What is a mentor?
Academic literature tells us that a mentor is an experienced individual who provides ongoing upward support and mobility to a protégé’s career (Hunt & Michael, 1983; Kram, 1983; Ragins & Cotton, 1999). But doesn’t that sound a little sterile? I think personal experience paints a clearer picture, and I’m honored to share mine.
At the beginning of 2013, I was knee-deep in the graduate school decision process. I’d applied to a dozen Ph.D. programs and visited almost all of them. In late February, thinking I had my decision made, I took one final trip to see The University of Texas at Austin. After meeting with a few faculty members, I landed in a conversation with the dean of the college. We talked about my professional aspirations in higher education leadership and my academic interest in management and policy. He told me about his background in Washington, D.C. and his 20-plus year tenure building the college to national status. I left Austin with an offer to work with Dr. Manuel Justiz as his research fellow, shadowing him in college governance and researching higher education policy issues. In 48 hours, the decision I thought I’d reached no longer seemed so certain. I changed direction and moved to Texas.
When I look back, that offer of a graduate research assistantship was more than a way to fund my doctoral program. It was an invitation to be a mentee: to learn from a dean who had led his college for close to 25 years, who had worked in Washington politics, and who had come to Texas to launch UT’s College of Education into the national spotlight. Yes, Austin is great and UT is an academic powerhouse – but it was his personal commitment to making this the most comprehensive learning experience, and the right place for me, that really brought me to Texas. Of all the schools I’d visited, all the opportunities I’d received, not one of them promised such confidence and investment in my potential.
Over the past year and a half, Dean Justiz has exposed me to the inner workings of a robust academic organization and the political dynamics of a major capitol city. He has shown me how he leads the college, how he manages his team, and how he advocates for our critical educational mission in Texas. This is the content I hoped to learn alongside my program’s coursework, and my experience has confirmed that I made the right decision. What’s more: Dean Justiz has taught me what it means to be a mentor. This, too, is something I will carry throughout my career. Here’s what I’ve learned.
A mentor makes connections. He or she connects you to people, opportunities and information. A mentor helps you figure out what you need in order to get where you want to go. He picks up the phone for you, makes an introduction and presents you as the version of yourself that you most want to be. This trust and confidence mean you have to deliver, so you do. You grow into the shoes set out for you.
A mentor asks big questions. These are the hard questions, the right ones, the ones he or she knows because of experience. By asking, he encourages your reflection and personal growth. With such a mentor, you are better prepared to navigate your career path because you have the benefit of what someone wishes they had known when they were where you are. You listen, you challenge your assumptions and you consider perspectives you wouldn’t bring on your own.
A mentor is candid. I like to think of it as “truth talk.” Perhaps your mentor has a job you might like. A mentor will be candid about what that life is like and what you need to know about pursuing such a path. Because of their experience, they can help you understand if it’s right for you. It’s not just about a mentor who wants to see you do what they do; it’s about someone who wants to help you make the most informed decision about your skill set, passion and potential. Truth talk is critical when a mentor sees you veering off course in a way you might not realize. It’s essential in the form of encouragement, affirmation and recognition when you succeed. A mentor makes a genuine investment and delivers honest, constructive and regular feedback.
Thanks to Dean Justiz, I’m learning that a doctorate is not just about academic content. Pursuing a Ph.D. is about apprenticing with scholars and leaders who have learned how to succeed in the field. I came here because of the opportunity to be a mentee, and it has made all the difference. I am grateful beyond measure that I took the opportunity to work with a mentor who understands that you can’t learn everything from a book – even a book on mentoring.
Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 608-625.
Hunt, D. M., & Michael, C. (1983). Mentorship: A career training and development tool. Academy of Management Review, 8, 475-485.
Ragins, B. R., & Cotton, J. L. (1999). Mentor functions and outcomes: A comparison of men and women in formal and informal mentoring relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(4), 529-550.