What you’ll get out of this article:

  • an understanding what mentorship is and what it is not
  • criteria for a good mentor or sparring partner
  • an idea what type of mentoring or sparring partnership might work best for you
  • a selection of resources where you might find the right kind of mentorship (in Germany)

This article is part of a series about group formats that can help you get the support and the motivation you need to pull through with your projects.

What is mentorship and what is not?

Mentorship describes a system of guidance between a mentor and a mentee, whereby the mentor is the more experienced and, often, the older one, and the mentee is the one in search of guidance. Mentorship is voluntary, stretches over a longer period of time, and free of any predefined structures.

Mentorship has some overlaps with coaching in that both aim at helping individuals advance in their careers. But mentoring is different from coaching in some important respects:

  • It is informal – although the initial matching can take place in a formal setting (see below for further information).
  • It is a long-term relationship.
  • The mentor does not charge anything for their advice (but the matching institution might).

Criteria for a good mentor or sparring partner

A good mentor is like a sparring partner in any combative sport: they are experts in evaluating your moves and they know exactly how to nudge you to reach the next level.

But here are also a some more neutral criteria:

  • they are more experienced than you in terms of career development skills
  • they work or have work experience in the field you want to be in
  • you like to hear advice from them
  • they ask good questions
  • they help you observe your own thoughts and actions
  • they have time and energy for mentoring sessions with you

The two types of mentoring relationships

Some people are convinced that the best mentoring or sparring relationships grow organically, like in Karate Kid. One way of nurturing the possibilities for “organic” growth is to foster your existing relationships with people who meet the criteria I have listed above. You might want to ask for their advice to a career related topic and see how enthusiastically they answer. You might offer your service for a project they are running. You might ask them for critical feedback on how they see you. Eventually, a mentorship may grow out of it.

The other type of mentoring relationship is formally organised through a mentoring service.

How to find a mentor or a sparring partner “organically”

People who might be a possibility to approach with more informal requests might be leaders, ex-bosses, friends or your colleague’s superior. They might also be thought leaders you have talked to after panel discussions.

Ask yourself: Whom do I admire for their professional standing, their charisma and boldness, or their career achievements?

Find out what your chances are of making this person your personal mentor.

An encouraging word for women: informal mentoring for men is common practice in professional relationships. If you think that these practices only happen in academia, think again. Of course, the benefits of such relationships are true for any professional field. It’s time for women to initiate their own partnerships!

How to find formal mentors or sparring partners

Formal mentoring is a service offered by many universities and other research institutions, often through their career centres. They usually address women because these programs are part of equal opportunities efforts and budgets. Check your institution’s career facilities to see what mentoring possibilities there are.

Mentoring specifically for PhDs and postdocs

KarriereWegeMentoring is a great example of what mentoring at university can offer. The universities of Greifswald and Rostock have established this cooperation in order to cater to the needs of female PhD students as well as highly specialised (female) researchers who may or may not want to stay in academia.

Mentoring for first-generation academics provides its matching services to people who are the first in their families to go to university. It is a fact, that in Germany, your family background determines to a large degree the probability of gaining an academic degree. Sadly, the further you advance on your academic path, the fewer first-generation academics you will meet. By the time, you have finished your PhD you might well be the only one in your department. Reaching out to more experienced people with a similar background to yours could be just the right kind of support for you.

Mentoring for students and (young) professionals

Mentorme is a non-profit organisation that provides not only a matching-service but also an attractive networking and training program to all its mentees. Participation fee depends on your income and currently (in spring 2020) ranges between 374 and 708 Euros.

Mentoring for business and professional women (and those who want to become one)

BPW (Business and Professional Women) is an umbrella organisation uniting 35 regional clubs with 1.600 members that advocate for equal opportunities in the job market, in industry, politics and society. It is one of the largest career networks for women in Germany and part of an international organisation. In order to take part in the mentoring programme, you need to become a member and pay an annual fee of 100 to 200 Euros (with a discount for students).

Mentoring for members of alumni networks

If you have received a stipend or a scholarship, chances are high that you are or will become part of an alumni network. A lot of them have their own mentoring programs in place. Whatever your scholarship or your institution make sure you know if there is an alumni network and if there is one to become a part of it. These are great sources for establishing a mentoring relationship – formally or informally.

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