Making the Most of Mentorships

by Rebecca Halpern

In an earlier post, Ashley discussed some of the ways to hack your advisor—but what if you get stuck with someone you don’t like? Or doesn’t know much about your field of study? Or just plain stinks? Lucky for you there is an oft-neglected source of sage wisdom and comforting words: the mentor.

While I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic academic advisor, I’m even luckier to have found a mentor to give me more practical advice. Mentors are a kind of unofficial advisor, a professional who works in the field with whom you can have a close and open connection. Where your academic advisor can guide your classroom choices, mentors offer insight into the information profession. Often, your mentor can be a family friend, a work supervisor, or even a seasoned colleague. Whatever your association with your current or prospective mentor, here are some things I’ve learned about mentorships that I hope you will find useful.

Why bother?

Mentors are people who, pardon my slang, know what’s up. Because they work in the field that you want to work in, they have the inside information about hiring trends, marketable skills, and the nuances of daily life that can make or break a work environment. Moreover, mentors know what you’re going through. They went to library school, they had to search for a job, they had to navigate the uncertainties we all feel as graduate students. Most importantly, they came out on the other side—they have some good advice to share!

Where to find one

Like I said above, mentors can come from just about anywhere. Some schools offer an official mentorship program, linking students up with professionals in the community; if your school does, take advantage! Look around places where you work or volunteer—is there someone you’re friendly and comfortable with? Is there someone who loves to give (useful) advice? Does your mom’s best friend’s niece work in your dream job? Do you follow someone on Twitter who links to interesting things and has thoughtful things to say? Ask them if they would mind if you emailed them for advice or to find out more about their job. In my experience, people are happy to talk about themselves; after all, librarians love to help!

What to look for

Ok, I’m going to be real biased here and say that I have an amazing mentor. She’s smart, funny, has my dream job, and loves to calm me down from the proverbial library school ledge. But what makes her great?

She’s a current information professional. 

Being in the profession, she has a perspective different than the bright-eyed one I carry with me. She’s honest with me and tells me with equal enthusiasm what she hates and loves about her job. Knowing she has a passion for information service despite the administrative craziness she often deals with helps me understand that, above everything else, librarianship is a job that has its ups and downs. Find someone who can speak to you candidly about the profession and loves what she does.

She’s a forward thinker.

Similar to above, my mentor has a good grasp of where the profession is going and the kinds of skills I should be developing. She is a fierce advocate for ebook lending and DRM-free materials. A mentor who thinks about the future of the profession and is engaged with current debates and theories is a mentor who will stimulate and challenge you.

She’s an alum of my graduate school.

While it isn’t strictly necessary to have a mentor with the same alma mater as you, it is helpful when I need advice choosing classes. She knows most of the faculty, is familiar with the curriculum, and can tell me the courses she still refers to in her work. If you can’t find a mentor from your program, look for someone locally or who works where you’d like to work. Having someone on the “inside” is the only way to get the advice your academic advisor isn’t allowed to tell.

Mentors are a fantastic source of practical advice and guidance. With their insight, you can feel better about entering the profession and have a clearer idea of what kind of work is right for you.