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Last year, I had a great conversation with Sierra M., who had just started the second year of an MPH program at Tulane. One topic of our discussion was mentoring. Here are some related points sparked by our call.

1)   Don’t forget that mentors are not just for current students. Graduates and people later in their careers need mentors, too.

2)   Once someone has agreed to be your mentor, please don’t worry about whether or not your needs match their schedule. If you need assistance, contact them. If they can’t help you for some reason, you will soon find out. They definitely can’t help you if you don’t let them know you need support.

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3)   As you advance in your career, you may not be able to find one person who fulfills all of your mentoring needs. Solution? Find more than one. Create a mentoring team. For example, one of my faculty mentors at UNC could not help me with my research because he focuses on quality assurance while I focus on media communications. Even so, he was an invaluable advocate for me in full professor meetings (that I could not attend) and shared great advice about the tenure process in general.

4)   Keeping in mind that the most basic definition of “to mentor” is “to advise or train,“ you can take advantage of a variety of mentorship opportunities. These connections will range from longstanding relationships/friendships to ad hoc/one-time meetings or conversations.

5)   Your alumni association, academic program, sorority/fraternity, professional association (e.g., American Public Health Association) and other organizations to which you belong may offer ways for you to contact members for advice, for example:

  • Some groups have databases of alums who volunteer to be a one-timer resource for students and alums seeking information about their career/industry. There is no promise of support beyond the initial engagement, and this can be a great way to learn about a new field or from someone outside your current network.
  • Groups may offer professional development/career/networking panels or sessions for students or folks early in their careers. Even if you are not specifically looking for the next position, don’t ignore all of these. You never know who you might meet or when a question/answer might inspire you.
  • Occasionally, you may attend a meeting or seminar or other session not related to professional development in which you have an opportunity to ask folks for career advice. Please remember to only do this as appropriate. For example, if you are at a research conference and the session is a panel on a specific topic, you might do this if the session is ending early and there is a last call for questions….or, you might wait until after the session and ask a specific panelist.

6)   When approaching someone with whom you have no prior connection (e.g., no one has introduced you):

  • It is especially important to have specific questions and to connect your questions in a very specific way to the person. E.g., If I were in a research seminar, I would not ask for general career advice. I might ask what part of their degree training best prepared them to conduct this type of research or what position allow recent graduates to conduct this type of research (being sure to insert the specific research).
  • Be sure to let folks know your status as a student or professional early in your career. People tend to be more open to supporting these groups. Folks are also open to supporting people making later career changes.

7)   General tips for pursuing mentoring:

  • Always be prepared with specific questions. This respects the person’s time and indicates that you have a real purpose.
  • Always respect whatever instructions or guidance from an organization or person offering support. If you are not comfortable with their instructions or can’t comply, then you probably should not use that service or contact that person.
  • Don’t take it personally if someone with whom you want to engage does not agree to connect with you or no longer responds to your inquiries. Ok, don’t take it personally for more than a day…or two.  This could be an opportunity to learn something new from someone else.
  • Remember that advice can be just that. You DO NOT have to do everything an adviser mentions or recommends. You will have to decide when to go in another direction and when to accept advice that may be counter to your judgment.
  • If you are in a situation in which you feel pressure to do something that you don’t consider to be in your best interest and want to talk it through, please see help from another mentor, school counselor, program director, friend, colleague, other advisors, etc.
  • For long-term mentors, it is a good practice to send them updates occasionally, including your most current goals. This reminds them of your connection and might prompt a response.

In sum, to get the best mentoring, you have to work to be the best possible “mentee.”

Share your tips, too.