Mentorship: A Two-Way Street

Ask a highly successful person about important milestones on the path to a rewarding career and he or she will most likely credit the influence and help of a mentor. We can all agree on the value of a mentor, but how to acquire one is not as obvious. Simply approaching a more senior professional that you respect and admire and asking him or her to be your mentor feels awkward and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a lot like asking someone to hire you because you need a job. What’s in it for them?

From the outside, a mentor may seem akin to a fairy godmother who taps us with her magic wand and transforms us into more successful versions of ourselves, never asking for any favours in return. In reality, a true mentorship is much more of a partnership and the benefits have to go both ways. To illustrate, imagine that you are looking for a summer research position and have interviews with two different professors. One of them admits that he doesn’t have a project in mind for you just yet, but that he is happy to hire you anyway and is confident you will have a good learning experience just hanging out with the rest of his group. The other is very keen to hear that you have some of the skills she requires for a project already on the go. Her group is smaller and she really seems to need an extra pair of hands. She lays out what your contribution will be and you are surprised by the level of responsibility you will have. This is definitely not a “make work project”. Which position is more likely to result in a mentorship?

While there are no guarantees that you will acquire a mentor at critical stages in your career, you can choose to work in environments where mentorships are more likely to flourish

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. A true mentor will have a vested interest in your success, usually because you are bringing something to the table which increases her chance of success. A two-way street. Win, win.

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