Starting Your Career Right: Finding a Great Mentor in College

When I first went to college, I was lost. I had grown up in a tiny town where virtually everyone around me had started factory jobs straight out of high school. I literally knew no one (other than my teachers) who had attended college at any level. I more or less guessed at a major based on the advice of people around me who, quite honestly, had very little idea, either. I had no idea what would lead to success in school – I figured you just went to classes and goofed off all the time.

Luckily, I found three mentors while there that turned things around for me, showing me what I needed to do to succeed, providing me with advice when I needed it, and pushing and prodding me to move forward.

My first mentor was a professor who was also my academic advisor. He took a distinct interest in me (likely because I seemed so lost, but at least I was somewhat aware of it) and helped me find my first job (in a public computer lab) and then, later, my second job (in a research lab). Over the years (even after I graduated), we kept in such close touch that I wound up being one of the speakers at his retirement ceremony. He took me under his wing as an aimless college student and gave me direction and motivation.

My second mentor was a system support specialist that was charged with “overseeing” the computer lab where I worked. We mutually helped each other out several times and, eventually, he not only introduced me to my third mentor, but he provided a lot of the motivation I needed to launch a writing career. I still swap messages with him all the time. He helped me refine my direction, find the right place to continue to grow, and provided continuous advice along the way.

My third mentor was a professor who was my direct boss for six years. He would assign me projects that were vaguely defined and would require me to really push myself and find new skills, and he dropped just enough carrots along the way to keep me growing. He encouraged me to add a second major (computer science) to complement my first (biology). As I neared graduation, he actually created a full-time position for me in his lab that lasted for two years, then he helped me transition that experience directly into a federal job. He opened the door to my career.

At the same time, though, I interacted with a lot of professors, advisors, and others who didn’t seem to click with me at all. They provided very little help along the way. Often, it was clear that they were just telling me things to get me out of their way. Sadly, I found that most college students tend to wind up with a negative perspective of professors and advisors in general because of these experiences.

How does one separate the wheat from the chaff? How can a college student find a good mentor that can help him or her on the path to a good career – and avoid the ones that provide little or no help? Here’s the game plan for doing just that.

Know what you’re passionate about. No mentor in the world can help you if you don’t bring some of your own passion to the table. If you’re not enthusiastic about anything that overlaps a potential mentor’s enthusiasm, you’ll almost never click in any significant way.

So, find what you’re passionate about. Get started on this as early as you can, so that you can use this information to select a major that best matches what fuels your fire.

Find people at the school who share your passion. The best way to start is to look for extracurricular activities that relate to that interest – and I use extracurricular in the broadest sense of the term. Join clubs. Go to public lectures. Attend every optional program and session that you can that relates to your interest.

What you’ll begin to find is that there is a consistent group of people that attend many of these events. Professors, department heads, graduate students, and strongly motivated undergraduates will be in that group, and what they all have in common is an interest in those shared topics and the energy to reach out to discover more. Somewhere in this group is a great mentor for you.

Get in the mix by asking questions. Standing in the background won’t do the trick. You need to participate in the discussion. In almost every environment, the best way to start is to ask questions. If you don’t know, ask. Listen. Ask some more.

Eventually, you’ll start finding people in this environment that you click well with. You’re getting closer to a great mentor – those people that you’re clicking with are conversational and share your passion. When you begin to identify some potential mentors, ask around about them. Do your own research, too – Google the person and see if you can find information about them.

Ask. The best approach is usually to simply ask if the person you’ve identified as a potential mentor has some time to meet with you and answer some questions. Any potential mentor worth his or her salt will happily agree.

When you meet, simply lay it out there. Talk what you’re passionate about and why you’re passionate about it and simply ask how you can get going with regards to following this passion as a career. What can you be doing now? What can you be doing in the future?

Any number of things can come from a meeting like this. There might be an opportunity for paid work or for volunteer work. The person might be able to point you towards another person or situation that might be more appropriate for you. Other times, the mentor might just be a source of good knowledge.

If you get an opportunity to prove yourself, make the most of it. Do your assigned tasks as well as you possibly can. Ask questions – but hold back on the “stupid” questions and find the answers to those yourself.

You’ll find that, if you’re passionate and quite willing to utilize that passion, a good mentor is continually willing to offer good advice, answer the questions you may have, and often open doors for you, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Good luck!

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  1. I could really use a mentor now. I’ve just finished college and those five years didn’t do much to help me figure out what I wanted to do. Now I’m just starting to get a handle on it… and I could use the shelter that college provides so much more now that I don’t have it! I’m not even sure I know where to look to find potential mentors now.

  2. Johanna says:

    I would add, based on my own experience: If you’re a good student and you have some idea what you want out of your education but less of an idea what you want out of your career, make an effort to find mentors/influences other than just your professors.

    Professors tend to think (at least in my fields) that “being successful” means “becoming a professor,” and that if you don’t become a professor, it must be because you’re not good enough. If you hang out with professors too much, they’ll have you thinking this way too, and it can really mess with your head if you decide later on that academic life isn’t for you.

  3. Andy says:

    Many college and universities have some kind of campus ministry. College chaplains are a great resource.

  4. Steve in Montreal says:

    I graduated 19 years ago and the only professor I remember was the one that played “You can’t always get what you want” by the Stones, right before our final exam. Macabre sense of humour, but memorable. BTW, I aced the exam and graduated with honors.

  5. Gabriel says:

    This is truly invaluable advice. I want to put in a plug for a small liberal arts college. Having a small campus size can affect your social life, but when there are 20 or so people in class and discussion is the order of the day, your professors get to know you well. I have over five professors who know me quite well: we’ll talk between classes, and I’ve even been invited to dinner with them.
    I went to Austin College in Sherman TX, and it has my wholehearted support (just make sure you form a group of friends you have regular scrabble nights with!)

  6. JonAtHome says:

    I’d like to see some advice on the qualities of a good mentor, and how to identify possibly bad ones. I had a college professor as my mentor for fifteen years now, and realized last year that he might have given me some flimsy advice in the past. In college, he was a great motivator, but looking back there wasn’t much substance to his advice. Eight years ago he offered me a job with his company and a tuition-free PhD in his college program. I declined at the time. Last year I went to ask for some advice and he told me how useless the PhD was that I was looking at – the one he had offered and promoted seven years earlier. His advice that day on my career was a lot of vague cliches than now I recognize as not being real advice. Now I’m older and wiser because of the experience, but wonder if there were signs I could have been looking for as a 20-something ‘kid’. Or, frankly, is this just part of growing up and finding out you took some bum advice at a critical point, then moving on? What would you tell someone to focus on to identify a good mentor?

    If anything, I might suggest multiple mentors, not unlike diversifying your portfolio. The good themes will come across from multiple people, I would think.

  7. Susanne says:

    I agree 100 percent with this. I had three wonderful mentors in college. One of them hired me each summer after my sophomore and junior years to do field and lab research (I was a geology major). Another one helped me obtain a mathematics minor, something I wasn’t sure I would be able to do, given my (former) fear of numbers. A third kept me going my freshman year when I was feeling lonely and wanting to move back closer to home. All of them wrote me wonderful letters of recommendation when I applied for grad school.

    Make the most of college. It is a great time to find yourself some advocates who can help you make the most of all the opportunities available to you.

  8. Brittany says:

    Being in college now, I can attest that finding a mentor or someone to guide you along the way is some very good advice. If only those just starting college would realize this. My boyfriend and I took advantage of our freshman year, found campus jobs, and our supervisors took us on as mentors. What they can teach is more valuable than what any book or website can teach.

  9. TStrump says:

    I wish I had spent the time to get a mentor.
    It would have made life much easier.
    I was too shy and should have networked more.

  10. Studenomist says:

    I agree with the post but what can I say? I have no mentors nor have I in a long time. Maybe it’s because I also work full time? Maybe it’s because I’m a mentor to most of my friends? I find myself in a position where I take my studies seriously yet I hang around young people that aren’t serious about school. I really do wish I had someone older to look up to.

  11. Multiple mentors are a great idea . . . no one person has all the answers.

    I might even suggest different mentors for different aspects of your life . . .

  12. Reagan Pugh says:

    Been following you a while, but this is my first comment – I couldn’t agree more!

    I have a similar story, three mentors through college who each provided me with a different flame under my rear. I attribute so much of my college success to the dedication that those men had. Now that I’ve graduated, I have acquired two mentors where I work. The big key is that I need to find others to mentor, only then is the time my mentors spent with me fully realized.

    Thank you!

  13. viola says:

    This is a great post. I wish I had done more communicating in college with my professors. It helps if you want to apply to grad school later in your career.

    I also recommend finding a mentor that is a professional working the career you want to go in. Ask the college career center about people you could contact to ask them if you can just give them a phone interview or every 2 months go to lunch with them for an hour & pick his/her brain.

  14. ChristiaanH says:

    This one post is sure to be a huge thing for me in my next education. Thanks for pointing things out again, looking around for all the help you can get .
    I wonder what kind of people I’ll meet next year and what the uni offers in terms of extracurricular activities. Perhaps a job somewhere on campus will help meet people and further my personal network.

    Thanks for the advise =]

  15. MoneyEnergy says:

    I agree with studenomist’s comments above, I was in a similar situation to him/her when I was an undergrad. I had “mentors,” but they were often the unavailable type – professors too busy to do much with, even though they’d inspire you. I could have networked more aggressively, but it’s not like I never got out to do anything – I was involved in a lot of off-campus stuff too, so had some informal mentors there, but nothing of the “formal” sort mentioned in the article where you’re getting jobs from going to a professor’s office hours. That seems kind of mythical, and certainly probably doesn’t happen as much in the humanities. I’d like to be shown otherwise. I just tend to end up being the mentor myself. I’m envious of others finding these “mentors” so easily.

  16. As a professor who sometimes acts as a mentor, let me add that the mentee’s responsibility is to be enthusiastic, responsible, and hard-working! :-) We don’t have any magic wands we can wave to reveal to you your “true passion” or to get you that job you’ve always wanted; all a mentor can do is offer advice and encouragement, and sometimes a lead or two; the rest is on the mentee.

    If you’re an undergraduate looking for a professorial mentor, you may want to consider going to smaller colleges and universities, rather than attending large, high-profile research universities. At the former, professors usually have smaller classes and are encouraged to teach and interact with their students face-to-face; at the latter, professors often lecture in vast halls, leaving discussion sessions to their graduate teaching assistants to handle, and are encouraged to dedicate themselves to publishing and grant-writing. That’s not to say they can’t be great mentors — just that you’ll be competing with many more demands on their time.

  17. Kirk Bond says:

    I am rather disappointed that this post got fewer comments than most of yours. Reason: I think it is incredibly important. Personally, I feel that in every point in life that you should have a mentor and someone to mentor. But being mentored means that your are in some way submissive to that person and open to their comment, encouragement, and if you really want to learn, criticism. A lot of people are not open to that last one.

    I can list many people that I have allowed to teach and guide me. I cherish them.

    Seek these people out. Get under their guidance adn then share it with others.

  18. Hogan says:

    While I applaud your effort to have mentors and I was exposed to many college grades prior to college and did not feel the need for such mentors, I am always suspicious of people that are too close to their professors. The ones I knew who did this were after grades in the end and annoyed every one else in the class. “Can’t you get good grades without buttering up the teacher” many of us thought? I suspect that is what probably happened at the job you had the bad experience at, your coworkers were annoyed by the way you befriended the boss, was it jealousy on your coworkers part, maybe but annoying nontheless.

  19. Jessica says:

    This is very good advise. When I transfered from a community college to a university I felt pretty lost b/c it was so much bigger. I knew what I wanted to do (become a lawyer) but I wasn’t sure what I needed to get there. My first day, in my first class my professor told us he was a retired lawyer and taught the legal studies classes (my minor). I went right up to him after class and introduced myself and told him I wanted to go to law school. He talked to me at great length and we got to know each other during that semester. I continued taking his classes and talkign with him and he continued to give advise. He was excited to see a student who was interested and offered up all he could.

    Well, two years later I have had many classes with him and I’ve been accepted to law school for next semester. The relationship with him and another professor in the political science department, which is my major, has been very valuable. They have helped me figure out what I want to do in life and achieve many goals along the way. I will continue to keep in contact after this May when I graduate.

  20. princess_peas says:

    Sometimes, the likability of the person is what it takes. For want of a better word I was mentored by one of the teachers in high school, not in so much of a professional capacity because I wasn’t ready for it, but through some of the melodrama of teens and in an educational sense too of course.

    And the main difference between him and my other teachers, basically, was that he REALLY wanted to be there at school, teaching. He loved life every single day, was quite open (for a teacher) with his classes in general about his life, made us all laugh at the start of most lessons and made the work interesting and fun. (Eg. we were spilt into teams for the whole year and often did things like posters and quizes in them. The quizes we had to answer a question before we could get the next one, the fastest team was the winner etc.) People got made a fuss of when they did well too, which of course kept us motivated – although we did have to do the work. If we started mucking about thoguh all the fun and games stopped, usually for the whole lesson.

    But because this man loved life so much, it was infectious, he drew certain people, myself included like a moth to a flame and I spent loads of dinner or break times hanging out talking to him. Looking back, he is the one person, outside of church people or family (maybe even including church people and family) who gave me some anchor/direction when I needed it the most.

  21. Sue says:

    My advice to Stephanie above–join some groups that have the same interests as you–check out your local civic groups, community colleges, chamber of commerce, etc. Also vounteering helps you network with business people in your community. Also, I found early on that interviewing business leaders in my area (as a student) gave me an idea of what was important to them as well as a handle on new emerging tech, etc. Above all, trust your own instincts–if a person seems like they would not be a good mentor (competitive or abrasive personality) you are probably right on target.

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