The STEM graduate’s guide to finding a mentor

Never underestimate the value of mentoring and sponsorship within STEM. Image: Shutterstock

Keen to get some extra guidance? Career and information architect, Mags Hanley, discusses mentorship and sponsorship in STEM

Many people think about finding a mentor as they start a new career. For some, it’s an item on the checklist of career development. 

Firstly let’s define sponsorship as the collective term for these relationships.  Sponsorship is when a person takes an active interest in your career and helps you move forward.

Herminia Ibarra, in her article, A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership, defines five levels of sponsorship to support and grow people in their careers.

The types of sponsors she describes are:

  1. Mentors who provide support, coaching and advice
  2. Strategisers that share ‘inside information’ about advancing and strategizing getting ahead
  3. Connectors who make introductions to influential people and talk you up their peers
  4. Opportunity givers who provide high-visibility opportunities
  5. Advocates who publicly advocate for promotions and fight for you when you can’t fight for yourself

What type is right for you?

To identify the right type of sponsorship, you need to understand where you are in your career, the direction you want to take and the support you need to get there.

For example, the best type of sponsorship for a graduate engineer is Mentoring. The mentor provides answers to both technical and interpersonal questions, and is a good coach asking the right questions to help them find the answers within themselves. 

On the other hand, an engineer who is 5 years into their career may need Strategizers and Connectors to help them identify the next step and introduce them to more senior leaders who influence hiring decisions or assign projects.

The next step is to identify where you can find sponsors. Some people are lucky and are assigned at work, a person usually outside of their direct reporting line. Others need to find their own sponsor, either inside or outside of their organisation.

Internal mentors

If you are looking within your organisation, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Who has the experience in your area of expertise to support you?
  2. Who influences within the organisation?
  3. Who can I build a relationship with?

Consider people outside of your direct reporting structure to give you a wider perspective of the organisation and your work. If you don’t need someone to review and provide detailed technical analysis of your work, consider looking at people in different roles like Finance, Marketing or Project Management; you may need more support developing relationships within the organisation and strategizing and they will have varied and wider connections. A different perspective is invaluable in gaining perspective in how the organisation works.

External mentors

External mentors are harder to find. Asking people to be your mentor is like the Doctor Suess book, Are you my mother?  You can find yourself asking many people to be that person with no avail; instead be deliberate and specific in who you approach.

Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What am I missing from work that I need an outside perspective? It could be more detailed technical knowledge or understanding of the industry as a whole 
  2. Do I need more connections outside of my current workplace to find my next role? Is there a person who is well connected?
  3. Who understands the industry, the opportunities and career paths available?

When approaching an external person to be your mentor, be specific about what you want from them. Bring well thought out problems or questions; you don’t want to waste their time. You want them to feel as if they can make a difference to your career with their expertise.

Lastly, look further than your own gender. You may automatically want to find someone who is like you, but it is well worth your time to seek out other perspectives.  

Women especially need to identify male sponsors; in many STEM roles there are very few women at the senior levels needed to Sponsor or Advocate. You will need to identify a man who can support you as they have the experience and the influence. 

Men please open yourself up to seeking more women and non-binary sponsors. Their perspective will make you a better manager and leader as you will have expanded past your traditional network and context. – Mags Hanley

Mags is a Career and Information Architect working with digital professionals on defining their careers. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or via her website.

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STEM Contributor

Author: STEM Contributor

This article was written by a STEM Contributor for Careers with STEM. To learn more, please visit our contact page.


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