What Is a Mentor and How Do I Get One?

career planning
advice for students
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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on August 10, 2023

As an international student in the US, you can connect with academic and professional mentors who can help you pursue your career goals on and off campus.

A male international student from South Asia sits in front of a laptop while his mentor, a man in a suit jacket and glasses, looks over his shoulder

In the US, the term “mentor”, meaning an advisor or counselor, is an expert who works with you and offers professional development guidance. However, unlike an academic advisor, for example, a mentor is someone in your specific field. 

“I would describe a mentor as someone who is further along in the career field or area you are interested in,” says Jason Rickey, Career Accelerator manager, Shorelight Academic Affairs. 

Rickey points out that a mentor may be an upper-level student, a professor, or a professional currently working in the field. Working with an academic, professional, or peer mentor can offer big benefits: Young adults with a mentor are 130% more likely to hold leadership positions

But to find the perfect mentor for you, you need to determine your goals. What makes a mentor a great source of advice is their experience and willingness to share what they’ve learned. 

Let’s look at academic mentors and professional mentors so you can determine which type of advisor best suits your current needs and future goals. 

The Benefits of an Academic Mentor

While you are attending college in the US, you may seek out an academic mentor. As Rickey observes, many students are interested in research or a job related to research. Since research is what many professors are doing, it makes them great mentors. 

Rickey also points out that professors have a really good understanding of what is going on at the university. They may have advice on organizations, clubs, jobs, and other ways to get involved on campus that can help you progress toward your goals. 

Professors can advise you on courses to take for your major and recommend electives that may help you achieve your specific goals. “They know the courses more intimately,” Rickey explains. As such, they may understand the nuances between classes and why you should choose one over another for your intended career path.

Often, professors have experience outside of the classroom too. Some have worked in full-time industry roles, while others have worked as consultants or in other capacities. They can speak to you about this experience, and reveal opportunities you may not have known existed in your field.

Professors can also help you explore your options after graduation, whether that is recommending graduate schools, possible career paths, or companies and organizations that match your goals. 

Finding and Working with a Professional Mentor

While academic mentors are often professors, a professional mentor is generally someone who is currently working in your field. To find a professional mentor, you often have to do a bit of networking. 

“We encourage informational interviewing,” Rickey explains, noting that many students have not heard of this type of interview. “It is not like an interview for a job. It is interviewing someone for information,” he elaborates. In an informational interview, you may ask questions like:

  • What is your current role?

  • How is that different from your previous roles?

  • What choices did you make that led you to where you are?

  • What would you do differently if you knew then what you know now?

  • What classes did you take?

“Be direct with your questions,” recommends Rickey, adding it is best to keep initial outreach short and simple.

You may come to your initial meeting with several open-ended questions to learn about their professional journey. “But after that, you will find you have more questions along the way, and most likely the mentor will want to hear from you, too,” Rickey says. “It becomes a conversation.”

As it becomes a conversation, it is important to be open to feedback from your mentor. Mentors may ask about your goals and what you are doing to make progress toward them. It is not your mentor’s job to help you achieve them, but rather offer guidance on steps you may take.

Rickey also recommends reaching out to a lot of people to see who you connect with and slowly develop the relationship. With any type of mentor, whether professional or academic, you can ask that individual to be a mentor. But generally, these relationships form more organically and you do not need to ask if they are willing to be a mentor. You do, however, need to ask to meet on a regular basis.

Once you find someone you enjoy speaking with and want to learn more from, “ask if you can meet regularly,” stresses Rickey. “Be clear: ‘can we meet every other week?’ or ‘can we meet every month?’” Set a meeting schedule that works for you and your mentor.

To find professionals in your field, Rickey recommends using LinkedIn. “We show students how to find alumni from their university, filter by program of study, and look at what they are actually doing with that degree.” 

For example, someone may get into accounting, but that could mean personal accounting, running an accounting business, or working at a large corporation, among other possibilities. Find someone who is doing something you are interested in at a company where you may want to work someday. You can also look for alumni in an area where you may want to live and work.

“Not everyone will respond,” reminds Rickey. “But as they do, you have really great connections who can give advice from the academic side of things at your university too.”

If you have an internship, you may opt to stay in touch with your supervisor after your internship ends. Ask if you can reach out every month for a conversation, whether virtually or over a cup of coffee in person. 

Mentor Services Through the Career Accelerator

Through the Career Accelerator program, Shorelight students get additional academic support. A student services advisor works with you to help determine the best degree path for your goals. They will connect you with additional resources as needed to help ensure your successful completion of coursework. 

As a Shorelight student, you receive guidance on how to choose the right courses for your degree path as well as tools for successfully navigating international workplaces, including intercultural communication and professional attire. Professors and professional mentors may be able to describe what a US workplace is like, but Career Accelerator advisors can help you understand nuances like making eye contact when speaking.

When it comes to finding an academic or professional mentor in your field, the first step, explains Rickey, is understanding your goals and why you want a mentor. “If you want a mentor because you want to learn about a specific topic in a specific industry, for example, we can offer more pointed advice,” Rickey says. 

Some universities have formal mentoring programs that pair students with alumni, so your Career Accelerator advisor may connect you with the alumni office. Other schools have research programs that pair undergraduates with professors to help support research projects. Or your advisor may point you in the direction of a professor who can best answer your questions.

And while the Career Accelerator does help you with interview preparation, Rickey still recommends students talk to their mentor. “A mentor from your field has specific industry experience,” he explains. “Ask your mentor what specific questions they have been asked during an interview so you can better prepare.” 

Career Accelerator advisors will advise you on where you can find mentors and how you can reach out. “The whole goal,” begins Rickey, “is that in five, 10, or 15 years, students will have the skills needed to find and connect with a mentor. There are always new opportunities to connect with other people.”

As you continue through your career, your first mentor-mentee relationships will likely come to a natural end. But having a mentor as a professional is also important. Mentors can help you determine which skills you may need to develop to advance your career further and may even be sources of new career opportunities. They may be able to connect you with other professionals in your field. Knowing how to find and connect with a mentor ensures that you will always have access to the wealth of opportunities mentors offer.

Shorelight can connect you with mentors who set you up for success >