Structuring the Mentoring Relationship:
Learning Pearls for Mentors and Mentees

Getting Started

Like any other relationship, the two parties in a mentorship need to introduce themselves to each other,including their professional and personal identities. The mentor should model this, leading off by telling something about her professional career: what she does now, and how she got to her current position, including school, training, career path, and faculty roles leading up to the present. The mentor should also tell a limited amount about how her career fits in with the rest of her life, e.g., marriage/partner, kids, and other interests. This helps the mentee know whom he is dealing with. Next, the mentor should ask the mentee to tell about his career to date, career aspirations, and briefly about the other parts of his life.

Structuring expectations

Clarify the following to build the “frame” of the mentoring relationship:

  • Roles– what the relationship is, and what it is not.
  • The responsibilities of the mentor and mentee to each other.
  • What each person expects to happen in the mentoring relationship: general advice, specific technical advice, sponsorship in academic institutions and organizations, guidance about career options, etc.
    • As a mentee, ask your mentor if she can provide what you believe you need to be successful.
    • As a mentor:
      • Discuss/provide mentee with a template of what he needs to do to succeed and walk him through it, e.g., provide or suggest a template for, and help him with, his first grant application.
      • “Let go,” i.e., delegate specific tasks to the mentee, as appropriate, to foster his independence.
      • Ask the mentee to plan out the issues that need to be discussed at each meeting, analyzing the pros and cons.
  • The practical details of the relationship: frequency, time, agenda, and format of meetings (in person, email, or phone).
  • What each person expects the other to prepare before each meeting.
  • What each person wants to get out of the mentoring relationship.
To keep in mind:
  • Pre‐conceived notions and prior mentoring experiences may not always be applicable in subsequent mentoring situations.
  • Funding may determine some aspects of the mentoring relationship, i.e., some grants require formal mentoring plans.
Setting boundaries of the mentoring relationship
  • Discuss what mentoring is not, i.e., therapy, friendship, formal teaching, or formal clinical or research supervision.
  • Sometimes a mentoring relationship may evolve and grow into a friendship. To minimize possible complications, a mentor may need to clarify when she is acting in the role of mentor vs. friend.
  • Establish parameters and timelines for expectations (e.g., we will work together for 6 months and then re‐evaluate; a draft of your grant is due in 2 months; you will need to get independent funding by 2013).
Supporting self‐awareness, confidence, and independence
  • Creating a supportive environment and clarifying limitations and expectations can bolster a mentee’s confidence.
  • Establishing goals can encourage a mentee’s independence.
  • Discuss authorship and publication expectations early on.
  • In fostering a mentee’s independence, one eventual goal should be that the mentee publish independently.
  • A mentor should be frank in her assessment of the mentee’s career path, while conveying that the ultimate decisions about the mentee’s path are his own to make.
How and when to evaluate the relationship
  • Expectations of mentor and mentee need to match, or difficulties are likely. Expectations evolve over time, so they need to be reassessed regularly.
  • Set up the expectation that the mentor and mentee will discuss their relationship at defined intervals.
  • Set a mutually defined period after which the mentoring relationship will be re‐evaluated. Discuss power issues in this relationship and the need to feel safe enough to be direct with each other.
  • Agree to be direct with each other during and between the periodic evaluations of the relationship, especially if either party feels something needs to change.
  • Establish and assess milestones.
  • Discuss a “no‐fault escape clause” if either feels the mentoring relationship is not a good fit and/or another person would be a better fit for the mentee.
Mentor/Mentee Fit
  • “It is easier not to hire than to fire,” so heed warning signs and spend time thinking through the pros and cons before agreeing to a mentoring relationship.
  • Recognize when and how to “unfreeze” or end a relationship that is no longer productive, helpful for the mentee, or otherwise not meeting its goals.
  • Once you realize that a mentoring relationship is not effective, think carefully about when and how to end the relationship.
  • One size does not fit all; if a bad fit/mismatch is identified:
    • Have a discussion of the expectations and support that can be provided.
    • Consider options for a better fit for the mentee.
    • Facilitate identification of an appropriate alternative mentor.
    • Remember that co‐mentoring and peer mentoring are also viable options.
  • Personal relationships can complicate mentoring relationships
  • Understand the limits of what a mentor can, should, and is both willing and able to do, for a mentee.
  • Recognize the reciprocal nature of the mentoring relationship – although most of the focus is on the mentee, the relationship cannot be detrimental to the mentor.