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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Mentoring relationships is an important factor in research success

Mentoring is receiving some much needed attention in academia. Future of Research (FoR), a national advocacy organization for early career researchers, is working to promote greater transparency and discussion around institutional and departmental mentoring standards. On June 14, FoR organized a national meeting to develop mentoring guidelines for academic departments in the United States. The University of Wisconsin–Madison Postdoctoral Association held a satellite meeting to enable local faculty, postdocs, students and research staff to participate in the discussion. The local meeting was sponsored by the UW–Madison Office of Postdoctoral Studies.

Mentoring relationships are the primary mode of training in academia, especially for graduate students and postdocs, who need specialized training and guidance. The keynote speaker, Melissa McDaniels, the senior advisor to the Dean for Research Mentoring at Michigan State University, cited that graduate students frequently say that mentoring is the most important and most disappointing part of their training. Good mentoring is an important determinant of success and satisfaction, while poor mentoring can severely harm the careers and mental health of students. Without incentives for mentors to learn and use best practices in mentoring, and without standards and transparent guidelines for departments, poor mentoring by individuals remains a pervasive problem in academia.

Historically, professors, postdocs and graduate student teaching assistants received little or no training in mentoring practices. That is changing at many institutions, and UW–Madison’s CIMER is leading the way in the study, development and implementation of evidence-based and culturally-responsive interventions in this area. McDaniels emphasized the need to transition from the current focus on mentoring of individuals to changing systems in academia. Having multiple sources of mentoring and support can actually decrease the mentoring effort that can overburden faculty reliant on a strict one-on-one mentoring model.

FoR, which successfully advocated for increased transparency around postdoc salaries and benefits in 2018, is now developing a set of mentoring guidelines. Bronze, silver, and gold excellence tiers will indicate an academic department’s commitment to different domains of mentoring. The goal is to encourage departments to see the guidelines as an opportunity for the recruitment of early career researchers who are increasingly aware of the effect that the training climate can have on their careers.

Participants at the central and five satellite meetings (UW–Madison, UC–Irvine, UC–Berkeley, Ohio State University, University of Michigan), developed criteria for these guidelines. FoR will consolidate ideas and plans to publish the framework in the fall, coinciding with the National Academies’ own report, “The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM.” FoR encourages departments to adopt these new guidelines, emphasizing that they are not a rating of a department but are a cross-sectional snapshot of its current state which reveal opportunities for improvement and growth.

“Departments that openly commit to the guidelines will provide useful information to prospective postdocs and graduate students deciding among departments at different institutions,” explains Teal Potter, co-chair of the UW–Madison meeting.

While FoR works to publish the guidelines, participants in UW–Madison’s satellite meeting are formulating next steps to improve mentoring locally. The meeting revealed that while departments differ in many ways, there are some consistent issues.

Mark Zierden, co-chair on the local organizing committee explained, “Both early career researchers and faculty agreed that communication problems could be addressed with mentor-mentee compacts to facilitate regular discussion about expectations. The postdocs at the meeting were enthusiastic about multiple-mentor agreements for postdocs.”

The local group is looking to recruit additional faculty members and staff, including graduate program representatives, to join their monthly discussions as they strategize how best to encourage UW departments to adopt new mentoring strategies.

“This is an incredible opportunity to turn the enthusiasm generated at the meeting into tractable change,” said Juan Pablo Ruiz Villalobos, president-elect of FoR, who led the organization of the central meeting and is a postdoc at UW–Madison. “The fact that we had participants across institutions, departments, demographics, and career stages signals to me that this is an issue important to all, and that positive culture and systemic change is not just possible, but inevitable, assuming we all work together to bring about that change.”

For more information regarding the local group please contact Teal Potter at