This section outlines what mentoring is and its benefits, as stated by current and previous fellows.  It outlines how to establish a mentoring relationship and how to make the most of the experience.    

Getting a Mentor

What is mentoring?

Mentoring, in a research context, is a supportive and developmental relationship involving regular meetings between a less experienced researcher (the mentee) and a more experienced researcher (the mentor).  The mentee benefits from the allocated time to reflect on their career as well as the advice and experience of the senior researcher.

Personally, I can see that it might be difficult for fellows to ask for help from a mentor – it is a bit of a contradiction as we are supposed to be independent and do things for ourselves, so by default we don't want to ask for help. But surely it is important to have the option of having a mentor – Dr Francisco Suzuki-Vidal, Royal Society URF, Department of Physics

The benefits of mentoring far outweigh the negatives, and it is widely recognised that great leaders have mentors throughout their careers, not just in the early days.

I cannot overstate how valuable my mentors have been for me: in helping me to be bold. I would not have made some steps forward without their encouragement and belief in me.  - Dr Jane Saffell, Former Reader and researcher mentor, Department of Medicine

What it is not:  Mentoring is not line management, coaching or counselling, although occasionally some of the conversations may feel similar to these types of support.

A useful introductory video from the Academy of Medical Sciences, describing mentoring for researchers in an academic context and addressing common questions.

Types of mentoring: informal (one-to-one)

This form of mentoring is established through existing contacts, networks or working relationships, where the more junior researcher may already have first-hand experience of working with the mentor and already respects and sees the value of the experience offered. 

Anecdotally, this seems to be the most common form of mentoring of research fellows.

On balance I think that mentoring works best when it has developed organically – if it feels forced on you it can be an uncomfortable relationship – although it will still be valuable to get a different perspective. – Dr Lesley Hoyles, MRC Intermediate Research Fellow, Department of Surgery & Cancer

Benefits. Often mentors are previous supervisors or PIs. Therefore, you already have established a relationship and may have an idea of what experiences they will be able to advise you on. 

Disadvantages. You may have to approach a mentor and ask for mentoring, and there is a risk that the mentoring may lack focus or agreements on the format and structure, and what you expect from one another and what the mentor can specifically help you with.

Types of mentoring: formal one-to-one or mentoring circles

  • One-to-one - Arranged through a specific programme or scheme, where mentors and mentees are ‘matched’ in some way, for example for a particular area of expertise, or a particular goal or outcomes that the mentee requires.  Formal mentoring may involve a written contract or agreement, where both parties agree on the format of the relationship (see establishing the relationship).  Formal programmes are often limited to a certain amount of time or number of meetings but fruitful mentoring relationship sometimes carry on beyond the completion of the formal programme
  • Mentoring circles (groups) - Circles are an alternative type of formal mentoring, where a small group of mentees meets with one mentor. Typically, the groups will meet to discuss a common topic or issue.  This format maximises the use of the mentor's time and is also an effective way to utilise informal peer support networking

Benefits: formal mentoring is likely to be more structured and focused, with an agreement of expectations made clear at the start, so both parties know their role and what to expect.

Formal schemes are helpful if you have a limited/small network and don’t know who to approach as a mentor.

The mentors will have already volunteered to take part, so you will not need to approach them or ‘cold call’ and they are likely to have had some form of training or briefing in mentoring skills.

In mentoring circles, the mentor’s time is used more effectively, and the mentees also learn from one another and develop a supportive network that may meet outside of the circle. 

Disadvantages:  The main disadvantage is that you may be allocated a mentor with whom you lack chemistry.  If you have little in common, it may be difficult to establish rapport and trust.

Another disadvantage might be in timing – some schemes have a recruitment cycle and deadlines for applications to so you might find that the timings don’t work for you and you have to wait for another round.

In mentoring circles, the trade-off is that you will get less attention and time focussed on you, and the logistics of arranging the circles so that everyone can meet can be difficult.

The value of mentoring: typical topics and outcomes

A systematic review of research on the benefits of mentoring academics has shown evidence of enhanced personal development, improvements in research productivity (grants and publications) and a sense of greater career guidance.

I think my mentoring acts as a catalyst – pushing my mentees further – they are so focused on research that they often don't look at the bigger picture.  I ask them what they want to do next, push them to go for promotion and suggest what needs to be done to make them more attractive to an employer – Prof Clare Lloyd, Vice Dean (Institutional Affairs) Faculty of Medicine, Senior Wellcome Research Fellow and researcher mentor, NHLI

The following topics are all ones that fellows tell us they have explored with their mentors:

  • Transition to independence in research
  • Research ideas and strategies
  • Career planning and management
  • Writing: Publications and proposals
  • Managing Relationships
  • Networks and collaborations, raising visibility and international profile
  • Work life balance, families and parenting
  • Confidence and assertiveness
  • Difficult conversations
  • Practicalities
  • Teaching

Finding a mentor

Ask for recommendations from your peers or think of senior colleagues and people in your networks (from both within and outside your department) that you admire for their approach or achievements.  Fellows at Imperial have found their mentors amongst:

  • Matched mentors through formal schemes
  • Previous managers, supervisors and co-supervisors
  • Senior fellows
  • Recommendations through colleagues
  • Friends at a more senior level in similar academic settings in other institutions
  • Collaborators
I set about finding my own mentor.  I thought of a senior colleague who was recommended by another one of their mentees.  I got an independent person to verify that they would be a good mentor and then I approached them.  I just emailed and suggested we meet for a coffee and took it from there. – Dr Charlotte Dodson, Research Fellow, NHLI

The qualities you should look for in a mentor

  • You admire or aspire to their achievements or skills, approaches or attitudes.  This might be the way they manage or supervise researchers, how they balance research with family life, their creativity in generating research ideas, the approach they take when working with collaborators, or the success or determination they have in pursuing funding
  • Someone who will be impartial and maintain confidentiality.  You need to be sure that your mentor is not biased in their opinions about your choices and decision-making, and that they will keep your discussions confidential.  This could rule out mentors from your own research group or department.  They should also not be in direct competition with you for jobs, funding or publications
  • They will challenge you.  If your mentor agreed with you all of the time, you would learn very little.  Even if you are correct, they should be willing to ‘play devil’s advocate’ in order to help you to be robust in your reasoning or to see some alternative points of view
  • They can enhance your network. As a research fellow, a key aspect of your success is developing and accessing new networks and enhancing your visibility.  If your mentor is well connected, and if they know your skills and aspirations, they can connect and recommend you to new colleagues and opportunities
  • Chemistry. You know you will get on personally.  If conversations are awkward or you don’t fell entirely comfortable or safe talking honestly to someone about your career, insecurities, challenges and frustrations, then they probably won’t be a good mentor for you.  They may well have the credentials and networks, but if you can’t be open with them, this will limit the extent to which they can understand and help you

Approaching a mentor

Some fellows say that they are put off approaching a potential mentor, as they are likely to be extremely busy and may not want to mentor them.  In fact, the vast majority of senior researchers feel flattered by being asked to act as a mentor.  Whether or not you know your potential mentor very well, it is important to be clear about what you are asking for. If they say no, then they are probably not the right mentor for you, so just ask someone else.

Be brave:

Just ask! – it is lovely to be asked to be a mentor!  You have to be brave, find someone you admire, that you have a sense of belief in, and be clear about what you want – just a one-off chat is ok and if you both think there’s value in continuing, take it from there.  – Dr Jane Saffell, Former Reader and researcher mentor, Department of Medicine

Be clear what you are asking for:

If someone approaches me for mentoring I want to know exactly what they want from me.  Is it because of specific experience that I have? Do they want to meet over the long term or is there a specific issue or challenge that I could help them with in the short term?  I need to know what I am saying yes to, and whether I am the right person to help.  In the past I have said no to a mentoring request as I didn't feel that I was the best person to help.” – Prof Clare Lloyd, Vice Dean (Institutional Affairs) Faculty of Medicine, Senior Wellcome Research Fellow and researcher mentor, NHLI

The practicalities: establishing the relationship and the format of meetings

Although you can have constructive mentoring sessions without a formal contract, it is well worth having some kind of agreement at the start of your mentoring relationship – this will make sure that your sessions are focused, your mentor better understands how to help you, and to prevent any potential problems or misunderstandings going forward.

You may choose to clarify the following things in advance, or use them as discussion topics to put on the agenda of your first meeting:

  1. What is your understanding of mentoring, and what do you expect of each other?
  2. Practicalities: How often, how long and where will you meet?
  3. Confidentiality and potential conflicts of interest e.g. your mentor may be on a review or interview panel or competing for the same students or funding.
  4. What issues or topics, if any, are off-limits?
  5. When will the mentoring relationship finish? What will you do if it isn’t working? When will you review progress?

Most fellows have chosen to be very informal when establishing the mentoring, however, if you would prefer a more formal approach to contracting, you could use or adapt an example set of contracting discussion points

Typically mentoring meetings last around one hour and the frequency will be determined by you.  Fellows tell us that they usually meet with their mentor around once every couple of months.  Meetings tend to be more or less frequent according to the challenges faced by the mentee at the time.

There was no formal contracting and we meet as and when needed.  If I’m submitting a proposal then we could have three meetings in one month, but at other times it would be much more sporadic.  I tend to meet them in their building: I’ll grab a coffee and go to a meeting room. – Dr Charlotte Dodson, Research Fellow, NHLI

The practicalities: having productive mentoring conversations

You should be setting the agenda for your mentoring sessions. It is important to put in some thought in advance about what you want to get from each session, so your mentor knows at the start what you want and what an ideal outcome from the session would be for you.

You may wish to just see where your mentoring conversation takes you, however following a simple process can help you to get the most from your mentoring and will make it more likely that you take the right actions and stick to them.

There are a few models that are used regularly in coaching and mentoring.  We suggest that a simple structure to follow is the series of questions in the OSCAR model, which is explained more fully in a very useful downloadable question sheet and a video from the Academy of Medical Sciences.

  • Outcomes
  • Situation
  • Choices and consequences
  • Actions
  • Review

When you establish the relationship, you could ask your mentor if they are happy to help you to work through these types of questions. 

Formal Mentoring Schemes

Formal mentoring schemes at Imperial

Resources, guidance and workshops are available from People and Organisational Development as well as up-to-date contacts for mentoring schemes in a selection of academic departments. There are also mentoring schemes aimed at specific groups, such as parents, and other suggestions for finding a mentor.

Examples of external mentoring schemes

Here are a few examples of discipline-specific researcher mentoring schemes in the UK.  This is by no means an exhaustive list: if there is not a scheme that is relevant to your discipline or interest area then ask your colleagues, funder or relevant learned societies and you may find more examples.

Closing the mentoring relationship

It is completely normal to move on from your mentors and find new ones. In fact, it is to be expected, as you will make progress and outgrow the relationship. Some signs that the mentoring relationship is no longer working or has run its course are:

  • You have changed your goals or have a new strategy, requiring new perspectives
  • You have resolved the challenges that first brought you to your mentor
  • You have developed and made progress sufficiently to have ‘outgrown’ the relationship
  • There is a conflict of interest with your mentor e.g. you are competing for the same funding, or they have been asked to be on a panel to interview you
  • You or your mentor start to miss or cancel meetings and they become less of a priority
  • Your mentor becomes less responsive to emails or calls
  • Your mentor holds back on advice, or you hold back on responding to their challenges
  • Your mentor does not acknowledge your progress or positively encourage you
  • You have reason to question your mentor’s opinions or expertise

The easiest way to close the relationship is to have had an agreement at the start about how and when this will happen.  You then just follow that procedure.

If you haven’t agreed on anything, then you may simply choose to gradually meet less frequently, but it is more courteous and professional to talk to your mentor about ‘closing’ the relationship.

Advice from mentors:

I think the simplest thing is just say ‘thank you for your help, I think I have accomplished what I needed to do and don't want to use up more of your valuable time.  Your mentoring/advice got me to where I want to be’…..Of course this is much easier is you were specific about what you wanted to achieve at the start – Prof Clare Lloyd, Vice Dean (Institutional Affairs) Faculty of Medicine, Senior Wellcome Research Fellow and researcher mentor, NHLI
It’s important that you end a relationship if it is no longer useful - otherwise it is a waste of everyone’s time.  Maybe suggest reducing the time and frequency, or agree from the outset that you’ll review how things are going after a set time.  It’s likely that your mentor is really busy, so the simple default is that if you don't contact them then they probably won’t chase you – but that is not professional. Don't end it by email – go and see your mentor, acknowledge the ways they have helped you, with thanks, and signal that you are ready to stop.  You might ask if they would be willing for you to contact them again in the future.  – Dr Jane Saffell, Former Reader and researcher mentor, Department of Medicine