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Best Practices

Distance mentoring programs

Mentoring often occurs face-to-face, where mentors sit down in the same room with their mentees to offer support, guidance, and advice for career success. While this model persists, other approaches are gaining popularity. Distance mentoring programs focus on matching mentees with the most appropriate mentors, regardless of location. These share many of the benefits of conventional mentoring relationships, but take advantage of social networking technology that enables mentoring partners to primarily “meet up” in cyberspace.

How do you carry on a mentoring relationship when you are located in different cities? For distance mentoring pairs, most communication occurs over e-mail, Web sites, and the telephone. These tools allow them to build strong relationships despite the miles between them. Supporters of distance mentoring point out that this model has advantages for people with tight schedules, as they can send e-mails or take phone calls outside of business hours and from any location. It also works well for people who are shy or are reluctant to discuss problems with colleagues.  An added benefit is that communication by e-mail and the Internet increases opportunities for group mentoring.

Distance mentoring programs are available in many fields, including science and technology. Specific programs may target students, postdoctoral fellows, established professionals, or all of the above. While some programs are specialized for women or underrepresented minorities, others have more general enrollment.

MentorNet is a free e-mentoring program for science and engineering students and postdocs from more than 100 participating colleges and universities. After filling out an online profile, MentorNet matches participants with experienced professionals in their fields. The mentoring relationships require about fifteen minutes a week and last for eight months. Online mentoring training is available to facilitate the relationship. Carol Muller, the founder and president of MentorNet, participated in the 2007 National Leadership Workshop on Mentoring Women in Biomedical Careers, which was sponsored by the Office of Research on Women’s Health and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers.

The Ontario Medical Association Mentorship Program was started in 2001 to expand the pool of mentors available to female medical students. The province-wide program was so successful that it was soon expanded to include men. More than 375 mentoring relationships have been supported by this program.

The American Society for Cell Biology Minority Affairs Committee recently started a mentoring program that connects postdoctoral fellows and junior scientists from underrepresented groups with tenured professors. This program is funded through a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the NIH. The goal of the program is to help the young scientists navigate the grant submission process and secure funding. Responsibilities of the mentor include reading and critiquing proposal drafts, as well as offering support and guidance. Mentees who are selected for the program are given travel funds to visit their mentors in person.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) also offers an internet-based mentoring program. Experienced executives, consultants, managers, researchers, and entrepreneurs are invited to participate as mentors to recent graduates, new professionals, and recent career-changers. Both mentors and mentees are required to complete online orientations, and are asked to devote at least two hours per month to the relationship.

The Women of Color Research Network (WoCRn) is a new initiative of the Women of Color in Biomedical Careers Committee of the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers. This social media site welcomes women of color and all members of the biomedical community who support diversity in the scientific workforce. One primary goal of WoCRn is to facilitate access to mentors who can provide advice on career development and navigating the NIH grants process.

Despite differences in format and intended participants, these programs all share a common goal of connecting scientists with the best possible mentors to offer support, advice, and guidance for professional success.


This page last updated: December 29, 2014

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