpful to make my plans for catching up a bit more realistic. While I’d love to talk to each mentor figure in my life every month, it’s just not always possible for their schedules or mine. But if I set a very manageable goal, say to check in with a particular mentor once a quarter or twice a year, I’m more likely to do it. There’s no reason we can’t talk more often if we both have time, but at least we both know that we’ll get to catch up eventually. I often set reminders on my computer calendar system to write someone at intervals. I think of my mentors in between that time of course, and I’m delighted if one of them has time to email or call at an unscheduled point; but the reminder helps me to take initiative for keeping in touch.
Consider thoughtful group updates.
Several of my friends send email updates to a group of friends and mentors at various intervals. Sometimes this takes the form of monthly emails asking for prayer about certain projects or life events, and other times it’s more like a once a year summary of some things that have been happening. This is often a great way to keep people posted on your life without putting too much pressure on them to respond. Some mentors prefer to receive personal notes, but others love to get an occasional group email. When I send group updates, I usually preface them with an introduction saying that I’d love to hear from everyone, but that I’ll completely understand if recipients don’t have time to read or respond. I also try to use group updates as a springboard for individual conversations rather than a substitute for them; I want people to feel that I’m inviting individual correspondence, but not demanding it.
Take stock at regular points of growth, and thank those who have helped you achieve it.
In the last post, I talked about the narrative shape of many mentoring relationships. Often the seeds planted by a particular mentor grow in ways I never could have expected over the years. I mentioned the value of keeping a mentor posted on that growth. Here I’d like to talk about one specific life habit that helps me to keep conversations like that going with mentors: I try to set aside regular times for taking stock of particular areas of growth in my life, whether that means growth in skills, knowledge, habits, or other things. I try to make some time every quarter and also at the beginning of every year for noticing areas where growth has happened and where it needs to happen. As I seek to do that, I want to incorporate some time each quarter to thank specific people who have encouraged that growth, and to keep them posted on ways that their advice helped me. This is a habit I’ve started to develop recently, and I’m still very much figuring out how to do it, so I’d love to hear ideas on how to improve it. But I think it will help me over time to see some narratives of things God is doing in my life, and to thank those who have contributed to that narrative.
So those are a few thoughts on maintaining relationships with mentors. In the last post of the series, I’d like to shift gears slightly and address graduate students who want to mentor undergrads or other graduate students.