Regardless of where you are on the STEM career ladder, you’re never too old or too senior for a mentor! A good mentor can guide you into new professional fields, and increase your chances of landing your dream job or promotion. Mentors can act as a “sounding board” for job-related ideas, answer career-related questions, and provide emotional support when things get tough.
Who can be your mentor?
Broadly defined, a STEM mentor is someone more experienced than you who is willing to share their experiences and insights. You can be work colleagues, or be employed at different companies. Although you can be mentored by someone who supervises you (or is in your managerial chain of command), it is often better to choose a mentor who you don’t directly work with, especially if you need to have sensitive conversations about your workplace or job search.
It’s helpful to think about what you need from a mentor before looking for one: maybe you need help navigating your PhD program, or maybe you are considering a career in biotech and want to learn more about the options available to you. In the former scenario you might benefit from an academic mentor, in the latter scenario someone already working in industry might be more helpful.
How to find a mentor
If you aren’t sure where to find a mentor, here are some ideas:
● University or workplace colleagues
● Personal connections: friends, family or neighbors
● Networking events
● Professional organizations related to your STEM discipline
● Formal mentorship programs
When approaching potential mentors, it’s a good idea to explain what kind of advice or support you’re looking for upfront. You don’t need to enter a formal business relationship with a potential mentor – just ask them if they’d be willing to answer some questions you have and see where things go from there, as you would with other new networking contacts.
The act of mentorship can mean different things. You may email questions to your mentor when the need arises, or schedule monthly coffee meet-ups. A mentor in a formal mentorship program could send you away with “homework exercises” to complete before your next meeting. Mentors may be willing to review your job application materials or introduce you to their contacts.
Managing the mentor-mentee relationship
Most STEM professionals are happy to help younger scientists figure out their career paths – and many enjoy doing so. However, not everyone makes a good mentor. Some don’t have the time to discuss potential career pathways, or forget to reply to your emails. Some established STEM professionals may give outdated advice about the job market, or suggest career options that don’t align with your situation and needs. A person who looks like an ideal mentor on paper may be someone you struggle to carry a conversation with, and who you don’t feel comfortable baring your soul to. That’s OK! You’re never obliged to accept or act upon any mentor’s advice – and you can always politely scale back your interactions with a mentor who isn’t helping you.
It’s also important to know that one mentor can’t help you with everything STEM-related, and having multiple mentors doesn’t hurt. Maybe one of your mentors knows nothing about the current biotech market, but gives really good insight into handling interpersonal conflicts in your research lab. Another mentor may not have time to meet with you regularly, but is great at introducing you to useful people.
Above all – don’t feel shy asking for help! Your mentor may not know what assistance you need until you ask, and as long as you remain polite if they’re unable to help, you won’t damage the relationship. Navigating into new STEM careers can be difficult and confusing, and everyone deserves to receive help along the way.