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Finding a Mentor

In an academic environment, finding a mentor is crucial to success. To attend graduate school or get a faculty position at another university, you'll need recommenders who can speak about you in glowing, intimate terms. Beyond that, academia is a small and often highly political world. You'll need someone more experienced to speak on your behalf and to give you advice.

When it comes to making these vital connections, though, students are often on their own. All schools require students to have advisors, but some do a better job encouraging extensive interaction than others. If you find that you aren't automatically forming relationships with potential mentors, you can better your chances by trying several things.

First, make sure that you're demonstrating your potential. Mentors prefer mentees whose achievements will ultimately reflect positively back on them. Put as much effort into your assignments as you can, and work hard to avoid submitting late work. Also try to sit in the front of the room—you don't have to be right in the professor's face, but slouching in the back row won't make a good impression.

Try as hard as you can to make a personal connection. Show up early to class or stay late to ask questions. Also make appearances at office hours, where you should have a question or some topic you'd like to discuss. Be sure to research what your professor has written about recently and know his or her interests. Ask specific questions and be able to talk intelligently about his or her work. This both insures that you'll have something to talk about and demonstrates that your interest in the professor goes beyond just what he or she can do for you (i.e. help you succeed in the class or advance your own career).

To find a mentor, it also helps to be a visible presence in the department. Talk not only with the faculty, but other students as well—you never know how you'll find out about an important opportunity. Help whoever you can whenever you can, and get involved in department activities.

Don't get too committed to attaching yourself to one person. Be open to talking to various faculty members—perhaps you'll discover someone who is more helpful or responsive than your first choice. Focus on those who are willing to help, and minimize the time you spend on those who are always unavailable.

There are a few things you should avoid. First, try to seek help before you're desperate for advice. You don't want to give the impression that you wait too long to deal with problems or are unorganized. In addition, avoid using the word "mentor" or saying "will you be my mentor?" The word makes people nervous because it implies a large time commitment. Instead, ask if you can come by for advice from time to time. Let the relationship develop naturally.

While you have to of course be professional, finding a mentor is like making friends or developing a romantic relationship. The key is to put yourself out there, but not push so much that others regard you as creepy. Remember that it's another person you're trying to connect with.

Elsewhere on the Web

How to Be a Good Graduate Student
Guide for the Perplexed
Advice About Checking in with an Advisor


The Academic Game
Under Her Wing: The Mentors Who Changed Our Lives
The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career


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