Mentoring Up: How to be a Proactive Mentee

Previously: What you should expect from a good mentor

Make the mentor-mentee relationship a collaborative endeavor

Your mentor is responsible for the career coaching, networking, and support mentioned above; you are responsible for getting the most out of that by articulating your needs and aspirations and following through on your mentor’s guidance. Do the following four things to make sure that you are a proactive mentee.

Do Your Homework: Your mentor has a wealth of knowledge about how to pursue your goals, but it is up to you to fill in one big gap in what they know: what your goals are. So, do your homework before a meeting. For example, before meeting with your mentor for the first time, reflect upon your short- and long-term career goals, interests, and areas of perceived need. It is okay if you do not know all these aspects of yourself; but be sure to be candid and specific about the things you do know.

You should also prepare in advance of meetings with your mentor. For example, if you need help with a part of your research project, bring all of the materials necessary for explaining the problem. If you want your mentor to help you network with members of their department, look over the departmental faculty page and have a list of the people with whom you would most like to build a professional relationship. If you need resume help, come with a draft.

Be Engaged and Give Feedback: When it comes to your meetings with your mentor, be sure to engage with and give feedback in response to the guidance you get. Doing this can be challenging if you are unaccustomed to having a back-and-forth discussion with people in authority. It is vital, however, that you go beyond taking word-for-word dictation and saying “yes” to every suggestion your mentor makes. There will be several instances where your input will be necessary for making sure you get the guidance you need.

  • A mentor may not address every question you have, or new questions may come up in the course of your meetings with your mentor. Give voice to these questions so that your mentor may respond to them.
  • Your mentor may not have the full context for your question. You may need to share additional information if your mentor is making a suggestion that is not feasible given that context.
  • You may have a concern about your mentor’s guidance. It is okay to push back in that instance so that you and your mentor can collaboratively brainstorm ways to ease your concerns or think of alternatives. For example, your mentor may suggest a great opportunity for you next summer, but that is also too far from home for you. It is okay to let your mentor know that. Then you two can think about other opportunities that are closer to home. Or, if you are simply overwhelmed with work and applications at the moment, be honest about that. You and your mentor can then think of ways to prioritize your work and see what can come off your plate.

Be Engaged in Scheduling: Remember also to be proactive in scheduling meetings with your mentor. If your mentor has not scheduled a meeting, but you need their feedback on something, feel empowered to inquire about scheduling a meeting.

Follow Through: Mentoring is a two-way street with respect to work. First, you need to follow through when a mentor puts the work into making introductions, thinking of courses for you to take, and identifying opportunities to which you should apply. Mentors are just like everyone else; when they see you following through on their guidance, they are going to keep working on your behalf. So be sure to report back to your mentor when you have acted on their advice. Second, you are entitled to hold your mentor accountable. If your mentor offers to read a draft of your statement of purpose for graduate school, send it to them. If your mentor offers to ask a colleague about an opening for next summer, it is okay to send a follow-up email to your mentor to see what their colleague said. If you and your mentor have not met in a while, it is okay for you to get in touch with them to schedule a meeting.

Up Next: Getting to know your mentor before your summer research experience

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