Maybe we can get together and you can mentor me... someday.
February 25, 2016 4:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm a grad student and lucky to have people I work with who are often thinking about my future and putting me in touch with people who might be able to offer me good advice. I'm never sure how to respectfully handle these introductions.

As an example: my supervisor recently sent an email introduction for me to someone whose background is very similar to mine, who is about six years ahead of me down the career path I am hoping to follow. This person has already contacted me to say they think my work is interesting and would be happy to make themselves available to me as a resource to discuss X, Y, and Z things we have in common.

I am so flattered and grateful for introductions like these, but I never know how to handle them. I'm in my first year of grad school and still pretty much 100% consumed by doing the things that are mandatory, so I don't need a lot of guidance right this minute. I can imagine having lots of questions for this person in a year or two, but I can't help but feel like meeting with them would be a waste of their time right now. How can I acknowledge the introduction and their kindness in being open to talking to me, keep the door open on future communication, but not necessarily meet right now? Or, am I wrong that it would be silly to meet right now and just not thinking hard enough about the guidance they could provide?

I'm a career changer and used to dealing with stuff like this in the corporate world but academia is more of a mystery to me. Sample email scripts or perspectives if you are the kind of person who is often on the other side of this interaction would be especially appreciated.
posted by telegraph to Education (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would say you should really think about meeting these people for a coffee or something now. In the corporate world I understand how your mentality is more like "what can they do for me to take my next step" and right now you feel they can't really do that right now because you're not in a position to take the next step either.

However, instead of that approach, think of it more like mentoring. They have already been where you are right now! See if there's anything they would advise you to change now given where you want to go. What would they do differently? What did they do that you aren't doing right now? Or maybe it would be really good just to get validation that you're doing the right thing for where you want to go.

Another way to think of it is that you are sowing some good will for the future when they will be useful for more "tactical" reasons ie a job. It's handy to make an early intro to these potentially in the future useful contacts. It's much better if they already know you when you're in a job-seeking position rather than trying to do some awkward networking conversation.
posted by like_neon at 4:43 AM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I definitely recommend meeting for a chat, to discuss the research interests you have in common and to tell them what you're doing (and find out more about how they've done what they've done). My experience of academic mentoring is that it's really about building a longer-term and open-ended relationship with key and upcoming people in your field, so that they keep you in mind when they see opportunities come up, have a reason to read your work, and will have plenty to say about you when you need a reference. You may not need any concrete guidance just now, but it would probably still be good for your career if, next year, you were invited to stop by a colleague's university and give a talk on your research to their department. Coffee and a general conversation now lays the groundwork for this kind of thing (invitations to speak, invitations to collaborate, valuable feedback on your projects).
posted by Aravis76 at 5:19 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, meet now. Every year or two send them an email: hey how's it going, hows your research, here's what I'm up to.

Basically make professional friends. It can't hurt to have too many.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:56 AM on February 25, 2016

Response by poster: Since it sounds like I can see the consensus of this thread already, let me clarify (what was perhaps too much in subtext) from the original question: given that I don't really have career decisions to make right now and therefore don't have pressing questions to ask in terms of getting advice, what questions can I ask (or things can I do or say) during these meetings to make them worth the time of the people I meet with?

I'm a nobody in a very hierarchical system and would happily set up of coffee dates all day every day if it only affected me, but the people in question are very busy (think 80 hr work weeks) and my main aversion to meeting up now is that I don't see anything I have to offer them.
posted by telegraph at 6:13 AM on February 25, 2016

You may be surprised by how many side roads there are to take within academic programs. Most obviously, these folks could want someone with your specific skills and interests as graduate assistants. Think of something intelligent to say about a potential future project you may want to do in one of the areas you share interest in, offer to bring coffee to their office so you're not taking up too much of their time, and stay in touch.
posted by metasarah at 6:22 AM on February 25, 2016

You can ask questions about their work. You can ask them what they think of your plans for your work. These conversations don't have to be about career decisions -- they can be about the decisions you're making on your research project and in developing your research agenda.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:31 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

In general, people like talking about themselves. You need only something vaguely resembling a question to get most people going. This is a good thing! I mean, why would it be "worth their time" to sit down with you and solve your problem for you? It wouldn't. That's not what this is about. But they might feel rewarded by giving you general advice, and will walk away with a positive memory of the conversation, if you ask them lots of (polite) questions about their career path, how they made critical decisions, and listen with interest. And then you'll have made an ally for the future.
posted by chocotaco at 6:36 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

what questions can I ask (or things can I do or say) during these meetings to make them worth the time of the people I meet with?

Well, they decide whether it's worth their while to meet up with you. I'm no longer in academia but it's something I'm continuing to pursue in my professional life: I like meeting interesting people doing interesting stuff and I like introducing people to each other. If I decide to have coffee with someone it's because I think they are interesting - not because "omg, they'll get me a job" or "omg, they are on the hiring committee".

Being interesting and sharing interests can go a very long way.
posted by kariebookish at 7:10 AM on February 25, 2016

I'm guessing many of these are people in other cities, whom you can't immediately meet for coffee? If so, a quick message saying hi and expressing interest in one of their papers seems appropriate.
posted by yarntheory at 7:50 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a nobody in a very hierarchical system and would happily set up of coffee dates all day every day if it only affected me, but the people in question are very busy (think 80 hr work weeks) and my main aversion to meeting up now is that I don't see anything I have to offer them.

I know it seems scary at first, but the whole point of grad school is that you are going to become their peer. In two or three years you will be done with the mandatory classes and be dedicated to teaching and research, same as them. And while that seems like a long time in the business world, it's really quite short from the perspective of academia.

So what you have to offer them is that you are one of a handful of people on the entire planet that is smart enough, dedicated enough, and interested in the sort of things they've devoted their life to studying. So read their papers (if it's a scientific field, the abstracts and summary are probably all you're going to get much out of), get some questions about the stuff that interests you in their research, and why not ask them about their own experiences in grad school while you're at it? You'll likely find at least a few things to bond over.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:55 AM on February 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

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