This simple tool shows you how to choose your mentors

“Gurus breed gurus.”

28 August 2019

Carsten Lund Pedersen

runeer/Getty Images

One of the most important predictors of career success is the choice of mentors you make when you're first starting out.

Studies show that many Nobel Prize winners have been mentored by other Nobel Prize winners – or, to put it differently, “Gurus breed gurus.”

Choosing a mentor can be difficult, because it’s something that early-career researchers must do predominantly on their own, without any experience or knowledge to guide them in how to make the most strategic decision.

No one told me how important it is for the advancement of my academic career that I assemble the right ‘team’ of mentors from the start, so I’ve created a Mentorship Matrix – something I wish someone had shown me when I was first starting out.

The Mentorship Matrix

My motivation for creating this matrix was to make myself more aware of the different types of people I meet daily, and acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses and what they can (and cannot) help me with.

The matrix builds on two metrics that are commonly used to evaluate young researchers across different disciplinary fields:

(i) the number of publications – from few to many, and

(ii) the impact of publications – from low to high (and usually measured through number of citations or other bibliometric measures).

To build a team of mentors, you need to identify the people in your network who can help you with specific questions and challenges as they arise. The matrix illustrates four different types of scholars that you’ll likely encounter on a daily basis.

Credit: Carsten Lund Pedersen

Each of these four types of scholars can contribute to your learning in different ways. Here’s how:

The Junior Scholar: The junior scholar is just starting out, and may have few (if any) publications and little impact. Most PhD students, postdocs and assistant professors reside in this category.

While this type of researcher is not in a position to be a mentor in the sense of being more experienced than the mentee, they are able to provide advice and share common experiences.

Use them as colleagues that you can confide in, as they are ‘in the same boat’ as yourself. But you will need other types of mentors to teach you how to reach the next level of scholarship.

The Paper Technician: The paper technician is typically at the career stage of associate or full professor, and has many publications – but not much of an impact, as measured by the citations of their papers.

These types of scholars can teach you how to get published and help you improve your paper-writing skills.

They tend to be knowledgeable about what will get a paper published in the journals of your field, but they may not be the best at writing papers that have a broader impact.

The Paper Promoter: Though the paper promoter has few publications, all of them have a high level of impact. These types of scholars can teach you how to write papers that resonate with a broader readership, and they will be able to advise you on how to disseminate your research to a variety of audiences.

Keep in mind, though, that they might have little to offer on publishing in different kinds of journals or on ongoing debates in the literature.

The Rock Star Scientist: The rock star scientist has many publications and a high impact. They can teach you how to integrate the writing skills you need for academic publications with the dissemination skills you need to reach a variety of audiences.

In other words, these mentors can teach you how to write papers that not only get published, but will also be cited and used in the field.

The rock star scientist comprises an ‘ideal’ type of researcher – but they are also rare and can often too busy to effectively mentor you.

The right mentor for you

How have I used this matrix myself? It’s helped me to understand that each person I meet can teach me something – and very seldom will a single person be able to mentor me on everything that I need to advance in my career.

It’s helped me understand that mentorship can mean being advised by a variety of people, as most have crucial insight in at least one important area.

As a result, I’ve also learned not to put too much emphasis on any one individual, and instead see every encounter as a potential learning opportunity.

Carsten Lund Pedersen is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the Copenhagen Business School.

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