Her confident, professional voice quivers at the mention of mentors. It's a waste of time, she says.

"Coming from graduate school where you have an academic mentor, once in business you expect to find a mentor -- but you don't," the businesswoman says from her Dupont Circle office. She has plugged away for years in the world of Washington communications and marketing. She has shaped her career with smart job changes, collecting loyal colleagues and contacts along the way. But she has found no mentor.

"You keep looking and looking for someone to teach you, to attach yourself to. The ones you think could be mentors don't want you under their wing, they want you under their thumb. When you don't find one, it causes frustration and anger."

Despite the popular perception of mentoring as a quick career fix for women, some researchers now identify it as a double-edged sword that doesn't necessarily fulfill its promises. More importantly, they've found that obsessive searching for mentors sidetracks many professional women from more reliable career development paths.

"It's terrific if you can have a mentor," says Reba L. Keele, associate professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University. "But many women invest a lot of energy and time in seeking a mentor at the expense of other relationships that meet career needs."

Working women today are bullish on mentors, claims Keele, because of almost a decade of one-sided articles in women's magazines and the popular news media, and career workshops, all touting the same message: Behind every successful woman is a powerful mentor. Keele points to a late '70s article in the respected Harvard Business Review titled "Everybody Who Makes It Has a Mentor," and the subtitle of a recent book: "Why Executive Women Need Mentors to Reach the Top."

Research, too, has promised that "if one can but find a mentor," says Keele, he or she will earn more money at a younger age, be more likely to follow a career plan, be more satisfied professionally, be more visible and mobile and gain an edge inside the organization.

But Keele and other researchers now say that while such promises characterize some mentor-prote'ge' relationships, they are pie in the sky for a large majority of working women.

"Most of us are never going to have a mentor -- especially if you're a woman," says Keele, citing her own surveys that indicate that only between 25 to 33 percent of all professionals find mentors. "The number of women who find one is even lower," she adds.

Even for those who do latch on to a mentor, there are pitfalls:

*The "mentor-prote'ge' relationship is not primarily altruistic," says Keele. The mentor gets something too: The prote'ge' is going to "do the step-work, make the mentor's job easier, help build the mentor's reputation."

*For women prote'ge's, mentoring carries the extra baggage of sexual innuendo. "There is the appearance, if not the reality, of a sexual relationship," says Keele.

*The "teacher's pet syndrome" causes some peer resentment.

*The intensity of the mentoring relationship makes partings difficult. A recent study conducted by the National Science Foundation found that of 3,000 mentor-prote'ge' relationships, only 34 lasted three years or more before a fight ended the relationship. More than 40 percent of the prote'ge's reported that they had been fired by their mentors. "It is very hard to get out of a mentoring relationship without violating it," says Keele. "And it may be harder for a woman."

*"The real danger to hitching your wagon to a star," adds Keele, "is when the star falls, you do, too."

But for a growing number of women, more damaging than these pitfalls is that stalking the perfect mentor diverts them from other ties that are instrumental to career progress: The mentor miracle has turned into the mentor menace.

A 1982 study by A.K. Missirian, professor of management at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., revealed that of 10 of the nation's 100 top women executives who had mentoring relationships, eight suffered "feelings of isolation" in the workplace and from social activities with work colleagues. The mentor absorbed so much time, explains Keele, that other professional relationships and career building blocks were neglected. New evidence suggests the same danger has trickled down to middle- and lower-level female professionals trying to cultivate a mentor-prote'ge' relationship.

"The belief that any one person can fulfill all of our professional needs at once is a fallacy. One person cannot meet all support needs," says Keele.

Kathy Kram, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University and author of Mentoring at Work (Scott Foresman, $11.95), agrees that the value of mentoring needs to be reexamined. "We've got to understand that mentoring is much more than just one relationship," she says. "It is a system of relationships that provide support. People need to look for a range of relationships with peers, with mentors and with subordinates that provide a variety of mentoring functions."

A professional network of strong and weak ties and intensities, says Keele, has many advantages over the highly touted mentor relationship. "The point for the professional woman is to lessen dependence and increase resources," she recommends.

Weaker professional ties, such as those with contacts and peers in outside organizations or in related fields, provide the greatest access to a variety of information. Keele and Kram call networking vital to career climbing. But the relative insecurity of women in the workplace typically steers them toward the stronger dependence of the mentoring relationship.

Ironically, says Keele, the professional woman who neglects other career ties in her search for a mentor is less likely to find one. "Because mentoring depends on reciprocity," she says, "those with fewer career ties are less likely to be chosen as a prote'ge' -- they have less to offer a mentor."

That's because executives see themselves as going out on a limb to take a woman as a prote'ge'. Because of greater visibility and of the built-in difficulties of cross-sex relationships in the workplace, female prote'ge's usually must establish themselves as "a good risk" before a mentor will make a move.

"I call it the credit theory of mentoring: Them that has gets," says Keele. "If you're going to invest that much energy, you are better off investing in a social network. By so doing, you're more likely to bring about a mentor situation. And if you don't get a mentor, you're still okay. All those functions a mentor would've filled are still being filled, but by a greater number of people. The mentor becomes a side effect, not a necessity."

Both Keele and Kram advise that timing should influence how a professional woman balances her investments in developing networks and seeking a mentor. "Some people benefit from lots of networks," says Kram. "Other people really need a strong connection with one person. It depends on what you need at various points in time.

"So assess where you are in your career and what you need at this time. The mentor has been aggrandized, but it's not the only answer."