Doctoral student Ronni Greenwood found a mentor in psychology professor Tracey Revenson, PhD, while taking Revenson's psychometrics class at the Graduate School and University Center of City University of New York (CUNY). Even though Greenwood was interested in more traditional social psychology topics-like intergroup relations-she found Revenson's health psychology research intriguing and signed on to work with her on a longitudinal study of breast cancer survivorship.
Revenson gave Greenwood academic and career advice and helped her develop her research skills and explore new subjects in health psychology.
Similarly, first-year doctoral student Elliott Rosenbaum found a mentor in W. Brad Johnson, PhD-his psychology professor when he was pursuing a master's degree at Johns Hopkins University. He credits Johnson's guidance and encouragement for helping him land in the PsyD program at George Washington University.
"The most important part of the mentorship was the encouragement he gave me," Rosenbaum says. "He saw potential in me…I feel like I wouldn't be here without him."
As these cases illustrate, mentors can help you improve your satisfaction with a graduate program and develop your professional skills, confidence and professional identity-no matter your career stage, says clinical psychologist Jennifer Huwe, PsyD, who co-authored "Getting Mentored in Graduate School" (APA, 2003) with Johnson, her mentor in graduate school.
Indeed, mentors can provide support, coaching, professional networks, training opportunities and publication, presentation and research experiences, according to Huwe and Johnson.
"There are so many pitfalls in the education process and so many different ways of getting sidetracked or slowed down in trying to finish the degree," Huwe says. "A mentor can help you see down the road and help you navigate those pitfalls successfully-or avoid them altogether."
But to make sure your mentor helps your career-not break it-experts recommend you outline expectations with your mentor up front to avoid problems later on. Many problems in these relationships, such as clashing personalities or feeling abandoned by a mentor, often occur when both mentors and their protégés fail to clarify their expectations and become disappointed when their needs are not met (see Sticky situations in mentorships).
Graduate programs differ on their approach to mentoring-some assign students a mentor, while others ask them to find their own. Formally assigned mentors provide students with less communication, interaction and relational comfort than students who find mentors on their own. In fact, students who find their own mentor report greater satisfaction with their mentorship, according to an August 1997 study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior (Vol. 51, No. 1).
As such, students who take the initiative to find a mentor that fits their career and academic goals may be better off, says Huwe, a psychologist at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Ore.
"Take some time to educate yourself about what the mentor relationship looks like and then get busy creating it," Huwe says. "Don't wait for a faculty member to approach you because you might find yourself behind the curve."
Here's how you can find and form a mentorship.
FIND A MATCH
First off, consider what you want to accomplish in your career and whether you know of anyone who has already accomplished these goals, advises clinical psychologist Helen D. Pratt, PhD, director of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the Michigan State University/Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies pediatric program.
A starting point: Look for information about potential faculty mentors on the Web. Review their résumé, read their published works and attend their presentations, Pratt advises. Also, contact their past protégés to determine their personality traits, values, interests, working styles and amount of time they devote to protégés, suggests Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy who also teaches psychology in the clinical program at Johns Hopkins University.
Look for mentors who show a genuine interest in you, a sense of humor and who are supportive and kind-all traits that research has consistently shown make the best mentors.
Anne Farrar-Anton, PhD-who graduated in 2002 from the counseling psychology doctoral program at Seton Hall University (SHU) in South Orange, N.J.-found her match with mentor Laura Palmer, PhD, an associate psychology professor and director of training for counseling psychology at SHU. Palmer did everything that Farrar-Anton hoped to eventually do in her career-teaching, clinical work with children and research.
However, a good match does not necessarily have to mean an exact match of interests either-as in the case of Greenwood and Revenson's disparate interests in health psychology and social psychology.
"She is a good match for me because I respect her skills as well as her value system, and I think she feels the same about me," Greenwood says.
INITIATE A MENTORSHIP
Once you've identified a good match, look for opportunities to bring yourself to that person's attention, Johnson says. For example, sign up for the faculty member's class or seminar or work on his or her research team.
Pratt also offers the following tips for initiating contact:
Ask for a meeting and tell a potential mentor at the meeting what you want to accomplish academically and professionally.
At the meeting, explain that you need guidance and ask if he or she would be willing to answer questions about his or her own success to help you move forward.
Volunteer to work on a project with the faculty member-such as by reading manuscripts, reviewing results, helping organize lectures or passing out handouts.
Ask the faculty member if he or she is willing to serve as a mentor and provide one specific support, such as career or academic advice. If the faculty member agrees, you can grow the relationship over time into additional supports.
Once you have the mentor, establish mutual expectations and what you want to get out of the relationship, advises Revenson, president of APA Div. 38 (Health). Discuss, for example, the anticipated duration of the mentorship, frequency of meetings and contact, the mentor's role, any cultural or gender concerns, and short- and long-term goals, advise Johnson and Huwe.
In fact, the Office of Research Integrity-a federal agency that promotes responsible conduct of biomedical and behavioral research-has noted that both mentors and mentees have responsibilities in mentorships and has identified mentoring as one of nine responsible conduct of research categories for researchers to examine.
Some mentors and protégés will even draw up a formal outline of expectations-for example, Pratt reviews a list of expectations with her mentees that they then both sign as a formal contract for the relationship.
"It's best if there is ongoing communication between the student and faculty member to make sure that each person feels satisfied with the relationship," says Palmer. "Re-evaluate that working relationship as time goes on to make sure you are getting what you're needing from it."
REDEFINE THE RELATIONSHIP
Re-evaluating the relationship will be especially important when you graduate, experts say, because as you change from student to professional, your mentoring relationship will most likely change with it.
Farrar-Anton admits that when she graduated she had some separation anxiety from her mentor-Laura Palmer.
"I was very jealous of incoming students because they were going to be able to work with her now," Farrar-Anton says. "I struggled with how our relationship was going to change, and how she had always been there for me and whether she would still be."
She told Palmer about her concerns, and they were able to shape a post-graduation relationship. Today, Farrar-Anton-who works in pediatric neuropsychology at Hackensack University Medical Center's Institute for Child Development in New Jersey-continues to seek Palmer's input on tough professional situations, and she also occasionally works in Palmer's private practice doing neuropsychological evaluations of clients and running a social skills group.
These relationships don't have to end when your program does, but they do often need to be toned down in frequency of contact, notes Michigan State's Pratt, who stays in contact with her mentors and mentees on an as-needed basis, mostly by e-mail or phone. "The mentor should expect that the mentee has evolved and developed into a stronger and more independent, competent individual," she says.
As such, as mentors and protégés head off in different directions, mentor relationships become more collegial and that of mutual admirers, Revenson says.
"Good mentors don't go away," Revenson says. "They are really mentoring for life, in a sense, and will still be there to provide guidance when you ask."