by Samantha Starmer, MLIS Day
I was supposed to have a call with one of my mentors today. It is a regularly scheduled call usually held every two weeks. I make a concerted effort to be available for these calls regardless of how slammed I am with work or finals, because during these calls I basically receive free career advice from a noted expert in one of the fields I'm interested in. Today my mentor begged off of the call because it is supposed to be a gorgeous day in the generally gray and wintery state where he lives. But I really don't mind. There will be other weeks, and I'm happy to wait for the next time I'm scheduled to interrupt his busy days. I often marvel that I even have the opportunity to talk to him at all, let alone on a regular basis. This is the magic of mentoring.
I didn't come to the idea of having a mentor naturally. In the past I was always terrible with anything that required networking. In fact, I hated seeking out contacts so much that I tended to make fun of people good at it, probably out of my own fears and insecurities. "How can people enjoy that horrible small talk?" I thought. "How can they be so willing to contact people they don't know just because they want something from them?" What I didn't realize was that networking can be beneficial to all parties. You may be looking for a job, but someone else is looking to find a perfect candidate. You may be looking for an experienced professional in your field to help you with the ins and outs of the job, but someone else is ready to give back and wants to share what they have learned. My mentors have often said that they are also being mentored by me (eek), and it is true. Those who really enjoy continually learning and who are curious do want to know what it is like to be on the new and na´ve side of the fence. And all of us bring a variety of experiences from which others can learn and benefit.
As I look back now I can recognize many situations in my past where a mentor might have helped me better manage difficult times with various hobbies and career ideas. I don't think I ever understood what a mentor was, or what kinds of things they could help me with. Mentoring requires trust and sharing on behalf of both parties; it is really important to be patient when looking for a mentor and to work towards finding someone you can click with. A good mentoring relationship allows for constructive criticism as well as support and encouragement. The mentor should be able to kick you in the pants if you get stuck on something, and of course, you should be able to turn to your mentor for help and advice in tough times with your job or career progress. Hearing how others have handled the challenges you are now going through can be very motivating and just knowing that you are not the first person to deal with these issues is immensely comforting.
Mentors can also provide tangible benefits beyond advice and support. Good mentors often have a wide network of friends and colleagues, and they may hear about career opportunities that aren't posted or that would be difficult to get into from the outside. I got my current job because one of my mentors knew the company and thought it might be a good fit for me. I had expressed to him that I was looking for a summer internship and that the iSchool didn't seem to have a lot of support for internships outside of the library field. He scrolled through his mental rolodex and described a number of local places that might be possibilities for me. One company in particular sounded interesting. They weren't hiring anyone at the time, but my mentor gave me the contact information for someone there. By mentioning my mentor's recommendation I was able to get an interview at the company, convincing them that they wanted an intern and that they wanted it to be me. The job has turned into a full time career opportunity and I owe a huge amount to my mentor to be lucky enough to have a job before graduation.
So are you convinced? Are you thinking "I want a mentor and I want one now! How can I find one?" The easiest way to get a mentor is probably via a formal mentoring program. The iSchool used to have one via the alumni association, but unfortunately both the association and the mentoring program appear to be defunct at the moment. Some professional organizations also have mentoring programs, which is how I got another one of my fantastic mentors. For these types of programs you usually submit your interests and mentoring commitment desires and the organization will try to find an appropriate match.
Sometimes it can be best to just keep your eye out for professionals who seem inspiring to you, whose jobs or experiences you find interesting and from whom you feel like you could learn. Take advantage of occasions like ASIS&T's Networking event during iCareer week and SLA's Student night. The professionals who attend these types of events are often generous people who would be excited to be a mentor.
Conferences or any career related meetings are another great place to meet potential mentors. Maybe there is someone on one of your listservs who always makes comments that resonate with you. Think about the people who write the blogs you have bookmarked. If you really like their style and they seem to have interesting ideas, it won't hurt to email them with your background and ask them if they would be willing to talk occasionally. If they are too busy, they might know other interesting people who would be willing to mentor.
Having a mentor doesn't mean that someone will just lay opportunities and answers at your feet. It can be a lot of work because it is generally up to the mentee to drive the contacts and to work to get the most out of the relationship. Sometimes it is hard to stick to my mentoring appointments because scheduling them and preparing for them can feel like extra homework. But I love the knowledge that I have people in various parts of the country who can answer all types of questions I might have about school, my career and life in general. And I can't wait to become a mentor for someone else.