Academic mentoring for researchers: what is it and how does it work?

What is an academic mentor? And how does academic mentoring work? If you’re looking for answers to these questions, this is the blog for you.

Academic mentoring is a valuable approach to learning that can help the development of the person being mentored (the mentee), and that of the mentor themselves. It’s a flexible approach that can be varied depending on the needs of the mentee and the skills of the coach or mentor.  

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Our podcast, Academic Mentoring hears from researchers who’ve experienced mentoring and being a mentor, explaining their experiences and tips for effective academic mentor-mentee relationships. Here, we summarize their advice and helpful information to help you decide if mentoring could be for you. 

Read the Academic mentoring podcast transcript.

What is academic mentoring?  

Academic mentoring allows researchers to learn from one another, providing a path to knowledge transfer. For instance, someone established in their career can share knowledge and insights, as well as offer guidance, to someone with less experience.  

It helps those early in their careers to explore education and career possibilities and get insight into how to chart a career path and connections for future employment. Mentoring, at its core, is the opportunity for academics to learn from one another and enable those with more experience to guide and support early career researchers. 

“I think academia is quite a challenging field,” explained Usma Asghar from the Institute of Cancer Research, speaking on our podcast. “It’s very competitive and most of us feel that it’s quite cutthroat. At times, I felt like I needed some unbiased opinion from someone I wasn’t directly working with, so I think that was my main motive [for looking for a mentor] – to try to get hold of a senior person who’s been through similar challenges and is able to give me their words of wisdom.” 

What does an academic mentor do?  

Mentoring is a way of empowering the mentee to take control of their career and think about their long-term goals. An academic mentor can take on any number of roles while working with their mentee. They can listen, share advice, ask thought-provoking questions, and more, including: 

  • Provide a sounding board: Mentors can listen to their mentees’ concerns and brainstorm ideas and suggestions about their future career. They can also share feedback that might help crystalize a person’s path forward in a particular situation or in their career. 

  • Give advice: Mentors can directly offer recommendations and suggest professional development priorities, help mentees set goals, and find resources. They can also offer advice and guidance on writing and publishing papers, applying for new opportunities or even the best techniques to use in a particular piece of research. 

  • Share inspiration and encouragement: Mentors can share their knowledge of both small-scale workplace dynamics and bigger picture career planning. They can also offer encouragement, acting as a cheerleader for a mentee’s goals and dreams. 

  • Offer networking opportunities: A mentor can make introductions to people who could be helpful in a mentee’s career, share opportunities, and recommend events that will expose a mentee to important information and connections. 

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It’s worth bearing in mind that where formal schemes exist, academic mentor training is usually on offer to help mentors work with their mentees in the right way. 

How does academic mentoring work?

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The mentor-mentee relationship differs depending on the individual involved and one of the biggest pieces of advice from speakers on our podcast was that it’s important to agree between you upfront what you’re both hoping to get from the relationship and how it will work.  

“If I was advising a mentor on a crucial element for the mentoring relationship it would be what many people in this mentoring world call having a contract, and regularly contracting with your mentee throughout the relationship,” explained Nigel Leady, Head of Researcher Training and Development at Kings College London. “It’s a bit of jargon but all it really means is setting really clear expectations at the start of the relationship. Who’s going to organize the meetings? How often are you going to meet? Where are you going to meet?  

“And beyond the basic logistics, how are you going to work together, what is it that you’re trying to achieve? And I think, crucially, part of that is helping your mentee to see that you’re not just going to give them lots of advice, you’re not just going to answer their questions constantly and tell them what to do, but actually, you’re going to make the mentee think, you’re going to help them to problem solve, tackle their own problems and challenges, so that they’re developing their own ability rather than becoming totally reliant on you”.

For mentees, making sure they have clear goals for the meeting was also highlighted as being important. 

“Our institution gave us advice on how to make it work,” explained Usma Asghar. “So, for example, to make sure that when you go into a meeting, you have a meeting plan or objectives. It meant that, when I was seeing my mentor at six o’clock after her busy clinic, I wasn’t wasting her time or mine.” 

How to access academic mentoring

Formal mentoring schemes can be a really useful way of empowering researchers – and many institutions already have them in place. So, if you’re interested in finding a mentor (or becoming one) then it’s worth exploring what your institution can offer you. 

But what if you’re at an institution without a formal mentoring scheme in place? In that case, there are still a few possibilities open to you: 

  • Mentoring schemes with journals

    Some journals are recognizing the importance of mentoring to help researchers on the cusp of writing their first journal article. Maryanne Dever is the joint editor-in-chief of Australian Feminist Studies, a journal that runs a mentoring scheme for new academic writers. She spoke on our podcast about the scheme: 

    “We take them and their article from the draft stage to a developed manuscript, and that might involve a differing number of revisions. The manuscript then goes through peer review and we work with them after that to interpret and respond to reviewers’ reports. And then we help them to finalize their manuscript. What we’re looking to engender in them, I think, is an understanding of the difference between a really solid manuscript, which lots of people can produce, and a compelling one that makes a genuine intervention in intellectual debates.” 

  • AuthorAID mentoring program 

    For researchers in developing countries, the AuthorAID mentoring program provides access to mentors around the world.  

    The aim of AuthorAID is to help researchers in developing countries to write about and publish their work. One way they achieve this is through developing a global network of researchers. Through the network, researchers can find long-term mentors or short-term advice to help them through the process of research design, writing and publication. This also enables researchers to find others in their field for collaboration, discussion and information. 

    “My mentor has helped in my research,” explained Olwa Kamaratimi from Covenant University in Nigeria, speaking on the podcast. “And in terms of writing, I just submitted the manuscript that we worked on together. She helped in correcting the way the manuscript was structured because the message was not being put across properly, so she tried to help me do that.” 

  • Setting up your own mentor relationship individually 

    Of course, you don’t necessarily need any formal scheme to set up a mentoring relationship. Consider if there is someone in your institution or field who you believe would be a good mentor match for you – and then approach them directly.
    Be clear about what you’re hoping to get from the relationship and how you think it could work. This can be a great way to get a mentor who is the perfect fit for you and can offer you what you need to progress your career. 

Where to next?

If you’ve found this blog useful, make sure you listen in full to the podcast episode. And for even more helpful tips, you can look at:

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