Cultivate Mentors

Mentors Make The Difference

Advisors, Committee Members, Departmental Chairs, Colleagues, Collaborators, Peers, Deans, University Staff, Advisees, your own Students – over the course of your academic career you will interact with people in many different roles with many different agendas.

How well you get along with these people and whether you impress them favorably, often makes the difference between success and failure.

Graduate Students who have severe difficulties with their advisors rarely get their Ph.D.’s. In my experience, there are two main reasons that graduate students get stuck as ABD’s: either they experience significant problems writing or they have a problematic relationship with their dissertation chair. And while having writer’s block is frustrating, at least it is a problem that you can change on your own (or with the help of a coach). Advisor difficulties often feel insurmountable and are always demoralizing.

Post-docs – at least in the sciences – find that their whole future depends on being viewed positively by their main advisor. Of course it is essential that your research and papers are top-notch. But even if your work is stellar, many central aspects of your career depend on having a positive relationship with your “boss”. Your relationship with your advisor determines:

  • the projects you are “given” to work on,
  • the role you are granted in relation to other peers,
  • the all-important letter of recommendation you receive
  • the effort your advisor makes to help you get a faculty position

(If you are a post-doc in the humanities, your mentoring relationship issues more closely resemble the issues faced by junior faculty.)

Junior Professors get tenure when they have developed supportive mentors. They are denied tenure when they’ve developed career-destroying adversaries. I’ve personally known several talented and prolific junior faculty members who were denied tenure because of lukewarm letters of support from senior colleagues.

On the other hand, I’ve known junior professors who were granted tenured despite rather mediocre publishing records because they were well-liked and respected by members of their department and because they had established strong relationships with nationally known senior colleagues outside of their University. A less-than-stellar outside letter of recommendation, or a powerful enemy within your department, can end your career, no matter how much you’ve published.

Your eventual success in academia is based as much on how you interact with others as it is on your research, publications and teaching.

This is why so many of my coaching relationships with academics focus on navigating the political shoals of academia.

Here are a few tenure track tips to help you turn Advisors and Colleagues into Mentors:

Craft Your Role with Intention:

Think about how you would like to be perceived by your would-be mentor and then behave in ways that promote your intended image. Walk the walk. All academics want to be perceived as being intelligent – well, brilliant, actually – and many of us are insecure about our intellect and how it will be perceived. However, there are many other equally important traits to embody and portray. Perhaps you want to be seen as:

Thoughtful…Diligent…Persevering… Flexible… Confident…



Don’t focus on demonstrating your own brilliance. 
Focus instead on expressing genuine interest in your mentor’s brilliance!

Often, it is less intimidating to think about asking a question that expresses your curiosity than answering a question to illustrate your extensive knowledge. In fact, showboating your intelligence may backfire when you try to impress would-be mentors. Sometimes, by trying to strut your stuff, you wind up looking insecure, obnoxious or conceited. Not exactly the impression you want to convey!

How do you ask good questions that will show your mentor that you are intelligent? Ask smart questions about her work. Read the recent work of your advisor, your departmental colleagues and other academics you’d like to have as mentors. Read and think about their work. What questions does it raise? How does it relate to your work?

Take the time to learn about the people you work with or want to work with. Informing yourself about their scholarly efforts is a respectful and mature way to foster the relationship.

Pay conscious attention to how you want to be perceived, and cultivate specific qualities. This does not mean that you should “fake it.” Most people don’t like apple-polishing, insincere flattery. People who “suck up” are disliked for a reason. And when fake adoration does fool someone, it is usually someone with insufficient social skills to notice false pretenses. Who wants an academic with poor social skills as a main mentor, anyway?

Are you a curious person? 
Are you respectful, or mature, or diligent, or enthusiastic?
You are not faking it. You are thoughtfully helping people get to know your best self.

Another Tenure Track Tip:

Remember that a sense of humor goes a long way (and is sorely lacking in so many staid, self-important academics!)