While most of the evidence has been largely anecdotal, the idea that a mentor can help guide you along a better path in life is hard to argue against. Now, a large study from North Carolina State University seems to support the claim that, yes, having a mentor at a young age can lead to better, more-fulfilling employment later on.
The study culled data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which followed more than 12,000 people for six years, starting in their teens and early 20s. In this case, researchers asked them a simple question: Did you ever have a mentor?
To account for the potential effects of socioeconomic differences on the study results, the researchers used a model that grouped people from similar backgrounds together and then compared participants with and without mentors. Those who said they had a “naturally occurring mentorship”–and this part might be key–ended up describing their careers as more fulfilling when they were contacted again six years later. “We found that overall employment and compensation were about the same,” said co-author Joshua Lambert, a PhD student at NC State, in a statement. “But people who had mentors when they were younger had greater ‘intrinsic’ job rewards.”
“Intrinsic” job rewards, note researchers, are characteristics like autonomy and leadership that are often associated with better careers down the road.
The study also found that people from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds were more likely to have found a mentor than their peers. There is other evidence that suggests that women and minorities are less likely to (organically) find a mentor to help guide them along. A recent study, led by Katherine L. Milkman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, using fake names, white males asking about potential research opportunities were less likely to be ignored by the professors than names belonging to both women and minorities.
The problem extends beyond academia. Last week, BuzzFeed reported the story of José Zamora, who, despite sending out hundreds of resumes, would only get responses from prospective employers when he changed his name to Joe.
Thankfully, there are organizations out there that are keenly aware of the mentoring imbalance, and are taking strides to pair women and minorities with mentors as organically as possible. “You can start to foster a behavior early in a student’s career,” Mary Fernandez, founder of MentorNet, one such social organization, told Fast Company earlier this year. “They come to expect that a mentor is supposed to be part of their trajectory; and what happens is it snowballs.”