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Alan Kotok

Finding a Whale of a Mentor

The importance of a good mentor for early-career scientists has been well documented on the pages of Science Careers and even by the National Academies. But finding a mentor who can open doors for you, and not just offer advice, takes special effort. In an entry posted yesterday on the Wall Street Journal’s Hire Education blog, Steve Walters offers a few tips on how to make that special effort.

Walters calls this super-mentor a “whale”: “somebody who is a recognized voice, widely admired or otherwise well-accomplished — in other words, a high-achiever.” Once you have identified an industry or profession in which you want to work, Walters suggests looking for executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, and other recognized experts with at least 10 years experience in that industry or profession. They likely will have networks including plenty of contacts in the field.

Whales can be people you know — a current or former professor, for example. Or if none of your acquaintances fit that description, you can search online for authors of articles or blogs, or executives of industry associations. Walters then suggests making contact at near-by events, such as conferences or workshops, where the whales are likely to appear.

Walters describes a process for approaching a whale, including a straightforward way demonstrate your abilities: volunteer your services for one of  the extra projects whales tend to accumulate, like barnacles. In an article for Science Careers this past March, Brooke Allen mentioned the abundance of opportunities for volunteer work that are related to professional development. “There’s plenty of work to do, even if there’s no money to pay you to do it,” Allen says.

Walters offers ideas on maintaining a relationship with a mentor and even for developing a network of mentors, since there’s no rule that says you should have only one. “Once started, fostering these relationships should be one of your top career priorities,” Walters says, “since you don’t know where they may lead.”