How to Build a Strong Mentor/Mentee Relationship
Many of us are aware that mentorship can make a significant difference in one’s career, particularly for women in underrepresented fields. However, we often struggle with knowing how to begin making those connections and fostering strong mentor/mentee relationships.
Looking for advice on what a strong mentor/mentee relationship should entail, I contacted 2014–15 American Fellow and philosopher Dr. Amy Berg and 1969–70 American Fellow and lecturer Dr. Lisbeth Gant-Britton, both of whom have been active mentors throughout their academic careers.
Berg, an assistant professor of research in UNC Chapel Hill’s philosophy department, has actively helped young women in the field of philosophy connect with each other through specialized mentoring programs. Why? Because in her opinion, mentorship and a strong support network can mean the difference between “really being capable of doing good work but not succeeding at or not enjoying graduate school, and doing good work and being able to go on and have a successful career” — particularly for women in the field of philosophy, where only one in ten tenured jobs is held by a woman.
For Gant-Britton, the benefits of mentorship cannot be emphasized enough. She notes, “We cannot find any successful person who has not had a mentor at some point in their life,” and adds, “As women we often have to be twice as good in order to demonstrate our capabilities. I think that takes a level of collegiality, comradeship and professional nurturing to know that we can do it, not that it is a burden, but it is an opportunity to invest in ourselves even more.”
So, what advice do these committed and experienced mentors have to share with us on how to build a strong mentee/mentor relationship?
- Be conscientious.
Berg recommends looking at the ways in which personal successes and obstacles are connected to professional successes and obstacles. She gives the example of a woman who has challenges believing that she can succeed in academia. For Berg, it is important to consider that this lack of confidence might be related to her work-life balance or other responsibilities outside of academia. She suggests that the extent to which mentors can be aware of the whole scope of someone’s life can be helpful in figuring out how to meet them where they are and how to mentor them successfully.
- Background can vary.
For Berg, one of her greatest advocates as a female philosophy graduate student was her male advisor. She says, “… there has been much more attention focused on the status of women in philosophy and so I was lucky to have an advisor that, although he was male, was really paying attention to the ways in which people were focused on this problem … and to the extent that he could, he really tried to help me overcome [those challenges].” While sharing a similar background as your mentee can be helpful, it is certainly not a prerequisite.
- Don’t have the time to mentor? Serve as a role model!
Though many of us may wish to serve as mentors, we may be intimidated by the time commitment. It is important to remember that there are many ways one can serve as a mentor. If you are not able to dedicate the time to building and maintaining a traditional mentor/mentee relationship, Gant-Britton suggests serving as a role model. For her, some of the greatest mentoring moments she has had in her professional career came from seeing someone she could relate to achieve a certain goal. It often gave her the confidence she needed to believe in her ability to accomplish a similar feat.
- Do your research and have courage!
Gant-Britton suggests reading the biographies (or CVs) of people that you admire so that you can get a better sense of their career path and the steps they took to achieve their goals. Berg adds that if you still find yourself intimidated by asking someone you admire to be your mentor, figure out a way to reach out to that person over time. Perhaps participating in a larger group activity where they are involved or inviting them out to coffee to talk about a paper are ways to establish a relationship over time.
- Be clear about your goals.
For Gant-Britton, writing and/or talking about your goals is very important to establishing a good mentor/mentee relationship. She suggests “articulating [your goals] even if they don’t seem extremely clear or possible” because it will help determine and define — for yourself and your mentor — the next steps you have to take.
Ask thoughtful questions of your mentors so that you get the most information possible during the time they have to give.
- Invest in yourself.
Do not rely solely on your relationship with your mentor to help transition you to the next level. Your mentor is a guide, so be diligent about following up on the advice they provide and taking as many opportunities as you can to learn. According to Gant-Britton, “This will allow you= to continually be preparing yourself not only for what you have to do in your immediate situation, but also for possible opportunities down the line.”
Whether you’re considering serving as a mentor or looking to be mentored, know that there are ways to ensure that you make the most of that relationship.
Take a look at our favorite responses on mentoring.
See what Selected Professions Fellow and experienced mentor Wendy Crone has to say about mentoring.
Check out AAUW’s resources for tips on how to be good mentors and mentees.