Think about three ways your life might go from here. Don’t think of these as Plan A and two fall back options. Rather, think of three different paths that would genuinely explore your interests, develop your talents, or provide alternate means to creating meaningful change in the world. Before you continue, take a minute to jot down three ideas.
How can we make these alternate visions for your life more concrete? One way is to find real people who are in those career tracks and having a meaningful impact in the fields you hope to enter. This is what I mean by “heroes.” If I asked you, “Who are your heroes?” chances are you’d start with major historical figures you admire: Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett, Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Michelle Obama. This is a good start. Chances are these people represent values that you admire, and that can be a starting point for reflection. But looking to their biographies for blueprints for your own career can be a bit daunting. I have in mind a somewhat more mundane definition of “heroes” - “Who has the job that you want in the future?” Or, perhaps more precisely, “Who is doing the work that you want to do?” There may not be a single person or a single job. Maybe you’re not sure or maybe that job doesn’t exist yet. There’s no one person whose career will provide a blueprint for yours. But using concrete examples can help you be more precise and realistic in making your plans.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I was working with a Truman Scholarship candidate who wanted to work in reproductive justice, especially as these issues impact women of color. She’d worked on similar projects on campus, with Planned Parenthood, and with a UROP research project. She thought she wanted to go to law school and work as a legal or policy director in this area. So we started with the ACLU. We looked up their issues page and clicked on Reproductive Freedom. We quickly looked through the articles posted there. In a separate tab we googled the authors of these articles, looking at their biographies on the ACLU page and/or LinkedIn.
We zeroed in on Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project:
- What did she study as an undergrad?
- Where did she go to law school? Did she clerk after law school or work at a large firm?
- Did she join the ACLU as a staff attorney and work her way up? Or was she hired into the director’s position from an outside organization? If so, which one?
- Who are the other major players in this field? Who holds similar positions to Jennifer Dalven in these organizations? Who are the leading women of color in this field?
Sometimes it helps to identify different individuals who occupy places along a spectrum of possibilities. For example, I recently worked with a student who wants to combine medicine and journalism in her career. To identify points along a spectrum we drew a line with Anthony Fauci at one end, Sanjay Gupta in the middle, and Ed Yong at the far end. Fauci is a medical scientist and infectious disease specialist who, through the recent pandemic, has unexpectedly become a media celebrity. Sanjay Gupta is a practicing physician - a neurosurgeon and professor of medicine at Emory University - but also chief medical correspondent for CNN. Ed Yong has a master’s degree from Cambridge and writes on scientific issues including medicine for The Atlantic, but is not a practicing physician. Where does the student see herself on this spectrum? What are other concrete examples that fill out the various possibilities?
What if your vision for the future is to be an entrepreneur, broadly construed as a trailblazer and creator of a field that doesn’t currently exist? There are no examples of people doing the work that you propose to do. Look at the biographies of other entrepreneurs and trailblazers. By composite and analogy you can create a plan to get to where you want to go.
What about mentors? These are people who can help you along your way. They may not be doing the work that you want to do, but they may have knowledge of how to get there. Or they may be reliable sounding boards for your ideas and plans. I am a mentor rather than a hero for most of the students that I work with in ONSF. I help them articulate their vision, offer paths for further exploration, and concrete advice about graduate school, scholarships and fellowships as well as practical tips on things like essays and interviews. For those students who want to pursue academic positions, I may offer some more concrete advice but also encourage them to have these conversations with faculty in their respective disciplines. For those who want to pursue careers outside the university, we brainstorm individuals who might be willing to offer advice.
These two groups - Heroes and Mentors - can be related to each other in a Venn Diagram.
Each category has an important role to play, but the most important is the overlap in the middle, your Hero-Mentors. These are individuals who are both doing the work that you hope to do in the future and willing to give you concrete advice about how to get there. How can you find and cultivate relationships in this special category?
Sometimes we fall in love with what our mentors do and they become heroes. This often happens with research or faculty more generally: you join a lab or sign up for a class, are fascinated by the topic, and want to pursue a related career. It is natural, in the first instance, to want to pattern your career after the researcher or teacher who introduced you to the topic. This is a wonderful reason for attending a school like U-M. However, I typically advise students to cast a wider net and explore potential heroes working on similar issues outside of academia. This is one of the essential roles of internships, alumni/ae meet-ups, and other engagementment activities in a liberal arts education.
More often we start with heroes and develop a mentoring relationship with them over time. Informational interviews can be a low-stakes way to do this. As you look over the list of heroes that you identified in your brainstorming, do you have a natural connection with any of them? Are any of them U-M alums? Did you intern with their organization? (Or, can you in the future?)
In some cases, a polite email of introduction and sincere expression of interest in the mission-oriented work that they do will suffice:
- Don’t start by asking them to be your mentor.
- Ask if they have 20-30 minutes to talk about the work they do and how they got there.
- Do your homework ahead of time. Don’t ask basic questions that you can answer from their publicly posted biographies.
- The U-M Career Center has guides to conducting informational interviews of this sort. Aim to do several interviews, exploring different possible paths that you might follow going forward.
Chances are, some of these conversations will naturally lead to an offer to follow up if you have more questions and may develop into a mentoring relationship organically. Working alongside these people in internships, research projects, or other “prototypes” of the work you hope to do in the future also provides opportunities for a mentoring relationship to develop.
In their 2018 book, How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs summarized the difference between mediocre and highly successful college careers as “meeting the right people at the right time.” By exploring heroes in the career tracks you might want to follow, thinking about the mentors who will help you along the way, and cultivating relationships with hero-mentors through informational interviews, internships, and other prototype activities, you can make the most of both your education and the social capital that U-M’s extended network provides.