The Answer Lady: Finding the Right Mentor

Editor’s Note: Rachel Houghton is TechWhirl’s Answer Lady, ready to provide readers with advice on working in the technical writing field. Send your questions to AnswerLady@TechWhirl.com.

Question (s): I’m fairly new to the industry, and I’ve identified the need for a mentor. How do I go about getting a mentor; what should I be looking for; and how long should I expect the mentoring relationship to last?

copyright 2013, Rachel Houghton

copyright 2013, Rachel Houghton

Answer: The benefits of having a mentor, especially early in your career, are more than just getting career advice or having someone to talk to. A good mentor will help you develop networks and increase your visibility, provide a sounding board for thorny decisions, and offer the always helpful job search tips. A mentor is NOT your BFF, but a precious resource as you develop professionally.

How do I find a mentor?

Finding a mentor can be challenging, because if you knew where to go, you wouldn’t need a mentor right? Not exactly, but I can give you a couple of good places to start looking. If you are a member of the Society for Technical Communications, check into community membership–some communities have mentoring programs, both formal and informal.

If you’re still in an academic program, check for opportunities through the English department. Bethany Aguad and I presented a session on starting a mentoring program through the English curriculum at the Sigma Tau Delta conference in Portland, Oregon in March 2013. Many universities have existing mentoring programs.

If you are currently employed, remember that it may be better to seek out a mentor outside of your current employer. But you should check with your manager or with Human Resources/Benefits to see if there is a mentoring program within the company. While this isn’t a standard offering at many companies in the United States, it doesn’t hurt to investigate the option. A well-structured mentoring program inside the company can provide great connections to other parts of the organization, while providing guidelines that keep the mentor/mentee relationship on the right footing.

If you’re still unsure of where to go to find a mentor, consider reviewing your LinkedIn network. In addition to second and third level contacts, you can look at Groups to see which ones fit your interests, and which participants might be open to a mentoring relationship.

What should I look for in a mentor?

In a formal mentoring program, “mentees” are paired with professional practitioners (“mentors”), mentees’ areas of interest are matched with the mentors’ area of Subject Matter Expertise (SME), with specific objectives for the mentoring relationship established, and regular communication set in details.

Outside of a formal mentoring program, if you know of someone who is in the same field (or a field you want to enter), you can approach them about a mentor relationship. Present it as an informational interview, and have several questions ready. You want to make sure that your areas of interest match with the potential mentor, and that they will be amenable to your objectives and communication frequency. For example, if you’re more comfortable with email, you don’t want to have a mentor who only wants to meet over coffee or call you on the phone.

How long should a mentoring relationship last?

It depends. If you have specific goals, the formal relationship could end when those goals are achieved. A formal relationship can often transition into an informal relationship, where the frequency is only when you have a question, not a regular meeting/phone call/email.

For a more in-depth look at finding a mentor (or mentee), take a look at this two part series on TechWhirl:

  1. Making the Mentor Partnership Work: Part One (for the Mentee)
  2. Making the Mentor Partnership Work: Part Two (For the Mentor)

 

Rachel Houghton

Rachel has been taking photos as a serious amateur since she got her first camera at the age of 16 - a Canon AE-1 Program. She has a Nikon D100, a Nikon D7000, and is anxiously awaiting the new (as yet unannounced) Nikon D400. She's a technical writer, specializing in software documentation and online help, with more than 14 years of technical communication experience. She is a former Secretary for the Society for Technical Communication (STC), past program chair of the STC Technical Communication Summit, and is actively involved in the STC Willamette Valley community and reviews books for the STC journal, Technical Communication. She enjoys photography and Photoshop. Find Rachel on Twitter @rjhoughton or view her photos on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhoughton.

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