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Original Article: Choosing a Mentor

By Erica Weber, PhD, Research Scientist at the Center for TBI Research at the Kessler Foundation


You spent countless hours in graduate school preparing for your career, then hurdled through the gauntlet of internship/post-doctoral fellowship/residency, and have finally made it to becoming an independent rehabilitation professional! Congratulations! … Now what?

Leaving the relative structure of graduate-level training and its post-doctoral counterparts often creates a vacuum of guidance. For better or worse, the steps to advance in your chosen field become less clear and more individualized. And after years (and years) of monitored progress by your graduate advisor or guidance committee using pre-specified benchmarks, it’s tough to know where to turn for help in keeping your career on track toward your goals. Well, there’s a reason why your training thus far has utilized mentorship as the cornerstone of professional growth: it’s useful. Here are some tips and tricks to choosing a mentor in your early career and beyond.

  1. Consider yourself and your goals
    What challenges are you facing next? Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? Are you building an independently funded track of research, applying for tenure, or expanding the reach of your clinic? Clearly identify your anticipated path, and map out potential pitfalls along the way. And importantly, be honest with yourself. What are your own traits and characteristics that will be your best assets and your worst enemies in your journey? If you have a good sense of who you are and what direction you want to head, you’ll have a better idea of who will be best able to guide you along the way.
  2. Regularly keep your eyes open for potential mentors
    Take a look around and see who has been successful in that realm. It may be a more advanced post-doc who submitted a career development grant, or a fellow faculty member recently awarded tenure, or a colleague who has built a strong private clinic over the years. Beyond all shapes and sizes, mentors come in all ages and stages. At times, a long-ranging perspective from a senior colleague is most helpful in order to gain a wider view on a scenario, but at other times, it may be more useful to bounce ideas off of someone who has recently been in the same situation. Outside of your own institutions, mentors may be found anywhere in which rehabilitation professionals gather.Professional organizations like ACRM provide ample opportunities for identifying potential mentors, through annual meetings, special interest or networking groups, listservs, and trainings. Several organizations (e.g., APA Division 22) even operate mentor match programs for young professionals. Finding a mentor outside of your institution has a number of benefits, least of which being an external perspective. Different people may be helpful as mentors at different stages in your career, so never stop looking.
  3. Take stock of your values
    When choosing a mentor, think beyond the impulse to match solely on career content and aims. Don’t forget to consider what is important to you as a complete person, not just as a rehabilitation professional. For many, this includes some version of “work-life balance”. While a more senior colleague may have achieved many accomplishments to which you aspire, you may not want them as a mentor if the way in which they got to that point would not be a good fit for your own way of life (e.g., consistent 80 hour work weeks). On the other hand, while a trusted colleague may be successfully running their own clinic on their off-hours, you may want to consider someone with a full-time client base as a mentor if private practice is your one and only priority. Who is someone who seems to be successful in their craft, enjoys what they do, and appears to be successfully avoiding burnout? In fact, many mentor-matches originate from the need to obtain guidance and support in terms of non-work challenges (e.g., starting a family in early career).And most of all, persevere in your mentor search. It is rarely easy to find a perfect match right out of the gate, especially when considering all of the metrics that make for an optimal mentorship match. But with some persistence and patience, your career will thank you for it.