One of the most popular campus workshops I give is “Mentoring 101.” Every time I hold it, participants are delighted to rethink mentoring and move from a lone-guru mentor model to a network model. They’re happy to drop the word “mentoring” and focus instead on articulating what, specifically, they need: professional development, emotional support, intellectual community, role models, a safe space, accountability, access to opportunities, substantive feedback, or sponsorship.
But there’s always an uncomfortable moment during the workshop. It comes when I start to talk about mentoring as a paid, professional service, rather than as a favor bestowed upon some new faculty (but not others). When I sense that people are starting to frown and squirm in their seats, I typically go a step further and suggest—gasp!—that a professional mentor can be more effective in some ways than an overworked, overwhelmed, and unresponsive senior faculty member.
Now before you reject my suggestion outright, consider this: My idea here is just to help spread the mentoring load around. Let’s say that you shift some aspects of mentoring—professional development, for example—off the shoulders of your campus-based mentors and onto those of professionals. Well, maybe you’ve just given that campus mentor more time to focus on the things she does best, the things only she can provide for you (such as sponsorship or access to scholarly opportunities). That’s more effective and efficient for all parties concerned.
And these days you’ll find a plethora of ex-profs turned coaches, trainers, and editors—often former tenured professors who’ve left the academy—who cater specifically to academics. So why not use them to your advantage? Imagine receiving unbiased advice from someone who isn’t voting on your tenure case or embroiled in university politics. (This can be especially useful for women and scholars of color, who consistently find themselves outside the realm where “secret knowledge” about career advancement gets transferred.)
As with campus mentors, though, the quality of professional mentors varies tremendously. So ask trusted friends and colleagues for suggestions. Here are five important questions to help you separate the good from the bad and suss out the mentor who’s right for you:
What do I really need?
Before you hire a mentor, coach, or editor, clarify and refine your needs so you can figure out who can best help you meet them. For example, people often ask me for a referral to a “writing coach.” But in order to point them to the right person, I need to know whether they’re seeking feedback; editing; extra accountability; a supportive community; guidance on how to write a dissertation, book proposal, grant proposal, or journal article; or something else entirely. Obviously, my recommendation will vary according to those specific needs. (Some of my favorite referrals are listed here.)
Does she have the experience I seek?
Once you’ve identified a prospective professional mentor, check her background and credentials. Anyone you’re considering working with should have documented experience doing what you want to do. It’s incredibly difficult for a person who’s never been a tenure-track professor to effectively mentor someone through the tenure process. For example, I frequently refer people seeking individualized help on the job market to Karen Kelsky, because she’s been a tenured faculty member, has sat on countless search committees, and knows firsthand the behind-the-scenes politics that often emerge during the hiring process. I rarely recommend coaches, mentors, or trainers who are offering to work with professors if they have not themselves been faculty members.
Does he have a successful track record?
As important as it is to assess a potential mentor’s background, it’s equally important to determine whether he actually has a documented track record of success. I often see nameless and generic testimonials on websites, but a ringing endorsement from “Anonymous, a professor at a major research university” isn’t exactly what I’d call a meaningful data point. Ask for references. Call the person’s former clients and inquire about their experiences and the concrete results they yielded. Did the clients attain their desired outcomes? If not, think twice.
Can I sample her work?
It’s crucial that anyone you hire for support be available, provide positive encouragement, have the ability to focus on you, and give honest and direct feedback. The quickest and easiest way to ensure that you’re selecting the right coach, editor, or mentor is to engage with her directly and take her for a “test drive.” Does she offer a free initial consultation? Many coaches do.
Or if it’s a professional editor you seek, it’s worth an initial small investment to send a few pages of work to several candidates and compare the results. Then pick the editor that best meets your expectations and feel confident about your selection. A great editor can work on multiple projects with you over time and greatly enhance the speed and quality of your manuscripts, so it’s worth making a small financial investment up front to select the right person.
Will your university lend its support?
Before you open your wallet, however, see what services your university already provides. If what you need isn’t currently offered on campus, give the administration a list of outcome-based reasons why they should provide institutional support.
For example, many of the faculty members who participate in our virtual mentoring bootcamp are sponsored by their colleges or universities. Most have to ask for support. They do so by explaining how the program will increase their research productivity and promising to share what they learn with others on campus. When faculty lay out that case in a constructive way, they get the help they need, their institution gains resources, and everyone wins. We call it “making the ask,” and the process works for all kinds of requests.
Of course, in a perfect world, your institution would provide all the support and mentoring you need to thrive. In the real world, that’s rarely the case. So as you move into the summer season of productivity, consider whether it’s time to expand your mentoring horizons and seek professional help.
Finding the right mentors can make the difference between a stalled career and a successful one, so choose wisely. And don’t be afraid to trust the professionals.