Who are your Mentors? And who are you mentoring?

I work at a big university, and, like all public universities, we are being pushed ever onward towards online learning. Either because I’m cynical about the efficacy and quality of online learning or because I’ve never been trained in how to create great online learning (likely both!), I’ve been trying to read up a bit on online learners.

The other day I found “What Do Online Students Want? 3 Findings From a New Survey Offer Some Clues” on the Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle is often behind a paywall, but here’s the article’s 3 key points:

  1. Students need to be able to use their phones & tablets for online learning.
  2. Online students need more career support services.
  3. Online learners have some regrets about their experiences. Either wishing they had researched more colleges, or learned more about tuition and fees.

I’m not here to talk about online teaching and learning. I’m here to share my reflections on number two: online students wanting more career support services.

Of course my ears perked up at that since I focus on career development. Online students wanting more career guidance is completely understandable. (And notably, not all that different from what on-the-ground students want and need, too.)

A Career Mentor

What stood out to me, though, was one item among the services “students wanted but were not available to them. They included job shadowing, interview workshops, internship-search assistance, a career mentor, and a college-maintained job-search website.” Career mentoring is what really got my attention.

I mentor. I’m a mentor at my university’s formal mentoring program, I mentor via the guidance I offer 1:many here (and to individual clients via my Career Lab), and I mentor for national professional associations. Mentoring is important to me, and getting mentoring matters to me, too. But also: mentoring definitively makes a difference, especially for women (not just to me). We’re all in this together.

But there’s a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the phrase should read: career mentors. Plural. And the second is that this can help mentors remember the mentees they can’t physically see, the ones who are only online.

Everyone Needs More than One Mentor

There is no singular mentor who can relate to, help with, or solve any and all career issues.

I have mentees who need help navigating a specific professional field that I know alot about. Great! I can help! Mentees who need help establishing healthier relationships with their careers? I’m your woman. Mentees who want to change careers? Here I am!

But mentees who need to know specifically how to break into health? Not it. Mentees who need to know what steps to take to assert influence in a male-dominated bench science department? I’m not going to be very useful. Need advice specific to YOUR organization and/or region that’s not the same as mine? Uh… (But I can connect you to great mentors!)

See? We all have our strengths, and our weaknesses. That’s why you need different mentors. I’m not saying you need to rush out and establish a board of mentors all at once, but you’re going to need multiple mentors.

Start with finding one in your current workplace. And if you’re just starting out, I’d suggest that finding a peer would be best. And then from there, begin to branch out into ever wider circles:

  • Someone who works in your industry or profession, but at a different employer or department.
  • Someone who works at a higher level in your organization.
  • Someone whose work or achievements you admire, regardless of industry / field.

Are You a Mentor? Then Who Are You Mentoring?

The other thing this article has made me think about is that as a mentor, other than this blog, I’m largely neglecting my online colleagues, my remote colleagues, and online students. Now I don’t work in an academic department, so I don’t have any way of finding or interacting with online students, but if my employer started a formal mentoring program to help connect ANY student (online or on the ground) with career mentoring, I’d think more conscientiously about asking to be paired up with an online student, as on the ground students simply have easier and more access to campus career centers and department support. Because they’re more visible.

But it also made me think: am I neglecting my colleagues who work remotely? Am I providing equitable access to career planning guidance? (Not me, per se, as I run an online blog about careers!) but mentors writ large.

Those of you who work remotely, or who are online learners? The burden does not rest entirely on mentors and your colleges, though. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” is a powerful reminder that, as someone who is not physically present, and therefore not a visual day-to-day reminder for your potential mentors and your colleges? You need to speak up too. Ask your employer for help finding a mentor, if you work remotely. Ask me for advice on where to turn if they won’t help you.

And if you’re an online learner, ask your college what services they can point you to for career planning and guidance. Contact your college’s career services program. Ask your department for help.

Mentors need to keep in mind that there may be other (and even VERY low cost ways) to reach and serve ALL mentees more equitably. And as mentees, all of us need to keep in mind that we should seek out multiple mentors for support.