The Wavy Girls’ Guide to Research: Picking a Mentor

Academic College Life

(Update: computer is FIXED and I’m back!)

It’s been a long time BUT Wavy Girls is back with the Guide to Research series! It’s true I’ve been slacking, but I initially started this series to encourage and prepare others to venture into their own research project not only as an academic challenge but also as a journey of self-discovery and improvement. Research doesn’t just have to involve books and old documents- as you open your eyes to the world around you, you unconsciously discover more about yourself. If you missed the first part of the series, Picking a Topic, make sure you take a look at it! In it I mention Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis as the perfect beginner’s resource to going into research and also break down how to successfully pick a research topic.

If you’ve picked a topic and are wondering what the next step is, it’s to find a research mentor who will guide you through your research process and challenge you to think analytically and sharpen your critical thinking skills. Most of the time these can be faculty at your school or at other higher-education institutions that are in your field of study and have experience in the research process, however you are not limited to these criteria. A mentor has to be willing to reciprocate your level of commitment and meet with you regularly to check on your progress and offer advice and feedback. Having a mentor isn’t required to conduct research, however it is extremely beneficial and will provide a different set of eyes and ears so that you don’t have to go through each step by yourself. Finding a research mentor is a whole research project in itself, but if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for and have the right tools then it can be a seamless process.

Defining Your Plan and Intentions

Before you start, you must know what exactly you’re looking for and how you want a mentor to complement your research. First, define what categories your research question falls under and find a happy medium for them. What I mean by this is you don’t want to be so specific that there’s not a single person in your proximity that specializes in that field, but you also don’t want to be so broad that your list of potential mentors is three pages long. Also note that I said categories as plural and not singular; your research is a dynamic piece of work and can be labeled under more than one field. Since it’s your own topic and you have so much freedom in generating these categories you have to be strategic and aware of the options that make the most sense for your specific situation. Here’s an example: my research dealt with the popular perceptions that women in Mexico had of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Religion as a category is way too broad, as is Latin American studies, however Religion in Latin America is a viable option. Other categories that could be considered are Feminism in Latin America or Mexican History. Play around with these and make a list that you can look back at when searching for a mentor.

Searching for Potential Mentors

When searching for potential research mentors the first step is always to turn to your school’s faculty. Depending on how your college or university is set up, you can visit each department’s website and explore through their list of faculty. Try to filter each search based on your list of categories if possible, and don’t just assume based on their titles or short descriptions whether or not they are someone you’d want to reach out to. You have to actually visit their pages and read their bios, glance at their history and published works, and try to get a feel for their personal interests outside of academia. Even if their title doesn’t explicitly state your research categories, they’ve probably explored those topics or have some interest or experience in them. Write down every potential mentor you find as well as their email and website so that you can refer back to it when you’re ready to contact them.

If your school does not have a department for your field of research or there aren’t many people to pick from, try searching at nearby institutions. Other options for potential research mentors are individuals who are involved in academic programs outside of school, professionals in your field, or even an author of a book or article you read about your topic. While it is convenient to be able to meet with your mentor in person, you do not have to prioritize proximity as it is not necessary. My own mentor travels a lot and we still manage to communicate through Skype and e-mails.

This is probably the most overwhelming part of the mentor acquisition process for one of two reasons: either you discover a long list of potential mentors that you find hard to narrow down, or you don’t find enough. If you find yourself in the first situation you must go back and rank each person by who you think would be the best fit as a mentor based on their publications and experience. If it’s the latter try contacting the dean of your school to see if they’d be able to recommend people, or send you to somebody who can. The goal is to have a solid list of at least 3-5 potential mentors you can reach out to.

Reaching Out

If you only take one thing from this guide then let it be this: do not think you can just e-mail someone explaining your research goals then asking them to be your mentor. That is a HUGE mistake, and 9 times out of 10 you won’t get any response. Remember that a student-mentor relationship is beneficial for both parties, so by framing your request as “This is what I want to do and I need your help,” you’re not helping yourself and you don’t seem to want to help them. You have to show interest in their work (it helps if you’re actually interested and not just faking it!!!), so take the time to go through your ranked list and read each person’s work. You don’t have to read every single paper they’ve ever published, but read just enough so that you can have a conversation around it and even create questions that go beyond their work.

Start off with the first person on your list. After you have read their work, write an email asking to visit them during their office hours to talk more about their work. Don’t mention anything about needing a mentor and don’t go into a whole tangent about your own research. Here is an e-mail template that will surely work!

Hi (faculty member’s name), I am an undergraduate/graduate student at (school) who recently came across your work and am interested in possibly coming to your office hours for more insight on your work and to discuss related topics. My own interests in (insert your research category) led me to read your work (insert publication #1) and also (insert publication #2), two pieces which I found to be very interesting. Do you happen to have office hours this upcoming week or anytime soon? I look forward to hearing back from you! Kindest Regards, (your name).

Notice that the e-mail is short and straight to the point. Also notice that while you’re trying to flatter them, it’s minimal and you still manage to link it back to your own interests. Send this e-mail only to your first potential mentor, then wait two days before sending it to the next person on the list, spacing each e-mail out as such until you’ve reached out to half of your list. If you don’t hear back from them immediately, don’t feel discouraged; be aware that they are probably very busy and could get back to you a week or two later. While it is unlikely that this will happen, if you’ve reached out to everyone on your list and still haven’t heard back after two weeks you will have to go back to the previous step and search for other people.

Interviewing Your Potential Mentor

If your potential mentor got back to you and set up a time for you both to meet, you’re halfway there. As I mentioned before, your mentor’s responsibility is to guide you through your research and help foster your analytical skills, but just as they have the ability to bolster your progress they can just as easily hinder your work. This is why it’s so important that you get to know them beforehand. The first time you meet them for office hours is your chance to gather as much information about them, not just about their academic experience but also their personality, communication skills, and their integrity. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that you search for someone who is honest and sincere and who actually cares about their position and realizes how much influence they will have on your academic growth.

When meeting them don’t just be cognizant of their words but also their body language, the way they portray their ideas and emotions, and most importantly how comfortable you feel around them. Be aware of how they speak not just about their own work but of others. I called it an interview, but it’s really just a conversation that will allow you to test how well you’d actually work with them. Don’t ignored red flags just because they’re the only person who check off every research category on your list; sometimes, people who know less are actually able and willing to help more.

Nurturing the Relationship

While it’s your mentor’s responsibility to check up on your progress and stimulate different ideas and ways to approach your work, it’s you who has to take the initiative by facilitating this. While communication is extremely important for a student-mentor relationship you should also realize that your mentor has their own stuff going on and can get really busy from time to time. Establish early on how often you should reach out to each other, and be aware that communication will become less frequent as you actually go out in your field and gather data. Every time you meet with your mentor, either in person or through video chat or phone, have an agenda prepared of topics you want to go over or questions you want to ask. Gather as much knowledge and feedback as you can every chance you get, and be open to criticism. Research is humbling because you’re exposing yourself to the unknown, so be accepting of all perspectives and ideas without holding back.

As I mentioned before, having a mentor doesn’t dictate the quality of your research, but it affects how much you get out of it. Don’t pass up on the experience just because you’re afraid of sharing your work or because you believe you don’t need help; the research process is a long and challenging road with many paths, and having a mentor can make the journey simpler and more productive. I’m not an expert, but because of my own experience I highly encourage you to follow the advice above, and comment below if you have anything to add or want to share your own experience!

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