During your time at Illinois, you will be developing new skills, investigating varied fields, asking important questions, and exploring new goals and career paths. It’s unlikely you will be able to find one person who can help you with all of your needs and questions. That’s why it’s a good idea to build a network of members: a group of people with different areas of expertise who you can turn to. Download our handout to help you get started on identifying and contacting mentors!
What is a Mentor?
Mentors provide instruction, advice, expertise, guidance, and encouragement. Having mentors that you can work with and rely on is a crucial element to success in graduate school as they can help you grow academically and prepare for your future career path.
Mentors can offer you various types of support in areas including (but not limited to):
- Navigating Graduate School
- Providing Specialist knowledge in a particular topic or field
- Providing Specialist knowledge in a process or method
- Career planning
- Supervising / Leadership
- Encouragement / Cheerleading
Building a Network of Mentors
While your adviser might fill some of the roles listed above, it is a good idea to have multiple people on your team to support you in different ways. This allows you to gain different perspectives and learn form a variety of specialists. And—for instance—if your adviser is busy preparing for a conference, there are others you can reach out to for help and support.
The first step to building your network of mentors is to identify what areas you need support in. Think about the following questions.
- What questions do I have about graduate school, teaching, my work, careers, etc.?
- What do I need or want to learn more about?
- Are there specific skills I need or want to develop?
- Are there new programs or processes I need to learn more about?
- Who do I feel comfortable turning to for support and encouragement?
As you think about these questions, try to identify one or two people who might be able to fill these roles. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your department and the University of Illinois; look through conference abstracts, the books or journal articles you are reading for class, ask others in your program for advice, or do a Google search to find people who can support you in areas where you need help.
Keep in mind that identifying mentors is a process—you don’t need to find all of them at once! You will constantly be adding mentors to your network, shifting their roles, and leaning on some more than others.
Developing a Relationship with Mentors
Once you’ve identified a possible mentor, think about how you might like to reach out to them. It can feel overwhelming to reach out to someone with a broad request, like “will you be my mentor?”. Often a better approach is to reach out to them and ask for guidance in a specific area as you develop your relationship.
Some options for reaching out might be sending an email to introduce yourself or dropping by office hours. It’s a good idea to plan what you would like to discuss with this person and explain why you are contacting them, for instance that you are interested in their career path or respect their work in a particular area.
Once you’ve initiated a relationship, keep in touch! Reach out as new questions arise and keep them updated on your progress. For instance, if they recommended that you follow up on a particular resource, let them know how that went. Being appreciative of their input and support helps them see the positive impact their mentoring has.