The five mentors every student needs

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The first thing you should know is that you don’t need a mentor – you need five of them. It’s almost impossible for students to find in a single person the full range of academic and professional mentorship that they typically need. Instead, students do well when they find multiple mentors who embody different aspects of the five types of support that define well-rounded mentorship. Here’s what you need:

1. A field mentor: someone who knows your area of work

This mentor is a content expert who helps you learn the information and skills required to develop as a clinician or researcher in your field of study. The biggest mistake students make in choosing a field mentor is picking someone who is well regarded, but unavailable. So if you have a big-name but too-busy mentor, consider rounding them out with a second, more accessible field mentor.

These can be people just a few years ahead of you in their own training. For example, if you’re in the lab, your mentor could be the postdoc who gives great feedback when you get stuck. Or, if you’re a medical student, ask 4th years about the best study resource for your shelf exam. Mentors are defined not by their seniority, but by their willingness to give you their time, attention and advice to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

Often, field mentorships have short life spans. Your relationship might be a micro-mentorship of a few weeks, limited to the length of a particular project, clinical preceptorship or work experience.

2. A career mentor: someone who knows your career path

This mentor offers guidance on how to position yourself to pursue a particular career path. In a perfect world, your field mentor and career mentor would be the same person. But unless you’ve chosen the same career path as your field mentor, they probably won’t have the background or knowledge required to offer you sufficient direction, opportunities and contacts.

Students can find career mentors by networking at conferences and professional association meetings. You can initiate these mentorship relationships with informational interviews, which are conversations with people about their career paths. LinkedIn is also a useful tool for students seeking career mentors, because you can find professionals by using keyword searches that pair your current field and future career path, such as, “sociology/consulting,” “global health/health outcomes research,” and “pharmacy/biotech.”

3. A guide mentor: someone who knows "how things work here"

This mentor is a person shows you the ropes when you join a community.  As a student, you’ll need guide mentors because every new school, program, course, internship, clinical rotation, lab or job has a new, steep learning curve, and you won’t have the time or bandwidth to figure it out yourself.

To engage a guide mentor, just ask for advice. What is the best way to approach particular clinical instructor if you made a mistake, or the etiquette at a specific PI’s lab meetings? How can you find a research or work opportunity on campus?  What’s the quickest way to get something done? Where’s the best place for lunch? This mentor will steer you in the right direction, and tell you how to avoid common mistakes. As a result, you’ll quickly get up to speed and make a great impression.

You can often find these mentors through social or community activities, such as joining an RCO or attending a department, school or student mixer. Some of these events specifically focus on mentorship, like the First Generation Student Services welcome dinner. You can also just keep an eye out for people in your new setting who seem approachable and have a strong track record of getting things done.

4. An inspirational mentor: someone who has a quality or skill you admire

Perhaps you know someone who always keeps their cool and communicates skillfully during contentious or stressful situations. Or you admire the way they provide care or how they organize and present their work. These mentors are people who consistently impress you and inspire you to do better.

Notably, you don’t need to personally know these mentors – you just need to watch them. Observe not just what they do, but also assess how they do it. How did they organize their research talk? Why was their clinical presentation so strong? What did they say that disarmed the difficult patient? Integrate what you learn into your own professional endeavors.

You can also foster relationships with inspirational mentors. One nursing student I knew consistently asked a particular clinical nurse specialist for presentation feedback throughout her residency and made a point of incorporating the advice into each subsequent presentation.

5. A friend mentor: someone who knows you 

The best way to describe this type of mentor is as someone who thinks you're great, but not perfect. Because they appreciate your strengths, you trust them enough to share your weaknesses. For example, when they say you’re being too hard on yourself or being too rigid, you can hear them without your defensive shields going up.

This mentor’s value lies not in knowing your area of study or career path, but in knowing and accepting you. Other mentors may require a certain level of guarded professionalism, but this mentor is a friend, perhaps one you knew before UCSF, or an individual with whom you've been through something significant that forged a trusting, personal relationship.

Now that you understand mentorship, here are 3 goals for the month:

  1. See your mentors: Which types of mentors do you already have in your life?
  2. Find your mentors: What two steps you will take to find your missing mentor(s) by June 2015?
  3. Appreciate that you are a mentor: What are all of the ways that you have served as one of the five types of mentors to people in your community.

Need help taking that next step to find a mentor? If you’re a student or postdoc, call 476-4986 to make a counseling appointment in the Office of Career & Professional Development. Have a career or professional topic or question you’d like us to cover in Synapse? Email us at with your ideas!

The Office of Career & Professional Development staff will be writing a series of articles monthly on career and professional development topics for students in the health sciences.