Making Mentoring Meaningful and Effective

Spencer Benson

Education Innovations International Consulting



Being a mentor is one of the most important and rewarding aspects of working in higher education. Mentoring is different from advising and coaching, although the three share commonalities and a focus on helping students develop professionally. Consider advising as assisting students in making choices, which classes to take, what schools to apply to, what career or job pathway to pursue, etc. Coaching involves one-on-one interactions often focused on helping students develop or excel at a specific skill or task. Mentoring includes both but goes further by establishing a dynamic inter-personal connection that supports career success for both parties. A recent National Academies report (2019) defines mentorship as:

Mentorship is a professional working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relative partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.”

Effective mentoring involves career guidance, skill development, sponsorship, being a role model, psychosocial and emotional support, trust, and an evolving on-going relationship that helps the mentee develop their own professional identity and pathway for success. It is not molding mentees into one’s own image. Good mentorship increases the likelihood that all students, especially students from underrepresented groups (URG), will continue their academic journey and develop a successful career that contributes to the discipline and society at large. When individuals from URG become mentors, this increases mentor diversity and reduces the shortage of URG mentors.


Being an effective mentor, like scholarly teaching, takes time and a commitment to improving mentoring ability through training, conversations, and reflection. Like teaching, often, it is assumed that a Ph.D. equips one to be a mentor. Like beginning teachers, mentors often replicate the mentorship they experienced as a mentee. Since most faculty have had no mentorship training, this perpetuates a cycle of the “the blind leading the blind” and, in some cases, perpetuates poor or inadequate mentoring. A recent report by the National Academies of Science “The Science of Effective Mentoring in Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine, and Mathematics (STEMM)” 2019 underscores the need for faculty to participate in mentorship training.


There are many different types of mentorship arrangements. We generally think of mentor-mentee arrangements as a dyad often governed by program rules or traditions with expected goals and outcomes. In these formal mentor-mentee arrangements, the mentor manages the process, including supervisory and/or evaluative roles. Such formal arrangements are often less effective and can fail to result in a working alliance in which mentor and mentee work together to support both partners' personal and professional growth, development, and success (see definition above).


In contrast, informal mentoring arrangements often occur by chance or networking, evolve spontaneously, and generally lack evaluative or supervisory functions. In addition to guidance and advising, informal mentors often address psychosocial issues and needs, include deep listening, network support, and non-judgmental feedback. Informal mentor-mentee relationships are managed by both the mentor and mentee. They often develop into connections and friendships that last for many years. In practice, both formal and informal mentorships share many properties and can evolve into the other. Mentoring requires thoughtful verbal and non-verbal interpersonal communication, and mutual understanding that builds trust and comfort. Effective interpersonal communication involves; providing information and advice, asking questions, careful listening, a caring attitude, an open mind, sensitivity to cultural differences, trust, and a genuine desire to help solve problems (I-TECH Clinical Mentoring Toolkit. 2008). While every mentoring relationship is unique there is a general pattern of development, initiation, followed by cultivation and trust-building, separation (due to the mentee transitioning to her/his next career stage) and re-definition wherein the relationship takes on a different structure often one of more equal standing, e.g., graduates students who become professors and in some cases even one’s supervisor.



In addition to traditional dyadic mentor-mentee arrangements, other common arrangements include triads, e.g., where a mentee has two mentors who work jointly, a mentor who mentors a senior student who co-mentors a beginning student, or two mentees with the same mentor who mentor each other (peer or near-peer mentoring). All mentees need to cultivate a network of mentors, both formal and informal, to meet their needs. A single exceptional, well-trained, experienced mentor in rare cases may be adequate; however, this arrangement still lacks the advantages of a network of mentors with different backgrounds, social identities, and perspectives.


It is human nature to seek out individuals who are like us. Still, long-standing disparities make mentee-mentor similarity alignments nearly impossible for many groups. In addition to the easily identifiable similarities and differences such as; gender, race, religion, social-economic status, unseen social identities, and unconscious biases can affect mentor-mentor relationships. Often through dialogue, unrecognized similarities and common interests can be uncovered, which can facilitate a deeper mentor-mentee alliance. As the percentage of URG increases, the importance of being aware of the role that similarities and differences play in mentorship becomes increasingly important. Effective inclusive mentoring plays a critical role in the recruitment and retention of URG. It provides a pipeline that addresses the need for mentors with diverse backgrounds. Mentoring students from URG has many advantages including a better understanding of URG students’ challenges and problems.


All of the components that make up quality mentoring are important; however, mentee support and facilitating networking is especially relevant. As students strive to develop a professional identity, they often experience self-doubt, including imposter syndrome.


Mentor guidance, support, and feedback help mentees see themselves as members of a professional group. It builds self-esteem, confidence, and trust. Small things such as making time to be at events were the mentee is presenting or being honored are especially important. Mentors have a responsibility to help their mentees build a professional network. To develop a professional network, mentors can include mentees in conferences and social events. Introduce mentees to colleagues and senior members within the discipline. Open doors for advancement and provide connections to possible future jobs. Ensure mentees are included rather than excluded - even if they are shy and unsure of themselves.


Mentoring is more than being a role model. But modeling expert mentoring will support your mentee and serve to build and perpetuate quality mentoring across generations. Poor or weak mentoring only teach mentees what not to do.

Inadequate mentoring fails to instill a legacy of high-quality inclusive mentors who pass it forward to the next generation.

Three useful resources for help and further information are Guide to Training and Mentoring, National Institutes of Health, Office of Intermural Programs, Center for the Improvement of Mentoring Experiences in Research (CIMER), and National Mentoring Resource Center, (NMRC).




Discussion Questions:


Describe a mentoring experience do you most remember, was it positive or negative, and why?


What advice would you give to students on how to create the most effective mentee-mentor relationships?


Describe a problematic mentoring situation, as a mentor or a mentee, how you handled it, or what you might have done differently.




References Cited


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25568.


I-TECH Clinical Mentoring Toolkit. 2008, Building a Relationship with a Mentee, University of Washington, http://www.go2itech.org/HTML/CM08/toolkit/tools/relationship.html


Guide to Training and Mentoring, National Institutes of Health, Office of Intermural Programs 2020, https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/mentoring-training/guide-training-mentoring


Center for the Improvement of Mentoring Experiences in Research (CIMER) University of Wisconsin, Madison, https://cimerproject.org/dr-christine-pfund-improving-mentoring-relationships-in-science-mentors-need-mentors/


National Mentoring Resource Center, (NMRC), https://nationalmentoringresourcecenter.org/index.php

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