Professional mentors  can help to reduce isolation and increase connectedness. Through a process of mutual respect and advice, a mentor relationship provides strong ways to build community in a profession. Effective mentors speak clearly and openly about power dynamics. They can talk explicitly about bias and advise on paving the way with critical research agendas critical scholarship that focus marginalized and vulnerable populations.

It is important to form your own chosen team of support for your professional goals. No single person can fill all of the roles that a person needs. Seek out people who seem like a great fit for your personal needs.  Mentors can provide information and introductions to colleagues. They can provide information on the unspoken rules of the academy. They might speak openly regarding political guidance and social capital. Some provide opportunities; others provide a space for confidential conversations.  Mentors can take on various personalities—what I categorize as confidants, political insiders, connecters, sponsors, and hired.

Types of Mentors

ConfidantOffers confidential space for asking messy questions
Political InsiderExplains the politics and unspoken rules of an institution  
ConnecterBrings people together  
SponsorProvides formal and informal opportunities for career advancement
HiredGuarantees time and energy focused on your professional needs

Confidants allow space for asking questions. They are comfortable with emotion and a lack of clarity. They do not judge struggle but instead provide a source of support. A senior professor who also held administrative responsibilities was my “safe place to land” as an assistant professor. An older woman with a background as a guidance counselor, I could shut the door and be messy while processing a difficult conversation with a colleague. She was my advocate and I trusted my ability to share my worries and mistakes with her. 

Political insiders understand the dynamics between colleagues and help to explain the unwritten codes of an institution. Savvy, experienced colleagues, these individuals know how processes and politics truly work. I met regularly with a seniorfemale faculty member of color to understand the politics of my program, including who did not get along with whom. I shared my tenure dossier with her as well since she previously had served on the college promotion and tenure committee, and she gave me pointed advice about how to improve my work. She even advised me, “If you are going to have another kid, have it as quickly as possible. You don’t want a new baby in your fourth or fifth year.”  All of her advice was heartfelt, sincere and golden. I trusted her implicitly.

Connecters. Some mentors introduce you to others and build relationships. My former advisor from graduate school had many research assistants and little time to work with them individually. She built a community structure that included an expectation that students would train and support each other—not just current students but former students as well. She hosted a dinner each year at our discipline’s annual meeting. The dinner served as a space to build and to renew ties with the diaspora of academics who shared the experience of working at the same research center at some point in time. This group of professors continues to remain my strongest network of colleagues as I have moved through my professional career—long past the time that our former advisor retired.

Sponsors will suggest your name for important roles and vouch for you. In my first year on the tenure track, a senior professor invited me to write a chapter for the very prestigious yearbook that he was editing—far before I had established a reputation in my field. He also added me to the associate editors of his journal. He told me what business meetings and associations I should attend and then introduced me to the people that he felt I needed to know at these meetings with a strong endorsement.  I ended up on the executive committee of this association and drew upon my connections in this association for many of my outside letters.

Hired. Often mentor support is not enough to meet all of the needs you might have professionally. A career-coaching model can lead to greater persistence and retention of individuals pursuing academic careers. Coaches and academic consultants can come from a variety of paths to provide their services. One noted affiliation for coaches is membership in the International Coaching Federation (icf.org).  Academic coaches and consultants provide a sounding board, feedback, advice on publishing, research, office politics, time management, goal setting, and work life balance, among other issues. Some focus specifically on improving academic writing. Others focus on leadership for when faculty transition to formal administrative work. Others focus more on coaching—focusing on how individuals have a sense of wisdom on the inside that they can draw up on to find guidance during tough decision processes.

Written by Dr. Dana Mitra

I am a life coach at Coaching By Dana and tenured academic professor at Penn State.

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