Throughout her career, Amy W. Amara, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has benefitted from having many mentors. Most often, she searched for a mentor because she recognized that she needed guidance in a certain area, such as in career development or clinical research. “It’s rare for one single person to be able to provide guidance on every aspect of your career trajectory,” she says.
Other reasons to seek out a mentor might be to gain self-confidence, increase motivation, avoid pitfalls, or resolve a problem.
When considering whether to pursue a mentorship, make sure you are willing to commit the time to it. Be willing to listen and seriously consider a mentor’s advice.
To find a mentor, Dr. Amara recommends seeking out someone with whom you have a good rapport so that you’re comfortable seeking advice from them. This might be a former Professor, a colleague, or someone you’ve met while networking at an event in your field. Sometimes a mentoring relationship may evolve where you least expect it.
Find out if potential mentors have successfully mentored others by speaking to some previous mentees to learn about their experiences, Dr. Amara suggests. Be cautious about choosing a mentor who has many adversarial relationships with others in the department or field.
To narrow down the candidate pool, meet with a potential mentor to learn about his or her availability and discuss mutual expectations of the mentoring relationship, Dr. Amara recommends. Have clear goals for what you desire from the partnership, so you and the potential mentor can determine if you can meet those needs.
For mentors in the area of research, look for similar research interests, but also ask about the prospects of carving out your own niche so that you can separate your work from that of your mentor.
Mentors can provide a point of view gained through experience. They provide advice for making career-related decisions and can help you identify good opportunities and decline those that might not be useful at your career stage.
Research mentors can teach you how to approach research questions or design experiments, teach techniques, and recommend a direction for your research ideas. They can provide you with insightful feedback and make suggestions to improve your skills.
Mentors can also serve as sounding boards for you to test ideas and discuss your viewpoints confidentially. In addition, they can introduce you to influential people and promote your work.
Dr. Amara’s mentors have recommended her for leadership programs, clinical research design courses, and other opportunities that advanced her career. “Mentors have advised me against participating in certain endeavors that would not have helped my career, and that would have taken valuable time away from my other goals,” she says. “My mentors have helped me to identify other mentors to help in areas in which they were not experts.”
Finally, remember that having a mentor is not all about you—it’s a two-way street. The mentor should also grow and learn from you, glean satisfaction from the relationship, and share in your successes.