I wrote recently about my experience of relying on coaching in my post-PhD transition, especially in terms of making the move from fixed-term insecure employment to a permanent position that would allow me to actually have a career path and the ability to make long-term plans. Coaching was immensely helpful to address the skills I needed to be better at interviews and also to support me with the emotional side of the transition. Upon reflecting on the past year and from conversations with people undergoing similar challenges and transitions, I realised that there was another piece of the puzzle which wasmentoring. In fact, mentoring did play a part in my job search last year and it continues to be something that I hope to be able to rely on as my career progresses in the current workplace.
To start with, coaching and mentoring could be described as both sides of the same coin to an extent, they both draw on a similar skillset and a similar set of principles, with both focussed on supporting individuals in their professional and personal development. One of the key differences is that a mentor is usually somebody located in the same workplace/sector as the mentee, is usually relatively more senior and willing to share their expertise and experience with the mentee to guide and support them in a non-directive way.
My personal experience of mentoring was on both sides as I spent two years as a mentor on a university’s employability scheme and was mentored myself as part of female leader’s development scheme called Aurora run by Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. I did enjoy mentoring students although at times wondered about the efficiency of the matching system of the employability scheme. At the time, I was working as project manager in the HR department due to the quirks of funding (neither the project nor my role had much to do with HR) and kept getting contacted by students who wanted to find out more about careers in HR. I didn’t have much to offer there so possibly the lesson for anybody seeking out career-specific mentoring is to undertake due diligence and make sure that their mentor does indeed have the expertise in the area you are interested in. I was able, however, to work with the students on their general employability skills and provide support in areas such as networking and career planning.
My experience of having a mentor was extremely positive and probably the best bit of being able to take part in the Aurora development scheme. The mentoring process kicked off with an event which felt quite similar to speed dating where the participants had a chance to be introduced to the mentors and spend a minute or so talking individually to all of them to find out about their professional background and approach to mentoring. I picked my mentor for a number of reasons: she used to be a project manager, she held a very senior position in professional services and she seemed like genuinely nice person which was probably the most important bit. During the speed dating there were a couple of prospective mentors who announced their tendency to “tell it how it is” which is not my preferred way of working as that’s usually code for being somewhat blunt and at times abrupt. Nothing wrong with that but I knew it wouldn’t work for me. So in terms of takeaways from that, make sure that you pick your mentor not only on the basis of their career path but it should also be somebody that you will be able to “click” with. I knew that one of the things I would be seeking support on was the job hunt and moving away from fixed-term contracts and so I needed all the support and kindness I could get and I wasn’t disappointed. Most importantly, at the outset we were both very clear about what we wanted out of the mentoring relationship and what it would look like. my goal was to get support with the job hunt and also have some space to think about my long-term career plan. Mentoring did provide me with some invaluable insights, often along the lines of “the little things nobody tells you…” and also a view into how one’s career can progress within the university.
Something that came up in my conversations with other PhD students or fellow post-PhDs is that they would love to have access to mentoring support, whether to help them unravel the intricacies of academic job hunt or the unwritten rules of the PhD, and help them answer the many questions that the supervisor or others in the department may not have the time for: should you publish and when, how to approach conferences, , how to build a peer network, how to strategise the job hunt, how to prioritise things in your first job, how to search for an academic job whilst holding down more of a “survival” job and so on. There is plenty of advice on the web, including this blog but that isn’t always terribly specific to the needs of a particular person. So what if you want a mentor, that additional boost to your post-PhD journey but there aren’t any institutional programmes available or you may be at a stage in your career where for all sorts of reasons you’re not part of an institution?
One place to start could be through a professional association and this is in fact what I am planning to do – I am aware of mentoring programmes offered by the British Computing Society that target women in IT. Unfortunately the organisation that would provide the most natural “home” in terms of mentoring, the Association for Project Management, doesn’t have anything in place at the moment but that may change in the future. So that’s one place to start, then the other option is to start working backwards – start by picturing your ideal mentor: what sort of experience do they have? What sort of mentoringrelationship would you like? What are the things you would like support with? Do you want a cheerleader or somebody that is capable of dishing out “tough love”? Do you want somebody that is similar to you in terms of life experiences/gender/career path etc. or does that not matter? Once you have that ideal picture in mind and some more clarity as to who you are ideally looking for, now is the time to try and find them and obviously, that might take a bit of time. You may already have somebody in mind as maybe it is an academic that you met at a conference the previous year and struck a conversation with, discovered that you have some research interests in common and you also know that this is somebody who has managed to secure an academic job relatively early out of their PhD and you would like some mentoring and guidance to essentially discover their secret. Or it could be somebody you don’t know very well or at all yet but they hold your dream job and you would like mentoring to help you structure your career path so that you can start inching towards that aspirational goal. Or there maybe somebody in your institution that you view as a role model and could see yourself working with.
Getting their commitment for mentoring you may not be straightforward or immediate but you might be surprised at how many people would be flattered by the request and very keen to actually give something back to the community and share what they learnt along the journey. It may be worth trying to build some form of relationship initially (and this is where taking people out for a coffee, in person or virtually and getting them to talk about themselves can work wonders!) and then if you feel that the two of you would click, you can introduce the idea of mentoring. Once again, this is where you would want to be crystal clear about what you mean by mentoring and what you expect out of the relationship. Don’t be disheartened if initially the answer is no or not at the moment, this is where patience can pay off and I’ve met a number of people who talk very highly of their mentors and view them as a key influence on their life and careers.
Do you have any personal experiences of mentoring, either as a mentor or a mentee?
If yes, did you use mentoring to address any aspects of post-PhD transitions? I would love to hear your thoughts!