I’ve been really fortunate my entire professional career.
I’ve had mentors at every stage. The interesting thing is, my mentors weren’t actively sought. Each time, the relationship was organic, and only in retrospect have I realized that these people served the role of mentor, and that their impacts on my career and personal life are permanent.
Some of these mentors include my high school math teacher, the two women who ran the restaurant where I worked as a waitress, my undergraduate neuroscience professor, my post-college boss in the research lab where I was a lab manager, one of my graduate school mentors, the Navy Captain who took me under her wing in my first foray outside of academia, and the CEO at the first non-profit I worked for.
Most of these mentors were women, but not all. I find it important to point out that mentors don’t have to be your gender or your ethnicity. In fact, having a diverse group of mentors will provide broader perspectives.
I learned something important from each of these people, and in some cases, I learned a lot. Sometimes, what I learned wasn’t explicitly taught to me. It was observed behavior. Some of the most memorable things I’ve learned are noted here:
• My high school math teacher is an inspiration. She’s a nun, so her career is pretty much decided. And yet, she pursues continuing education in high-level math, year in and year out because she loves it. I can only hope to attain that level of passion.
• Being a waitress is tough work. But almost twenty years ago, Jen and Rhonda showed me that hard work is rewarding and gets rewarded. And man, were they a lot of fun. If you surround yourself with the right people, no job is too difficult.
• “Judy, you have to leave.” My undergraduate neuroscience professor played a guiding role not only in my undergraduate research and academic endeavors, but also saw the importance of setting off on a new adventure. When I applied to graduate school, I applied to multiple schools in my home town of Philadelphia. But I also applied to Georgetown University.
And even though he had a personal interest in at least one of the Philadelphia-based schools, he told me in no uncertain terms to get out and experience something new. He told me to leave. And Washington D.C. became my second home. I spent 13 years there before moving to the Pacific NW. And I agree with him – It’s important to get out and experience what the world has to offer.
• “I’ll give you a job for 1 year. June 1 to May 31. But then I’m going to hire someone else, and you need to go to graduate school.” Need I say more? What a great boss!
• Ah, the graduate school “mentor.” There are so many horror stories. One of my mentors took me into his large, well-to-do lab when I needed an advocate the most. Even as an Institute-level Director, he made me feel that my little project was important. And when I needed his help for my next career step, he was there.
• CAPT Liz was godsend. She defended me when I needed it. She supported me when my mother was battling cancer and ultimately succumbed to the disease. She taught me how to do my job well. And she gave me some of the most practical advice I’ve ever received. She gave me enough slack to hang myself, but made herself ever-present if I needed help. I cannot believe the level of confidence she had in me.
• And finally, Kevin. Kevin hired me as a Director when I had very little real work experience. I was a lone young-female-scientist amidst a Directorship comprised exclusively of retired military men. He provided me with a number of professional development opportunities in a very dynamic environment. Kevin is a good leader, and I really consider him a transition point in needing a mentor. He was more of a really good boss, and less of a mentor. But he also represents that last person that I’d put into that “mentorship” category.
I recently wrote a blog on Networking. Your mentors all become part of your network. It’s important to cultivate those relationships. You never know when someone might need your help, or when you might need his/her help.
Being able to identify mentors – either formally or informally – isn’t necessarily straight-forward, but worth the effort.
Now I said that I’ve had mentors at every stage. That is, until now. At this point in my career, I find myself mentoring others, through professional activities, as well as through informal relationships. And I find it remarkably rewarding. Professionally, the person I am today is largely due to those figures who stood out during the formative years of my career. I only hope that one other person views me in the same “mentorship” light in the years to come.
Thank you for reading.