Advice from senior academics · Career development · Mentor

The 3 Essential Qualities of an Awesome Academic Mentor

A mentor can be a huge asset to your career and personal development, especially in the early stages. But who is the right mentor for you? Dr Lynda Tait shares the 3 essential qualities to look out for to find an awesome academic mentor…

Lynda Tait blog pic feb 2014

Isolation and a lack of institutional knowledge are shared challenges for postgrads and early career researchers.

Unfortunately, one common complaint is that supervisors or principal investigators behave as competitors. They may not be supportive of your professional development.

What you need, especially when beginning an academic career, is someone on your side.

  • Someone who you can go to for support and advice.
  • Someone who will be beneficial to your personal and career development.
  • Someone who will be inspirational to you and cheer you on.


What you need is an awesome academic mentor.

Most people would benefit from having a mentor to help with personal and career development. In fact, many universities have introduced formal mentoring.

But before you blindly send a request to someone on the formal mentor list, here are a few tips on the qualities you should think about when looking for that rare awesome mentor.

1.  Someone you can respect and is trustworthy

Choose someone who you admire. Do they have similar values to you?

Try to have several conversations with them to confirm the qualities you are looking for.

You might find that you have little in common, risking an unsuccessful partnership. What you need to do is be specific about what you want to achieve from investing your time in a mentor relationship.

It takes time to develop a trusting relationship, but you need to be able to trust that your mentor is as committed to developing this partnership as you are.

A mentor in your institution should be able to get to know your strengths and help to increase your confidence.

2.  Someone who is well connected

Check out a potential mentor’s career trajectory. What have they published recently?

Do they look like they are keeping up with their field? Do they have a national and international reputation?

Someone who is productive will more likely be well connected. You may find that an experienced researcher can tell you about new opportunities and introduce you to their network. They should be able to point you to interesting people to talk to and involve you in scholarly debates.

You can also expect a mentor to share their institutional knowledge with you, which should help to fast track your career development.

3.  Someone with the skills you need to develop

The study you are working on will need specific skills at different stages so you might want to prioritise skill development before these stages. You might focus first on discipline content knowledge, or skills needed to undertake the research.

Once you have identified your skill gaps, you can fill these with more than one mentor.

You can have more than one mentor if you keep those mentors at an informal level. You can find and nurture a mentor relationship outside of your academic institution.

Check out LinkedIn – connect with a professional using LinkedIn or Twitter.

Who to Avoid

The benefit of having a mentor is getting good advice when you need it.

If you pick a ‘rock star’ or a ‘titan’ from the mentor list, you may run the risk that this is usually someone who doesn’t have time to be a mentor!

When looking for a mentor, you should avoid anyone with line management responsibility for you.

Line managers have many roles, one of which is disciplinary, others being a duty of care to you, as well as appraisal and possibly contract renewals. It’s important therefore that the mentor you pick does not have such conflicts of interest.

Steer clear of anyone with a bullying reputation, or seems out of touch with their research field.

These people are not going to offer the best advice or support to you, and may even compete with you for opportunities or steal your ideas!

Ideally, you’re looking for someone who is productive, has built a profile, and can motive and inspire you.

Nurture your Awesome Mentor

Once you’ve found an awesome mentor, nurture your relationship to keep them.

A common complaint is mentees who exploit their mentor – who treat the relationship like a black hole – tons taken in but nothing comes out, not even light!

Be willing to give as well as take; return a favour, or even catching up over coffee to get to know them better – great mentors are usually people you actually like.

Keep Your Relationships Warm

You need to ensure that you maintain regular contact to cultivate the mentor relationship.

Add value to the relationship – ask what you can do for your mentor.

Find out what’s important to them – check out their Twitter feed to find out the conversations they are contributing to. Can you add value there?

Share Your Skills

Remember, you have valuable skills to share. What could you teach your mentor that would make their life easier?

Junior members of staff and postgrads usually have social media skills; advice that a mentor without those skills would find valuable.

Just because someone is further along the career path doesn’t mean that they know everything. I’ve supervised students who had brilliant ideas and approached problems with a fresh perspective.

Mentorship can be a two-way street and enjoyable for both parties. I’ve mentored several postgrads and found it an immensely rewarding experience.

Carving out a successful academic career can be difficult, with many setbacks along the way. Having someone on your side as your champion can make all the difference to succeeding in building your academic track-record.

Good mentors, especially awesome mentors, are hard to find. In the meantime, to widen your knowledge, consider taking advantage of blogs, forums, or a career coach if you can afford this option.

Check out more fantastic advice from Lynda on her personal website:


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