Last month we talked about informational interviews, getting in touch with someone who's doing the work you want to do or working at a company you're interested in so you can gain insights and expand your network.
Although I suggest keeping in touch with the people you meet — providing them updates when you follow through on their recommendations, sending them articles that may be of interest to them — this kind of relationship is different than a mentorship. Having a mentor can be extremely valuable, especially when you're in college or just starting out in the workforce.
I've had two different supervisors who served as mentors, one in college and one in my first job out of college. I also have several former teachers and professors whom I consider mentors. What I've gained from each has depended on our relationship and what I needed at the time, but the general idea has been the same: These are people I trust to give me insights based in experience and useful, gentle feedback to help me achieve my professional goals.
Sometimes a mentor-type relationship will develop naturally (as with my supervisors), and sometimes you may want to ask someone to set up a formally structured mentorship — for example, in which you meet for coffee or check in over the phone once a month or every few months. During a job search, it can be helpful to regularly check in with someone more experience to ask questions, voice frustrations, and bounce ideas off them.
A mentor isn't necessarily someone who's going to give you a reference or get you a job. Mentors are people who want to see you succeed and can provide you the wisdom to guide you on the right path. This means you can ask things like, "How would you handle this situation?" "Am I missing something here?" or "Why do you think isn't this working?" No mentor is going to have all the answers, but even someone just a few years older than you can provide insights if they've successfully navigated a situation you're now facing.
As with informational interviews, the biggest obstacle to starting a mentorship may be simply the fear of asking someone else for help. Yet in general, people love talking about their experiences and helping out others when they can. Who in your life could be a mentor for you?