Tips for Grads: Making mentorship happen

By Olivia Gacka, PhD Student

While it sounds eons away, January is right around the corner, and it is National Mentoring Month! Now is a great time to evaluate the amount of mentorship you are getting in your academic and professional journey. A good mentor is something that we’re told as graduate students is an absolute necessity to get where we want to go in life. But there are some aspects of mentorship–how to find a mentor, how to formalize an often informally developed relationship, and how to get the most out of it–that can be difficult to understand or approach.

I found an NPR article and podcast episode entitled “The right mentor can change your career. Here’s how to find one” to be very insightful in terms of identifying the things I did and didn’t know about mentorship and incredibly helpful in demystifying some of the more nebulous aspects of mentorship. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Identify multiple mentors: As the paths we want to take are often as unique as we are, it can be difficult to find a single person who encapsulates all the things you need or want in a mentor. Don’t be afraid to look for multiple! One person might be particularly helpful for developing your communication skills, and another might be more in tune with the specific career path you’re after. It is not only okay but encouraged to identify people who are experts in the areas you are looking to improve in, as it’s likely that one person is not going to fill all the gaps.
  • Understand mentorship vs sponsorship: A good way to ensure that your expectations are managed in terms of what you want to get out of a mentor is understanding how mentorship differs from sponsorship. Sponsors can advocate for you in specific contexts, like job advancement and consideration for specific opportunities, and are in positions to do so (like bosses, department heads, etc). Mentors, on the other hand, are more advice or strategy-oriented, and are likely to be there for you in the longer-term.
  • Figure out the ‘now what’: Once you’ve landed a mentor, what exactly comes next? Setting clear expectations, creating agendas for your conversations, and having planned check-in points to evaluate the efficacy of the relationship can help to ensure that your mentor is more than a reference name on your resume, but someone who will genuinely help shape your path to success.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.