Optimize Your Mentoring Practice

Optimize Your Mentoring Practice


  • Strong mentorship has been linked to increased productivity, self-efficacy, and career satisfaction in mentees, among other positive outcomes. However, few mentors and mentees have received formal training on how to be a more effective mentor or proactive mentee that communicates their needs to a mentor.
  • Recommendations for how to improve mentorship relationships from the 2019 National Academies report, “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM,” are detailed in the article.

On January 13, 2020, Dr. Christine Pfund, director of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experience in Research (CIMER) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented a talk on the science of effective mentorship as well as the 2019 National Academies Report “The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM,” which Dr. Pfund participated in creating as a committee member. Dr. Pfund’s work primarily focuses on STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) subjects in an academic setting. However, the tools and strategies discussed during the seminar can also be applied to mentorship in other disciplines.

During the talk, Pfund began by defining mentorship as “a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.” (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019). The term “mentorship” is used in place of “mentoring” to emphasize that mentorship is a working partnership between the mentor and mentee to support each other across different domains, rather than a relationship where the mentor is dominant.

Research on mentoring shows that strong mentorship has been linked to increased research productivity (Steiner & Lanphear, 2002; 2007; Wingard et al., 2004), enhanced science identity, sense of belonging and self-efficacy (Palepu et al., 1998; Garman et al., 2001; Paglic et al., 2006; Lopatto, 2007; Bland et al., 2009; Feldman et al., 2010; Cho et al., 2011; Chemers et al., 2011; Thiry & Laursen, 2011; Byars-Winston et al., 2015), persistence (Gloria et al., 2011; Solorzano, 1993; McGee & Keller, 2007; Sambunjak et al., 2010; Williams et al., 2015; Bordes-Edgar et al., 2011; Campbell & Campbell, 1997), higher career satisfaction (Schapira et al., 1992; Beech et al., 2013), and enhanced recruitment of underrepresented minorities (Hathaway et al., 2002; Nagda et al., 1998). Trainees in underrepresented groups, particularly, are less likely to receive support from their mentors (Noy & Ray, 2012). Although mentorship is not the only factor in mentee success, it is still a major determinant in the likelihood of success (Brunsma et al., 2017) and is often the most important yet most disappointing aspect of training for students (Katz & Harnett, 1976).

In a 2016 paper, Dr. Pfund and colleagues proposed five core categories of effective mentorship based on existing literature and factors shown to impact academic persistence. Those categories are:

  • Research: learning technical skills, building research self-efficacy.
  • Interpersonal: listening actively, aligning expectations, building trust in the relationship.
  • Psychosocial and career: finding motivation, developing coping efficacy, developing science identity and belonging.
  • Cultural responsiveness/diversity: advancing equity and inclusion, reducing the impact of bias and stereotype threat.
  • Sponsorship: fostering independence, promoting professional development, establishing professional networks, advocating for one another.

Although the list of factors necessary for an effective mentorship might seem daunting, it is supposed to provide a framework for starting productive conversations between mentors and mentees. In an effective mentorship, mentees identify their needs and can express them to their mentor, while mentors assess which categories they are skilled in providing support and which categories they might need outside expertise to optimize the mentorship relationship. Not every mentee requires guidance in every category at any given time, and a mentor/mentee pair does not need to provide every category to each other. In effective mentorship relationships, a broad range of needs can be satisfied across a mentoring network.

Despite the importance of mentorship, many mentors and mentees have not received formal training (Balster et al., 2010). As a result, mentees may not know how to engage proactively with their mentor to express their needs, and many faculty mentors are not aware of or believe that the socioemotional functions are part of their mentorship role, such as creating a sense of belonging or demonstrating active listening during conversations with mentees (Laursen et al., 2010). Due to the lack of formal mentorship training, in recent years, there has been a lot of increased national focus on mentorship, with calls to action from the National Academies, National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation among others for optimizing mentorship relationships in academic training.

Optimizing Mentorship Practices

Building on over a decade of work by Dr. Pfund and colleagues, the seminar focused on two sides of optimizing mentorship practices: mentor training and mentee training.

Mentor training

Mentor training focuses on helping mentors learn skills to optimize mentorship relationships by working on competencies such as: aligning expectations, maintaining effective communication, assessing understanding, fostering independence and mentee research self-efficacy, addressing equity and inclusion, cultivating ethical behavior, promoting professional development, and fostering wellbeing. These competencies were adapted from organizational research and used to build a nationally recognized, process-based curriculum called Entering Mentoring that focuses on collective problem solving among mentors across a range of career stages and disciplines. This curriculum utilizes case studies built around common, real experiences that mentors and mentees face to show example strategies and provide resources to better assess how a mentorship is progressing, as every mentorship relationship will be unique. To study the effectiveness of the curriculum, a randomized control trial was conducted with mentors who went through six hours of the process-based curriculum compared to a control group, and this showed significant improvements in mentors’ skills in several competency areas, such as maintaining effective communication, aligning expectations for the mentorship, and assessing mentees’ understanding of research (Weber-Main et al., 2019).

Mentee training

Mentee training helps mentees learn the skills they need to proactively and effectively engage with mentors. These skills include thinking about what they are seeking from mentors, recognizing that effective mentoring is not just mentors guiding mentees but also mentees guiding mentors, understanding what core attributes they need from a mentor (i.e. identifying the specific needs a mentee needs from a mentor and assessing whether that mentor can meet the need), and learning about resources that help them build their skills as mentees. Like the mentor training curriculum, mentee training is designed using tested active learning exercises and case studies exploring these competencies. Examples of mentee training programs are:

  • Entering Research curriculum, designed to “level the research playing field for undergraduate and graduate students,” particularly from underrepresented backgrounds, introducing them to the culture of research and the skills needed to navigate mentoring relationships successfully.
  • Mentoring Up curriculum, developed for postdoctoral and junior faculty to help them navigate their careers and proactively manage their mentoring relationships.

To learn more about the curricula mentioned in this section, please visit the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) website here. CIMER also provides assessment services for institutions implementing mentoring education programs. This national data repository is used to analyze what mentorship strategies work for different populations in different contexts.

Resources for Mentorship Education

The National Academies report contains an online guide which covers a variety of topics around mentorship such as: functions of mentorship, how identities and disciplinary context affect mentorship in STEMM, the role of the institution, program assessment, and developing a culture of effective mentorship. Some other resources provided in the online guide include:

  • Recommendations for how to create a culture of intentional, inclusive, and effective mentorship:
    • Provided for all levels of participants, from individual mentors and mentees to institutional leadership (presidents, provosts, deans). Many of the recommendations are applicable to non-STEM disciplines as well
  • Mentoring tools and examples for each:
    • Individual development plans
    • Mentoring plans
    • Mentoring compacts
  • Guidance for developing and managing mentorship programs:
  • Mentorship education
  • Program assessment
  • Matching mentors and mentees

Additional mentorship resources mentioned during the seminar include:

    • Curricula for Entering Mentoring, Entering Research, and Mentoring Up
    • Tools for evaluating mentorship education
    • Online mentor/mentee training programs, video case studies, self-paced mentor training
  • Humanities PhD Project
    • Resources for mentoring graduate students
  • Council of Graduate Schools
    • Resources for mentors, mentees, and institutions

Regardless of the specific role one plays in a mentorship ecosystem, whether as an institutional leader, program leader, department chair, mentor, or mentee, it is important to continue to engage in mentorship education and support the use of evidence-based approaches in mentorship. Program leaders should ensure that there are guidelines and tools for mentors and mentees to set clear expectations, engage in regular assessments, and participate in mentorship education.


Balster, N., Pfund, C., Rediske, R., & Branchaw, J. (2010). Entering research: A course that
creates community and structure for beginning undergraduate researchers in the STEM disciplines. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 9(2), 108–118. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.09-10-0073

Beech, B. M., Calles-Escandon, J., Hairston, K. G., Langdon, S. E., Latham-Sadler, B. A., & Bell, R. A. (2013). Mentoring programs for underrepresented minority faculty in academic medical centers: a systematic review of the literature. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 88(4), 541–549. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0b013e31828589e3

Bland, C. J., Taylor, A. L., Shollen, S. L., Weber-Main, A. M., & Mulcahy, P. A. (2009). Faculty success through mentoring: A guide for mentors, mentees, and leaders. R&L Education.

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Byars-Winston, A. M., J. Branchaw, C. Pfund, P. Leverett, and J. Newton (2015). Culturally
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Campbell, T. A., & Campbell, D. E. (1997). Faculty/Student Mentor Program: Effects on Academic Performance and Retention. Research in Higher Education, 38(6), 727–742. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40196285

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Guest Speaker

Dr. Christine Pfund

Christine Pfund

Senior Scientist

Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Department of Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Christine Pfund, Ph.D. is a senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). Dr. Pfund earned her Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology, followed by post-doctoral research in Plant Pathology, both at University of Wisconsin-Madison. For almost a decade, Dr. Pfund served as the Associate Director of the Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning and the co-Director of the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching helping to train future faculty to become more effective teachers. Dr. Pfund is now conducting research with several programs across the UW campus including the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. Her work focuses on developing, implementing, documenting, and studying interventions to optimize research mentoring relationships across science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

Dr. Pfund co-authored the original Entering Mentoring curriculum and co-authored many papers documenting the effectiveness of this approach. Dr. Pfund is the principal investigator of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) Coordination Center. She is also director of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experience in Research at UW-Madison (CIMER). She is a member of the National Academies committee that recently published the consensus report and online guide, The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM.

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