In the popular TV show The Apprentice 16-18 business people compete for a one-year, $250,000 starting contract to run one of Donald Trump’s many companies. I’m sure that it would be the dream of all professors  to have this many qualified people competing to be their best graduate student, but I’m not aware of any research assistant salary that starts at $250,000 so it will probably never happen. However, exceeding your mentor’s expectations can set you up very nicely to publish and prosper during your career in academics. Here are a few reasons why it pays off to be an amazing apprentice:

  1. Get a killer good letter of recommendation to set you up very well for a great job.
  2. Learn as much as your mentor can teach you.
  3. Make a lasting collaborative relationship that will be a gift that keeps giving.

For the remainder of this post I’m going to describe some basic principles for being a winning apprentice and I’m going to illustrate these points by describing someone who has really been the ideal apprentice in my mind: Ben Hardy.

5 Tips for Becoming the Winning Apprentice

1. Fully Adopt the Professional Mentality

If you haven’t yet read my most widely viewed post (6000+ views now and counting), I’d highly recommend Five Truths about Graduate School That Nobody Tells You. One of the key points I make is that graduate school is not school at all, but an apprenticeship and how you must adopt a professional mindset. This entails recognizing that your career begins with graduate school (or earlier if you’ve begun researching already), focusing on research and not grades, focus on accomplishment instead of filling paid hours, and not taking long undergraduate breaks. Ben has graduated with his bachelor's and wants to get into graduate programs next year. He has fully adopted this professional mindset. I don’t currently have funds to pay him, but that didn’t stop Ben, in fact he never even asked if I could pay him. In addition to his part-time job he puts in 40+ hours of work each week writing and researching with me, not getting a dime for his time. He recognizes that this is an investment in his future and knows that his unpaid time now will reap massive dividends later on. Instead of checking out like most of my students do right after finals, Ben and I have plans to finish and submit several manuscripts for publication during Christmas break (not to say that we won’t also be spending a lot of time having fun with our families as well—see Monday’s post on balance).  Ben has fully adopted the professional mentality and it’s going to make him massively successful.

2.  Ask for Feedback and Suggestions for Improvement

An apprentice is not expected to know the trade right off the bat, it takes years to master this stuff. You will make mistakes, it’s inevitable. The key is to be ready to humbly accept feedback when it’s offered. Furthermore, to really figure out the best ways for you to grow, you’ve got to ask for constructive feedback on a regular basis. Jack Canfield (2005), author of Success Principles, suggests:

Most people are afraid to ask for corrective feedback because they are afraid of what they are going to hear. There is nothing to be afraid of. The truth is the truth. You are better off knowing the truth than not knowing the truth. Once you know it, you can do something about it. You cannot fix what you don’t know is broken. You cannot improve your life, your relationships, your game, or your performance without feedback.

But what’s the worst part of this avoidance approach to life? You are the only one who is not in on the secret. The other person has usually already told [others]… what they are dissatisfied with…Most people would rather complain than take constructive action to solve their problems. The only problem is they are complaining to the wrong person. They should be telling you, but they are afraid of your reaction. As a result, you are being deprived of the very thing you need to improve your relationship, your product, your service, your teaching, or your parenting. (p. 158)

Canfield then recommends actively soliciting feedback by asking something like, ‘On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of my performance during the past semester?’ Any answer less than 10 should be followed with a question such as ‘What would it take to make it a ten for you?’ He makes the point that it’s important to show gratitude, rather than defensiveness, for the feedback so the person doesn’t regret having shared his feedback with you. Indeed, we are all wary to offend, so make sure your mentor feels comfortable giving the feedback.

Just yesterday, Ben told me that he wanted to meet up and get some feedback and coaching on a manuscript we’re working on together. As we began the meeting he told me that I’m a really nice guy, but that he wanted me to be more harsh, to give it to him straight, and tell him all the things he could do to improve his writing. I felt more open and spent an hour giving him some really specific suggestions that I think will really help to further improve his already great writing skills. We made huge strides!

 3.  Be Motivated, Productive, and Take the Initiative

There are few things that any professor would like more than an apprentice who is super motivated to be productive and who takes the initiative on projects. One day after writing Ben an email expressing my appreciation for his work, I was shocked when he replied with a proposal. He suggested that we set a goal to submit x manuscripts for publication before he leaves for graduate school next summer. Honestly, that kind of knocked me off the chair I was sitting on at the time. After picking myself up and dusting myself off, I decided to take on his challenge since, after all, I wrote a book and this blog on publishing. I’ve been amazed that after a few months we have submitted some manuscripts already! Show some ambition and drive and take the initiative to be a producer!

 4.  Save Your Mentor Time

Chances are that your mentor has a lot on her plate, trying to juggle a million things at once. In addition to not dropping last minute things in their lap that need immediate attention (e.g., letters of recommendation), seek opportunities to do things to alleviate the stress of your mentor. Not only will she appreciate it, but you will learn some important things from the process. For instance, as I was getting ready to leave for my invited research presentation in Europe, Ben perceived that I was stressed out. In addition to all the logistics involved in getting ready for a 9-day journey, I had to finish preparing my presentation and give students feedback on four manuscripts. Being an experienced and advanced writer, Ben stepped in and volunteered to provide feedback and direction to these other students on my behalf and to assist in bringing the manuscripts to a higher level, saving me a great deal of time. Furthermore, he was willing to add graphics and some additional content to my presentation slides, again saving me loads of time. As Ben saves me time, I’m more willing to invest this time into mentoring him and to singing his praises in letters of recommendation (and on blogs).

 5. Express Gratitude Often

Cicero once said that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all others.” There’s nothing like regularly expressing your gratitude to your mentors to make them feel awesome about mentoring you. Making your mentor feeling valued and appreciated will do wonders for your relationship. Ben is constantly expressing his gratitude and after I sent out his letters of recommendation, he gave me a gift of several pounds of salmon caught in Alaska. I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Ben for being the ideal example of a winning apprentice!

Hopefully, you can avoid getting fired and become the winning apprentice by adopting the professional mentality, asking for feedback, being motivated and taking initiative, saving your mentor time, and expressing gratitude to your mentor often. On Monday I will describe how you can turn  those dreaded deadlines you may perceive as your enemies into your friends. Until then, happy writing!

About the Author

Nathaniel Lambert, Ph.D.

Nathaniel Lambert, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of Utah.

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