Find a Mentor in Engineering
Why Finding a Mentor is Important for Any Engineer
Every engineering field is complex and it can take years to learn how to navigate a career. While its normal to take a few years to figure out what area is the right fit for you, having someone with experience in the industry to answer questions means you spend more time working a job you love and less time struggling with career decisions.
We are all familiar with the benefits of connecting with a mentor:
- Additional networking opportunities
- Exposure to other areas of your industry
- Guidance from someone who has already been through it
- Personalized career advice
Some career paths like becoming a PE (Professional Engineer) require you have time working under someone who already has their license.
But how to find the right person to fill the adviser role isn't clear to most young professionals. Understand that it's not going to happen right away. Many advisers will come and go throughout your career but you can take charge and place yourself in the right places to connect with a great mentor.
Misconceptions about the Mentor-Mentee Relationship
Having a mentor is seen as the Holy Grail of professional development. This mythical, wise creature guides you on your career path, meets with you for coffee weekly and magically has all the connections to get you promoted early. Ideal mentors are hard to find but not finding the perfect one shouldn’t hold you back from making use of the potential teachers that are in your life.
You will have much better success finding someone willing and qualified to guide you through your career if you challenge some widely held misconceptions about mentors.
They Don't Find You
Great advisors don't fall out of the sky. The burden of connecting falls much more with the person who wants guidance than it does with the person giving it. This is because as the mentee you have much more to gain from the relationship.
Mentorship is Not a One-Way Street
Many engineering professionals will help out the younger generation because they see the need for transferring knowledge and keeping them from repeating their mistakes but ultimately a mentor will need to get something out of the relationship in order to keep it up. Make sure you're giving as much as you're taking.
You can offer a fresh perspective on their own career (only offering advice if it's solicited of course). As the more junior employee you probably spend more time learning and networking than your older advisor so share your energy and contacts with them.
Your Mentor Can Be Outside of Your Field
A common mistake young engineers make when first looking for a mentor is to assume they need to find someone that shares the same degree and job title. If you're a young mechanical engineer you might feel that the only people that have anything to teach you are in the mechanical discipline. An entry-level software engineer might only look for senior engineers in development work.
But your direct manager and/or your more senior colleagues can provide guidance on the technical aspect of your job. Use your mentor choice as an opportunity to expand your familiarity of other disciplines and get exposure to other career paths.
Anyone in the same industry as you can provide tailored career advice. But someone with a contrasting discipline will have a wider view of how you could fill technical or managerial roles.
Mentors Don't Have to be Older Than You
Keep your mind open to allow relationships to form in areas you don’t expect. I had a coworker who gave me advice throughout my career but his greater impact to me was what he shared about his home life. He and his wife both worked full loads and cared for their small kids. This example made me realize my husband and I could succeed in a similar situation.
Where to Meet Your Next Mentor
Where can you actually find a mentor? To be successful with this you need to position yourself to have interactions with as many experienced, successful engineers as possible. This can come in a variety of forms.
If you’re lucky enough to have a well-support formal mentorship program at work, start by checking it out. The effectiveness of these programs will vary but if you have a good one they will help place you with an experienced professional in your industry who has the skills you’re hoping to develop.
The drawback of a formal program is that the relationship can seem a bit forced since it didn’t come about naturally and thus not last beyond the first few interactions. And there’s nothing wrong with that, maybe connecting with that person led you to other people. Hopefully you’re able to glean something helpful from the mentor you’re placed with.
Networking at Work
You don’t necessarily need to be in a formal program to meet people who can give you insights into your career. You can seek out a mentor by attending events sponsored by your company or attending conferences where participants are encouraged to talk to one another.
Don’t just passively attend these events. Make it known that you’re looking for an engineer in your industry to share advice. This can seem a little awkward but really there’s nothing wrong with saying something along the lines of, “based on what you said about your experience maybe you know someone who can guide me in the right direction in that industry?” Say it this way in order to give them a way out. If they are interested in getting to know you more and offering advice, you gave them a way in. But if the idea of mentoring a younger engineer sounds horrifying they can easily push you off onto a colleague they know loves that type of thing. Boom, you just landed a great connection anyway.
Online Resources for Mentorship
LinkedIn might be a good platform to continue your mentor search. It allows you to search a broad audience and apply filters. But this is only going to be effective if you already have some sort of real life relationship with the person you're reaching out to.
Professional organizations also offer services to connect senior engineers who are willing to volunteer with junior engineers in search of specific guidance. Check out IEEE's mentoring service and search for your industry's professional organizations to see if they can help.
Less Conventional Sources
Don’t restrict yourself to searching within your place of employ. There are other places to find a mentor outside of work:
- Church or Community Groups
- Older Relatives
- Alumni Association
- Non-Engineers at your company
Questions & Answers
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