Why you need a mentor!

We recently attended a conference themed around inclusion in Higher Education. As students and staff shared their academic and career success stories, a common theme rang through their talks – they all attributed their ‘big break’ to having a mentor. We realised that mentorship was not just an important but an essential ingredient for career success. In this article, Amara discusses how mentoring can make a difference in your journey as an aspiring professional.

Mentorship can be defined as a personal development relationship where a more experienced and knowledgeable person (mentor) teaches or guides a less knowledgeable or experienced person (mentee). A mentor shares their knowledge, experience and contacts with their mentee; empowering the mentee to achieve their career goals. Mentors lead, motivate, inspire, teach and sometimes coach their mentees. If you read autobiographies of people who have made noteworthy achievements, a mentor’s contribution is usually gratefully acknowledged. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group noted that mentorship could be ‘the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one.’ Do you have a mentor? Do you think you need one?

What the view like where you are? – The most important thing my mentors share with me is the benefit of their experience. A mentor has been where you are. This is where I separate the terms ‘coach’ and ‘mentor’. A coach does not necessarily need to have your personal experience but a mentor does. A mentor has been ‘in your shoes.’ A career mentor has been in your role, dealt with that issue you’re struggling with, overcome that problem that is currently brewing or failed at a task that is coming up ahead. A mentorship relationship is important because you are given a unique leveraging opportunity to learn from someone else’s knowledge. You can learn from their success as well as their mistakes. By their position of being above you on the career ladder, they have a different view.

A mentor can have a panoramic view where we are tunnel visioned.

The view does matter – mentors can see what is coming ahead of you but crucially, they can also see your blind spots. The decision to undertake a PhD has turned out to be an important turning point in my life/career because it set me on a path which has led to places I never thought possible. My mentor encouraged me to go for a PhD. He saw potential in a bright, shy, confused final year undergraduate student – something I had not even seen in myself. I had many ‘teachers’ but he was a mentor. So I ask again, what can you see?

Highway Signpost

Working hard is essential but is it enough to get you where you want to go? – A few years ago, I applied (unsuccessfully) for a consultancy. I thought I had sent in an awesome CV, personal statement and cover letter but I (apparently) hadn’t done enough to get my foot in. Within 12 months, I was contacted by the same institution to do the same work with them. How? They had been disappointed with the individual they went with and I had a mentor who had a good relationship with the institution put in a good word. Someone who knew my abilities, skills and expertise connected me with an organisation that could benefit from what I had to offer. In today’s interconnected world, everything (well almost) rises and falls on relationships.

I am a hard worker. I believe in putting in the work and being enthusiastic about achieving my career goals but I have learnt that it is not just cliché that who you know – and who knows you – is as important as what you know’ in getting where I want to be professionally. A mentor can open doors that you cannot get through on your own simply because you have not had the time or opportunity to develop key relationships.

Who is your mentor? – Anyone who has something to teach you and is interested in doing so. You can have a mentor for a season or for a lifetime. It is important you recognise potential mentors so you don’t miss out on personal or professional development opportunities. I talk to a lot of frustrated PhD candidates who are angry because their PhD supervisor is unwilling or unable to mentor them. Ever thought about a postdoc in your Department instead? Or a former PhD student who is now in industry. It can be difficult for academics to mentor PhD candidates for non-academic careers when they have been in academia for all of their professional life. Maybe your line manager isn’t interested, so look for someone else! A mentor does not always need to be in a senior position; they could simply have been in the organisation longer. A mentor might not be the person you get on the most with at work but they should be someone who you aspire to be like in whatever area you need mentoring in. If anything, you can learn from their areas of weakness as ‘how not to do’ something. Mentoring is a relationship with another person. Your mentor is human and will have strengths and weaknesses so bear that in mind as you make your choice.

How do I get mentored?Be clear what you want from your mentor and then start developing productive relationships. I previously discussed the importance of using social media as a networking tool. You cannot ask a stranger to be your mentor. Connect first and then nurture the relationship. Find out if there are mentorship schemes you can subscribe to or in your organisation and join them. Universities are now developing their student mentor schemes to help first years with their transition into Higher Education. Read autobiographies of successful people and keep track of what they do. Want to start or grow your business? Read about what people who have accomplished your dream have to say about how they did. Continue to be a part of The Hub and check out our ‘The Professionals’ section. Don’t be put off by negative responses. Keep at it.

Symbiosis and synergy not parasitism – Before approaching someone to ask if they will mentor you, ask yourself what you are bringing to the table. Mentoring requires a lot of effort from the mentor. They will be investing their time in you, they will be introducing you to their contacts – their reputation being on the line if you mess up! If your only interest is getting all you can from them to climb that career ladder as fast as you can, that is a parasitic relationship – where only the parasite you benefits. So bring something to the table. What can you do for your mentor? Do they have a problem you can help them solve? What are their interests? Can you offer your time or skills to help them accomplish their own goals? A wise man told me recently that every leader, manager and mentor loves someone who removes not adds to their burden.

What about you? Who are you mentoring?

Be humble and willing to learn. A mentoring relationship can just be that extra you need in your journey as an aspiring professional. If you enjoyed this article, look out for Part II and share, comment and connect.

‘The Professionals’ – Mathematics…the poetry of logical ideas!

Dr Nira Chamberlain
Dr Nira Chamberlain

‘The Professionals’ is our latest addition to The Hub. Here, we share wisdom and advice from inspirational professionals who have made their mark in their respective disciplines. I (Amara) was privileged to be invited to speak at a STEM Careers Event and I was inspired and challenged by Dr Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for his subject. I wrote the quote below in my notebook and have been applying it to every personal and professional challenge I have come across to date. In today’s article, Dr Nira Chamberlain – listed by the Science Council as one of the UK’s top 100 scientists – discusses his passion for Mathematics and what it takes to excel as a professional mathematician.

“Mathematics is not easy, it isn’t supposed to be easy. It is about being tenacious and working on a problem until you can find a solution, it is about not giving up!”

Nira Chamberlain 

APH: Can you tell us about your educational and professional background?

NC: I am a Professional Mathematical Modeller, Chartered Scientist, Chartered Mathematician and Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. I have a PhD in Mathematics, MSc in Industrial Mathematical Modelling and BSc (Hons) in Mathematics. In addition to this, I am a BBC Expert Voice.

APH: When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in Mathematics?

NC: When I was 17 years old, I successful solved a Geography field trip problem using mathematical statistics. I had to find the relationship between a river’s depth and its speed. I thought… this is good fun! Four years later, I was informed that I could pursue a career as a Professional Mathematician.

APH: Please could you expatiate on what you mean by “you were informed you could pursue a career as a professional mathematician.”

NC: As I was entering the final year of my Mathematics Degree, I took a Careers book from the Library. I went through this to list all the possible jobs I could do. When I reached the section Professional Mathematician, I closed the book and looked no further.

APH: In your opinion, what are the important skills and personal attributes that are required to succeed as a Mathematician?

NC: In my opinion, to succeed in mathematics you would have to be highly motivated, hard working as well as fiercely competitive but have honour and integrity. You must also be determined to show you are the best in the world but must respect and learn from other highly skilled mathematicians. Finally, you must be absolutely willing to go to heroic lengths to avoid being defeated by a problem. This is how you succeed as a mathematician. The moment you become arrogant or complacent is the time you stop being a mathematician.

APH: You mention being ‘fiercely competitive’ as an important attribute to succeed as a mathematician. Please could you elaborate on this? Sometimes people read ‘competitive’ as ‘combative’ Do you have any wisdom to share on how we can remain competitive but not fall into the ‘win at all costs’ trap?

NC: A mathematician’s competitiveness is driven by the need to solve even more complex problems, in other words, ‘to up my game.’ This is similar to a weightlifter lifting larger weights than before. In order to improve, a mathematician will need other mathematicians to bounce his/her ideas off which may require them to up their game as well. Mathematics is creative not political, you cannot push the frontier of mathematics forward by knocking down your fellow mathematician or stealing their ideas.

APH: Are there any myths about Mathematics & Mathematicians that you come across?

NC:  Some common ones are that the best mathematicians are those who can solve problems in 2 seconds flat, can multiply big numbers in their head, find mathematics easy and never ever make mistakes! This is so far from the truth.

Another myth is that mathematics is boring. It certainly is not! Mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas!

APH:  Can you describe a typical working day? What do you like the most and least about your job?

My day consists of solving the “impossible” and doing the mathematics that scientist and engineers can’t do.  Most days, I am designing a mathematical approach on the whiteboard, then I am working on a computer writing complex mathematical algorithms. What I most like about my job is turning complex real life problems into a mathematical argument and then solving it. On the downside, sometimes due to the nature of my job, I could be away from my family for long periods. However, due to technology advancements this is occurring less and less.

APH: What do you wish someone else had told you before you embarked on your professional journey?

NC: The importance and value of doing a PhD. Seven years into my career I met members  of the Congress of African-American Research Mathematicians. They showed me the importance of adding significant knowledge to the field of mathematics as well as the need of having more Black mathematicians achieving this.

APH: Do you have any mentors? If yes, who are they and how important has having a mentor been to you?

NC: My cousin is a Professor of Economics and is my intellectual inspiration. A Black man who pursued his intellectual passion to the very top of his field   – wow! He gave me advice and encouragement, so he is the nearest thing to being a mentor. I also have an international and domestic network of mathematical friends. We chat and encourage each other. There is a saying, “iron sharpens iron” and this is true. We keep each other mathematically sharp,

APH: What achievements are you most proud of? 

Successfully completing my PhD part time while I was working full time and raising a family at the same time. Being recognized by the Science Council as one of the Top 100 Scientists in the UK. Becoming the first Black Mathematician to make it into the Who’s Who. There are only approximately 30 mathematicians in the Who’s Who and they tend to be the UK’s most top notch mathematicians. To be recognized in this way and to join such an exclusive group, I have to give God the praise.

APH: What advice would you share with parents or guardians about helping their children develop a love for Mathematics? 

Mathematics is really a fantastic adventurous game and should be viewed as such. The British mathematician Sir John Kingman once said,

“Mathematicians are better if they stay a bit childish and play the game as a game. This is the key to teaching mathematics, it’s not to flood people with practical problems, rather it is to say that this is the best game that has ever been invented. It beats Monopoly, it beats chess and it happens that it can enable you to land rockets on the moon. The real mathematical advances have been made by people who just loved it.”

APH: What advice would you share with anyone who is thinking of a pursuing a career in Mathematics?

In my formative years there were not that many Black mathematical role models. However, my Dad instilled confidence and self-esteem in me by telling me that;

“You do not need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician”.

These words has stuck with me to this very day.  Believing in yourself is one of the keys in doing mathematics.

APH: How do you maintain a sense of balance while juggling your different roles – both personal and professional?

If there is a mathematical problem I need to go to war with then I do the “Nairobi shift”. This means getting up at 4am to do 3 hours of mathematics. I spend the rest of the day working and looking after the family before going to bed at 8pm. At 4am, I am at my mathematical peak and my boys are asleep! : )

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