All good mentors have a few of the same characteristics and skills in common. Whether you’re an experienced mentor looking for a quick refresher or a former mentee who’s been asked to be a mentor for the first time, it never hurts to go over some mentorship basics.
Good mentors show an interest in their mentee by asking a lot of questions. Questions are a great way to encourage and challenge your mentee and get to know their way of thinking. They also ensure you get the whole picture before you start giving advice.
Being a good listener goes along with asking open-ended questions. You are there to be a sounding board for your mentee’s ideas and problems and you can’t do that if you are monopolizing the conversation. Make sure to give your mentees your full attention when you are listening.
It’s tough to be a good mentor when your mentee can never get ahold of you. When the two of you first sit down, be honest about the time commitment you can make and then stick to it. Can you meet once a month or catch up biweekly via email? Choose an option that is realistic for both of you.
Share Your Network
Most PhD students or postdocs don’t have an extensive professional network or many contacts outside their institution. It often takes years to build up a network, but as a mentor you can help speed the process up by introducing them to valuable contacts and potential collaborators.
Identify Your Biases
Any advice you give will be influenced by your own experience, which is coloured by your race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability. Your mentee may face different challenges than you did, especially if they are part of a group that is underrepresented in academia. Be sensitive to your mentee’s experiences and perspective.
Providing guidance and feedback is a key mentoring responsibility. Identifying your mentee’s strengths and weaknesses gives them valuable information about how to grow and improve. When you communicate your feedback, make sure to do it in a way that is suited to your mentee. Finally, don’t forget that feedback doesn’t always have to be negative. Offer positive feedback in response to big improvements or accomplishments.
Work on Your Weaknesses
Before your start mentoring, try to identify your weaknesses or skill gaps. Make a plan to address them for both your mentee’s sake and your own. Your weaknesses might even be an opportunity for your mentee to teach you something.