Career Talk

HomeProfessionalsCareer DevelopmentFellowsCareer Talk ▶ Mentors and Mentoring
Mentors and Mentoring

August 2002

Choosing a mentor is one of the most critical decisions you will make during your career. Study after study underscore the key role mentoring plays in career development. The mentor's role is often described as that of a trusted counselor. While a good mentor cannot guarantee happiness or success, s/he can make life easier and smooth the way by offering support, encouragement and useful information. For instance, a mentor can:

  • Clearly explain the expectations and criteria for promotion whether it be from fellow to junior faculty or from junior faculty to associate professor.
  • Identify and facilitate the acquisition of resources to meet these expectations.
  • Provide frequent and honest feedback.
  • Alert you to the impediments to progress towards promotion.

This column is written from the point of view of the (potential) mentee. To that end, I discuss how to find and choose mentors as well as what a mentee needs to do in order to maximize and promote a longterm, productive relationship with their mentor. The responsibilities of the mentor are only briefly touched upon.
For more information regarding this topic, the reader is referred to


In its most broadest sense, a mentor is someone who is concerned about you and helping you to succeed.

As cited by the Council of Graduate Schools, 1995: "Mentors are advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one's performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; models, of identify, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic" (Morris Zelditch, 1990).


A mentor can aid in the development of your career plan, help you to understand your institution's formal and informal norms, values and expectations. A mentor can facilitate the development of a supportive and productive colleague network. On the other hand, a poor mentor or a mentor-mentee relationship characterized by conflict and failed expectations can contribute to low self-esteem and exacerbate the frustration and isolation experienced by post doctoral fellows and junior faculty. Hence, it is critical that both the mentor and mentee recognize their responsibilities and be able to communicate effectively.


A good mentor should be a good, objective listener. S/he should try not to project his/her preconceptions/biases onto the mentee's problems or goals but instead, demonstrate sensitivity and empathy regarding cultural, gender and disability diversity issues. A good mentor should serve as a professional and personal role model in terms of integrity, compassion and enthusiasm for the job. Above all, a good mentor should be approachable and patient.


While accomplishments in teaching and research are important, also consider the following:

  • Experience in directing post doctoral fellows and junior faculty.
  • Management and organization of his or her research group.
  • Reputation for setting high standards in a congenial atmosphere.
  • Funding sources and how long they will last.
  • Be sure to talk to present and former advisees and to gain personal impressions through face-to-face interviews. A key question is whether a particular mentor's style is compatible with your personality.


  1. What is your vision of life? To gain the most from a mentoring relationship, you need to define your professional and personal goals. The clearer you are on what you want to achieve in your life and work, the better you and your mentor(s) will be able to focus on constructive ways to help you attain your objectives. What type of research do you want to pursue? What are you good at? What skills do you need to develop? On a broader scale, Senge defines vision as what you want to create of yourself and the world around you. In addition to work-related goals, what does your vision include? Raising happy, well-adjusted children? Living on a beach? Being very fit and healthy? Visiting every continent? Helping others with their spiritual development? What do you love to do?
  2. Have realistic expectations. Advisors are only human; after all, no one is perfect. Get to know the faculty members in your department and division. Avail yourself of mentoring programs offered through your professional society (e.g. the ATS Women's Mentoring Program) or other organizations such as AWIS (Association for Women in Science).
  3. Think about multiple mentors. In addition to a primary adviser, having one or two secondary advisers who have an interest in your research/career and are prepared to offer counsel along the way can be invaluable. Also, it can be very helpful to have a separate advisor for personal and family matters. This can be especially important for women. In this way what one adviser is lacking in experience and temperament can often be found in the others.
  4. Optimize communication. Make appointments. This way you will have your mentor's full attention. Be efficient and organized in your interactions with your mentor. Be on time. Be prepared. It is a good idea to have an "agenda" or list of topics/questions you want to discuss. After the meeting, summarize any agreements. Tip: If you need to cancel a meeting, make sure your mentor gets the message. Don't rely on email alone.
  5. When submitting creative work for review or critique, do not submit "rough drafts" for input. Be sure the manuscript (or proposal) is presentable and free of typos. After rewriting, highlight the changed sections so that s/he does not have to re-read the entire paper.
  6. When requesting recommendations, have an updated CV (curriculum vitae) on hand. Provide a short description of the grant (fellowship, program) to which you are applying. If you are requesting a letter of support for a grant, provide a copy of your objective and specific aims.
  7. Periodically reassess your needs and goals. It is your responsibility to update your advisor/mentor on your progress and struggles.
  8. Respect boundaries. Although friendship between mentor and mentee may develop, it is not necessary. An advisor may feel that friendship may interfere with his/her ability to honestly appraise and deliver criticism.
  9. Accept criticism gracefully. It is the mentor's job to objectively evaluate your work and progress. While you may disagree, at least demonstrate that you are willing to consider your advisor's opionions. If, after thinking about it, you still disagree, it is crucial to demonstrate that you can rationally and reasonably defend your own position.


Conflicts are a part of life. The key is to remember that it's YOUR life and career in the long run, and you have choices about how to respond. Respond with respect for the other person's opinion. Something like: "Thanks for your excellent ideas. Let me take them into consideration and get back to you with my plan of attack." Most people will appreciate this type of positive, direct response. If you have multiple advisors, they may disagree on how to deal with a particular issue. Obviously, you must be accountable to your boss. He/she is actually more important than your formal mentor, at least in the short run. Tip: http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/1998/04/23/5 - deals with dysfunctional advisee-advisor relationships, and importantly, points out potential areas of conflict that can be avoided with some foresight and knowledge on the part of the advisee.


Mentoring is a lifelong activity--like parenthood. While there are times when mentoring may be more important or needed, e.g., during formative years of career building or during times of transition, mentoring can be valuable at any stage. However, this does not mean that you will necessarily have the same mentor throughout your career. It is a good idea to periodically assess your relationship with your mentor. As you progress through your career, your needs will change and your mentors may change as well. Also, personality issues, gender/cultural or other conflicts may arise that negatively affect your relationship with your mentor. In that case, it is vital that you be able to discuss them before they impair the relationship to the point where your productivity and self-esteem are jeopardized. If necessary, find a trusted person to help mediate. As I mentioned in the previous paragrah, conflicts are inevitable in any relationship. The key is to deal with them in a positive,open manner. If you and your advisor feel that these differences are irreconcilable, work on finding a way to amicably find and move on to another mentor.



  1. http://faculty.washington.edu/olmstd/research/Mentoring.html: Useful article entitled; "Mentoring New Faculty: Advice to Department Chairs" was published in the CSWP Gazette, 13(1), 1 (August, 1993). The Gazette is the Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics of The American Physical Society.
  2. http://www.training.nih.gov/handbook/mentor.html: section on mentoring from the NIH Fellows' Handbook. Extremely useful overview.
  3. http://www.awis.org/mentoring.html: Mentoring site for the Association of Women in Science.
  4. http://www1.od.nih.gov/oir/sourcebook/ethic-conduct/mentor-guide.htm: "A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at the NIH."
  5. http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/mentor: online version of Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend (see below).
  6. http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/1999/12/09/14: article on mentoring with links to related articles in science nextwave website.
  7. http://www.rackham.umich.edu/StudentInfo/Publications/
    : "How to Get the Mentoring You Want." Graduate student guide with many good ideas for mentors/mentees at all levels of training.
  8. Stanford University School of Medicine http://www-med.stanford.edu/school/facultymentoring/index.html: link to their faculty mentoring program.
  9. University of Northern Iowa http://www.uni.edu/resources/faculty/fac_sta.shtml: In particular, check out "Tools for Teaching" located in the "Center for the Enhancement of Teaching" under Faculty Resources link.
  10. University of Illinois http://www.library.uiuc.edu/wst_tocs/mentoring.html-bibliography


  1. Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. National Academy Press, Washington D.C., 1997.
  2. Faculty Mentoring Guide, School of Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth.
  3. The Mentor's Mentor: The Mentoring Handbook. A Guide to Mentoring. Women's Faculty Development Caucus, College of Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, 1997.
  4. Hitchcock MA, FT Stitter and CJ Bland. Faculty development in the health professions: conclusions and recommendations. Medical Teaching 1993, 14:295-309.
  5. Morzinski JA, DE Simpson, DJ Bower and S Diehr . Faculty development through formal mentoring. Academic Medicine 1994, 69:267-269.
  6. Palepu A, RH Friedman, RC Barnett, PL Carr, AS Ash, L Szalacha and MA Moskowitz. Junior faculty members' mentoring relationships and their professional development in U.S. medical schools. Academic Medicine 1998, 73:318-323.
  7. Pololi L, DL Harris, M Clay AC Jobe and JA Hallock. Institutionalized faculty development program. Academic Medicine 1998, 73:354-355.