By Helen De Cruz
In this installment of the Boot Camp, I'll discuss how to get support from a mentor, what a mentoring relationship involves, and how one can turn to peers for support. Many readers will already be familiar with formal mentoring programs, such as the Job Candidate Mentoring Program for Women in Philosophy and our own Cocoon job market mentoring program. However, there are many other ways to have mentorship. Indeed, most mentoring takes place outside formal mentorship programs, and is informal. For this post, I'm drawing on personal experience as mentor, mentee, and on the excellent chapter on mentoring in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean in (which you can find here).
What does mentoring involve?
Mentorship is often a spontaneous informal relationship that is mostly not designated by any official term. A mentor can be a colleague, someone in one's field, Some people have the mistaken impression that one needs to meet up with a mentor on a regular basis for it to count as a mentoring relationship. Sandberg recounts how she gave lots of advice to a junior woman at Google, who, to Sandberg's surprise, claimed that she didn't have a single mentor. When Sandberg learned that the woman thought a mentor was someone you meet every week, Sandberg thought "That's not a mentor, that's a therapist." As Sandberg points out, most prospective mentors are strapped for time and would not be able to do this.
A mentor is someone you can turn to for advice for various aspects of your career. I'll just give some examples from my own experience as mentor and mentee in the past month or so to give a sense of what this involves. I received very helpful comments from a senior academic on a grant proposal I intend to submit (this person is recipient of a grant of this scheme). I discussed a recent important career decision with several academics. With a former colleague in similar stage of career, I discussed publication strategies, particularly, the costs and benefits of aiming for top generalist journals. I had a Skype conversation with a student at a previous institution where I worked, who is considering what to do after she defends her PhD. I talked to a VAP whose position is coming to an end, and who is wondering what his next step should be. None of these interactions were in the context of a formal mentoring scheme. None of the interactions were between advisors, senior people in one's own department etc.
How do you approach a mentor?
While your advisor is an obvious choice if you are a graduate student or a very recent PhD, even then it pays to also look for other mentors. Your advisor can advise you academically, but they often lack relevant job market experience. For example, if you want advice on how to approach an on campus interview when you are nursing a newborn infant, your advisor may not be in a position to provide helpful advice on this.
To find mentors, cold calling academics you do not know at all is not the best strategy. What can help is following up on contacts you had at conferences and other events, or even following up on a conversation with a Facebook friend. As Marcus recently advised, don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
When approaching someone for potential mentorship you don't know that well, it is advisable not to send very long e-mails out of the blue, but be specific and concrete. If you want feedback on a specific document, such as a book proposal or grant proposal, ask them beforehand if it is OK to send them. Do not send requests that are awkward or embarrassing, such as asking to put a good word in for a job search at a department the mentor works at. Be prepared to hear they are unable to help you.
As Sandberg points out, many mentors and mentees share a common interest, usually a shared area of specialization, so this is a promising place to start looking. Many mentors like to help what they perceive as promising young people who remind them of themselves when they were younger. This usually means that mentors have the same gender, but it absolutely pays off to cast your net wider in search of mentors. Several of my (past and present) mentors are senior men in the profession, and I am very grateful for the insights they gave me into the profession.
Maintaining good mentoring relationships
Some mentoring relationships are short-term and transient. Others can last years. Regardless of duration, good mentoring relationships of course follow what one would expect from professional conduct, and respect confidentiality between parties.
Most mentors have lots of work. Likely, they'll have more administrative duties than you (e.g., being head of department), graduate students to advise, etc. With that in mind, it is important not to ask help too often from the same mentor, or to "use a mentor's time to validate feelings", as Sandberg puts it. It may feel good, but it's more efficient to focus on specific problems.
Also, in chess strategy, it is unwise to have a single chess piece perform several tasks (overloading) it cannot do simultaneously without abandoning its defense position. Similarly, if you overload a mentor (with requests to read drafts of papers, read your job application documents, strategize where to publish, etc), this will become burdensome for the mentor, who does not have endless resources to spare, and will not be good for the mentoring relationship. Thus it is better to seek several mentors for different aspects of your work: strategizing in the job market is just one aspect. A mentor might provide advice on what venues to send your work to, another how to balance childcare and work, yet another how to deal with a toxic department, or how to be a more effective teacher.
Let mentors know about things you've asked their advice for, such as the outcome of a job interview. A brief note suffices.
While giving career advice to people who are in a similar stage of career seems like the ignorant leading the ignorant, peer mentoring is an easily available and often very fruitful way of acquiring knowledge about the peculiarities of the philosophy job market and culture. As Sandberg writes "Friends at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current and useful counsel".
I can concur that some of the best job market advise I ever received was from a peer. Peers, who are more often friends than mentors who are in a senior position, also have a better view of the full picture of you as a person. When, say, a philosophy ABD gets an early offer in a place she finds geographically undesirable, her advisor may say (probably prudently and rightly so) to take the job anyway, also keeping in mind things like placement record of his school. However, a peer may know about such things as a two-body problem or a parent you want to be around to care for, and can give advice based on this full picture.
Advice for mentors
Mentors may have several motivations, as I mentioned, they may recognize a younger self in people they advise. Similarity bias is an important constraint on sympathy. As a result, some people have fewer opportunities for mentorship, for instance, women in an all-male department (I was once in that situation as a postdoc, but fortunately I had mentors outside my department). Be aware of such biases, and if you are in a formal mentorship situation (e.g., as an advisor to several PhD students) fight the temptation to mainly invest your mentoring in people similar to yourself.
If you mentor someone outside of an official capacity, you will find (at least I have found) mentoring rewarding. Don't be afraid to say you don't know if you don't know how to advise someone on a difficult issue (you don't need to pretend to be omniscient), and don't be afraid to turn down specific requests (e.g., giving feedback on a full paper); if the mentoring relationship is a long-standing one, just be clear you lack the time to do it now, but you are prepared to help in the future.