What is a mentor? What are the boundaries and benefits of a mentor/mentee relationship? A mentor is someone who inspires you, and who's activities are in line with what you hope to be doing in the future, who you can talk to and who in turn cares about your progress. You probably already have someone who fits this bill and is already your mentor, whether or not you ever used the word "mentor" in conversation with them, which you probably never did. Most mentorship relationships either just happen naturally, and often, the word "mentor" never even needs to be mentioned.
Furthermore, not all mentors are created equal, which is also natural and perfectly fine. You may have multiple mentors for your career path, you may have one for your personal life, or for your entrepreneurship goals. You may have multiple mentors for the same thing at different times in your life. Some mentors will be more involved with you, and some will be less involved.
Mentors are dynamic resources with brilliant advice, who have experiences you can learn from or emulate, and may even be someone who will recommend you for that job, school application, or other opportunity you really want.
By now, I'm sure you're dying to know......how do I get myself one of them "mentors"?
You'll find out about potential mentors through places you volunteer or work, through conversations with others, from reading things on the internet, from googling things about the field you're interested in. It's pretty easy to identify people who you would want as your mentor. Now, how to let them know about you? It might be as easy as dropping by their office to pick up their business card and introduce yourself, if they're a member of your community. Even if they live across the country they can be your mentor. One of my long-time mentors lives two states north of me. I found out about him from my brother's friend's dad, who is his brother-in-law, who gave me his contact info when he heard I was interested in wildlife veterinary medicine. I initially contacted that mentor via email, through which we scheduled a phone conversation. That was in freshman year of college, and I'm pleased to say I still consider him one of my mentors. Our conversations were usually over email or phone for a few years. I finally got to meet him during my bike ride down the Pacific coast, and spent a few days helping out at his marine veterinary research organization. I hope to work with him again in the future through his organization's externship program, and potentially doing my MPVM research there too. So, whether it's their public work email, by emailing the general email of their organization, or by emailing the news station that ran an interview on them, you'll likely be able to find a way to contact them.
Here are 3 simple tips for starting and maintaining a successful mentor/mentee relationship:
1. Be someone worth mentoring
Why are you worth mentoring? Why are you worth someone's time? Why are you specifically worth THIS person's time? It's easy. Be someone worth mentoring. Be someone who is going somewhere. Know what your passions are, and own them. Seek out opportunities on your own. Don't be dull or lazy. Be out of the box- don't be like the 10 people who are asking them "Hi Dr. ___, I hope to go to veterinary school one day, and I was wondering if you would be able to answer my questions from time to time."
Why not be the person who says "Hi Dr. ___, I've been volunteering at the Oakland Zoo for about a year now, and I am also considering a career in wildlife medicine. I heard about you from ______ _____ , who is currently a zookeeper there. You came up in a conversation we were having about tigers, because I'm really interested in illegal wildlife product trafficking, and I thought your work with the airport sniffing dogs was fascinating. I was wondering if you'd have any time to chat with me about getting involved with tiger conservation."
Boom. See the difference? Which question is going to get you a response?
You never even have to mention the word "mentorship". You just have to set the stage for it, and be someone worth mentoring. Show that you're invested in the same area of interest that your potential mentor is interested in. It also is 100x more likely to ignite a successful mentorship.
Oh yeah- also be a likeable person, be respectful, and don't be a user.
2. Be genuinely interested in them, and let it show
Don't contact them with trivial, non-important, poorly thought out things like "how are things going with you". They are busy, diverse people. Questions like that are a drag, and imply that they have to do all the work in this relationship. Sounding a little bit of fangirl/fanboy is OK. Instead, of "how are things going," ask them, "I read an article yesterday in the Journal of Wildlife Medicine and I saw that the population in Washington has increased. How is your sea star wasting disease survey going? Last time we talked, you were giving a talk on it in California." This shows that you are interested both genuinely interested in their work and take action on your own to pursue your goals. Like all relationships, mentor/mentee relationships are a two-way street. Like in all relationships, be giving and understanding and supportive if you want those things in return. On a similar note, NEVER email your mentor a question whose answer is easily found online. You would be wasting their time, which is annoying. However, it's OK to ask them easy questions if you're having a physical conversation with them, like talking on the phone with them or spending time with them in person.
3. Put yourself out there
Don't stop looking for a mentor if you get a "sorry, I don't really have time right now". Thank them politely, don't let it drag you down, and go ask someone else. There are too many reasons why they might not be willing to answer your questions at this time, and it's probably not because of you. Remember how awesome they are, and how being so involved with cool things can certainly make it hard to have time to invest in a mentee. If they ask you to check back with them in a few weeks, when they say they know they'll be less busy, do that, but otherwise don't bug them again. However, if you get multiple "no"s, it's probably a good idea to ask someone for advice on how you're wording your emails to them.
Don't even stop at "yes". Don't let your good mentor/mentee relationship go stale. It's not like you have to contact them once a week (please don't do that), but do keep in touch and let them know what you've been up to when you've achieved something cool. Ask them well thought out questions when you have them. You can never have too many mentors. As with any advice you get from anybody, remember that advice is just advice and you are never obligated to take anyone's advice, even a very successful person's advice, even my advice! But it always WILL do you good to hear many perspectives on a topic to figure out which advice resounds with your personal values, beliefs, and goals.
Tone of emails
Typically, you should always write more formally and respectfully, and adjust as your mentor/mentee relationship grows and you get to know each other better. The mentor will probably write to you in a much more casual manner, but the mentee should generally still write in a more formal and respectful manner. Lastly, always show genuine appreciation for their mentorship.
Articles in this blog are oriented to readers interested in going to veterinary school.