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Career Tips

How to be—and find—a good mentor

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
February 3, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 5

 

January was National Mentoring Month, an annual campaign in the US aimed at promoting youth mentoring. It encourages all of us to honor our mentors—one of the highlights is Thank Your Mentor Day on Jan. 31—and become mentors in our own communities.

To support the campaign, Alanna Schepartz and Carolyn Bertozzi, editors in chief of ACS journals Biochemistry and ACS Central Science, respectively, held a Twitter chat to talk about their experiences as mentors and mentees.

The question-and-answer format worked well—you can find the different threads under #ChemMentoring—and it encouraged me to think about my mentors and my efforts to encourage and support others around me.

I’ve had, and still have, great mentors in my career. The way they’ve helped me most has mainly had to do with removing barriers in my thinking and creating boundaries to work within. These two ideas seem to contradict each other, but they are two sides of the same coin.

Removing barriers involves letting go of your pride and your emotions, being accepting of different points of view, facing your fears and insecurities, and challenging your assumptions and biases. My mentors helped me identify these barriers by asking the right questions, proposing different scenarios, and reminding me of my priorities.

Creating boundaries is related to building the work ethic and discipline required to achieve your ambitions. Especially if you work on your own or have little supervision, you’ll need structure around you that allows you to stay motivated, sharp in your focus, and true to your priorities. My mentors are great role models and demonstrate confidence and leadership that has been truly inspirational.

Good mentorship can advance your career and enhance your chance of success. There is no doubt that mentors can accelerate your personal and professional growth. By sharing mistakes they’ve made along the way, mentors can help you get up to speed faster, making the learning curve less steep. Beyond sharing skills and knowledge, they can also create opportunities—including access to professional networks—that may prove crucial. For example, a mentor may turn down a speaking opportunity because of a busy travel schedule but suggest that you take their spot. A mentor can put your name forward for awards or new job opportunities. They can invite you to take part in a collaboration that may elevate your status within your field or within your organization.

A good mentor can also challenge you when you need it most. Things may not be working out in your latest project. You may have problems with your boss, peers, or subordinates. It could be that yet another grant application has been turned down. A good mentor won’t tell you what decision to make but will give you the guidance you need to get out of the rut.

So how do you identify a good mentor? This is one of the questions that came up in the Twitter chat. It’s not easy, and it requires work on your part. Look at the culture that person has developed around them in their organization. Observe, where feasible, their interactions with their direct reports and peers or their students and fellow faculty. By observing how they treat others, you can anticipate how they are likely to treat you.

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How to become a good mentor was also a main theme of the chat. Patience, honesty, and humility are some of the qualities that were mentioned. But most important is the quality of the relationship. In my view, that is the secret sauce: your mentee should matter to you on a personal level.

So who matters to you in the professional arena that you’d be willing to invest in and become someone who matters to them? C&EN will roll out new mentorship resources this spring. In the meantime, share your best mentoring stories on Twitter with @cenmag.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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