Everyone needs career guidance from time to time. If you’re feeling stuck, advice from a mentor can often help you figure out where you should take your career next and how to get there.
Colleagues. You probably naturally seek out certain people when you’re confused or want to talk through a problem. Articulating an issue to someone else can help you view it more clearly. A mentor should be a good listener who asks clarifying questions about how and why, to help you decide what is best for you. They should not tell you what to do or only what they did, since your situation is probably at least slightly different. Ideally, a mentor helps you see the bigger picture and determine what you need to do. Be slightly cautious with mentors who might have a conflict of interest—for example, if their job will become harder if you move to a different role.
Role model to mentor. There may be someone you admire, someone who has achieved the career position or work-life balance to which you aspire. It’s possible that they would be willing to help you achieve the same thing. It’s often a good idea to find a person who can provide an introduction to this potential mentor. After being introduced, you can ask if they would be willing to meet briefly to answer specific, career-related questions. If that meeting goes well, ask if you may contact them again. Mentoring relationships are best when they develop gradually over time, with short initial meetings based on shared beliefs, values, interests, and experiences. You don’t ever have to ask them to officially be your mentor, though it may be the role they are fulfilling.
Multiple mentors. It is unlikely that one person will be able to answer all your questions throughout your career. In fact, it is unlikely that a single person can answer all your questions at one stage of your career. Having multiple mentors, with diverse backgrounds and ideas, allows you to explore a wider variety of possibilities. Maybe one person knows a lot about starting a business, while another has vast experience in managing people. You can go to each for their expertise, or ask both the same question and compare their answers. Once you determine what is different about their advice, you can decide which parts of it apply to your situation and what you want to try to implement.
Show appreciation. Be respectful of your mentor’s time—take as little of it as possible by preparing your questions ahead of time. Make sure you have carefully considered your goal for the interaction and what you need from them. Thank them for their time, and let them know what specific pieces of their advice you found useful.
Finding the right person or combination of people can help you evaluate your career with a more critical eye and decide if you want to make changes in your career path. While it can be hard to ask for help, the results will be worth it.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published monthly in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to email@example.com.