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Why You Need a Mentor – Even Before You Graduate

Topics: Career Advice
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Like almost every college first-year, I changed my career path. I initially decided to study economics and English, then go to law school. All my work in high school had been centered about going to law school, including a two-summer internship at a non-profit law firm.

But once I was in college, my interests diverged from my plan. I still wanted to study English (given the fact that the mastery of language is a valuable skill no matter the field), but my passion for design started to resurface. More surprisingly, while I’d found that I didn’t like computer science in high school, I was now excited by the problem-solving and thinking that the field requires.

And so, I decided I would delve into the field of User Experience and Human Computer Interaction. But I faced a big problem: how could I even begin to make the transition into a completely different potential career path? Ultimately, the answer was to get a mentor.

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I believe that getting a mentor was the major distinguishing factor that has led me to the position I am in today, having completed an internship in Silicon Valley and anticipating a summer working for a large tech company in Redmond, Washington as a UX intern. The most useful tip I can give to young people starting out in an industry in which they have no prior knowledge of experience is: Get a mentor.

I can only speak on my own experience with my mentor, but I want to outline the importance of his role in my professional development.

A good mentor can:

Provide an Industry Overview

When I began to become interested in UX, my mentor helped me understand what it is really like to work in the industry. I knew I was interested in the interdisciplinary nature of UX, but I did not really know the social settings I would work in nor the personality types. Mike Bach, design head and CEO of Joy, helped me understand that UX is a both incredibly collaborative and individualistic. I think the combination of independent design work and team critique and iteration was appealing to me.

Facilitate Opportunities for Work Experience

Because I had no work experience in UX, I was really apprehensive about trying to find a team that would take such a novice. However, when I expressed these concerns to my mentor, he asked me if I wanted to apply to intern for his company. Having a personal relationship with Mike allowed me to demonstrate my passion for UX, despite my lack of experience. While I could have blindly applied to companies, hoping that one of them would take a chance on me, I think my relationship with my mentor made the process less stressful and more fruitful for me. Because Mike knew the skill set I had, he facilitated a program for me that best fit my needs as well as the company’s.

Not every mentor will have the capacity to offer their mentees internships, but I think having a connection to someone in the industry will facilitate work opportunities.

Connect You to Other People in the Field

Through my internship at Joy, I was able to meet my fellow design intern, a then-sophomore with more experience under her belt as a young UX designer. Her knowledge, advice, and companionship was especially encouraging to me; she had insight as to what to do as an undergraduate looking for work that Mike did not.

Provide Intra-Industry Knowledge

Googling is only so fruitful when it comes to understanding how an industry works, and who it hires. My mentor’s experience in the industry helped me understand a few trends that I would not have been aware of otherwise. My previous GPA heavy-mentality was dismantled when Mike let me know that my grades are not important as the work I do. Had I not known this, perhaps I would be breaking my back over perfect grades versus creating a portfolio with substantial work that I am proud to show recruiters (though I still strive for a strong academic record).

Ultimately, my mentor has played an integral role in my professional growth and I encourage all young people to find someone to guide their future career goals. This can be accomplished by:

  1. Joining a Facebook group with professionals in your industry (for me that was Designers Guild). Post in these groups asking if any professionals are willing to mentor young people.
  2. Going to meetups for people in your industry and try to network with others. Using Meetup is a great way to get started with finding these gatherings.
  3. Attending formalized conferences. Reach out to panelists at these conferences if you find their talks to be insightful!

Tell Us What You Think

What makes a great mentor, in your opinion? We want to hear from you. Tell us about your experiences in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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