One of the hardest things to do is to ask for help. Everyone wants to be strong and independent. But true independence is knowing when you don’t know something and when to reach out to others to get what you need.
Who can be a mentor?
Anyone can be a mentor. A more senior graduate student who teaches you how to troubleshoot an instrument, a senior staff member who has been with the company for years and can tell you how things really get done, or even a younger colleague who knows more than you do about a particular technology can all be mentors.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is a trusted adviser—anyone you can count on to provide honest, accurate information and insights about your professional life. Ideally, a mentor won’t just tell you the answer (or what to do) but will help you understand the situation so you can come to your own decision. If someone is the first person you think of when you have a particular question, and is available, that person is a mentor. A mentor listens and provides an objective opinion; sometimes just having to distill and explain the problem to someone else allows you to see it clearly. A good mentor will be able to point out things you didn’t see or ask questions that make you think of things differently.
Where do I find a mentor?
Sometimes, a mentor is assigned—for example, your undergraduate or graduate school adviser or a colleague who participates in a formal mentoring program at work. Other times, you meet because you have a common interest or experience, and a relationship develops.
When do I need a mentor?
Ideally, you will build your relationship with your mentor over time, starting with small issues and working up to more personal and difficult problems. You will have many mentors over the course of your career, some for a short time for a specific issue and some for many years—maybe your entire professional life. As long as you are respectful of their time, most people will continue to be willing to help.
Why would I want a mentor?
Because you don’t know everything. You can learn from someone else’s experiences and mistakes (or at least know what to look out for) and understand how things came to be the way they are now. You can talk through possible options and outcomes and select the best course of action. Mentors provide accountability; if you tell someone else that you are going to do something, with a projected timeline, you are much more likely to actually do it.
In the end, it’s your career and your life. You are going to have to make the decisions using the best and most complete information you have at the time. While the internet may be great for finding facts and figures, it’s people who will provide the most valuable, personalized advice and insights. Because mentors don’t do it for the money (there isn’t any), make sure to respect their time, thank them, and pay it forward by helping someone else. You just may learn something from that, too.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).