This is a follow up to my previous blog entitled “Heroes and Mentors.” There I defined heroes as the people who are doing the high impact work now that you hope to do in the future. Mentors are people who will help you along the way. I then explored the important overlap between these categories: our hero-mentors. In this blog, I want to focus on what I call “doing your hero-work.” In other words, identifying a wide range of heroes in order to explore paths towards doing that high impact work in the future. If you’re planning to apply for national scholarships and fellowships with ONSF - or even if you’re planning to pursue graduate education at some point - doing hero-work is a key part of crafting your narrative and application strategy.

Starting Close to Home: U-M Faculty and Staff

One of the great advantages of being at a university like U-M is that we have many experts in a lot of different fields. Whatever your field of interest, there’s a good chance we have someone who specializes in it, or at least in a similar area. So you can start your search by trying to identify who does high impact work in your field at U-M. For example, I work with a lot of pre-med students. Interested in being a neurosurgeon in the future?  Let’s look at the Neurosurgery faculty and residents at Michigan Medicine as a starting point.

Another question to ask is how you got interested in this field. Was it from a class? Was that instructor an expert in the field? Or maybe you read a book or articles by someone else who is?  Who? Where do they work? Look them up! Once you’ve exhausted the syllabus, you can inquire with the instructor. “I really loved the work we did on X. Who is doing the best work in that field?”

One caveat is that by starting at home I’m not suggesting that you privilege academia as a future career path. In fact, I think that many students who come to talk to me about academic careers would benefit from wider hero-work: they’ve started close to home, but they haven’t moved beyond those charismatic instructors to find out who is doing this work outside of academia. The next two sections have tips for expanding your search.

Identifying Major Organizations in Your Field

Let me reuse an example from my original blog. A potential candidate for the Truman Scholarship a few years ago wanted to work in reproductive justice. We identified the class that had inspired her to this field. However, she didn’t want to follow that professor’s path into academia; she wanted to go to law school and fight legal battles on behalf of that cause. So the question became: “Who is doing the best work in this field?” By “who” we didn’t yet mean individuals; we meant organizations. The too-easy answer is the ACLU, which has perhaps the most brand recognition of any organization in legal advocacy. As it turns out, the ACLU has a division specifically dedicated to reproductive justice and it was easy to identify both the senior director and some of the younger staff lawyers in that division. Once you have identified an organization, look up and down their org chart. Folks at the top might be the people who have the jobs you want in 20-25 years. Who has the job you want 5 years after graduating or graduate school? It is helpful to look at both.

Once you’ve identified the easy organizations in your field, try to push beyond. Use a Google search to find other organizations. As an example, pause now and Google “international relations think tanks.” You’ll get 10-20 major hits. How are these institutions related to one another? What are the major areas of focus or political orientations that divide them? You can start to get an idea of the field and which orgs would be the best fit for your career. Now start burrowing down to the level of individuals doing the work you want to do at these organizations.


Changing One Variable at a Time to Create a Taxonomy

One of my favorite intellectual exercises is to construct a taxonomy or classification system that represents the many possible positions within a field. One way to get started on this is to take a few paradigmatic examples and create variations by changing one variable at a time. In the case of Michigan Medicine neurosurgeons used above, who does that work at non-academic medical centers? Either primary care hospitals in our area (St. Joseph, Henry Ford, Beaumont) or at non-academic referral hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic. What would be the pros and cons of working at each of these types of institutions? What about at the NIH? To what degree do you want to focus on clinical care and surgery as opposed to research? Can you find examples at either end of this spectrum? In the legal field possibilities might include faculty at a law school, lawyers at major firms or specialty offices, in-house counsel, non-profits, prosecutors offices, and the federal judiciary. 

Certainly this is not exhaustive, but for a given legal issue or cause you might ask how people in each of these different positions are able to work on different aspects of the problem. In many fields, the distinction between theoretical work and practical work will be relevant. In some fields, these will be either/or distinctions; in some they will be both, though perhaps in varying degrees. Finally, you can think about different stages of your career. Many students who want to pursue careers in social work, education, or similar fields want to start with front-line work and then progress to positions of institutional leadership or policy work.  

Again, the key is to use the taxonomy to identify organizations and then look for real individuals who are doing the work you want to do in the future. Look for heroes who have followed similar trajectories or been able to simultaneously combine the different aspects of work that are important to you.


Learning from Your Heroes: Bios, LinkedIn, and Informational Interviews

Just identifying individuals in all these types of positions will give you a lot more material to work with in crafting your future career narrative. But what else can you learn from? Look at their institutional biographies, LinkedIn profiles, or in some cases Wikipedia pages! What did they study in undergraduate? What did they study in graduate school and where? What organizations have they worked for in the past (another way to expand your list)? In the case of more recent graduates, what activities do they list on LinkedIn that made them competitive graduate or job applicants? These can add to your list of prototype activities.

One of my favorite examples to illustrate this is the LinkedIn profile of a previous Gaither Fellow.  The Gaither Fellowship is a research assistant position at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a major international relations think tank. How did he win that fellowship?  Well, we can see from his profile that while at U-M he wrote an Honors thesis in Political Science, wrote for the Michigan Daily, and was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Political Science. After graduating he had a 4-month position at the Council on Foreign Relations and an 8 month position at the Center for New American Security - two major international relations think tanks similar to the Carnegie Endowment. Now let’s pivot to looking at the profile of a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who specializes in a candidate’s particular area of interest. Those two examples give us a TON of information about how to start developing a successful career track in this field.

But there is a limit to how much we can learn from short bios and LinkedIn. The next step is to identify several of the most promising heroes on your list and reach out to them for an informational interview. When you do, show them that you’ve already exhausted what you can learn about their individual paths and the career field from web searches - in other words, that you’ve done your own research. Ask them if they have 20-30 minutes to answer some questions about their careers and offer advice to someone considering a similar path. Part of what you’ve purchased with your U-M tuition is access to a large, successful alumni network that is eager to offer help and advice to fellow Wolverines. But you’ll also find that many people are willing to talk with people who are passionate about similar issues and want to do important work in their field.


From Heroes to Hero-Mentors

In my previous blog I noted that there are two ways that we develop hero-mentors - in other words, people who are both doing the high impact work that we want to do and also willing to help us along the way. Sometimes we fall in love with the work that our mentors do and decide we want to follow their path. More often, we form relationships with people who are doing high impact work and a mentorship relationship develops organically. Asking someone to be your mentor is a heavy ask. But if an informational interview goes well, they might offer to talk again when you have more questions. Most of the best mentoring relationships develop in this way.