Friday, March 13, 2015

Ask CJ: How to develop an industry mentor?

From the inbox, a great question:
I've recently moved into industry after doing a postdoc (in inorganic/materials chemistry). Having gone through a few academic interviews before shifting my career focus, I get the impression that many new professors are matched with a mentor in their department, who can help them in their professional development. Several new professors have told me these mentor relationships were extremely important and useful. 
However, I haven't found anything remotely similar in my experience in industry to date. I suspect this may be due in part to the size, focus and location of my current company (small, industrial chemistry/chemical engineering, and [redacted], respectively), and the lack of available time to devote to a non-profitable activity.  
I have been wondering what I could do to deliberately and effectively cultivate useful mentor relationships and a stronger professional network. Is this something you or your readers might be able to offer advice toward?
These are great questions - I wish I had a really good answer, but all I have is my own experience.

If you're looking for mentors at work, I might suggest picking one or two people and routinely asking their advice on things one-on-one and seeing if that builds a relationship that could grow into mentorship. I've found that local professional society meetings (ACS, AICHE, that sort of thing) can also be of use in finding people who like to give advice on different issues. If you're attending local section meetings (which are usually held around a meal or a cup of coffee, that sort of thing), most folks are very open to conversation.

Readers, your thoughts? If you're a more experienced chemist, how have your mentorship relationships grown? How do you do it in places that are relatively remote and may not have a lot of kindred spirits? 


  1. Try to go to smaller, networking-intensive conferences such as Gordon Conferences. You'll meet other industrial chemists at various stages of their careers.
    I was at a startup for many years. Although it had a pretty flat hierarchy, with most people at the same stage of their careers, I had two mentors. The first was the chemist who hired me, so that just happened naturally. He's helped me at several other points in my career. It might've helped that we worked for the same graduate advisor. I regret not talking about it to him more when I was in a tough situation. Mentor2 was an older chemist who had come from a large company. He saw that there was very little mentoring going on and just started mentoring his coworkers. We didn't always take his advice right away, but it was useful for future references.
    Anyway, mentors aren't always obvious at first, so if you meet someone who seems like they might have a useful perspective on things, don't hesitate to ask their advice.

    1. Career circumstance allowed me to be mentored at a couple points as well as be such for Jr colleagues. Some places I have worked had environments where mentoring was simply expected, either as a stated function or simply knew you would receive or provide guidance (akin to grad school). Old Biddy makes very relevant points as most industry, large and small orgs, rarely have any formal mentorship roles anymore these days to help integrate and guide younger workers. Although direct supervisors and even group/department level leaders should naturally provide some responsibility as part of their positions, many struggle being effective managers, especially bench scientists, much less take on active participation to train and counsel others based on their experiences (frankly doing it can be a lot of work beyond routine day to day interactions). However as OB further well says become aware of who around really knows their stuff, even if seems for a narrow aspect of the work, then find a connection to seek them out and ask them for assistance on a particular issue or just to talk about it sometime (maybe even offer to take them to lunch). Most people are probably willing to share expertise if they sense someone is interested in listening and can do in relaxed way. A good platform to ID who to approach is seek to join project or other teams efforts, remaining inquisitive without overdoing it while contributing as possible where one can.
      In the end if one wants to build a network of mentors long term one must remember to be an example as grow and new people come in (pay back).

  2. What happens when the person you are mentoring leaves the company?

  3. I had a mentor for about 2 weeks. My mentor then left the company.

  4. You keep in touch, perhaps have a drink at a conference every now and again. Wash, rinse, repeat, and congratulations you have a network that lets you know that there's an interesting job going that you might want to apply for.