Career development is a long-term process full of ups and downs, and you don't want to go through it alone. As you begin your career journey, consider identifying a mentor who can guide you along the process.
As the American Psychological Association (APA) emphasizes, mentoring relationships can be life-changing. A training module drafted by the Centering on Mentoring Task Force, established by former APA President Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, defines a mentor as “an individual with expertise who can help develop the career of a mentee. The mentor guides, trains, advises and promotes the career development of the mentee." Working with a mentor, therefore, is essential for professional growth.
Keep in mind that you do not have to limit yourself to one mentor. In fact, depending on your personal and professional goals, you may be interested in working with multiple mentors, each serving a different purpose. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life, and often when you least expect them. At its core, a mentoring relationship ensures your growth as a person and as a professional.
Specifically, a mentor could help you with the following:
1. Develop a Vision for Your Career and Keep You on Track
While mentors bring value regardless of your career stage, they are especially crucial as you take your first steps in figuring out what you want to do and where you want to do it. Your professional future may seem far away when you are a freshman in college, but before you know it, you'll be walking across a stage, receiving your diploma and wondering what comes next. A mentor could guide you into solidifying a vision for your career and identifying the steps to move confidently along that path.
“Before I decided to go to school, I reached out to professionals who were coaches, counselors, consultants and therapists in various settings to step inside their world and see what resonated with me," shares Caitlin Magidson, a licensed clinical professional counselor. “I conducted informational interviews to ask questions and understand how I might enter the field. When I met Karen Chopra, a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice, I remember thinking, 'I want to be her!'"
Once you have a vision and identify goals, you want to make sure you stay focused on achieving the goals and making your vision a reality. Being intentional about the courses you take and the activities you participate in can provide a firm jumping board for a successful career. Moving forward can be a challenge, and a mentor can help you stay on track. Even if you know what the long-term goal is, to reach the goal, you will need to take many small steps along the way. A mentor can help you pinpoint those steps and help you stay focused as you transition from one to the next.
When Magidson was finishing her graduate degree in mental health counseling and working part-time as a career coach, she relied on a mentor as she moved forward in building her career and growing as a person. Speaking of Kathy Bovard, one of her mentors at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Magidson reflects, “She encourages me to present at conferences and keep up on trends and news in the field. I don't know how I would have learned to build myself professionally without her mentorship and guidance."
2. Allow Access to a Professional Network and More Opportunities
Growing your professional network, especially as a novice in a field, is a wonderful benefit of working with a mentor. This is where having multiple mentors can be of significant value. Magidson pursued “informational interviews and attended meet-ups and trainings to hear about other people's experiences," and benefited from engaging with multiple formal and informal mentors. She connected with people in three different areas -- coaching, counseling and entrepreneurship -- to gain insight into starting her own coaching business.
Looking back, Magidson regards the multiple mentors she connected with as her own board of directors. “It was helpful to feel guided and not so alone in figuring it out. Other people had gone through similar journeys and I could benefit from their experiences. All I had to do was ask!"
A key idea to keep in mind is that although a mentor may be someone who is older, has more experience and is in a higher-level position, that is not always the case. Having multiple mentors benefits you as it offers access to different circles you may not have even known about. A mistake many students make is to limit themselves to mentors in their immediate context -- for example, their academic program. While having a professor in your field as a mentor is helpful, to expand your reach, you really want access to networks that are not overlapping.
Ultimately, the diversity of your mentors determines the diversity of opportunities as well as people you come across. You may consider a community leader in your neighborhood, a peer mentor or a family member. You want to be clear and specific about your expectations from each mentor so that the relationship is beneficial for both.
3. Offer Honest Feedback, Encourage and Celebrate
When you evaluate different options and pursue opportunities, a mentor can serve as the sounding board for your ideas, doubts and frustrations. A mentor sees the big picture and keeps you accountable for your commitments. When necessary, a mentor will call you out if you renege on your goals. You want a mentor who shares genuine feedback when you veer off the path you have established and guide you through the process of figuring out the reasons for the detour.
Although a mentor may be tough when you fall short on your goals, he or she will also be your biggest supporter as you get out of your comfort zone and pursue opportunities to establish yourself in a certain field. The mentor will encourage you to do better because he or she knows you can be better. For Magidson, her mentor's “encouragement to serve on boards" and “contribute to [her] professional communities" set her on a path to not only be successful in her career but also become a thought leader in her field.
Lastly, a mentor will be by your side when you achieve major and minor career accomplishments. He or she will acknowledge what you have achieved and celebrate your success. “Kathy has been such a champion of my efforts and has always celebrated the work I've done," Magidson points out. “Feeling appreciated and celebrated has opened me up to trying new things without fear of judgment. I feel able to be creative and dream big because someone I trust believes in me and my potential." And that is the true power of a mentor.
As you review and reflect on the benefits of working with a mentor, please keep in mind that having a mentor doesn't excuse you from doing the work to advance in your career of choice. Just the opposite! You may need to work even harder with a mentor and put in the necessary effort to explore your options, research a variety of opportunities, conduct the informational interviews, complete and submit applications, sit for certifications and so forth. Having a mentor doesn't result in no hard work; instead, having a mentor ensures you will do the hard work needed to achieve your goals.