Building a Team of Mentors - A #MindfulPhD How To
No one explained to me how to find mentors in graduate school. People gave me a lot of advice, however, on how to select a chair for my dissertation committee, as I imagine there is a lot of advice around selecting a PI or lab to join. In a perfect world, the head of your PhD project would be the keystone of your mentoring as a graduate student. But even if you have the most educated, open-minded, available, supportive chair imaginable, I would still give you the same advice:
Get yourself a team of mentors.
No matter what your after-degree career plans are, no matter what your personal life looks like, and no matter what your subject is, a team of mentors is a wise move professionally, and personally.
Team mentoring can take some of the pressure off you.
We are all complex beings, with lives that stretch beyond the PhD. Having a team of people that you look to for advice, mentorship, and support can make it seem less overwhelming when you need to confide difficult information, or seek support about a sensitive topic. Before I consciously started to create a team of mentors, I often hesitated or refrained from confiding in anyone about sensitive issues, because I didn't want it to impact my standing in the program, access to funds, or reputation as a graduate student. But after building a team, I had people in many corners of campus who knew me, and could offer advice without also being directly responsible for overseeing my degree progress.
Team mentoring can take some of the pressure of your mentors.
At some point, I realized that it was completely crazy that I was expecting tenured faculty members at an R1 university to give me solid advice and mentoring on how to best translate the skills I learned during the PhD into a job outside of academia. I am not saying that to excuse faculty ignorance, or refusal to engage with the realities of the job market, but to acknowledge that there are many, many people (right on my campus, even!) that could give me much more sound guidance on alt-ac careers because they had them. I had similar issues come up when I had questions about having a family in academia, or how best to manage a job search in a geographically confined area. My mentoring needs had extended beyond the work one mentor could do, and I needed to adjust my strategy.
By not expecting any one person to give me sound, researched, supportive advice in every area of my life, personal and professional, I freed all parties from that burden. I shifted from asking all of my questions to one person, to asking specific, tailored questions to specific people, leading to richer conversations, and widening my network at the same time.
Okay great, but how do I find the team?
Well, young grasshopper, first you have to evaluate your mentoring needs. This is the critical step that I see so many clients skip. Many people can see the benefits of expanding their mentoring network beyond their chair, but not many know how to secure a diverse range of voices to support them. And I would argue that stepping back and assessing what one's mentoring needs are FIRST can lead to a more efficient, targeted, and efficient network building phase second.
I created this chart (download a PDF here - I did promise a free printable every month!) to help you brainstorm what areas you are already receiving great mentoring in, and where you could improve. Of course, these categories might shift depending on your PhD and its parameters, but for most, this is a good starting point.
5 mentoring zones
Here are some guiding questions for each zone to help you evaluate what kind of support you already have, and what kind of support will support you best moving forward.
- Discipline/Field/Subject - For many, this is the area that is most easily addressed, and a role that is probably filled by your dissertation advisor, at least partially. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I have support to keep abreast of the latest developments in my field?
- Are there places I can go to make sure that my work is part of conversations important in my discipline?
- Am I well connected to mechanisms for distributing work in my field (journals, conferences, Twitter chats, etc)?
- If my dissertation advisor's research does not completely overlap with mine, am I looking for other spaces and conversations more directly related to my research?
- Teaching - Although teaching is not part of all PhD programs, many jobs in academia involve teaching in some capacity. But as many of us know, many jobs in academic, or even academic-adjacent spaces, require teaching as part of the role. Universities are well equipped to support your teaching growth, if you know where to look.
- Am I getting feedback on my teaching regularly? (Faculty members, staff from teaching centers, student teaching mentors, or even fellow graduate students can give you feedback, or help you interpret the feedback your students give.)
- Am I learning and growing as a teacher? Am I staying involved in current pedagogy developments, or experimenting with new technologies?
- Am I seeking out opportunities to teach, even if my funding does not include a regular teaching assignment? (Many students report that giving guest lectures, or volunteering for limited teaching engagements like workshops or grader positions can give them valuable experience on their CV.)
- Skills - Grad school gives you a (concentrated!) opportunity to develop many skills, but your advisor might not have the time (or capability) to support your growth in a complete way.
- Am I improving my skills as a writer? Am I taking advantage of on campus writing centers or support? Am I involved in writing groups? Am i seeking feedback on my writing from a wide range of audiences?
- Am I improving as a reader? Am I reading widely in my field? Am I organizing the information I ingest?
- Am I improving my networking skills? Am I practicing my informational interview skills? Am I cultivating an online presence?
- Am I improving my discipline-specific skills?
- Career Planning - For many reasons, your academic advisor might not be best suited to helping you plan out a diverse range of career options. But there are a growing number of spaces and places to help you do just that.
- Am I being open-minded about the types of jobs and positions I'll be seeking?
- Am I taking time to meet people from my discipline who hold a wide range of positions?
- Am I consciously building my CV to support my job-market aspirations?
- Am I building a resume that will translate to employers outside of academia?
- Have I sat down and evaluated what kinds of activities I enjoy doing during the PhD and thought through what that might mean for my job search? Have I done the same introspective work about my values, and what kind of whole life I envision for my future?
- Personal Life - Being vulnerable isn't easy, especially when in the high pressure academic environment. Building a team of mentors where you have places to go to be your authentic self can be invaluable.
- Do I have people that I can confide in when I am not feeling my best, mentally, physically or otherwise?
- Do I have people that will help me connect to the resources I need to be well and healthy without worry of career or future impacts?
- Am I building a network of people whose values align with mine, and who can respect my values and how I choose to live them?
- Do I have people who will be able to listen, respect, and talk through personal issues in confidential and sensitive ways?
Building the team
Try taking the "Whole Life Mentoring" wheel and placing people where you think they best support you. Do you have an empty spaces? Hopefully the answers to the questions in each section will guide you as you determine where your network of support is already strong, and where it can be built up.
And when you've identified an area where you can build your network, these questions will help you narrow down the specific kind of support and mentoring you're looking for. Need more support in teaching? Look to a teaching center, teaching workshops on campus, or faculty members in your department who may not necessarily align with your research but are well regarded for their teaching. And then you have the beginnings of a script to approach them, and ask for their help. Keep in mind that specific, limited requests are always a good place to start when building a new relationship. For example, emailing a professor whose teaching you admire to ask if they'll review a syllabus you are pitching for next fall, (bonus points if you can guide that feedback even more specifically by asking questions or limiting their feedback to structure, or content!) is much more likely to garner a positive response than asking for "mentoring on teaching." Mentoring is built on a relationship, but beginning that relationship with a specific request can feel more genuine, and less forced.
The important thing is to remember that not every mentor needs to be perfectly aligned with you in every area of the mentoring wheel. Some people may give you outstanding mentorship in the aspects of your discipline that are confusing and cliquish while also giving you terrible advice about the job market, or teaching, or how to build a fulfilling personal life. Having clear expectations, both for each person in your mentoring team, and for yourself as the designer, builder, and maintainer of that team, can make these abstract relationships much more concrete and useful.