By the time you get this issue of Eye on Psi Chi, the end of the school year will be quickly approaching. Some of you will be concluding another year of your education, while others of you will be eagerly awaiting the grand conclusion: graduation! Regardless of where you are in your educational time line, the end of an academic year is a good time to reflect on your progress and the people involved. Mentors play an important role in the development of any student. If you are early in your college career and do not yet have a mentor, I encourage you to start establishing this relationship immediately. If you are in the middle of your college career and have a mentor already, I encourage you to use your mentor effectively. Finally, if you are gearing up for graduation this spring, I encourage you to take the time to say thank you to the people who are your mentors.
As I look back in past issues of the Eye, I notice that mentoring is regularly featured. Others have written about the importance of being mentored, and even other presidential columns have considered this topic. Why would I, and so many others, still be compelled to write about it? Because we all recognize in ourselves the incredible roles our own mentors have played and how important they have been, and continue to be, in our own professional development. I would not be where I am today without the support and guidance of my mentors.
Having a mentor is different from just having a favorite teacher or good academic advisor, although this is often a good place to start. A mentoring relationship extends beyond the boundaries of a particular course and spills over into other aspects of your educational experience. A strong mentor serves as a guide for your professional development and challenges you to take advantage of important opportunities. A mentor has your best interests at heart, puts time and effort into you as an individual, and is someone you can trust. A mentor is the first person you think of when you need a letter of recommendation, some advice on an academic decision, or direction on a research project. You can think of a mentor as your "go-to" professor.
The benefits of this relationship are numerous. Mentors can ease the pain of academic growth by providing valuable advice from experience. Mentors can serve as an advocate for you, bringing opportunities to your attention and writing letters of recommendation. When I reflect on the ways my mentors have helped me, I think about all the advice they have given for sticky situations, all the support they have provided, and the many ways they have challenged me academically and professionally. They have also consoled me in times of disappointment and celebrated with me in times of success.
Establishing a Mentoring Relationship
If you don't have a mentor, it is time to get one. There are two main criteria to consider when deciding whom to approach as a potential mentor: (1) personality (e.g., is that person approachable?), and (2) content area match (e.g., if I am interested in animal research, does that person work with animals?). That is not to say that you have to be perfectly matched. Your department might not have a faculty member who does exactly what you are interested in. This shouldn't deter you from working with someone in a research lab, where you can learn basic research skills and gain valuable experiences that you can apply to your specific interest later in graduate school or in a job setting. For example, one of the students I am currently mentoring is interested in counseling psychology. She has been working with me, however, on social psychology research. In my letter of recommendation I can still talk about the skills she has demonstrated and how she is ready to meet the demands of graduate school.
Once you have identified someone with whom you might be interested in working, approach that person. The key is to start some sort of professional connection outside of class. Typically this is done by asking to work in the professor's research lab or offering to assist on a current project. You can also serve as a teaching assistant, ask him or her to supervise your independent research or a directed reading, or simply make an appointment to talk about a specific content area. Most people like talking about themselves, which makes it easy to begin a conversation. By approaching a faculty member, you are showing initiative and intrinsic interest, two characteristics that faculty appreciate in students they work with. What do you have to lose by establishing a mentoring relationship? Nothing.
Effective Mentoring Relationships
Once you have a faculty mentor, or at least have established contact with someone, follow through with your commitments, be dependable, and maintain regular contact. The key differences between a favorite teacher in a class and a mentor are the amount of interaction between the two of you and how well that person knows you. Take the lead by finding meaningful reasons to interact. Stop by during office hours with questions for your mentor, talk about articles you're reading from other classes that your mentor might find interesting, or discuss your potential career plans. Ask your mentor about available opportunities that might be useful for you, such as career placement or graduate school admissions. Ask about attending a regional conference, or if you are planning to attend, ask which session(s) your mentor would recommend you not miss. Through these interactions, you are giving your mentor more information about yourself and your aspirations. This allows your mentor to better tailor his or her advice to meet your needs.
But don't simply wait for your mentor to bring opportunities to you. Seek out opportunities through your school, through Psi Chi, and through your local community, and bring these to your mentor's attention. For example, Psi Chi has a set of awards coming up with May 1 deadlines (see page 75 in this issue). You can submit your completed research project for the Psi Chi/J. P. Guilford Undergraduate Research Awards or the Psi Chi/Allyn & Bacon Psychology Awards. Both of these programs offer cash awards, and the abstracts of the winning papers are published in Eye on Psi Chi. If your research topic deals with cognitive science, consider applying for the Psi Chi/Erlbaum Awards in Cognitive Science. Talk to your mentor about applying for these awards or publishing your research project in the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research. These activities demonstrate your commitment to your education, your ability to follow through, and your professionalism--qualities that graduate schools and employers want to know if you possess. Further, engaging in these activities maximizes the benefits you can receive from your mentor.
For those of you about to graduate, I hope that you have a close relationship with a faculty member who is able to speak strongly regarding the strengths you have demonstrated along the way. Now is the time to say thank you to this important person. Set some time aside to communicate your appreciation personally, or write a note to express your gratitude for the help and support you have received. Let your mentor know what you found most helpful or inspiring. This kind of feedback is important to a faculty member who takes this role seriously. On especially challenging days, I often go through some notes from former students to remind myself how important the mentoring aspect of my job is.
Finally, if you will pardon the indulgence, I want to say a heartfelt (and public) thank you to my mentors. These are people without whom I would not be writing this article today. So, thank you to my high school mentors who got the ball rolling, Margo Gibson and Nancy Hulsey (Jemison High School); to my undergraduate mentor who steered me toward graduate school, Pam Manners (Troy State University); to my graduate school mentor who advised me through my PhD, Janet Ruscher (Tulane University); and to my faculty mentor who has done more than I can sum up in one phrase, Pete Giordano (Belmont University). Choose your mentors carefully; they might change the direction of your whole life. I know mine have!