[Ask an Archivist] Q: How can I get more from my mentor?

Ask an Archivist question:

I would like to follow-up on a comment made by Mark Greene in Pt. 3 of Advice from a Seasoned Archivist. “There are plenty of senior archivists more than willing to give career advice and advice on resumes and cover letters, either as part of an informational interview in your area or as part of SAA’s annual meeting career fair, where experienced hiring managers staff tables specifically to review application materials and give what career advice they can. I can say from experience that this service is quite underutilized.”

When I first became a member of SAA a little over a year ago one of the reasons for doing so was to take advantage of the professional support offered by the organization namely the mentoring program. I had hoped to get exactly the type of advice Greene mentions above. I chose the mentoring program for this advice because I currently do not have the means to attend the annual meeting nor have any such opportunities arisen in my geographical area. I had one conversation with my mentor after which he promised me to give me feedback on my resume, I have not heard from him since.

Is it my responsibility to remind my mentor or should my mentor remember that he chose to offer his help? Should I complain to the people who arrange the mentor partnerships and request a new mentor? Is it presumptuous to request a mentor with a minimum amount of experience?

Ask an Archivist answers:

I’m sorry your mentorship experience seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot. On the one hand there are all types of mentors: good, bad, in-between. On the other hand, the mentorship relationship requires varying levels of initiatives from both parties at different times. Sending a resume and waiting is not sufficient initiative. We all know emails can go astray for any number of reasons. Please give him/her at least one more chance: send a second copy of the resume, with a message assuming the first one went astray through nobody’s fault. If the mentor does not respond a second time, then, yes, contact SAA to request a more responsive mentor.

But please always remember, even the most dedicated mentor can get swamped, sick, or for other reasons pulled away from his/her attention to his/her mentee. Don’t assume a particular lapse indicates indifference; sometimes patience is necessary. But ultimately the mentorship must serve your needs, and if it’s not, let SAA know that; they may contact the mentor to see what’s up or assign a new mentor.

Another options, always, is to seek a mentor outside of the mentorship system itself. If you already have even a casual contact w/a mid- to senior-archivist, someone you think might be an effective mentor, ask him/her if s/he’d be willing. Many are. My most effective mentorships, I suspect, have been those outside the SAA system in part because they were more informal and there didn’t seem to be any hoops to jump through. On the other hand, a couple of my SAA mentorships resulted in lasting friendships, so success is possible through either route. I wish you the best.

– Mark Greene

If all archivists were perfect, no you wouldn’t have to remind your mentor. It’s possible your mentor was buried under an avalanche of responsibilities at the time, it’s possible he or she forgot, it’s possible that he or she never received your email (especially if it had an attachment.) It’s possible he or she is a reluctant mentor, who only agreed to do it because the colleague who asked was a friend. It’s possible he or she is just not that helpful. The mentor/protégé relationship in a volunteer situation is one in which you get out of it what you put into it.

Ask. Gently.
Remind. With grace.

Try more than one contact method. If after a few tries you’re not getting anywhere, go back to the mentoring subcommittee and request a new assignment and you may want to specify that what you are seeking is somebody who can work with you specifically on job applications.

But… please consider using the mentor/protégé relationship as something more than just a resume reading service? Mark didn’t specifically suggest the mentoring program for this kind of assistance in his very useful blog entry and while I would never presume to speak for him, I wonder if that’s because if you read the information about the mentoring program, that’s only a minor point of it. You might notice it’s not even listed in the responsibilities for the mentors in the introductory material. My guess would be that a lot of archivists don’t feel all that equipped to do that kind of work especially if they do not regularly serve on recruitments. Having said all that, if your end goal is resume/cover letter review: treating the mentor/protégé relationship more broadly is about provenance and context. The more you two know about each other, the more you’ll get out of the experience. The more you’ll know what to take from their application advice and what to leave behind. The more they’ll know about you and what you do have that isn’t coming through in your application materials that they can then remind you to include. The more your mentor has invested in you, their protégé, as a person, the more effort they’ll put into it, too.

And if a majority of people really do want application packet reading services rather than a broader mentor/protege relationship, tell the Mentoring Subcommittee that. And volunteer to help with figuring out how SAA (or your regional) might offer such a thing. And how they might get people to serve on the review side. But remember that such a service might have limited utility because the person on the other side doesn’t know enough about you to know where to suggest you fill in blanks. The advice you get will probably be a little on the generic side which I suppose is cold comfort for those of you who can’t attend the conference and do it there. FYI: Back when I did my survey of recruiting archivists for my blog, after they’d all ran the gauntlet of too many questions about the job search, I asked one last question. That was “would you be interested in volunteering for a service whereby you’d do some application reading on an on-call, as-needed basis?” Most of the people who filled in that questionnaire? Experienced recruiting archivists with a strong inclination to help and share, or they wouldn’t have filled in my questionnaire. The answer was almost universally no. Not because these were mean people with no interest in investing in upcoming archivists but because, many of them noted, they were already regularly doing this for interns or entry level or grant worker archivists in their own institution and geographic area. They were doing it for people they knew personally, people in whom they had an investment. Kind of like a mentor.

– Arlene Schmuland

I’ll start out by saying that Mentorship is a two way street. Both parties need to be involved in the dialog. If you want something from your assigned mentor, ask for it. If they don’t give it to you, look for another mentor. And I do suggest you ask for a new mentor and explaining why the one assigned didn’t work out, and stating what you expect from the mentor. Maybe the SAA program can answer your needs, maybe they can’t.

In my experience, the SAA mentorship program consists of volunteers with a variety of experience and a variety of time to put into the project. Perhaps your assigned mentor is busy with work reference questions or end of year reports. Perhaps they didn’t receive your request (wrong e-mail or telephone number.). Perhaps they think if all you want is resume advice there are other sources for you to go for. Perhaps your assigned mentor is lazy. I have found that my most useful mentoring experiences have come about when I have created the relationship in person with someone I have worked with either at my job or through colleagues I met through professional associations.

I have served as a mentor with the SAA program and while I hopefully answered the questions asked of me, or met in person at the SAA meeting, these have never turned into long-term relationships. Mentors can’t find a protégée a job, and frankly I resented the protégées who expected that of me. Mentors (and the SAA career service at the meeting) can give personal suggestions on resume creation and resume building.

– Gerrianne Schaad

To answer the specific questions first, I don’t think it’s presumptuous for a “protege” to ask to be matched with a person in a certain geographic area or with emphasis in a certain archival function, or even with a certain number of years of experience. The more information that goes to the Mentoring program subcommittee (a subset of the Membership Committee) the more it would assist their efforts to match people. I’d really encourage anyone experiencing challenges or having questions about their involvement/role in the program (or that of their match) get in touch with the co-chairs, Teresa Mora and Alison Stankrauff. And I’d really encourage anyone with a question or issue anytime to reach out to SAA committee chairs, members, Council and staff. It’s not only okay, it can really help a lot in both directions.

Like Mark Greene, and I’m sure other “senior” (yikes that’s us) colleagues, I’d be happy to take a look at resumes and make comments–and I make that offer to the person who posed the question to the SNAP list–just email me.

Perhaps a question back to the SNAP list might be whether it would help to perhaps ask a few people to informally put together a list of “things to think about when you create that archival resume”–would that kind of guidance help as a starting point? It’s okay to say no–just wondering.

I hope this question and the responses provided are forwarded or copied to the Membership Committee and Mentoring Subcommittee–they’ve talked and worked at making this better, but some of the best input needs to come from members as situations arise. I’ve been a mentor for over a decade and sometimes I have trouble getting my match to even communicate with me–really, it’s okay. You know where to find me in cyberspace!

– Kathleen Roe

First, I think Mark is correct in his general point that there is a cadre of archivists out there that seek out ways, both formally and informally, to advise on professional development. Second, as far as being a reason to join SAA, I would remember that these types of programs are not the primary mission for professional organizations, and while a benefit is that they target the profession better than paid career consultants, operationally they can sometimes suffer from the efficiency one often sees in volunteer run programs. This is not to criticize SAA’s program, which I am unqualified to do, nor dismiss mentoring, which has great potential when the match is good.

On to your specific question, yes, he should remember you and his commitment to you. However, as they say, stuff happens. Family problems, personal emergencies, illnesses, job loss, reorganization, unforeseen giant projects. So before contacting the program I would try several times to ascertain the situation by contacting him through the primary means. I would even try the secondary means if you have one, if the first doesn’t work. If you get no response, the response if off-putting, or if you do make contact but then it is following again by no contact, then yes, this is when I would contact the mentor program.

As for requesting a minimum amount of experience, I think it depends on what you want from your mentor. One would not ask a long-time professor in any field, or a c-level executive, about what it’s like to be a student today or the state of the entry level profession – they don’t know. If you want day to day operational advice, I would seek someone mid-career to several years ahead of you. Their information is fresh and they are doing this work hands-on. If you want advice on big-picture issues – the profession, management, hiring, leadership opportunities, career track, professional development plan, etc. – then yes, in general, you might want a more seasoned mentor if you are looking more macro than practical.

– Michael Nagy

It’s certainly a disappointment to be in a new mentorship relationship but then have a mentor who isn’t being responsive. On the other hand, it sounds like this was a single transgression rather than a long-standing pattern, and I definitely recommend that you take the initiative to follow up. Any particular message can get buried in an in-box at a busy moment (she said guiltily), but also, sometimes pulling together an answer promises to be time-consuming or challenging in some other way, which can keep the task from staying at the top of the in-box. What about suggesting a phone call instead of a written response? Just as serving as a job reference is a lot easier when the reference is given in a phone conversation than a letter, this might save your mentor some time–and give you the opportunity to ask questions as well.

If your follow up results in inaction, I recommend that you get in touch with the mentoring program. You have a right to mentor who will be there for you!

– Jackie Dooley

Formal professional mentoring, whether at SAA or in regional organizations, is always a negotiation between individuals. It’s really both of your responsibilities to build a relationship. If this is the only thing the mentor has forgotten, a gentle reminder may be all that’s needed. If it a consistent pattern, you should request a new mentor. Whether you complain or not is up to you. You might err on the side of gentleness. People who volunteer to mentor do it with good intentions, I’m sure, and none of us know what’s going on in people’s lives. As for the requirements of your mentor, the application form indicates location, gender, years in the profession, and interests. You should feel free to request whatever combination of these meets your needs. You should also know that restrictive parameters in a small pool of mentors may mean you will not get matched. I’d also encourage newer archivists to seek out less formal mentoring from experienced colleagues. Archivists are a generous bunch and usually willing to help.

– Terry Baxter


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