I was recently contacted by a graduate student from a prestigious local university where I had volunteered to provide counseling/mentoring assistance. The student is enrolled in a PhD program and going through an identity crisis -- to be an academic/researcher or to pursue a career outside of the academy, i.e. real world. The student wanted to discuss options in "consulting" and "management" as career paths. I have done a bit of each most of my professional career, so I accepted the student's request to meet and discuss the topics.
Arriving at a time and place, of course, is always a challenge first time out. So when we didn't connect immediately, we exchanged emails and eventually synchronized our schedules. Personally, I found the meeting to be interesting and hopefully the student did too. But there are a few things I observed that, should we meet again I will have to bring up, especially if the student plans to succeed in the real world. This is what I want share here.
About the initial contact:
In the email exchange to set up the appointment, the first message was initiated by the student and was correctly addressed and in the salutation my name was correctly spelled. In my response, I signed the email with my full name. Subsequently, the student responded but misspelled my surname and continued to do so in all subsequent emails. This could easily have lead to a decision on my part to cancel the meeting. My response would have been, "If you are not concerned enough to spell my name correctly what value are you going to give to my time spent helping you?"
Lesson: BAD MANNERS ALWAYS CHECK AND MAKE CERTAIN YOU SPELL NAMES CORRECTLY AND KNOW HOW TO PRONOUNCE IT.
The Meeting: The meeting was scheduled for a local coffee shop, "my office" so to speak. I generally like to hold my first meeting with a client or student in a public setting to see how they act in public and to assess the areas that they might feel free to discuss candidly and what they might prefer to hold back on to discuss privately. An important part of this first contact is punctuality. This student was 10 minutes late and gave only a very cursory or flippant excuse. BAD IMPRESSION. Not being on time can be viewed as a sign of disrespect if not for the person with whom the appointment is made, then at least a sign of how important the meeting is to the one who asked for it. Excuses don't work, an explanation is called for. That, "sorry to be late" is weak. "I had trouble finding a parking spot" especially in the reality of our meeting would have been quite valid.
Lesson: BE ON TIME. NO EXCUSES! IF ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, GIVE EXPLANATIONS.
The Discussion: When one is asked to counsel or mentor someone, you want to learn both what their concern is for seeking help and also something about where they are coming from emotionally and objectively. That is you want to know what the personal context is which brought them release there is an issue. This means you want, in this case, the student to carry most of the conversation. To do this the student should be the interviewer. They should have a "story" which outlines who they are; why they have a problem:; what they are looking for in the way of assistance; and most of all why they picked you. Next, they should have a series of specific questions they hope to find answers to. These don't need to be detailed or require detailed answers. But, they should be topical covering such things as "what do I need to know?" "Where should I look?" What can I expect ?"or What was your experience?" That is, the student should take charge of the interview. It is as much an audition as it is a research project
In this case, I found myself carrying the conversation. The questions that would have lead to answers the student might have been interested in hearing where not asked. Instead I found myself being expected to raise the questions and the answers. There is enough of the academic in me to fall into the lecturing trap, especially when a student takes the passive role.
But as a mentor, there is a buyer's regret that sets in afterwards when you realize that you have lectured the mentee rather than mentored or coached an "aspiring professional." Lesson: If you ask someone for help -- know what it is you want before hand and use the mentor/coach/counselor's time efficiently, especially when it is given for free. You may think it is free and treat as such, but the mentor does not see it either as free nor worthless just because he/she does not charge you for it.
Lesson: RESPECT THE SITUATION YOU HAVE CREATED AND THE PERSON YOU HAVE ENGAGED TO HELP YOU.
Follow-up: After our hour long "discussion" or better "session," we parted with the normal courtesies. I left it open as to whether the student wanted to do follow-up meeting. Later in the day, since I had mentioned several books that might be consulted to followup on points raised in the "lecture.", I wrote an email to the student with information and links to the source. I include a confirmation of the meeting. Here it is a week later and I have not yet received either a email thank you for the meeting or the follow up information I sent, but more importantly no feed back about what had transpired been helpful or not has come from the student. Which begs the question, Do we meet again? I doubt it.
Lesson: NEVER CLOSE A DOOR YOU HAVE OPENED UNLESS YOU KNOW FOR CERTAIN THAT YOU WILL NEVER NEED TO GO THROUGH IT AGAIN.
What has been your experience?