Creating an Impactful Mentoring Program

When you started in your field, did you seek a mentor who could offer sage advice or support? It’s not uncommon for professionals to crave guideposts when beginning a new professional position. There is much to learn beyond a job description.

Scholars from backgrounds that are underrepresented in academia may feel this need even more acutely. As one New Connections scholar, Dr. Adrian Aguilera, explained, “As a junior faculty member, seeing other people of color helps remove the sense of isolation you can have in academia.” New Connections was established to support these scholars, providing mentoring and leadership development, among other services, to diversify the perspectives that contribute to addressing health disparities and building a Culture of Health.

New Connections mentors have all been mentored at some time throughout their career, so they understand the value this service provides to other scholars as they advance in their careers. As Tia Burroughs, program manager for New Connections, can attest, professionals are often so grateful for their own mentorship experience that they are excited to share their knowledge with others. How can you create and implement a mentoring program that, like New Connections, supports scholars and sets them up for success in their field? Like any great mentor, Tia looked to her own expertise when sharing strategies for mentorship success.

Finding Mentors

  • When you’re starting a new mentoring program, start small — maybe with four or five mentors. Each mentor can work with several mentees (ideally no more than four). This enables mentees to learn from each other as well, building a network in addition to their mentee experience. Make sure each mentor has enough time to dedicate to the mentees assigned to them.
  • Find mentors in your network. Because New Connections mentors had all been mentored themselves, it was easy to build a roster of strong mentors. If you need more mentors, asking your network to spread the word can be your first step,  followed by contacting professional programs or associations related to your mentees’ needs. Recruiting mentors via word of mouth enables people to identify mentors in particular areas, such as a colleague who works well with early career scholars.
  • When pairing mentors and mentees, be sure to consider what makes a good fit. Tia notes that a mentee can benefit from being paired with someone whose work has been published in the same subject area, as their mentor could provide advice about key aspects of the publication process (e.g., journals to submit to, understanding reviewer feedback). One New Connections scholar, Dr. Amy Adamczyk, said her mentor advised her on funding opportunities and leveraging her research about limiting health disparities. Ask mentors about non-academic areas in which they could advise their mentees as well, such as work-life balance. Common ground is important for establishing a comfort level, so the relationship can grow organically and not feel like a task.

Implementing Your Mentoring Program

  • Mentoring programs should last at least six months, but a full year is preferable, as participants will need time to build a rapport. If your mentorship program aligns with the academic calendar, mentees can offer direction on calendar restrictions that arise throughout the year.
  • Inform the mentors about expectations for how they will engage with the program — for example, the number of times they are expected to interact with their mentee and how they will do so (via phone, in person, and/or in group webinars). Clarifying expectations early can help ensure mentors will fully commit to the program.
  • Research icebreakers (like this list of icebreaker questions provided by the University of Arizona Alumni Association) for initial mentor-mentee conversations or articles about adult mentoring relationships that you can share with mentors. The Graduate School at Northwestern University, for example, has a resource available online to help mentors and mentees begin their relationship and understand each other’s roles. Mentors will draw from their own experience to develop a mentoring plan, but they can also seek online resources that provide suggestions for plans and adapt them to meet their needs. This can provide the foundation for a discussion with their mentee so they are on the same page regarding their mentoring goals — for example, completing a draft of an academic article. 

Mentoring in Action

  • Though some might assume that in-person meetings are necessary, Tia says there are benefits to both in-person and virtual partnerships. During in-person meetings, mentors and mentees may develop a rapport more easily. However, virtual mentoring means that location isn’t a restraint on the match. In this way, people can be matched based on the best fit without being limited by geography. Even if the mentor and mentee live near each other, virtual meetings save time by allowing them to meet without any traveling. When the mentoring relationships primarily take place virtually, Tia suggested bringing mentors and mentees to a symposium or conference for at least one in-person meeting. New Connections held a mentoring breakfast at its annual Symposium to give mentors and mentees an opportunity to connect in person.
  • Consider providing more than one mentor for a mentee. Tia mentioned that mentors can provide a great perspective on a mentee’s field, for example, but New Connections scholars also benefitted from getting advice from additional mentors on topics such as gaining tenure or navigating department politics.
  • In addition to the individual meetings, webinars provide opportunities for several mentors to share knowledge with all of the mentees. New Connections shared webinars on topics such as tenure and promotion in academia, hosted by program alumni. This platform offers cross-disciplinary mentorship in which mentees engage with and learn from experts besides their own mentor. Make sure mentors know early on about expectations like this one that go beyond regular mentoring responsibilities.

A strong mentoring program can have a lasting impact on its participants. New Connections scholar Dr. Shawn M. Bediako said, “Being a New Connections grantee has given me a new-found sense of confidence, competence and consciousness: confidence in my ability to learn and acquire new skills; competence in my ability to apply those skills in novel and creative ways; and consciousness in understanding that my scholarship should be used in ways that help resolve pressing problems that face our society.” Dr. Anna Adachi-Mejia noted that she attributes the increased visibility of her work to her participation in New Connections, and she summed up the benefits of mentoring best when she said, “Having this grant has been like having my very own cheering team.”