Everyone reading this blog understands the importance of a mentor. And most of us probably know a good mentor when we have one. However, how many of you have given much thought into constructing a diverse network of mentors? Each of us mentors based on our own experience, whether it happened to us or we know someone to whom it happened. The many good mentors try to place themselves in your shoes in order to give you the best advice for you. But in the end, it’s all just advice that you can take or leave.
My suggestion: pretend like you’re the President of the U.S. and at the same time pretend that you were just granted five minutes to speak with the person with whom you would like to speak most to in this world (or equivalently to a lawyer who charges $1000 per hour but who is giving you 5 free minutes). The latter may seem strange but you must also realize that any good mentor likely has many other things to juggle and, while they are doing this to help you, it is important that you are aware of their time and grateful for it.
Why the President? He (and hopefully soon, she) surrounds himself with advisors from different aspects of life. His trusted advisors are not all lawyers, nor are they all economists, nor are they all friends to whom he owes favors. When a crucial decision is being made, he usually will get opinions from different viewpoints and will weigh them before deciding.
How does this apply to you? Whatever big decisions you need to make, it is important to hear different perspectives. This doesn’t necessarily mean to ask your math major friend, you high school friend who is now working in a fast food restaurant, and your favorite professor whether you should go to graduate school. Instead this might mean ask your professor, someone with a graduate math degree working outside of academia, and a down-to-earth graduate student that same question. Hopefully you see that of the first three, only one of them likely knows what you would be getting yourself into but that is only one perspective. In contrast, in the last three, all can give you concrete feedback and from likely different perspectives.
You can likely speak with a professor or graduate student during office hours and be sure to be grateful for their time afterward, but how about the non-academic post-graduate? At conferences such as SACNAS, SIAM, and others, one can find more and more Ph.D. mathematicians that are employed outside of academia. Some may work in government labs but others may work in another industry. Approach these people! Introduce yourself and tell them that you are at a place in your life (such as an undergraduate contemplating graduate school but not sure of the area, a graduate student contemplating academia versus industry, or a professor contemplating a new line of research) where you would like to know if they could give you a 2 minute answer about what they liked about their career path to date and what they would change if they could. And after the 2-minute answer be as gracious as possible and ask if they have a business card so that you may contact them if you have any additional brief questions. This helps build up a diverse network.
So remember…pretend you’re the President and seek advice from calculated sources that will give you potentially different angles from which to view your decision. Even choosing two or three of each type of advisor (professors not all necessarily in math, etc.) is wise as it gives additional perspectives – just be sure that you are also openly grateful for their time so that you may come back again for this or other matters. With all the advice you receive, just remember that only you know what is best for you but choosing trusted mentors may help you realize more about you than you knew before. In the end, we are the one that must deal with the consequences of whatever good or bad decision that we make.