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Why You Need a Mentor

Do you have a mentor? Not an academic adviser, but a true mentor—someone who has an interest in helping you develop your career path, combined with the seniority and perspective to be helpful. In my opinion, every college student and every professional needs one, and it’s preferable if you don’t report directly to your mentor. A mentor can explain the subtleties of your chosen career path to you, and can help you navigate rough spots along the way.

I called my undergraduate mentor when, in my second year of graduate school, I suddenly didn’t have Ph.D. candidacy, even though I had jumped through every hoop successfully. “Sounds like an adviser problem,” my mentor said. “You need to ask your adviser specifically why you didn’t get candidacy, and then you need to ask at least two other professors in the department to be honest with you.”

I followed his advice and found that my adviser had, in fact, sabotaged my candidacy (and as I looked at the professor’s history, I found that he had a very poor record of graduating female Ph.D. candidates). So it was clear that I needed to change advisers.

Again I called my mentor and asked him about the professor whose group I wanted to join. “Oh, that one is a rock star and will become chancellor one day,” he said. “Excellent choice, but make sure you’ll have time to finish.”

I transferred groups, and, sure enough, the following year my adviser was promoted to vice president for research. I was able to finish my degree before my adviser accepted a chancellor position.

Since then I have had several other mentors. How did I find them? I looked for someone who was in a position I wanted to achieve or for someone who shared my academic background. I asked for mentoring. I was respectful of the mentor’s time and didn’t expect the mentor to solve my problems, but simply to help me see my situation from another perspective or to offer insight only a more-experienced person would have.

What’s in it for the mentor? Most are willing to help because they are kind and because someone mentored them. It’s payback, in a sense … though it’s nice to treat your mentor to meals if you are in a position to do that. So if you don’t have a mentor, I encourage you to look for one. As my father once told me, “Success is about finding your mentors and avoiding your tormentors.”

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.

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