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Best practices in academic mentoring - what does research say?

by Andy Nobes

  1. What is mentoring?
  2. The different types of academic mentoring
  3. Key skills needed for mentors
  4. The stages of mentoring

Welcome to our short guide to academic mentoring according to research from academics and expert practitioners. This will provide some best-practice guidelines on what mentoring is, the different tupes that you can provide, the key skills needed, and suggestions on the different stages of mentoring relationship.

1. What is mentoring?

First, some established definitions:

" A formalised process whereby a more knowledgable and experienced person actuates a supportive role of overseeing and encouraging reflection and learning within a less experienced and knowledgable person, so as to facilitate that persons' career and personal development" (Roberts, 2000)

"Mentoring: a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and psychosocial support percieved by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is percieved to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is percieved to have less (the protege)" (Boseman & Fenney, 2007)

Other literature talks about the essential and contingent attributes of a mentor:

Some essential attributes of mentoring (from Roberts, 2000):

  • A forward-looking, learner-centered process (rather than an event, i.e., training)
  • A suuportive relationship, with mutual affinity
  • A helping process
  • A teaching-learning process
  • A reflective practice - encouraging and facilitating the mentee to stop, reflect and evaluate
  • A career development process
  • The mentor's "role-set", using different abilities and experience in response to certain contexts

Contingent attributes of a mentor:

  • Coaching
  • Sponsoring
  • Role modelling
  • Assessing

Additionally, there should be expected impacts and outcomes arising from a successful mentoring relationship:

Impacts of mentoring (from Roberts, 2000):

  • Latent abilities are discovered
  • Performance improvement
  • Growth in mentee confidence
  • Personal growth of mentee AND mentor
  • Increased awareness of role/job
  • Increased effectiveness in an organisation
  • Self-actualisation
  • Mentees become mentors themselves

Research conducted by Cole, Johnson, Meija et. al (2015) on successful mentoring programmes also identified some key themes.

Key themes in successful mentoring relationships:

  • Great mentors inspire others to become mentors,
  • Mentorship is transformative in personal and professional development, where mutual respect and a safe space can facilitate deep learning
  • Reciprocity - mentoring is a two-way street that mentors can also learn from

"Mentoringship is described as facilitating 'deep learning', in which seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge suddenly connected in a new and exciting way or in which knowledge of one's personal self is enhanced to motivate change"

2. Different types of academic mentoring

"Mentoring, and the associated terms mentor, mentee and mentorship are understood in myriad ways by different disciplines and organisations" (Sambunjak & Marušić, 2009).

There is no one-size-fits-all model for academic mentoring, and every individual is different, and different types of support across different disciplines, career stages, countries will vary. However, there are good practice models and examples that we can learn from.

There are three main categories of mentoring that are mentioned on AuthorAID - writing mentoring (editing support), short term mentoring and long term mentoring. They could be mapped against these theorectical models:

Different AuthorAID online models:

Writing mentor or editing support

Ideally should involved transfer of sustainable writing guidance, not just language editing papers

Short term skills mentoring

Short-term mentor

Set period of time, focused on specific goals

Recommend a learning agreement (formal)

Performance mentoring

Could also be developmental mentoring and/or skills mentoring

Career mentor

Can use a learning agreement but unspecified period of time

Developmental mentoring

Tends to be more informal

These different types of mentoring are similar to what experts identify on a 'scale' of different types of support, from 'skills' mentoring to 'developmental'mentoring:

Skills/developmental in individual support scale (Cox and Jackson):

Skills mentoring

Shorter term

Pre-identified goals

Specific objectives

Developing the technical mastery of aspects of a particular activity

Behaviourist learning model

Performance mentoring




Developing the effective deployment of skills in complex contexts

Cognitivist learning model

Developmental mentoring

Longer term

Emergent goals

Evolving objectives

Helping the person change in order to engagement in a different way with current and future challenges

Constructivist learning model

(Adapted from Cox & Jackson (2018), Developmental Coaching, in E. Cox, T. Bachkirova & D. Clutterbuck. The Complete Handbook of Coaching, p. 227

Another way of differentiating the styles of mentoring is by comparing traitional 'sponsorship' with a more 'development' style mentoring. Ideally, contemporary academic mentoring should lean strongly towards the 'developmental' model, but sometimes it may be necessary to use 'sponsorship' elements depending on professional, personal and cultural context.

'Sponsorship' mentoring and 'developmental' mentoring (Megginson and Clutterbuck, Mentoring in Action):


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Each mentoring relationship will have different dimensions, as Garvey (2018) proposes.

Dimensions of mentoring relationship:

  • Is it open or closed? Is anything on the agenda, or is there a focus on specific issues?
  • Is it public or private? Who knows the mentoring is happening? It's particularly important to consider other stakeholders such as supervisors.
  • Is it formal or informal? Regular schedule, time limits, notes?
  • Is it active or passive? Who does what in the relationship?
  • Is it stable or unstable/flexible? Trust and consistency - sticking to ground rules/reviewing and renogotiating?

"The mentor's role, therefore is to listen, support and challenge", and to do this in the context if:

  • Change and transition
  • Leadership development
  • Time management and work-life balance
  • Performance and behaviour
  • Motivation and confidence
  • Personal and people-related issues
  • Thoughts and feelings on a range of issues

The mentor will do this by:

  • Sensitively drawing on relevant experience and skills
  • Employing well-developed interpersonal skills
  • Relating well with people who want to learn
  • Having an desire to help and develop mentees
  • Being open-minded, flexible and recognizing his or her own need for support
  • Giving time and being will to develop the relationship

(Garvey, 2018).

3. Key skills require. What skills does an academic mentor need?

"experience cannot be poured from one person to another" (Smith & Alfred, 1993)

Mentors may have one or more of these skills/roles:

  • Listening/coaching, reflective practice
  • Recommending networks and resources
  • Writing advice
  • Research advice - theory, literative review
  • Technical skills - stats, etc, methodologies, labrator
  • General experience - peer review, career prograssion, applications, pastoral support

4. Stages of a mentoring relationship

Mentoring relationships can take different forms and lenghts, but there are some common suggested models.

Firstly, building rapport is of central importance, and perhaps the first step to prioritize: "Rapport is important in ensuring the mentoring relationship is natural, personal, spontaneous, substance oriented. This was reflected in the mentors' and mentees' strong desires to support and learn from one another. Interdependency encourage individual growth while simultaneously facilitating a sense of friendship, collegiality, connectedness and caring between the mentors and mentees." (Young, Alvermann et.al. 2004).

A model for stages of a mentoring relationship (Clutterbuck, 2008, p.3)

  • Phase 1: Rapport-building - mentor and mentee decide whether they want to work together and negotiate what each expects of the other.
  • Phase 2: Direction-setting - mentor and mentee achieve clarity about what each aims to achieve from the relationship and how.
  • Phase 3: Progress-making - having helped the mentee define and commit to personal change, the mentor must guide and support them as needed.
  • Phase 4 - Winding down - when the relationship has helped to deliver the desired outcomes or the mentee outgrows the mentor
  • Phase 5: Moving on/professional friendship - moving on from a formal relationship towards a less committed, more casual one.

A model for a 'learning conversation' (suggested structure of a single session):

Megginson and Clutterbuck (Mentoring in Action, 2006, p. 22)

The GROW model (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) is also a popular model for professional coaching and mentoring relationships.



Cole, Johnson, Meija et. al (2015) Mentoring health researchers globally: Diverse experiences, programmes, challenges and responses https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26234691/

Andy Roberts (2000) Mentoring Revisited: A phenomenological reading of the literature, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 8:2, 145-170, DOI: 10.1080/713685524

Bozeman B, Feeney MK. Toward a Useful Theory of Mentoring: A Conceptual Analysis and Critique. Administration & Society. 2007;39(6):719-739. DOI 10.1177/0095399707304119

Sambunjak D, Marušić A. Mentoring: What's in a Name? JAMA. 2009;302(23):2591-2592. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.1858

SMITH, R. & ALRED, G. (1993) The Impersonation of wisdom, in: D.MACINTYRE, H. HAGGER, & M. WILKIN, (Eds) Mentoring Perspectives on School Based Education, (Kogan Page, London)

Josephine Peyton Young, Donna Alvermann, Janine Kaste, Susan Henderson & Joyce Many (2004) Bing a friend and a mentor at the same time: a pooled case comparison, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 12:1, 23-36, DOI: 10.1080/1361126042000183066

Garvey 2018, "Mentoring in a Coaching World", in a Complete Handbook of Coaching