Working with a Mentor



This is sometimes overlooked, but incredibly important in the sciences and throughout your career development.  This person or people can be your biggest advocate for refining skills and getting to the next level.  Since researchers learn their skills through apprenticeship, you will learn or refine your techniques with a scientist that will serve as a mentor.

An excerpt from the Educase website:

There are important skills needed by mentees in order to take full advantage of the mentoring relationship. An excellent resource for building these skill sets is Gordon F. Shea’s Making the Most of Being Mentored: How to Grow from a Mentoring Partnership (Crisp Publications, Inc., 1999).

Two of the most important skills relate to asking questions and listening.


Asking Questions. 

A major part of learning is asking the right question which will bring new information into the conversation. An essential resource in learning about the power of questions is Dorothy Leeds’s The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and Work (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2000).



Listening is a foundational skill to learning of all types, but it is particularly important within a mentoring relationship. There are many resources for learning how to listen better. One of the best for active listening is Madelyn Burley-Allen’s Listening: The Forgotten Skill, 2nd Edition (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995).”

As a science educator,  you may need many mentors on your journey.  In your lab, you’ll interact with your mentor and lab mates about your project this summer.  You might be paired with a post-doctoral fellow or a senior graduate student.  Each will serve as a “mentor” so that you will be productive this summer. Make sure to ask plenty of questions to help with better understanding of your project.  Every mentor may not help in every way that you need guidance, so a team of mentors may be necessary.

There are four phases of the mentor-mentee relationship – Assessment, Alignment, Cultivation, Closure.



Having frequent conversations can help you assess fit.  Here are some questions to have in mind:

Questions to Help Assess Fit

Choosing a mentor is about finding the right fit for you and for them. Be sure to address multiple aspects of fit, including:

Career Development

Depending on your career stage, you will need a mentor to help with different areas of professional development.

Does this person have enough seniority/clout in order to advocate for you within your own institution, division or department?

Can this mentor help you identify other potential members of a mentor team and help model effective methods of sharing knowledge and decisions across multidisciplinary teams?

Can this mentor help translate institutional/professional cultures and norms in a way that fosters your sense of inclusion and belonging?

Personality and Fit

It is important to consider how your personality will fit with your mentor’s, as well as how her/his mentoring style and priorities will match with your needs. A mismatch of these styles could lead to miscommunications and an unsatisfactory mentoring experience. Here are some questions to consider:

How knowledgeable are you about your own personality and communication style and the type of leadership and management with which you work best?

What are previous and current mentees saying about this mentor’s work- and mentoring- style?

Do you feel confident the mentor can “meet you where you are” and reflect on how her/his mentoring styles can best support you?

Is this mentor’s primary focus on fostering your independent career or in you lending expertise to his/her project?

Does this mentor have the time and motivation to provide you the guidance you need?

How do you feel before meeting with this person? Excitement? Motivation? Dread? Anxiety?

Does this person serve as a role model or model behaviors you want to develop in yourself?


It is important to consider how often you want to meet and communicate with your mentor and whether they will be able to accommodate those needs. Consider these questions:

When you schedule an interview with this mentor, do you make the appointment directly with him/her or with his/her assistant?

Does this person respond to your emails or phone calls in what you consider a timely fashion?

What do current mentees say about the mentor’s ability to provide feedback?

When you meet, how balanced is the conversation? Who does most of the talking?

Does this person demonstrate active listening skills? Make eye contact and show an engaging posture? Does the mentor check if her/his perception of what you said matches what you intended to say? How do they demonstrate they have heard and understood you?

Research Resources

It is important to make sure your mentor has the appropriate resources to advance your career. Consider:

How do your research interests overlap with this mentor?

What physical, intellectual (scientific, methodological) and fiscal resources do you need access to in order to achieve your research goals? Which one(s) could your mentor provide?

Does this mentor have experience in obtaining federal funding and successfully publishing research results?

Does this mentor provide opportunities to successfully teach you what you need to know to continue in your area of expertise?

Does this mentor create a positive and productive work/lab environment?

Would your mentor provide you access to the research collaborators that you need?

Additional Questions are listed on the Office of Intramural Training and Education.



The Alignment phase is where formal and informal mentoring can part ways, where early conversations about goals, roles and timelines get fleshed out and, in a more formal approach, written down for future assessment and revision. Taking the time early in the mentoring relationship to articulate, align, and document scientific and relational expectations is an investment in developing trust, effective communication and shared goals. Discussions with your mentor should include topics such as compatibility of learning and communication styles, expectations around progress, and intentions of oversight or supervision.

Mentee Responsibilities in the Alignment phase:

  • Have a clear understanding of your goals and the role/resources you want your mentor to play/provide
  • Be prepared to clearly communicate your expectations and listen to the expectations of your mentor(s)
  • Be flexible and willing to alter your expectations and change plans
  • Inform your mentor of your preferred learning style



In the cultivation phase, the mentor and mentee follow through on the expectations and timelines outlined in the Alignment Phase, modifying the specifics as the relationship plays out. The mentoring team becomes fully assembled with clearly defined roles relating to your scientific and career development needs and goals. For you, this phase means leveraging the strengths outlined in the Individual Development Plan (IDP), as well as cultivating your areas for growth, and communicating your needs as they change; it means seizing opportunities as they arise and following through with intentional action.

Mentee Responsibilities in the Cultivation phase:

  • Actively listen and contribute to conversations
  • Acknowledge your weaknesses and build from your strengths
  • Accept and reflect on constructive criticism
  • Don’t shy away from difficult conversations
  • Follow through on tasks and meet deadlines
  • Communicate your changing needs
  • Celebrate successes
  • Periodically evaluate progress and assess the relationship



At all phases of the mentoring relationship, both you and your mentor should feel motivated and confident that each is contributing toward shared goals. Once the mentoring relationship has served its purpose and the long term goals are achieved, or it becomes clear that those goals are not going to be met, it is helpful to have a framework or set of conditions in place for when the association should change or end.

Mentee Responsibilities in the Closure Phase:

  • Be sensitive to when the relationship has run its course
  • Provide your mentor with updates after the formal relationship has ended
  • Provide a summative evaluation of the experience
  • Say thank you and give credit where credit is due
  • Give back to the profession and mentor others

These phases were adapted from the Mentoring Resources site.


Online resources:

Educause – Phases of Relationships

Mentoring Resources – University of Wisconsin ICTR