Explainer: What is a mentor?

Anyone at any age can benefit from people who can guide us during periods of uncertainty

Mentors can be experts or teachers who help share with students the joys associated with their jobs.

dcdebs/istockphoto

No one walks through life knowing all the answers. When someone wants to pursue a goal, whether it’s a new sports record or a career in science, they often have lots of questions. They might want to find someone to give them advice and help them on their way — a mentor.

These coaches are people with experience who offer advice someone can trust. Mentors may not know all there is to know about a topic, but they know more than the person they’re coaching. Sometimes they may have specialized skills that go beyond knowledge. For instance, they may be able to listen especially well. That may help them interpret what someone is asking for — even when the person asking can’t quite put into words what it is that they need.

Sometimes mentors can be peers who share skills, encouragement and a listening “ear” to support others.RichLegg/istockphoto

But finding just the right person to offer this help can be challenging. Here we look at what mentoring is — and isn’t — and who might benefit. Finding the right mentor is like finding a comfortable pair of shoes. Everyone’s feet differ somewhat in shape and size. Similarly, the ideal mentor may vary depending on the need, interests, personality and style of learning. One size definitely does not fit all. And like shoes, most people need more than one mentor. Different mentors might fill different needs and fit into different parts of someone’s life.

Also, what people may need from mentors may evolve as the mentees (and their set of skills) matures. Especially in science, technology, engineering and math, good mentors can make the difference between someone who chooses a career in STEM and someone who walks away from these fields.

Role model or mentor?

Kids often admire role models for the cool things they do or for their achievements. An astronaut might be a role model, inspiring other people to want to to go space. Celebrities, athletes and politicians often become role models — people who inspire others to do what they do.

This makes role models influential. That’s why Kate Goddard started FabFems. Goddard manages outreach and online communications for the National Girls Collaborative Project. It’s an umbrella program based in Lynwood, Wash., that encourages young women to find STEM careers. FabFems is a directory of women in STEM who can help identify female role models to inspire students.

Author Bethany Brookshire with one of her role models, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Role models can inspire in person or from afar, but they should not be confused with a closer mentoring relationship.B. Brookshire/SSP

Role models give someone a person to look up to, someone they might want to be like. But being a great role model may not translate into being a good mentor, Goddard warns.

“The point of a role model is to break stereotypes,” she explains. “A role model is more of a one-time experience, where students can see and identify with someone, and be inspired to be them.” Because few students will see a role model more than a few times, they rarely develop a deep relationship with that person. Many young girls have been inspired by chimp researcher Jane Goodall, for instance. But few will ever meet her. 

A mentor, by contrast, will have a close relationship with a student. Good mentoring requires time and emotional investment, says Mary Fernandez. She runs the New York City-based Mentornet. It helps match students who are interested in STEM fields to mentors who can give them career support.

“The most important quality in a mentor is, first and foremost, to have empathy,” argues Fernandez. A listener with a bit of empathy can make the difference between some expert who dispenses advice and a mentor who actually understands a student’s particular desires and needs, she says. This means most role models will never be mentors. Someone a student has never met can’t exactly listen to their concerns.

Athena Andreadis agrees. A former molecular neurobiologist, she is now a writer and editor in Cambridge, Mass. Over the years, Andreadis has helped guide people at all stages of their research and writing careers. Mentoring is not just about pushing someone towards a particular job or educational path, she says. A mentor must be able to see the world from their student’s point of view.

Mentors for all ages

Mentoring can help people at any age, says Jean Rhodes. She’s a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. There, she directs the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring. Its scientists conduct research to better understand which mentoring relationships are most effective. The center has shown that the best mentors let students develop their own vision of what their lives should be like. Good mentors also encourage students to reach their potential.

Younger kids may benefit most from working with someone who offers guidance. These people may be relatives or family friends. That was true for Jedidah Isler. Her mother was her first mentor. She set high standards and instilled a good work ethic in her daughter, who is now an astrophysicist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Mentorship can help people toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Jedidah Isler (right) celebrates her Ph.D. in astrophysics with one of her first mentors, her mother (center). J. Isler

Mentoring doesn’t have to be about a specific career. Isler’s close relationship with her mother never focused on physics, she says. Still, it taught her to focus on doing her best. Her mom, she recalls, “first instilled in me the notion that I could do anything I put my mind to.”

As kids proceed through middle and high school, they will “begin to gravitate toward mentors that can guide them toward the career that they want,” says Rhodes. A student interested in dinosaurs might seek out a paleontologist. A tween into conservation might be attracted to a wildlife biologist.  

Middle school is an especially important time for STEM role models and mentors. This “is when kids really get disengaged with STEM,” says Goddard. “That’s also when they make decisions about who they want to be.”

Without mentors and role models, you may feel there are few people in science or technology to whom you can relate. One result, Fernandez says, is that many tweens and early teens — especially young women and minorities — give up on ever having a career in science or tech. That’s why Fernandez founded MentorNet — to help students connect with mentors when they might need them most.

In high school, mentors can become even more crucial. It’s now that science and technology courses depend more on lecture-oriented courses, memorization and tricky problem-solving homework. Mentors at this time can provide guidance — and remind students of the bigger picture.

It may take some effort, but finding a good mentor can change a student’s life. “My mentor was the catalyst to who I have become,” says Goddard. “She changed my life. And I will always be grateful.” 

Bethany Brookshire is the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students. Prior to this, she was an environmental reporter for Science News, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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