Do you have a role model? Or a mentor? They aren’t necessarily the same thing, although they can be.
A role model is someone who you look up to and admire. It maybe their career path you’d like to emulate, or how they maintain a work-life balance. But there is usually something abou them that makes you want to strive for a similar outcome. You may personally know your role model, but often they are someone you just know from afar. And many times they are famous people (especially when we’re younger).
A mentor is someone who works with you and provides you with advice on how to further your career. They point out your strengths and weaknesses. They help you realize what you’re capable of. They push you to be all that you can be. A mentor may be someone who works directly with you on your research, but they may also be someone who is more on the outside of your actual project, but still close enough to you to know what’s going on.
I’ve been trying to think of who my role models are. And, to be honest, I don’t think I really have one right now, which sounds kind of strange. I mean, there are things about some people I know (like my parents and my grandma) that I’d like to emulate over my life. But those are more about how they lived their lives in general. There’s no one whose particular career path is especially inspiring for me. I think this is likely due to the fact that I don’t know what exactly what I want to do. So I don’t know if I want to be out in industry or in academia. And so I don’t know why type of career person I want to look up to.
As for mentors, I think I’d say I sort of have two at the moment. My supervisor is one, although he’s not as obvious as mentor as he could be. I know some supervisor’s are particularly good at pointing out strengths and weaknesses and pushing you to grow in various areas. Mine is more of the silent type when it comes to those areas, but when he says something, you know to pay attention. And, because he’s not heaping praise all over the place, when it comes, it feels especially good.
The other person I’d call a mentor is loosely affiliated with my research. But, I’ve often found myself in discussions with this professor about where I want to go with my research and the different paths available. So he’s actually been more outright with his mentorship. And it’s been great to have those discussion. He has a very different background from my supervisor (different faculty) so he provides a different perspective.
I’ve had other people throughout my academic career that have provided small tips here and there. One of my undergraduate professors who I took several courses from, and ended up getting one of my references letters from for grad school, was a mentor at the time. People I have worked with loosely on other projects, who have championed me to take on different roles and positions have also provided some of this advice.
If you don’t have a role model or a mentor right now, I think it’s worth searching for both. But if you have to pick one, I’d say aim for the mentor. The mentor can a) help you identify role models and b) make sure you end up on a path that is right for you, not because someone else was successful that way. Either way, having someone to either help you out directly or give you something to aim for can be great motivators. They can help you pick up the pieces after a rejection and bad results from an experiment. They can help you reframe your question and choose the next path to take. And best of all, they will remind you why you should continue in grad school and never give up.