The influence a mentor can have on your career is hugely beneficial. A mentor will not have all the answers, but will tend to be someone who you trust to share ideas and raise questions with, who can help guide the way and give advice.
Most of us have experienced mentoring in an unofficial way from an early age. The influence of a parent or a family member working within science and engineering could well have inspired you to enter STEM yourself. Mentors like these have the capacity to explain the utility and applications of science, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of working in this sector. It is these first mentors that often have the largest impact.
A mentor can help you see the larger picture, when you are struggling with an issue, it can seem overwhelming and all-important. It is likely that your mentor has often been there before, or has experienced similar circumstances, and is able to give a fresh perspective on what went well for them and what didn't. Most importantly, a mentor can help you realise the entire future of your career is not reliant upon one piece of research or job decision alone. A mentor will not tell you what to do, they should give you the autonomy to make decisions yourself and be brave enough to say 'I don't know'. As a mentee you are responsible for driving the relationship with your mentor and working out what looks good for yourself. Having clarity in what you want to achieve is key, whether it is to write your first paper or get chartered - this can help guide conversations with your mentor, and prevent making issues bigger than they need to be.
The gender of your mentor does not matter as long as they are genuinely interested in your career growth and are willing to make time for you. What is important is getting a mentor that you trust and respect, and vice versa.
Mentors are usually senior to the mentee professionally, but should not be in a line management position to them. This allows for the mentee to express their ideas in an independent, non-political environment. Better still, obtaining a mentor from outside of your normal day-to-day working environment.
A good mentor may have travelled much of the same path that you are interested in following. Mentors can share their experiences and lessons with you as a means to making your own experiences more fulfilling. While many of the best spontaneously, rather than leave their development to chance, it is wise to be proactive and seek out a mentor. Don't wait for your university or company to do it - the onus of responsibility in finding a suitable mentor lies with the mentee. Delegating such an important decision to an organisation to make a choice for you will only make your complacent in using the process or understandably disheartened if the match between mentor and mentee fails to work out.
Remember, your mentor is a human being like the rest of us. They like feedback, to know whether you are following their advice and how you are getting on. To this end, you should show a willingness to listen to the advice given and follow their suggestions. Mentoring is not a forum for your complaints. But it does allow you to learn from mistakes and lessons learned from those who have gone before, as well as gain pressure that you are on the right path.
Materials World, July 2014