Nov24200911:03 am

Mentoring update

A month and a half ago or so, I noted that I am now, despite my reservations about the concept of a formal and prescribed mentor-protege relations, an official American University mentor. I also mentioned that my AU senior and I seemed to be on the same page about things—we don’t really know how this is supposed to work, but we’ll just keep an open mind and see how things progress.

And I’m happy to report that they’re moving along well, and naturally. We haven’t felt the need to force things—say, by going to a professional event together simply because we felt like that’s what we’re supposed to do. Rather, we’ve kept it low key and that’s worked well for us. We’ve met for a beer and just chatted—a bit about school and career stuff, but mostly about ourselves, getting to know each other. She came to an Alliance event, heard a Congressman speak, and got to meet several people in our field and find out more about what kind of work they’re doing. And we’ve kept in good touch via email. I’ve forwarded her articles or event listings I’ve come across, and she’s asked me questions that happen to pop into her mind. For example, the other day she emailed me:

Do you keep in contact with your former employers? And how much contact with people is enough to claim that you are in contact with them? Is this like you exchanged business cards with them at an event once upon a time or you drop them an e-mail to say hi every few weeks?

I realize the obvious answer is that it is entirely circumstantial and depends but I thought I’d ask. The reason is that I will probably have to start applying for jobs in the near future (scary!) and will probably need references. Because I was gone all last year I don’t have references from my junior year (unless I apply somewhere in [country where she studied]) and will probably have to depend on my supervisor from sophmore year internship (and wherever I intern next semester). Is it unfair for her to be called by a prospective employer if I haven’t talked to her in a couple of months (I contacted her over the summer)?

A good question, one I was happy to weigh in on. I like that she’s thinking about things like this and that she feels she can ask me about them—not because I know the right answer but rather because it’s good to discuss and talk stuff like this out. Even if we don’t arrive at an answer, at least we’re moving the discussion along.

So I’m pleased with the way the official mentoring duties have gone so far and hope to have more positive updates soon. After the jump, my answer to her email question.

This is a really good question.  Yes, it depends, but I would say there are probably guidelines you can follow to figure things out.  I would say, first off, if you just met someone at an event and exchanged business cards, you probably shouldn’t be asking them for a reference: both because they don’t know you and because that is way too much to ask of a contact you don’t know well.  Then of course there’s the opposite end of the spectrum—the person you know very well and keep in good touch with. They are easy to ask.

But it’s the area in between that’s hardest, and where you seem to be (and very common too).  I do keep in touch with former employers, some more than others for sure. As for your sophomore year supervisor, I would say it’s definitely unfair for you to have an employer call her if you haven’t talked in awhile and you didn’t reestablish contact and ask her if you can use her as a reference. In fact, I think that’s good practice for all references—always ask someone if they’ll be a reference in general and then keep them posted as to when you are applying for a specific job and when someone might be calling them. I think it’s courteous, plus it allows them to give you a better reference, as they’ll be more prepared and expecting the call.

But I think it’s totally appropriate for you to call or email or, best, go see your old supervisor and reestablish contact. Maybe buy her a cup of coffee and say you’d like to catch up.  Say, hey, you were a great supervisor, you know my work well, and I’d love to ask you to be a reference as I start to apply for jobs. Assure them you’ll keep them posted if and when they can expect a call. I think this is something most people are generally willing to do.

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