Finding a data science mentor is tricky… Well, finding a mentor for any profession is tricky!

You know, the best minds that you would love to learn from are quite often very busy and hard to get in touch with. In this article, I’ll show you a few tips and tricks that helped me find a data science mentor back in the day — and I think you can take advantage of these, too.

Note: this article is available in Youtube video format here — and in podcast format here (and on Spotify, iTunes, Google Podcast, etc.)

#1 Start a hobby project and reach out

I got my first mentor right after I started to work on a data science hobby project. On this blog, I always talk about the importance of hobby projects… But I’ve never talked about one important additional benefit that I got from my first hobby project: it helped me get in touch with my first data mentor.

Back in the day, I was building a small web application that crawled news portals – like ABC, BCC, CNN and so on – and compared articles from the different sources. Using different statistical methods, my algorithm picked the most fact-based article on a given topic. The idea was to provide the readers the one article they should read on each topic to be up-to-date quickly. The concept was great (at least in my opinion) but since I was an absolute beginner in data science, obviously, I got stuck at a given point with the execution.

data science mentor big project for a beginner
a way too complex project for a beginner without a mentor 🙂

I simply hadn’t had enough experience to get beyond that point.
So I had to start reaching out to more experienced data scientists.

How did I do that?

Well, nothing special, I just Googled mentor programs. Okay, just to be accurate here, these weren’t data science mentor programs but startup mentor programs… because, you know, at that time, I was young and naive, and I cared more about turning my idea into a million-dollar startup. (Which didn’t work out, but that’s another story for another article.)

The point is that I got in touch with startup mentors… who later helped me to get in touch with senior data scientists, too.

And this is how I met my first mentor.

We met only a few times – and we mainly talked about the specific data science issues I was struggling with in that given project. But those few meetings helped me a lot in understanding how I should approach data science at all, how I could improve my skills, how I could talk to people… and many more important things that set the foundation of my data career.

The hobby project just died after a while, by the way. But as I said, I benefited from it a lot — by learning, by having an extra project on my CV — and by seeing more clearly what I wanted to do with data science.

#2 Find it at your current job

Another good way to find a mentor is to reach out to a senior data scientist at your current workplace. It doesn’t matter whether you are working as a data professional right now. If you have the aspiration and you have data scientists at the company you are working for right now, you should contact them.

data science mentor at your company
a simple reach out can change your career

The fact that you are working at the same place will help a lot to start this relationship… and it doesn’t have to be a big thing. You can ask this senior data professional to sit down for a coffee with you for as little as one hour per month. These one-hour sessions don’t sound like a lot — but it’ll be just enough to give you the insights you need for your career development.

  • You can ask her about what she thinks you should learn right now.
  • You can ask about her story. How did she become a data scientist?
  • What did she do right or wrong along the way?
  • I’m sure she wouldn’t mind telling you about the projects she’s working on right now…
  • Or you can combine these meetings with the other thing I mentioned and you can discuss a data science hobby project of yours.
  • Etc.

These discussions can be extremely insightful and motivating.

For me, it was a very lucky situation, because I was already working as an intern when a senior data scientist was assigned to mentor me. So we met every week for two hours and we discussed in detail the data projects I worked on at the company. I can’t tell you how useful these sessions were… Many things that I do today started then and there. Not to mention that we became friends, as well!

#3 Go to local data science meetups or conferences!

If you have absolutely no idea where you’ll find your first data science mentor, I recommend going to a few local data science meetups or conferences, first.

I personally would recommend meetups rather than conferences — because these events are usually free and they have a more relaxed atmosphere where these introductions and discussions can happen more easily.

Here’s a pro tip.

If you are not the type of person who just walks up to people and introduces herself, you can volunteer in organizing one of these meetups. It’s usually well received by the organizers of these events… And knowing these organizers will be a big head start in building your network. They usually know everyone you would want to get in touch with… and since you’re helping them, they will surely help you to start conversations with senior data scientists.

Once this happens, it’ll be much easier to ask someone to become your mentor.

What to expect from a data science mentor

Before we wrap this up, I think it’s really important to clarify the role of a data science mentor in your career and life. It’s good to know what you can expect from her and what you can’t.

Let me cite a famous story here about two famous investors: Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham.

So it was 1951 — and Benjamin Graham was a legend already while Warren Buffet was only looking to start his career. The young Buffett was looking for a mentor and approached Benjamin Graham… Very smartly he offered that he would work for him for free. Who would refuse that? Well, Benjamin Graham. He did refuse him with his famous answer:

“You’re overpriced.”

mentor warren buffett benjamin graham data science.001
source of the images: Wikipedia

Graham knew that the young Warren Buffet couldn’t have contributed enough to make up for the time he invested into teaching him… so he didn’t hire him even for free — until 3 years later.

Most people will be nicer to you than Graham was to Buffett. But the moral of the story still applies to you, too.

You should see that when a mentor spends time with you — and not with work, not with her family, not with her friends — she does a huge favor for you. And usually mentors don’t expect anything in exchange, either.

You should respect this.

You can’t demand more than you feel that your mentor is comfortable with. So if she says she’s happy to sit down with you only once a month, you should say thank you. If she says that she can help only in a given field, you should be okay with that. And so on, and on…

Also a mentor is not a god. You can’t expect her to solve all your problems and issues. But she’ll surely try to help you to the best of her knowledge. Sometimes this can be directing you to the right resources, connecting you with another person or saying that you are not ready for something yet.

Again, if you find a data science mentor, respect this relationship and you’ll profit from it in one way or another, for sure!

Conclusion

Okay, I hope that these tips will help you to find a data science mentor more easily. If you have other tips, don’t forget to share them in the comments section!

And one final thought: “What goes around comes around.”
Most mentors help others because someone else helped them early on. And so they feel that this is the right thing to do. Remember this — and when you become a senior data scientist, don’t forget to help others. 😉

Cheers,
Tomi Mester