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.