If you have recently graduated from college, and are looking to kickstart your career, a career mentor can be a strong asset. In addition to helping you prepare for the workforce, a long-term mentor can help with your professional development, grow your networking contacts, and even improve your job prospects as you advance in your career.
This guide will walk you through the different types of career mentors, how to find them, as well as how to maintain a relationship with your mentor.
1) Types of Career Mentors
Formal Mentoring Programs
In many fields, such as engineering or medicine, recent college grads may participate in formal mentoring programs that are either established by their employer, their college, or organizations that are devoted to the profession itself. These programs often have formal requirements for both parties and provide a structured environment for mentors and mentees to interact on a regular basis.
These types of mentoring programs often focus on making sure the mentee knows how to navigate the company structure (for example, in complex corporate environments), learns the key skills relevant to the work they will be doing on the job, and identifies the resources they need to continue develop professionally through on the job training, college coursework, or advanced certification programs.
Some mentor/mentee relationships are based on sharing common obstacles or experiences in a specific field or discipline. For example, it is not uncommon for females and people of color to find mentors in fields dominated by white males, such as engineering or medicine, who share their gender or race.
These types of relationships can be very important in helping those new to these disciplines find some perspective and wisdom on how to handle common obstacles that are likely to come up over the course of their career. They can become a vital source of moral support during difficult career transitions and challenges. In addition, they can often provide important network contacts that could develop into critical job leads further along in your career.
1-year, 5-year, and 10-year Career Development Mentors
Another approach to mentoring is to identify mentors who currently hold positions that map onto your ideal career trajectory 1, 5, and 10 years from now. Not only can these relationships help you learn what to expect and how to plan for the years to come, they can also become valuable professional contacts who can provide important references or referrals to job opportunities. This is particularly true if you maintain these relationships over the long term.
These types of mentors may introduce you to others in your discipline, give you career advice on how to best focus your professional development, or help you navigate the politics within the organizations where you will be working.
Ideally, such mentors will also be able to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses so that you can know how to gain the skills and qualities you will need to succeed in your career. They may also help you develop a specialty within your field that allows you to make the most of your unique passions, aptitudes, and ambitions.
Coaching vs. Mentoring
It is important to understand the difference between career coaching and career mentoring. Coaching is generally focused on helping with a specific aspect or helping you develop a specific professional skill. Career coaches are generally people with specific kinds of expertise whom you hire rather than work with on a pro-bono basis as is the case with career mentors.
For example, many recent college grads turn to career coaches to help them develop their resume or for help navigating the process of finding an internship after college. In some cases, they may hire professionals such as certified resume editors, or they may take advantage of free services offered by the career services office on their university’s campus.
2) How to Find a Career Mentor: Tips for Recent College Grads
There are many ways to find a career mentor, particularly for recent college graduates or even juniors and seniors still working on their degree. However, they will all require you to take some initiative in order to locate career mentors that are a good fit for your needs. Here are a few great places to look:
Most college campuses have a career center full of staff that have expertise in human resources and the specifics of succeeding in the job search. They maintain lists of potential mentors, usually alumni of the school, looking for mentees in various disciplines. They can also provide guidance on the process of finding and maintaining a mentor/mentee relationship.
Professional social networks such as LinkedIn provide a vital resource for recent college graduates. In addition to helping you start to develop your personal brand, the face of your professional self, these networks are also great places to identify and approach potential career mentors.
One of the advantages of using social media is that you can get to know quite a bit about someone before asking if they are able to act as your career mentor. In addition to getting a close look at their resume, you can learn a lot about their perspective by looking at the kinds of organizations they follow, comments on public posts, and the types of informational articles they share on their timeline. In some cases, they may even create unique content, giving you an even deeper look into what they may have to offer in terms of advice, inspiration, and perspective.
In most cases it makes sense to open up a natural conversation on a topic that you know they share an interest in. If they are open and responsive, you can feel free to be direct about your interest in establishing a mentor/mentee relationship, or ask if they have time for a more limited request. Examples include asking them to take a look at your resume, recommend some reading material, or suggest some other leaders in the industry that have been inspirational to them. That way you have a chance to test out your personal chemistry before committing to a longer term relationship.
Professional organizations in your discipline are an excellent place to identify mentors that can help you with your career development. Membership in such organizations holds many perks including building your professional network, staying on top of industry trends, as well as offering mentorship programs in many cases. When you locate a potential mentor through such a channel, it makes the initial approach less awkward since you have a built-in opener.
Finally, if you have already secured your first job after graduation, consider approaching the human resource professionals at your new company to find out if they offer a mentor program, or if they can help you find someone within the organization who would be a suitable mentor. While direct supervisors sometimes lend mentorship like support, it can create a conflict of interest and isn’t quite the same as an unbiased mentor who works outside of your direct chain of command.
3) How to Maintain a Career Mentor Relationship
It is important to understand that at their heart, all mentor/mentee pairs are relationships. They will require a give and take, the investment of energy by both parties, and a clear understanding of shared goals and personal and professional boundaries.
Be Clear About Expectations
It is important to open up a conversation with your mentor about their expectations for you, and what you can expect from them. Clear communication is key to all relationships, but especially in cases such as mentoring where there are a lot of variables at play such as the amount of time they have to devote to the relationship, the kinds of resources they can provide, and their specific areas of expertise that they are willing to share.
Put in More than You Hope to Get Out
Although it is true that mentor/mentee relationships are designed around the professional needs of the mentee, that does not mean you should approach it from the perspective of only what you can take from the relationship. Instead, make sure that you also try to bring something to the table such as sharing interesting articles that you stumble across, preparing well for any meetings you may have scheduled, and helping them to grow their network by introducing them to relevant people that you meet as your career develops.
Maintain Appropriate Contact and Follow Up
Finally, keep in mind that all relationships have a natural ebb and flow. For example, you may lean on your mentors more during periods of career transitions such as promotions or changing employers. However, it is important to occasionally touch base in between such times in your career so that you can keep the relationship strong. In addition, be sure that you respond to your mentor in a timely manner if they reach out to you. If you want your mentor to be there when you need them, it is important that you put in some time to maintain the relationship with some contact every few months at a minimum.