Nov. 21 2022

Faculty Advice on Finding (and Keeping) a Good Mentor

If there was ever a shortcut to professional success and career fulfillment, it can be seen in the simple dictum: find a good mentor. But what makes a good mentor, and how do you find one? And for those lucky enough to find a good mentor, how can you succeed as a mentee?

Here are the mentorship stories of several Columbia Mailman School professors, along with their advice on maximizing your mentor-mentee relationships:

How to Find a Mentor

In the weeks before he started as a master’s student in public health at Columbia Mailman, Andrew Rundle, professor of epidemiology, reached out to Frederica Perera, director of Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, looking for a job. Rundle, now a professor of environmental health sciences, started on the Center’s photocopy machine, but each time he asked Perera for more responsibilities, she obliged. He sought out new skills, teaching himself GIS software, the basic tool of the place-based research he continues today. Within a few short years, Rundle was overseeing and running research studies, earning his doctorate, and publishing studies that built on those started by his mentor.

Advice from Rundle: “Ask around about people who are good mentors. Meet with them and see if you click.”

How to Be a Good Mentor

Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, associate professor of environmental health sciences, is the recipient of the 2022 Dean’s Excellence in Mentoring Award. She mentors both masters and doctoral students, as well as postdoctoral researchers. The first thing she asks her mentees is what their long-term goals are. From there, they work on a plan so her mentees can achieve those goals. Because being a student can be an isolating and demanding experience, she wants to be supportive and help her mentees through any challenges they encounter. She listens to their ideas and gives them space to pursue their passions. She also puts them in touch with people in her network who can help them get where they want to go. 

Advice from Kioumourtzoglou: “As a mentor, it’s important to recognize my limitations and introduce mentees to people who can help them in areas that I can’t.”

Mary Beth Terry, professor of epidemiology: “Mentor-mentee relationships evolve over time, with different needs depending on where the mentee is in their career.”

How to Be a Good Mentee

Jasmine McDonald, assistant professor of epidemiology, has had more than 75 mentees, from high school students interested in public health to post-docs embarking on an academic career. From this experience and her own time as a mentee, McDonald has thoughts on how mentees can maximize these relationships. Good communication is key, she says. Tell your mentor what you’re interested in and what your goals are. It’s important to be self-sufficient and seek out answers on your own. At the same time, you should be honest with your mentor. Don’t just tell them what you think they want to hear. 

McDonald’s advice: “Tell your mentor what you’re working on. They’re going to be talking about you to other people. You want them to advocate for you. Be honest with them anytime you hit a roadblock.”

Andrew Rundle’s advice: “Work your butt off. This is a huge opportunity. Drink from the firehose of knowledge and resources available here.”