How to ensure your mentorship programme isn’t one of the (many) bad ones

Structured mentorship programmes offer a non-judgemental setting in which to ask those pesky questions whose answers shape careers, says Lia Paola Zambetti

Lia Paola Zambetti's avatar
University of Sydney
17 Sep 2021
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The importance of a structured mentorship programme for ECRs cannot be overstated

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Many early career researchers hear mentoring spoken of in hushed, reverential tones. It is, they’re told, something that changes people’s lives (professionally, at least).

Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s never something they experience firsthand.

True, one comes across many fantastic academics and researchers but, often, the good ones are a bit too remote to be called mentors. And the ones that ECRs usually have access to can be inexperienced or a poor fit − more de-mentors than mentors.

To remove the guesswork and element of (often bad) luck from the equation, every early career researcher should have access to a structured mentoring programme. Hopefully, in the future, this will be seen as just as necessary in a grad school or research institute as a centrifuge is in a biology lab.

A “true” mentoring programme, one where mentors do not work “above” their mentees (that is, they’re not in their mentees’ line management), is an invaluable opportunity for researchers starting their academic journey to broaden their view of what a career may look like – as well as receive confidential, unbiased advice.

ECRs have lots of questions and, in many cases, their supervisors are the only experienced people they have access to. But that’s exactly the problem. How can you discuss doubts about your chosen career with the very person whose input that career depends on? What you need is someone at the same level as your supervisor but removed from you to act as a sounding board.

Structured mentorship programmes, where they are available, offer exactly that – a non-judgemental setting in which to ask those pesky questions whose answers shape careers. They recognise that offering the extra support results in more well-rounded, more productive researchers. The best programmes are those that not only ask mentees what they would like from a mentor but actively try to match that as precisely as possible, whether through specialised software or good old-fashioned human pairing.

Where possible, they would also introduce diversity into the game and aim to be quite broad in the topics that the programme should cover. Ideally, there would be some distance between mentors and mentees − coming from different schools or faculties, perhaps. And contrary to what many might think, it’s not necessary for mentees to know their mentors beforehand – quite the opposite.

The opportunity to have mentors that work outside the academic system should also be highly valued. For PhD students, for example, who may not be entirely sure whether they want to continue on the academic path, this can be a great opportunity to learn firsthand what the “real world” looks like – and what it requires.

Finally, everyone should know clearly what it will cost them in terms of time and be aware that mentees should be in charge of logistics such as setting meetings and so on. Having clear guidelines on time commitments will be very valuable for managing expectations − and for mentors to manage their diaries and calendars, too.

If a programme were being started from scratch, it would be well worth considering a multi-tiered system in which mentees entering the programme at its start are later asked to mentor more junior researchers once they finish their own mentoring period, creating a self-sustainable cycle. This, at least on paper, has the potential to tackle one of the most limiting factors when setting up a mentorship programme − access to enough committed mentors.

Visibility and advertising within the institution, via multiple channels, are always essential − especially if it’s the first time your institution has tried out structured mentoring. But do not assume you’ll reach your mentors through the same channels you use for mentees, and vice versa. Brace yourself for lower-than-desired uptake and enthusiasm to start with, but word of mouth is a great asset to getting these programmes up and running.

In fact, the only downside to a mentoring programme is not having one, especially in large and diverse institutions where potential mentors are plentiful, whether in the form of current academics or former alumni.

In starting our own structured mentoring programme, we found most potential mentors we contacted were game, even if they were already very busy. With time, we found mentor “champions” across the organisation that, quite literally, sponsored our programme to great success. These individuals turned out to be invaluable.

So, some final takeaways: don’t be scared to start small – if you have impact, it will be easy to grow later; always, always be upfront about time commitments and expectations on both sides; evaluate, evaluate, evaluate − and adjust. If you start with small cohorts, the entry barriers are quite low; for larger cohorts, there’s matching and admin software that can help you.

Like most things, it does get easier with practice. And if you’re successful, you might be asked to replicate your mentoring programme across your organisation and/or see more bottom-up programmes starting elsewhere – which can only be a good thing as we strive to get ECRs the support they deserve.

Lia Paola Zambetti is manager of prizes and pipeline development in the pipeline and pre-award team (research portfolio) at the University of Sydney. She previously worked at the bench as a biomedical researcher and a research communicator/editor in Singapore.


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