Mentors. How Many of Us Have Them?

Isn’t it a bit presumptuous for organizations and companies to demand you include at least THREE references with your internship or job application? At least?? Do they assume you have a team of people, on speed dial, sitting around, waiting to sing your praises – every time you chase down an opportunity?  Some even require they be professors or administrators with whom you’ve had “regular one-on-one contact”. Between homework, studying, working, being awesome and hanging with friends, when exactly are you supposed to cultivate lasting relationships with faculty and others on/off campus? Moreover, how do you make these relationships feel real? Comfortable even? Comfortable enough to feel assured in requesting a reference or letter of recommendation?

Answers to such questions have nothing to do with the questions and everything to do with the importance of relationships. Good relationships. Good relationships matter and they’re the soul of good mentorship. And when you have good mentors, serving as references and writing letters will be the very least of what they’ll happily do for you.

Good mentors pay for lunch take an interest. They ask difficult questions. They want to know where you’re heading. How you’re spending your time. Where you’re investing your energy. And how you can be smarter about it. Good mentors are accessible, invested and sacrificial with their time and resources. They invite you to borrow from their experience and seek counsel in areas you’re still developing.  Eventually, they come to consider your success their own.  So they push you and challenge you, welcome your follow-up calls and e-mails and actively network on your behalf.

Kinda priceless, right?

But urgent need and expediency does not such a relationship make. This business is slow. The cultivation is steady, sincere and gradual. And gradual means it may be uncomfortable in the early going.  Almost like a real relationship.

I recommend you identify someone whose work and background appeal to you – whose course you put your best foot forward in/are presently putting your best foot forward in.  Attend office hours, inquire about their research, ask how their academic career took shape…

Be genuine.  Over time, you’ll feel comfortable requesting advice and, in like manner, sharing information and articles you come across that may be of interest to them.  At all times be gracious, receptive of feedback and unassailably respectful of their time when meeting (that means be punctual and never dream of missing/sleeping through/ “forgetting” an appointment).

If you approach this honestly and without pretense, the way you would/should any new relationship, you’ll feel confident making the ask directly:  “I respect you a great deal and have so much I want to learn from you. Would you be open to me courting you as a mentor?”.

If you’re given an affirmative response, congratulations!  But that’s just the beginning.  Determine what more you’d like to learn about this person and how to appropriately share more about yourself.  Seek clarity on how and when s/he prefers to be contacted and create reminders to check in.  The holidays and birthdays are no-brainers but there should be a thoughtful rhythm to your outreach and communication.  Study her/his temperament and be discerning. You won’t always get it right. But, if you’re being respectful, in most cases, that’s ok.

So who else besides your professors?

Scan your web of deans, faculty advisors, coaches, librarians and college alumni.  Who do you have ties with? Where can natural ties or introductions be made? Who can make them? Were meaningful relationships forged in high school and abandoned once you left?  Have family friends been awaiting this opportunity for years?!?

Potential mentors are all around you.  Perhaps that’s why organizations, companies and the like presume you’ve got at least three.

Granted, not every reference will be a mentor, and not every mentor a reference.  Still, no matter what you call them, relationships of this sort require time, thought and maintenance.

I suggest you get to it.


See other posts by Lionel Anderson in The New York Times


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