“The narrow focus of a literal ‘apprenticeship’ to become a professor, combined with the little contact with the world outside of academia, leaves little question why many PhD graduates feel at a loss after graduation, especially once they decide to pursue a non-academic path.” – So you want to Earn a PhD? The Attraction, Realities and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate, HEQCO, 2013
In the children’s book Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman, a little hatchling must leave its nest and explore the world in order to find nurturing guidance and a supportive role model. Like the hatchling, today’s promising graduate students will also have to leave their academic nests and venture into the professional world around them to find the key person that will help them develop their own unique path to independence and success.
Many students go to graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor. In turn their academic supervisors are keen to train the next generation of researchers and scholars and to serve as role models. But, what if becoming a professor is not in the cards? Supervisors are often ill prepared, or perhaps uninterested, in offering career advice outside of the academic track that they know so well. This leaves graduate students in the difficult position of transitioning alone from academia to the workplace. That’s where mentoring comes in.
Keep Calm and Find a Mentor
“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” – Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
Mentoring is the personal one-on-one guidance and encouragement given by a more experienced person to a novice in an open, honest, respectful, sensitive, confidential and consistent manner. And while supervisors should act as mentors, graduate students also need someone outside of the supervisory line of authority that they can turn to for advice.
Here are some strategies students can consider in seeking out a mentor:
- If a student is interested in a faculty position, they should link up with a junior faculty member – perhaps outside their home department or university, who was recently recruited and moved successfully through the tenure process.
- For non-academic mentors, connect with alumni working in an area of professional interest. Graduates are often keen to reconnect with their home department.
- Learning to do cold calls and informational interviews are essential skills. Students should use their research skills to find someone doing a job they might like and then find out if their idea of that career matches with the reality. Following up with a short thank-you email, and further leveraging professional networks like LinkedIn will help form invaluable connections.
- Learn to build a network and build it strategically. A powerful network is not about having hundreds of Facebook friends. Rather, students should seek out someone who is willing to meet on short notice and give advice on a major career decision.
A Mentor’s Role, or 10 Things a Mentor Does:
- Shares experience and knowledge
- Provides insightful and confidential advice
- Helps set realistic and achievable goals
- Encourages strategic thinking
- Imparts specific skills
- Provides networking opportunities
- Upholds professional standards and ethics
- Provides conflict resolution techniques
- Gives moral support
- Remains honest and open
It is important to note that it is not a mentor’s responsibility to get jobs, intervene in disputes, raise money for a student’s cause, speak or apply on one’s behalf, or become a student’s best friend.
Most universities have mentoring resources for students through their graduate schools, faculties, departments, career centres and student organizations. Some of these resources include:
- Concordia University’s alumni mentor program
- Western University’s guide to Mentoring Graduate Students Across Cultures
- University of Regina’s mentorship handbook for faculty and graduate students
- University of British Columbia’s Killam Awards for Excellence in Mentoring
- University of Toronto’s database of mentorship opportunities and mentorship resource centre.
An Individual Development Plan (IDP)
Students should not expect supervisors or mentors to come up with all of the answers to their career questions. Students need to take charge of their own career trajectory while in graduate school. A great place to start is with an Individual Development Plan or IDP. This plan will allow students to perform a self-assessment, develop their professional skills, set achievable goals and map out a career path. Importantly, this plan will also prepare students for the unexpected. Like the hatchling that eventually found its mother, finding a mentor will help keep students on their road to success.
Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, FCAHS, is a professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and a special advisor to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Graduate Professional Skills and Engagement.