“Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth for a mentorship relationship right now.” “I’m not sure I can help.” “Why are we meeting again?” Those are just a few of the responses I’ve received in my quest to develop a broad range of mentors. Early in my grad school training, such reactions left me feeling dejected, battling impostor syndrome, and struggling to maintain the confidence to respond or email again. Since then, however, I’ve learned that they are an inherent part of crafting a mentor network—and that the pain is worth it.
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER
“I needed guidance from people who were wiser and more experienced.”
Since the beginning of my scientific training, fellow students and well-meaning career counselors encouraged me to seek multiple mentors to help me find my way. But, as a self-conscious Black woman in a predominantly white field and institution, I felt intimidated. I was filled with self-doubt, embarrassed by how much I didn’t know. How could I ask people to help me if I didn’t even know what I needed help with?
But during my second year of grad school, I was desperate. I felt I had no idea what I was doing, and I needed guidance from people who were wiser and more experienced. So I flailed about, attempting to develop a mentoring network. I adopted a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” mentality and embraced the awkwardness of reaching out.
Some of the responses were negative and discouraging—but not all were dead ends. One contact led to an internship in industry, the career direction I envisioned at the time. When that experience left me thinking academia might be a better fit, another path of contacts led me to my current assistant professor position. One email at a time, one informational interview after another, I became comfortable, confident, and strategic in building my network of mentors. Here’s what I have learned.
CAST A WIDE NET. Sending cold contacts was scary, so I focused on the thrill of emailing people who had some of the coolest jobs I’d ever heard of. If I was inspired by someone’s work, I emailed. If I loved the way they ran their lab, I emailed. If I was interested in learning more about their company, I emailed. Though a few people failed to respond, many did, leading to dozens of informational interviews that helped me home in on my ideal job.
GET TO THE POINT. As a grad student, I met someone at a conference who I hoped would be a future mentor—and followed up with a five-paragraph email. Their reply was simple: “I cannot respond to this. Too long.” Another time, a mentor told me, “If I can’t respond in six words, I’m not going to.” Over the years, I learned to clearly include the what, the ask, and the when—for example, a 30-minute meeting to talk about X, offering three or four specific times. A clear, concise email encourages a quick, positive response.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT. In graduate school, I asked a senior faculty member to serve as my departmental adviser. They flat out said no with no explanation, and I was left confused. Was it me? Had I come on too strong in my desperate desire to be mentored? Had I offended them somehow? A few months later, they moved institutions. I realized the move must have already been in the works when I asked, and their response didn’t reflect negatively on me; they were just anticipating their own changing circumstances and knew that agreeing to be my adviser would have set me up for failure. When evaluating responses or advice, remember that everyone has their own affairs, perspective, and concerns.
COME PREPARED. My one strength was preparation. I came to every conversation with at least 10 questions, arranged in categories including shared experiences, career goals, and advice. Coming prepared helped me respect other people’s time and utilize these meetings wisely.