How to Choose a Faculty Research Mentor

Adapted from Karen Burns’ The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use.

  1. Be clear on why you want a mentor. Are you looking for someone to offer on-going specific advice about your research or creative project? Or do you primarily just want a sounding board for when you’re frustrated or have a question? Ask the faculty member what role s/he likes to play so you can determine if you’d both be on the same page.
  2. Define your personality and communication style. What kind of mentor would best complement you? You may choose someone who’s your opposite (an extrovert to your introvert, for example), or someone in whom you see yourself (and vice versa).
  3. When asking someone to be your mentor, explain why you’re asking and what you’d expect out of the relationship (see No. 1). Name your reasons for approaching this particular person. For research and creative projects, this will involve the fact that the faculty mentor will be in your field of study but you still need to be clear what about his/her work interests you.
  4. A mentor is a powerful role model. Look for someone who not only does the kind of work you’d like to do but also has the same work ethic. Choose a mentor you truly respect.
  5. Before asking someone to be your mentor, consider first simply asking for input on a single specific topic. How did that go? Was it good advice? Was it delivered in a way that made sense to you, and filled you with confidence and energy?
  6. Look for ways you can reciprocate the help your mentor offers. You don’t want to be all take-take-take.
  7. Show gratitude. Never let your mentor feel taken for granted! Also, supply feedback. If your mentor suggested something that really worked out for you, report back. People love hearing about their part in a success story.
  8. Keep in mind that mentoring can take many forms. It’s up to you to discuss with your potential mentor how you think you can be most productive—weekly meetings in person, by
    e-mail, by phone, or some combination--while you’re working on your project.
  9. Many mentors derive pleasure from “molding” someone in their own images—great for them and great for you if you want to be molded. Beware of mentors who are too controlling or judgmental. This is your path, not theirs.
  10. Don’t become too dependent on your mentor. The idea is that one day you will eventually be able to fly on your own. In fact, you may not take every bit of advice your mentor offers. Continue to think for yourself.
  11. Finally, if you ask someone to be your mentor and that person refuses, don’t be hurt or offended. This is not personal! Potential good mentors are very busy people. Thank him or her for the consideration, and ask for a referral.