When entering a PhD, or realistically, entering any type of job or career trajectory, it is difficult to establish at once what you should be doing, what you want to be doing and how to do it. Often, there is no roadmap. And even if there is a roadmap, is that the right roadmap for you? Does it lead where you want it to go?
Within the PhD program specifically, as that is the only experience I have, your initial guidance is provided by the rigid standards of the first years, which are often taught. You know what to do, when to do it and often how to do it. The taught part of the PhD is similar to the latter part of a bachelor’s degree and any form of master’s degree. You have courses, seminars, lectures and deadlines. You’ve seen these hoops before, you know how to jump through and you know that jumping through them will get you to the next stage: the actual research part of the PhD. The part we all came for.
As soon as this part kicks in, our reliance shifts from the structure created around us to doing our own thing. For some people this is ideal. Others need more guidance. Either is fine. For those who want more guidance, it is natural to turn to their supervisors. Your supervisors, having done this rigmarole before, should be able to provide you with the basic guidance: what to do, how to do it and by when it should be done. This should be enough to get you started and meet the invisible standards of the PhD program.
To check whether you’re on the right track, there’s plenty of people around you who are, or have been, in the same position. So there’s lots of feedback out there if you’re looking for it. Even if you’re not looking for it, you’ll likely still be exposed to it. In the common areas you’ll hear conversations float by of other people’s success, failures, frustrations and trajectories in general. This shapes your opinion of yourself and your work too!
Now when it comes to building an idea of yourself and your work, it helps to have an idea of where you want to go. If you want to do what your supervisors are doing (be in academia, work towards tenure, be in tenure etc.) your supervisor(s) can become your mentor(s). Especially if you vibe well together and they are good, caring and supportive people, this is a very nice coming together of roads.
If it turns out you and your supervisors don’t actually work that well together, or they are so busy they can’t really add supporting you more to their curriculum, you can take on a collaborator for further research, but that only solves the research aspect of the issue. You might also want to look at taking on a mentor. A mentor is someone who guides and supports you also on a more personal, or more career oriented level, rather than just with research or the PhD. Mentors tend to be people who you can look up to, who are ahead of you, and often in positions that you’d like to be in.
Mentors need not be people who are twice your age and have already reached your end goal. Sometimes, that is not that helpful. The reasons for this are varied. First, as soon as you are not a cis-gendered, rich, heterosexual, white, Western male there’s a lot less people to pick from if you’re aiming for someone in tenure about twice your age. Because the majority actually has those characteristics. This makes their experience a lot less useful to you, because you have an added on layer of your experience as a woman, non-white or non-any-of-the-characteristics-just-mentioned. Their experience can never be yours, as sad as that is. Just keeping it real here.
Additionally to the characteristic divide, someone who got tenure several decades, or even just one decade ago, is facing a very different kind of academia than you are. Academia, despite it having turtle-tendencies, has actually rapidly been changing, with hiring more and more people at the bottom levels, and opening up fewer and fewer positions at the top. It’s essentially become a pyramid-shaped pressure cooker. Someone who has recently (past 5ish years) gone through this market, and got where you want to go next, probably has a lot more current insights into what’s what than someone who obtained that position 30 years ago. Just saying.
Mentorship becomes even more important as soon as you’re deviating from “the script”. Rather obviously, your PhD supervisors are in academia, and as such have (predominantly) followed the academic trajectory. Likely, they know very little about any other trajectory at all. So as soon as you decide you don’t want to be in academia, but want to develop into a highly trained researcher in industry, who do you turn to?
Before I place all of academia in an ivory tower, there’s quite a few academics in my circle (keep in mind I’m placed at a business school) who do have strong ties with industry. They either run a consultancy business on the side, or most of their research is industry focused or industry driven (e.g. their data is from industry). Some academics might have had a long career in industry before they decided to transfer to academia. Some still do both. It’s those type of people that you'll be looking for!
Another way of going about this is to find someone who has a PhD and transferred into industry. Reach out to them and task them about their experience. How did they do it? Was it difficult? What should you look out for doing a similar move? Do they have people in their network who can help you further? These are not strange questions at all. Chances are, the person you’re talking to has asked similar questions to the people they reached out to. Or maybe just wished they had.
Also, keep in mind, you reaching out to anyone is just you asking for help. Most people are perfectly happy providing you with their experience and some advice. You don’t really go up to someone you don’t know and ask them to become your mentor, that’s often not how it works, unless you’re literally enrolled in a mentoring program.
Mentorship is something that often develops after multiple interactions where the person that is ahead of you continues to help you; giving you pointers and moving you in the direction you want to go. This need not be an official agreement, this can be rather casual. These meetings can be super infrequent, where you just reach out when you want help with something, or they reach out to you to check in on how you’re doing. Do keep in mind, their time is likely limited, so don’t make this a one-way street. Do emphasize that you’re grateful for their time, and that if you can help them, add to their life in anyway (e.g. teaching for them, doing research together, actual collaborations) you’d be very happy to do it. It’ll likely be much appreciated and the offer is quite likely to be taken up.
I hope this article was helpful in outlining the different ways in which you can seek out mentors, and what kind of mentors there are. This article is in no way, shape or form and exhaustive list of either, but I just wanted to emphasize that just because you have one, or even multiple, PhD supervisor(s), that that is enough. Sometimes a mentor can help you in many more ways, which might be more meaningful towards your career progression in the end. Good luck!