In graduate school, my girlfriend, Emma, applied to two assistantships. One involved working at the library’s reference desk; the other was to help out a long-time librarian with information literacy initiatives.
The first, in many ways, better suited her career goal. After all, she wanted to work as reference librarian. But she ended up taking the second, and it couldn’t have worked out better. She got along great with her supervisor, who in turn showed her many different facets of librarianship that she might’ve otherwise missed out on. In other words, what Emma got out of the experience was a friend and a mentor.
Finding a professional mentor is huge. College provides you with some skills, none more important than the ability to analyze and learn from situations. But the picture that college paints of the professional world may not be totally accurate.
For any profession, there are THE RULES and then there are (the rules). THE RULES are what you learn in college. They’re officially what you should do as a member of your career field. The problem is THE RULES often portray things as a brick wall. Each responsibility gets the exact same amount of space and they all fit perfectly together.
A mentor can teach you (the rules), otherwise known as the reality of the situation. Often, (the rules) are simply THE RULES but rearranged and reweighted. They bring forward the aspects of the job that are truly important and downplay those that, while necessary to make it through the day-to-day, don’t help you get ahead. What you do with this information is pretty obvious: you work on the areas that count, learn the lingo, and build yourself into the ideal candidate for an entry-level job in your field – someone who’s fresh but not green, someone who’s excited and energetic but not unreasonably idealistic.
But a great mentorship gives you even more than a little bit of insider knowledge. Think about it: where does insider knowledge come from? An insider. And who do insiders know? Other insiders. And what do other insiders know about? Open positions in their field. So a mentor might not only be a teacher but can be instrumental in moving your from the ‘big pile’ of applications with resumes attached into the ‘small pile’ of applications with resumes that will actually get considered..
And this is why you want to seek out and cultivate a professional mentor. It’s not just sitting down with someone for coffee once a week to go through important terms and procedures. You want to exchange ideas with experiences. You want them to see that you’re not only learning; you’re applying your new knowledge and insight that you may have acquired from him or her successfully. Then, when someone mentions an open position, your mentor can say, “Yeah, I know someone who could DO that job,” not just, “hey, I know someone who understands that job on paper.”
This is what happened for Emma. Her mentor knew someone who knew about a job, and since she watched Emma grow and take on more and more challenging work over the two years they had together, she had no problem giving a glowing recommendation.
So look around you and see who you know. Maybe there’s a mentor there just waiting to show you the ropes.