The #1 key to academic success

Mentoring light morgan-sessions-6255In speaking with lots of academics over the years about how they’ve achieved success in their fields, I’ve heard a remarkably similar theme repeated many times.

And it seems this recommendation for success is not unique to the academic world; apparently most business owners who do this one thing will survive in business twice as long as those who don’t. In fact, highly successful business people including Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson all credit this one thing as being essential for “making it” in business, and in life generally. People who do it report greater job satisfaction, higher salaries and more likelihood of promotion.

What is the number one thing to which many successful academics and business people attribute their success?

They seek mentors.

What is a mentor?

While the nature and structure of mentoring relationships varies widely, generally the goal of mentoring is to impart career and professional advice and support. Mentoring can be formal or informal, individual or group-based, delivered in person or ‘virtually’. It can be a loosely defined, informal link with a colleague from which mentees learn by observation; through to very structured arrangements with formally defined objectives and processes.

Why do I need mentors? How could they help me?

The academic world can be tough, and lonely, and confusing, and stressful. A good mentoring relationship can help buffer against this, and can offer a huge range of additional supports. Mentors can:

  • Provide advice, expertise, information
  • Help you set career goals, and advise on your career plans or promotion cases
  • Offer constructive criticism and identify weaknesses in your track record/CV that you may not see (as well as ways to address these)
  • Listen, and act as a sounding board for ideas
  • Connect you with others within their own and broader networks
  • Use their influence to support your career advancement
  • Act as your advocate in professional circles
  • Help navigate internal processes (e.g. University or institutional promotion processes)
  • Offer their own experiences to help you avoid common pitfalls
  • Inspire and motivate you
  • Provide social and emotional support; empathise and support you through challenges

In fact there are good reasons for finding not a single mentor, but a ‘portfolio’ of mentors, who might fulfil various of the above roles.

How do I find these mentors?

One of the best ways to find a mentor is to identify a person that you want to be like. They may be a successful researcher, or an academic leader who is great at supporting other researchers, or a brilliant networker, or a maestro at juggling career and family life.

Once you’ve identified the type of person you would like as a mentor, you can search them out in a number of ways. You might consider:

  • Are there suitable mentors within your current network? These can be your current or former supervisor, other Professors or senior staff in your department or University, or contacts you know professionally or through friends or family.
  • If not, can a current supervisor or Professor connect you with someone suitable outside of your immediate network?
  • Can you identify suitable mentors via conferences, meetings or networking events, professional associations, or LinkedIn?
  • Are there formal mentorship programs offered by your University or professional society?
  • Don’t discount mentors who are outside of your immediate research area or even outside of academia. Mentors can offer generic support and advice that can transcend disciplinary boundaries, and follow you through job changes.
  • Think flexibly – mentoring can also be virtual, or from sources you may not have considered. For example, check out this networking forum #ECRchat

There are lots of resources around that advise on how to approach a mentor, ‘make the ask’, and set up a relationship, like this and this .

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton

OK, now I have a mentor… what should I talk to them about?

The structure and content of mentor relationships and discussions is up to the mentee and mentor. But sometimes it’s hard to know how to best use the time you have with a mentor. Here are just a few questions you could pose:

  • Can you tell me about your career path? How did you get to where you are?
  • What would you do differently?
  • What would you do if you were me?
  • Could you review my CV and provide a frank assessment of gaps and weaknesses?
  • Could you help me develop/review my career plan?
  • What types of outcomes/performance indicators should I be aiming for at my career stage?
  • What new skills do I need to move ahead?
  • How can I work smarter?
  • How should I handle this scenario?
  • Who else would you recommend I connect/collaborate with? Can you help link me with key contacts/collaborators?
  • When should I apply for promotion? Can you help me develop/review my case for promotion?
  • Can you suggest some tips for coping with academic knockbacks and rejections?
  • What professional associations are you involved with? Which would you suggest I become involved with?
  • What has been your most rewarding accomplishment? What mistakes have you made?
  • What is the best leadership advice you’ve received?
  • What advice would you give on leading a balanced life?

And a killer question that mentors love:

Act now:

  • Consider your current portfolio of mentors (if you have one). Are they providing the kinds of supports listed above, or others that you need?
  • Could you benefit from additional mentors? If so, spend some time identifying potential mentors and note them in your EMCR notebook/file (see ‘Act Now’ on this post). Think about whether it might be timely to seek and approach a (new) mentor.
  • Are you getting the most out of your mentoring relationships? Consider posing some of the questions above to your mentors.

As always, I’d love to hear how you get on, or any feedback on your mentoring situation – please comment below or on Twitter @KylieBall3.


13 thoughts on “The #1 key to academic success

  1. Kylie, thanks for the post. My institution, Flinders University, offers a great mentoring program for EMCRs. I am currently part of the program for 2017 and have been paired with a fantastic mentor. She is in a different discipline but is still able to offer guidance and encouragement around building confidence, approaching rejections, developing a research plan, having difficult conversations with colleagues, and giving new things a go. Most recently she has pushed me to approach some potential collaborators whom I had never met/contacted – scary but worthwhile nonetheless! As a young woman, she has also offered valuable advice about balancing academia and family life. So as an ECR I would agree with all of the potential benefits of having a mentor. I would also encourage ECRs to have at least one mentor outside of their work team, as this provides ECRs with an opportunity to receive advice in a safe space where there are no competing interests/biases. As you suggest, I am going to start thinking about building a wider ‘portfolio’ of mentors!


    • Thanks Stefania for your comments! Great to hear you’ve had such a good experience with the Flinders mentoring program, which I’ve heard is excellent. Totally agree with you about the value of mentors outside of your immediate work team too. Having someone at arm’s length who can be a little more objective is invaluable. Let me know how you go developing your mentor portfolio!


  2. Thanks Kylie, a great reminder of the value of having someone in your corner to provide ‘arms-length’ career advice. I have been in academia and research now for 35 years, and I am sure I would not have lasted this long nor had the success I have had if I weren’t for my mentors. I agree about the need for a portfolio or group of mentors – different people can provide you with different things. I have also had a peer mentor – someone at the same career stage in the same kind of role as me, and hat has also been very valuable.


    • Thanks for your comment David, and great suggestion about the value of peer mentorship as another avenue for exchanging professional support.
      I know many EMCRs (myself included) who have benefitted enormously from the mentorship you have given back over the years!


  3. Hi Kylie, very nice blog. I fully agree that a portfolio of mentors is a good thing to have. After 25 years in academia, I still have several mentors that I regularly talk to on different topics. Most of them are my peers with whom I worked together in the past decades, but are from different departments or universities. But some of my mentors are also people from completely different fields, not from academia. This is also useful to take a step backward on some things. I also believe in a strong ‘inner compass’ to have for yourself. Having your own values, norms and ethical codes is very important in my opinion and can be a good compass to navigate through different phases of academia, as some people may also give you advice that is not in line with your own code.


    • Thanks Ilse for your thoughtful comments. I totally agree that mentors are important at any career stage, and you make an excellent point about the value of an internal moral compass!


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  7. Hi Kylie. Thank you for a great post. We all need mentors to succeed in academic, business and life. I was searching for a topic to present on upcoming leadership event and decided to talk about mentors. Do you mind if I borrow some ideas from your article?


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