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Snag the Perfect Mentor and Soar!

A woman's guide to enlisting career support

By Jebra Turner

Mentoring can make or break any newbie's career, but it's crucial for the success of women engineers and computer scientists. Not every school or company has a formal mentorship program, so be ready to create your own. Learn to select the best mentor (not one you'll soon pass up, for instance), get the most from that person's wisdom and experience-and give something back as a "mentee," so that it's a satisfying experience for both of you.

"Almost everyone engages in a mentor relationship at some point in their life," says Carol B. Muller, Ph.D., CEO and founder of MentorNet, a non-profit, online network for diversity in engineering and science ( "'I always talk to my dad when I have an important decision to make,' is a common comment that I hear." That may be all the mentoring you need, but what if your family members are not at all savvy about your career field? It's time to scout for another mentor, then. According to Muller, these are the usual circumstances that lead a protégé to enter into a mentoring relationship: you want to figure out what to do; you need to assess your progress; you want someone to network; or you need a role model with experience in an area where you're new.

A mentor can be an asset to you while you're in school, by helping you navigate the maze of choices, like what do I major in? Or should I go to graduate school? But mentors can be even more beneficial in the first few months after you graduate. "A mentor saves you from getting a bloody nose, bloody knuckles and a black eye [in the workplace]," says Martin Yate, executive career strategist and author of Knock 'em Dead 2007, the Ultimate Job Search Guide ( "They teach you valuable lessons about your profession. After six months on the job, you'll either be assigned to the inner-circle or the outer-circle in your company. Do you know what it takes to get into the inner-circle? A mentor can help you figure it out."

Field Guide to Mentors

"Mentors come in all forms," says Kimberly Vappie, chief operating officer of MENTTIUM Corporation in Minneapolis, a company that designs and implements structured mentoring programs for organizations worldwide. "They may be in your industry or outside of your industry. They may be 'seasoned' and have a broad set of experiences that allow them to add perspective. Conversely, they may be someone with a specific skill set that would be valuable for you to have exposure to. What is important about a mentor is what they do to support the mentee," Vappie explains.

Of course, you don't have to choose only one type of mentor-or even stick to only one person within each type. You can mix and match to create the perfect mentoring situation for your background, talents, personal situation and career goals. "There's a benefit to cultivating a variety of mentors with different experiences and expertise-you realize that engineering isn't engineering isn't engineering," says Muller.

Mentorship Dos and Don'ts

  • Do seek a mentor with a generous nature. "Find a mentor who smiles when looking at you, who's well-disposed to you," says Yate. "I get a kick out of helping people, but beware that not everyone does." A professional association is a great place to gauge someone's ability-and willingness-to give you advice, encouragement or practical support.

  • Do proceed slowly in wooing a mentor. "Don't blurt out, 'Please be my mentor.' Start with, 'Would you have time to get coffee and give me some advice?' If the advice is valuable, then you could lead up to, 'would you be willing to meet with me every so often to review goals?' They might respond, 'Why don't we meet every Monday at 8:15 a.m.' Or 'I don't have time, but maybe you could meet with Pete Jones,'" says Muller.

  • Do be clear about expectations and objectives. "Research shows, the more often and more frequently you meet with a mentor, the better. So, it's a good idea to set objectives and revisit them periodically," advises Muller. Don't fall into the trap of overextending yourself, or your mentor, though. Almost everyone is pressed for time.

  • Do have a positive attitude. "If you're interested and engaged, 75% of the time they'll be interested and engaged, too. Remember that mentors are doing this as an altruistic enterprise. Still, protégés must be clear about goals, and not expect mentors to spoon feed them or read their minds," says Jennifer Chou-Green Ph.D., director of programs at MentorNet.

  • Don't let it stay a one-way street. "Mentors have to get something back or they'll lose patience. Offer, 'If there's anything I can do, let me know so I can repay the favor of your helping me to become a better engineer.' You may have skills they don't have, and be able to give help with computer graphics, streaming video, etc.," says Yate.

  • Do keep in touch. "When you find a clean joke, pass it on," suggests Yate. "Add a note, 'Jackie, I just received this and it made me laugh. I thought it might do the same for you. By the way, thanks for your help with the design project. It's going well.'" The goal of this email is to: 1) stay in touch, 2) put a smile on their face, 3) give thanks, 4) show that you're polite and considerate.

  • Don't ward off unanticipated help. Lindsay Hoovey, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, initially wanted a mentor for casual conversations about engineering. She got a lot more. "Even though I wasn't looking for someone to help set me up with a job, he [my mentor] did provide me a lot with advice on how to find a good company. He helped me focus in on the small details, like making sure to look for a company with good growth potential." Her mentor also encouraged Hoovey to learn Six Sigma and other business skills.

  • Don't get weighed down by a mentor's aid, either. "I have gone through periods of time when I've been too busy to really think about all the information she [my mentor] has given me, mostly because it has to do with career advice that seems very far down the road," Kehoe says. Any protégé may be tempted to hang back or disappear entirely in such a situation. Don't do it. Better to be clear about what assistance you do and don't want (perhaps yes to a resume critique, and no to role-playing an interview) and stick to that level of support.

  • Do detour around "bumps in the road." Discussing how your mentoring relationship is going is a simple way to do that. Vappie suggests that both parties "share what they will take away from the conversation, express how they will implement the lessons, and also express any concerns about what may be missing from the dialogue or from the relationship."

  • Don't stay in an unrewarding situation. "Ask yourself: 'Am I getting value out of this relationship?' If not, get out," says Muller. "To end a mentoring relationship that isn't working out, say simply: 'thank you very much. This has been incredibly valuable to me. I'll look forward to letting you know how things turned out.' They may have sensed the same thing, but didn't want to express it."

  • Don't burn bridges. After a few months or years you'll most likely be ready to move on. "I wasn't looking for a long-term mentorship because of my busy, fast-changing life so our relationship only lasted a few semesters," says Hoovey. "However, neither of us ever closed the door to communication and I think if I were to choose to write him an email today to ask him how things were going he'd definitely welcome the communication." In fact, some mentoring relationships flip and the protégé becomes the mentor, or they turn personal, and become lifelong friendships.

Jebra Turner is a free-lance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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