Tina York, “Fluid Dynamics” (1995), mixed media, 32 x 40 inches. As a NASA Art Program artist, Tina York visited the Ames Research Center in California to study the principles of fluid dynamics. This piece shows the way gases move as a solid body passes through them.

Innovation in Mentorship


Academic Mentorship Needs a More Scientific Approach
Read Responses From

Academic Mentorship Needs a More Scientific Approach,” by Beronda L. Montgomery, Fátima Sancheznieto, and Maria Lund Dahlberg (Issues, Summer 2022), calls to light how well-intentioned but neglectful mentorship serves as a severe detriment in how the United States provides training in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine—the STEMM fields. Importantly, the authors point out that “mentorship is largely an ad hoc activity, with institutions delegating responsibility to graduate training programs and the PIs of individual research groups. This entrenched, informal system revolves around each scientist’s individual commitment to mentorship and personal experience with past mentors.”

Indeed, this ad hoc, do-it-yourself approach serves neither faculty members nor students well; it perpetuates inconsistent and outright bad experiences, and it ultimately hurts the research enterprise altogether by undermining the well-being and creativity of the humans who drive it. Frankly, it amounts to institutional neglect.

However, we keep doing the same thing: creating mentorship training programs that no matter their quality—and many are great—can be onerous to commit to. Absent institutional support, one’s ability to prioritize mentorship training inevitably competes with formal metrics of early-career success. In this sense, we operate in an academic ecosystem that inherently deprioritizes and disincentives mentorship.

We need to stop thinking about STEMM mentorship training as “if you build it, they will come.” Considering all the other pressures students, postdoctoral researchers, and early-career faculty members face, we need to build it, and then bring it to them—with institutional support that prioritizes, incentivizes, and rewards excellence in mentorship.

We operate in an academic ecosystem that inherently deprioritizes and disincentives mentorship.

A typically overlooked focus is on teams. Thoughtful programming for research teams at universities would pay dividends. At Stanford, with generous support from the Shanahan Family Foundation, we are testing ideas—drawing from successful teams across diverse sectors (business, academia, and even sports)—to implement the practice of mentorship in a research team context.

Whole-team participation by STEMM labs can engender greater and more meaningful engagement with mentorship training and practice, while also lending itself to scale-up via institutional support, with team-focused programs serving researchers at different career stages simultaneously. For a faculty member or student to learn with one’s team is to amplify the opportunities for healthy mentorship alliances to blossom across a team at all levels. And it takes what the business consultant Patrick Lencioni, in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, calls “vulnerable trust” for faculty and students to engage honestly and effectively.

Currently, academic researchers who become faculty members—or who go into industry—are trained on research. Period. But the hardest part of science isn’t the science; it’s the people stuff. It’s tragic that virtually no one in STEMM explicitly receives training either on how to lead a research group or how to be an effective trainee within a group. Leading a research team requires one to manage others; communicate effectively with diverse people; mediate conflicts; do budgets; set operational, research, and cultural expectations; and implement inclusive training practices. Being an effective trainee requires one to understand roles and responsibilities; grasp timelines and programmatic obligations; pursue good grades in classes; publish and present one’s research; hone effective oral and written communication skills, including self-advocacy; and give credit and encouragement to others.

The unique focus on the team—enrolling whole teams inclusive of faculty, students, postdocs, and staff—provides an opportunity for innovation in the approach to mentorship education for STEMM researchers. It enables reciprocal mentor-mentee relationships to develop through healthier team environments in which mentorship alliances throughout an organization can thrive.

Director, Strategic Program Development & Engagement

Associate Director, Center for STEMM Mentorship

Stanford University

Senior Research Scientist, Lab Manager

Associate Director, Center for STEMM Mentorship

Stanford University

Sanjiv Sam Gambhir Professor of Translational Medicine and Chemical Engineering

Faculty Director, Center for STEMM Mentorship

Stanford University

Mentoring has been a cornerstone of the scientific enterprise, as knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next. But as Beronda L. Montgomery, Fátima Sancheznieto, and Maria Lund Dahlberg describe, the traditional ad-hoc form of mentoring has limitations and consequences, and it is time to reimagine how mentoring is practiced.

Mentors who had benefitted from being mentored early in their career usually adopt a similar, if not identical, approach. They vow to do the opposite if it was a toxic relationship. This is limiting as it lacks perspective, insight, and accountability. Mentors might try to transform their mentees into “mini-mes,” but this, as the authors describe, will only widen the diversity gap in science. Further, it discourages mentors from learning from each other. This is especially needed when facing unfamiliar or extreme situations, such as how to mentor during a pandemic.

The halls of science are littered with bad mentors who, as researchers have noted, often served up numerous forms of inadequate mentoring, both active and passive. Mentors might not even realize the negative impact of their practices from unanswered emails, months of not reviewing their manuscripts, and preventing their mentees from collaborating with others.

The authors advocate for a scientific approach to mentoring, underscored by collaboration, a hallmark of modern science. We can learn from other industries (after all, checklists in the operating room were copied from those that pilots use before takeoff). It is common in nearly every industry to utilize expertise from other sectors. Science should take a similar approach to mentoring.

The authors also recommend institutionalizing mentoring, making it a part of the promotion, tenure, and hiring practice. But some people may give the recommendation only lip service, and there is no means of holding them accountable for what they claim. Asking faculty to include a mentoring plan is a one-dimensional approach they can copy and paste among multiple applications.

It is common in nearly every industry to utilize expertise from other sectors. Science should take a similar approach to mentoring.

Instead, consider asking faculty: What is the most challenging mentoring issue you faced this year? or What is the greatest achievement of one of your mentees, and what was your role in it? These questions would force mentors to think more deeply about their actions and impact, far more than a generic plan can accomplish. Furthermore, mentees’ needs vary, and this broader approach prevents a one-size-fits-all model.

To move mentoring from a haphazard, ad hoc approach with questionable impact and scalability, academic institutions should consider a more collaborative approach:

Mentoring teams. As the authors explain, one mentor cannot have all the answers to all questions. Having a diverse group of mentors from various generations and fields is pivotal for offering the needed array of career guidance and psychosocial support.

Community of practice. Mentors need the chance to learn from each other. Being one of many will enable them to share ideas, ask for guidance on how to deal with difficult situations, and find an expert in a particular field.

Recognize the bidirectional effect. While traditionally mentors have been senior faculty, mentoring is now recognized as working in all directions. Senior faculty can learn from junior members in the lab, and peers can learn from each other.

Just as science has evolved, so must our views and approaches to mentoring. To compete, be inclusive, and stop the leaky pipeline that is plaguing science, we must take a more scientific approach to mentoring.

Assistant Professor and Chief Learning Officer

Department of Anesthesiology

Weill Cornell Medicine

Author of The Success Factor

Reading Beronda L. Montgomery, Fátima Sancheznieto, and Maria Lund Dahlberg’s essay made me want to stand up and cheer. These authors address a critical issue that threatens aspiring scientists and the very future of science, namely the lack of systematic, data-driven approaches that place mentoring the next generation of scientists on an equal footing with other required activities such as publishing and obtaining research funding.

The authors are accurate in their assertion that with the current ad hoc approach, despite the critical importance of mentoring, this activity is neither rewarded nor incentivized. In fact, performing the labor of mentoring is not only notvalued, but can, and often does, have a negative impact on the typical metrics used to measure “success” for scientists.Time and effort devoted to mentoring are inherently time and effort not spent writing a manuscript, crafting a grant proposal, or brainstorming about a new research idea. The situation is even more dire in that mentoring is absolutely essential for the continued success of the scientific enterprise, particularly to build a diverse and inclusive scientific community, but the burden of mentoring often falls disparately on a subset of individuals, typically those from the very groups that the community claims to want to lift up. Without systematic training in mentoring, even well-intentioned individuals who are willing to put in the work may not have the ability to maximize the potential and impact of their effort.

Despite the critical importance of mentoring, this activity is neither rewarded nor incentivized. In fact, performing the labor of mentoring is not only not valued, but can, and often does, have a negative impact on the typical metrics used to measure “success” for scientists.

As the authors point out, there is ample research that defines mentoring best practices, but these substantial data have not been used to develop and implement mentoring programs at the institutional level, nor have they been adopted by granting agencies. In the interest of provoking action, the authors charge scientific leaders to institutionalize mentoring. For example, creating an institutional office of mentoring that provides training and measures compliance in a manner equivalent to that required for environmental health and safety would place mentoring on an even platform with other mandated activities. A major challenge is how to build in accountability. As the authors note, while mentor training can be implemented, required, or both, oversight and regulation pose a major challenge.

One of the major threats associated with poor or damaging mentoring is the continued failure to diversify the scientific research community. The authors raise the important point that scientists from groups that are historically excluded and underrepresented in STEM fields are more likely to be impacted by negative mentoring than those in majority groups. Thus, a lack of evidence-based and systematic approaches to mentoring works against a major stated goal in STEM, namely building an inclusive and diverse scientific community that is best poised to use creative approaches to tackle future scientific challenges.

Scientists apply innovative, evidence-based approaches to their research questions. These approaches need to be used in a similar manner to develop, implement, evaluate, and reward mentoring. Kudos to these authors for continuing this important conversation and suggesting actionable approaches to address this very real threat to the future of science.

Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Biology and Senior Associate Dean for Research

Emory College of Arts and Sciences

Cite this Article

“Innovation in Mentorship.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 1 (Fall 2022).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Fall 2022