The definition of mentoring has evolved over time. While the dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher”, or “an influential senior sponsor or supporter”, when I ask people around how do they define a mentor, they don’t always describe a senior person. Some people don’t even talk about someone who is old, or a who is a sponsor. Most of the time, the answer contains the word “counselor” or “someone who helps you grow”.
My idea of a mentor used to be some sort of old-looking person, someone highly accomplished with many years of experience, and someone who will tell me what to do to succeed (and I had to follow his/her advice for life). However, after having navigated graduate school, two postdocs, and a mentored K award, and after experiencing situations of good and not-so-good mentoring, I learned that my idea of a mentor wasn’t accurate. Indeed, most of my mentors weren’t actually old, or more advanced than me in their careers. I found myself surrounded by “junior mentors”, “peer mentors”, and even people who worked in different disciplines. I also learned that not everybody was able to give me helpful advice, and that that had nothing to do with their willingness to help me.
Some of the best career advice I ever got came from people who were just one step ahead of me. Speaking with someone who looked more like me (i.e. early in his/her career), and who had accomplished something I would like to accomplish (e.g. promotion, a grant awarded, a paper published, a successfully mentored student), was enough for me to want to learn from that person, and to ask for his/her advice. Because junior people know the struggles you are going through better than anyone else (i.e. they were “just there”), they are more likely to give you advice you can easily follow. In other words, they “speak the same language”. Academia is a very dynamic field, and what worked for a postdoc or assistant professor 20 years ago, may not work for one today.
I heard about this concept at a faculty development training. The idea of peer mentoring is to have a mentor (or many!) who is at the same career level than you, and can provide career advice, emotional support, and positive feedback. The literature has some good examples of these types of relationships, but the concept is that because of shared generational values and experiences, we are more comfortable or likely to have some conversations or with peer mentors than we would with senior mentors. In my own experience, peer mentors are those junior faculty members who are willing to read my grants and give me constructive criticism, and will share with me their struggles and accomplishments. I also have peer mentors who will sit down with me to write once a week (I mention some of that in my previous post), and will hold me accountable for tasks I am likely to procrastinate on. Reciprocity is key in peer mentoring and it is one of the best things about it. I truly enjoy helping my peer mentors, and knowing that I am helping them grow too.
How to find mentors
Finding a mentor that matches your career needs can take several years, and a lot of trial and error. While some mentors will really help you, other mentors may not be able to, or willing to help. This is why having multiple mentors is really beneficial. I believe we should have as many mentors as possible, and then decide on which ones to keep. Senior people can help by providing expertise, connections, and career opportunities. Junior mentors can help us jump to the next step, and avoid common mistakes. And peer mentors will likely be your best friends. Take good care of them!