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Advice for mentees

Written by Dr. Oluwaseyi Dolapo Somefun

The benefits of having mentors cannot be over-emphasized. Like any relationship, the parties usually have different roles to play to ensure a smooth and sustainable relationship. There are several resources available for mentors, but fewer exist for mentees which is the justification for this toolkit. This toolkit aims to serve as a resource for mentees and will guide mentees on choosing mentors, sustaining relationships and how mentees can also give back to mentors. 

Choosing a mentor

This may seem straightforward but there are important steps to consider before choosing a mentor. While you may want to contact only “senior faculty” or send emails to numerous people, it is best you evaluate what you want from a particular mentoring relationship and do some research on the potential mentors before making contact. This is because it is possible for mentors to support you in different ways. 

A key strategy is to understand your mentor, their background, expertise, experience, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. For online mentoring, this can be easily found on their details online. For instance, mentors have their profiles on AuthorAID and a glance would be able to give you the above information. You can also look beyond their AuthorAID profile to check if they have websites to see what and where they publish. Their other interests outside academia can also be found on other social media handles. Checking for this information helps to determine compatibility to a very large extent. 

Look out for a mentor who has attained specific goals that you are aiming for. 

Researching on your mentors’ interests would give you an idea of their goals. Goals can be different in each mentoring relationship. it's important to document the specific goals you'd like to accomplish before contacting mentors. Once you know what you are trying to do, you can narrow down your pool of potential mentors. If you are trying to write a proposal, you may want to contact a mentor who has done a lot and mentored younger scholars on this. If you are applying for a particular position, you might find someone who fills and exceeds that position in a way that you admire. If you intend to change fields or areas of specialization, it would help to do some research about the career paths of potential mentors so you can find a model.

Approaching a mentor

Now that you have identified a potential mentor that may be a good fit for you, it does not guarantee they would want to work with you for different reasons. They may be busy at that time or dealing with other personal issues which may delay their feedback or be a reason to ask you to look elsewhere.  Not getting a response or getting a negative response should not discourage you. However, there are smart ways of initiating a mentoring request which can guarantee increased positive responses. 

Introduce yourself and your background succinctly – this should include your background and professional interests. 

Talk about your career goals – this gives the mentor a quick idea of how they can help you.

Write about why you contacted the mentor – talk about areas of interest. 

Be direct on what you what to achieve – a short term support, long term or help with a specific task. AuthorAID has made this easy but if you are approaching a mentor through email outside a formal platform, it is important that you state these details. 

Some requests are too general and may discourage mentors from responding positively. For instance, just sending an email saying you need help with publishing a paper. That seems like a lazy request, and you are likely to be turned down. One way to ensure you get help with your draft will be to write briefly about the work after you have introduced yourself and ask if the mentor would be interested in reading or discussing your ideas with you.

Below is an example of a message that may not get you a desired response:

"Dear XXX,

Greetings, I am writing to humbly seek your precious time to help me walk this academic journey. I wish to get a mentor who will challenge me daily to achieve my goals. Looking forward to your response."

This request is not specific and may not get the attention of a busy mentor. 

A more specific request could read:

"Dear XXX, 

My name is Jane Smith, currently completing my master’s proposal titled “Determinants of vaccine acceptability among young adults in Africa”. I have completed my course work in social policy, and I have a good command of mixed method research. When I am not working on my proposal, I enjoy playing chess and reading non-fiction.  I came across your profile and saw that we have overlapping interest. I would be grateful if you could mentor me as I would love to improve my writing skills and learn how to submit a paper to a scientific journal. It would be great to speak with you at your convenience to discuss my expectations areas where you may be able to support me. I am also looking forward to knowing more about your work, particularly your recent article on “Identifying strategies to reduce early marriage in West Africa”.   Looking forward to a favourable response. 

Best regards, 

XXX, "

Remember that this is the first impression you will be making to your mentor so it’s important you are confident, professional and polite. In some cases, you may also attach your resume. Also, there is no one size fits all approach but it is always good to put your best foot forward. 

Now that you have identified a mentor, what next?

For every relationship to be successful, expectations need to be set. Engagement with your mentor continuously is essential for the success of the scheme for all parties but communication on terms of engagement is even more crucial.  Closing the lines of communication when you have ‘completed a difficult task’ with the help of a mentor without considering what it means for the possibilities of a longer-term relationship should be avoided. 

Structuring expectations

It is important to keep communications open to have an effective and productive mentoring relationship. As a mentee, it is helpful if you are upfront about your expectations from the relationship. Discuss your goals, challenges and priorities with your mentor and let them know what you hope to gain from the relationship. This is beneficial to you as it will allow you drive the relationship which allows for self-reflection and development. Another important strategy in structuring expectations is to set meeting agendas and deadlines for each task. Being considerate is important in a mentoring relationship. 

Needs and goals outline (available mentee goal setting sheet online)

This could be concurrent with structuring expectations and could be formal or informal. This main purpose of an outline is to ensure mentees and mentors create a common understanding of expectations from the start of their relationship. It could also reveal a series of specific targets to work towards and evaluate progress. This outline has been used by several mentoring schemes that are formal but informal mentoring relationships can also have such outlines in forms of email exchanges. For most informal mentoring relationships, progress tracking is dependent on how often the mentor and mentee decide to meet. There are various goal setting sheets and mentors and mentees available online. 

Knowing what to ask mentor (smart and direct requests)

Meeting your mentor virtually can be daunting for some. It is ok to feel intimidated and not know what to say or how to keep the conversation going. As a mentee, there are probably a host of topics or skills you are burning to learn about. However, you need to pause and ask yourself – “What do I want from this particular relationship?”.  This is a difficult question to answer as we all struggle with answering questions about our long- or short-term career goals. In addition, it is expected that this would change overtime as your needs change with your level of development. However, being direct and specific helps saves time in mentoring relationships. 

For instance, think about where you are at your current career level, where you would like to be and the type of support you would need in getting there. 

This is an easy way of thinking about what you want, although it sounds cliché.  To reap the benefits of mentoring, you need to know what you want, and this may come easy for postgraduate students as they already have an idea of a clear career path.  However, this is a question you should give some thought on regardless of your career level. As a master’s student, you can decide to focus on growing your professional network more which may help with internships or PhD placements depending on the career path you decide to pursue. Examples of topics that may be helpful to discuss during a mentoring relationship include navigating the workplace environment, work/life balance, networking, management, and communication skills. At the research level, you could ask your mentor to support you on proposal development, publishing process and other statistical issues depending on the field of the mentor. 

Do not begin a mentoring relationship by sending a mentor your thesis to read. Your mentor is not an editor. However, you can communicate on the sections you are struggling with, have a prior conversation with the mentor on this before sending it to the mentor. 

For mentees seeking to improve their networking skills, you can ask your mentor to give you examples of how they handled similar situations in their career. For instance, “I noticed you collaborated with Prof XXX from University of XXX? How did you initiate that relationship? How do you meet people when you attend workshops or conferences?”

Great mentoring relationships thrive when there is a specific problem to be resolved.  It is your job to make your questions straightforward to prevent misunderstanding.

Drive the relationship

Your mentor is not your boss or manager. As a mentee, you may be more familiar with following instead of taking charge of conversations.  However, being a mentee is different from being employee. Your mentoring relationship should be centred around your goals. This implies that you set the pace for the scheduling and objectives as it drives the relationship forward. The mentor does not know what and when you need anything so it is up to you to communicate.  

Consider how you can collaborate with mentor or give back

A great mentee-mentor relationship is reciprocal in nature. The best gift you can give your mentor is to succeed but success cannot be measured in 2 weeks or a month. During the short term, a great turnaround time allows your mentor to see you as result oriented. It is ok to ask your mentor ways you can support their research objectives. You can offer ideas on what activities and exercises you can do together. Gratitude and public mentions (if your mentor approves) are also ways you can give back. Ultimately, the best way to give back is to pay it forward, which benefits the world much more than reciprocity would. Mentors love to see their mentees become mentors. 

Approaches to mentor retention

You should always a thank-you note after every meeting. Depending on how your mentoring relationship has evolved, it is helpful that you keep mentors informed of your progress. For instance, if a mentor has helped with reading parts or your full paper, it is ok to ask them if they want to be acknowledged. Whatever, their response is, you should always send them progress report which could be the published paper. 

In summary, the following tips can be useful for a more productive and sustainable relationship:

  • Be available 

  • Listen and reflect 

  • Follow through on agreements and communicate when you cannot

  • Participate actively

  • Stay positive