Turn on the Stereo: Engaging in Mentorship from All Directions

Will you be my mentor? This question is common in corporate and academic environments, and I’ve asked some version of it while navigating my career path. However, this question is fundamentally flawed: It reflects an all-in-one mentorship model that may not adequately serve the needs of most early-career engineers and young professionals. Shifting from all-in-one mentorship to a team-based approach is like turning on surround sound. More perspectives can expand the scope of opportunities, prevent potential pitfalls, and provide robust feedback.

For example, when I started working as an assistant professor, one of my mentors suggested that I spend my first year focusing on research papers and waiting until my second year to submit any grant proposals. In contrast, another mentor suggested that I submit 30 grant proposals in the first year! These differing perspectives were neither right nor wrong; they simply provided more datapoints as I charted my own strategy.

Building your own mentorship team starts with two questions: What do you need? How can you get it?

Evaluate your needs

Reflect on your professional and personal goals. As you identify your goals, interests, and strengths, create categories of potential mentors. Examples of mentor categories include colleagues who share opportunities with you, sponsors who advocate for you behind closed doors, intellectual peers who provide technical support and feedback, local peers who hold you accountable, professional role models whose paths you aspire to follow, and personal role models who share aspects of your identity. These categories will vary, as the needs of a rising college senior weighing job offers are vastly different than those of a young professional contemplating their next role or an assistant professor navigating the tenure track.

Once you’ve evaluated your needs, assemble your team by connecting mentor categories to individuals who you already know. Chances are, you aren’t starting from an empty roster! But you may also have specific mentorship needs that remain unmet, which leads to question two: how can you get what you need?

Make the (specific) ask

I will be the first to admit that asking for what you need is intimidating, especially when I’m asking a respected colleague whose time and opinion I value. That said, those respected colleagues once had to figure out how to get to where they are, and they didn’t do so alone. Last summer, I organized a lab retreat, after which a senior colleague called me to ask how I did it. His research team was interested in a similar experience, but he admitted that he wasn’t sure where to start. Our conversation left me surprised and encouraged: My senior colleague recognized what he needed, identified how he could get it, and asked very specifically for it. The process is simple!

If a cold email or phone call isn’t your style, mutual connections and formal structures can lower your activation energy. You could ask an existing mentor to introduce you to other individuals in their network; for example, I frequently connect students to my former classmates and colleagues. Within AIChE, the Young Professionals Committee (YPC) and Education Division regularly organize mentor/mentee pairing programs, professional development panels and seminars, and social programming. If these structures don’t exist in your organization, seek other like-minded early career professionals to build something new that meets your needs.

As you assemble your mentorship team, keep an open mind about whom you can learn from. If the first person you ask doesn’t have the bandwidth to meet with you, ask for suggestions of others willing to provide the specific type of guidance you are seeking. Mentorship can also emerge unexpectedly from conferences, social media, peers, and mentees! As you establish relationships with your mentors, setting expectations may be helpful: What type of mentorship role would you like them to fill? How often are you each willing and available to meet? Are you seeking advice, critical feedback, or accountability? Flux among your mentors is normal. Your specific needs will evolve, so your mentorship team will evolve, too.

Pay it forward

You are probably already part of a colleague’s mentorship team, whether or not you (or they) know it. If you notice a shifting balance from menteeship to mentorship, consider this an opportunity to shift the narrative from the all-in-one mentorship model to the mentorship team model. The mentorship team model benefits both mentees, as discussed above, as well as mentors who may not have the bandwidth to serve as the sole mentor to an increasing number of mentees.

As a new professor, I am discovering new mentorship challenges and questions: How might I synergize mentorship activities with my professional duties and technical interests? Am I providing mentorship in an equitable way? Lately, I’ve experimented with gathering small groups of early-career researchers who are interested in academic careers and newly hired assistant professors. Group and panel settings are helpful for students unsure of what to ask, and the breadth of perspectives from just a few individuals leaves no question unanswered. Looking forward, I hope the “surround sound” from mentorship teams can produce richer experiences for all involved.

This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the March 2022 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.