How to Find a Mentor as a Postdoc

Mentors are essential to your career development. They’re the ones who can give you the key piece of information your are looking for, organise opportunities for you, help you trouble-shoot, give you confidence to stretch your comfort zone and put you in contact with the right people in their networks.
What should you look for in a mentor?
There is an interesting misconception among postdocs about mentors: that you should look for one powerful senior person to take you under his or her wing, like a career ‘godparent’.
It does happen in some cases, of course, but more usually you will have a range of mentors, helping you with different areas of your career. This is a good thing, for a number of reasons:
       Someone who is a star at getting grants may not be so good at helping you with issues related to student supervision. It might actually be a good idea to have a mentor outside your direct research field to help you with your career progression or extending the reach of your capabilities, while help with networks or collaborations is probably easier for a mentor from within your research area.
       If you can go to different people with different problems you are not taking up too much of any one person’s time. People will be more willing to help and you will be less reluctant to ask. Mentors, understandably, are worried about the time commitment involved in becoming a godparent-style mentor.
       It really helps you to get different points of view and find out about different career paths and leadership styles, which you certainly will if you link with a range of mentors. Also, different mentors will be helpful at different times in your career, as a postdoc and later.
But the best reason – I think – for viewing mentoring as a team effort is the fact that it is much easier to find people to add to your support team than to search for a single ‘perfect’ mentor.
So, how do you find members for your mentoring team?
1.    Identify who is already on your mentor team
       Your PhD supervisor and current postdoc supervisor will already be on your team (unless you’re unlucky enough to have a relationship so bad that you are not on speaking terms). In many cases your postdoc supervisor can and will mentor you for many of your career challenges at this stage. On the other hand, it is possible that the mentoring help you seek from him or her is limited to a few areas, such as publishing. If that’s the case, it’s no problem; you’ve got a starting point for your team – a mentor you trust on publishing advice.
       Include other people who have counselled you in the past, taken an interest in your career development and given you advice on work-related or personal matters. 
2.   Select a question that needs solving right now
       Pick a current pressing career challenge that your current mentor or mentors cannot answer or you don’t want to ask them about. Make it a well defined question, such as ‘what does my CV need to look like to have a chance with fellowship x?’, rather than something generic like ‘where should I take my career?’. 
3.   Use the question to add a mentor to your team
       Go through your list of contacts and acquaintances and see whether you can identify potential mentors who may be able to help with your question. Research your School/Faculty or Institute’s list of staff to see whether there is anyone suitable. Or perhaps you got on well with a senior person at a recent conference and received his or her card and a friendly offer of help if needed. Include these potential mentors in your list. You’ll be surprised by the size of your list of potential mentors by the end of this exercise.
       Now pick the person you think would be best to answer the pressing question you’ve identified and send them a short email, asking whether he or she can advise you – ideally in person to provide the best chance for the relationship to develop, but over the phone if that suits them better. If you do not hear anything after a reminder, don’t take it personally; just assume they are too busy and go to the next best person on your list.
       Once you have arranged a phonecall or a meeting, aim to make your part of the initial exchange short and to the point, and see how the conversation evolves. In a way, you are interviewing that person for a position on your mentoring team, though obviously without telling them that! The worst that can happen is that you receive a few answers to your question and a further point of view (which you can consider or not). A great result is if you get on well with each other and you receive helpful and frank advice and an offer to help you further with this issue. In that case, voilà – you have just found a new mentor for your team!
       You can develop the relationship from here with further meetings or exchanges. Don’t necessarily expect the support to come in the form of regular monthly ‘mentoring sessions’. A much more common form of mentoring is ad hoc exchanges that are initiated when you need assistance. You’ll work out between you what suits best.
       Repeat steps 2 and 3 as often as you need.
How do you know when you’ve found a good mentor?
Standard definitions of a mentor are “trusted counsellor or guide” or an “experienced and trusted advisor”. So if you don’t trust that the person you are considering as a mentor has your best interests at heart, he or she does not qualify. There are a few other things that a good mentor should NOT do, including:
       force their solution or opinion on you;
       take over from you and dictate the next steps; or
       judge your decisions and take it personally if you do not follow their advice.
If you picked right, however, you’ll be hearing new perspectives and receiving advice on research, professional and personal matters to incorporate into your career development and help you decide on the steps you take.
Another good reason for having a team of mentors rather than a single ‘godparent’ is that you can vary the degree to which you ask advice from individual mentors as you grow and change, while it can be difficult to break away from a more intensive, sole mentoring relationship.
With experience you will also become a mentor to others, where, in turn, you can pass on what you have learned from your mentoring team.

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3 Responses to How to Find a Mentor as a Postdoc

  1. Mark Johnson May 14, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    Hello Kerstin,
    After looking it over thoroughly, I wanted to tell you and your readers that your web site and blog are an invaluable resource for any postdoc and Phd student. I know this because my wife, while she was a post-doc, would have loved to have had this resource. She didn't have much leadership or help from senior people around her on what to do or how to go about starting an academic career. So I congratulate you, and wish you success. To all of you who are on the fence about whether to subscribe to Kerstin's training programme, I say stop thinking about it and jump in with both feet!

    • Kerstin May 14, 2012 at 3:57 am #

      Hi Mark

      Thanks very much for your kind words! Yes, unfortunately the ‘sink or swim’ approach to postdoc career development is pretty common… That’s why we put this resource together, to help where we can!

      Regards, Kerstin


  1. Do as I say, not as I do: advice for foreign post-docs in the US – part II | InBabyAttachMode - February 6, 2014

    […] of course not only applies to foreign post-docs but to anyone looking for a post-doc position. Lots and lots and lots and lots has been written about finding a mentor. And when I say mentor here, I […]

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