The ScreenTB mentorship scheme was set up at the kick-off meeting at the very beginning of the project and ran over the entire project lifetime, involving 26 consortium members at different stages of their careers and with diverse backgrounds. In most cases, senior academics in the consortium mentored early and mid-career scientists; though we also had one pair of participants who were at comparable stages in their careers and who mentored each other mutually, which also turned out to be highly fruitful. Mentoring took place through regular electronic, telephone, Skype and face-to-face meetings. Most of the annual consortium meetings included specific “mentor-mentee breakfasts” or similar dedicated sessions that provided the opportunity for personal exchange.
According to Prof. Hazel Dockrell: “A good mentor should be a critical friend, a motivator, a role model and a networker, and different mentors might be needed at different stages of one’s career.” She further explains that the mentoring programme within ScreenTB was modelled on those set up for the Gates Malaria Partnership and then the Malaria capacity Development Consortium, both large multi-center consortia through which many PhD students and young post-doctoral fellows were trained and mentored. A model of mentoring was used in which the mentor was not the primary supervisor or lab head for the mentee. Although much of what the mentor does will be the same, regardless if the mentor is also a supervisor or line manager, there are important differences. An external mentor can provide a neutral sounding board for the mentee to discuss how their PhD, post-doc position, other job or career is progressing, in a confidential way. It enables the mentee to discuss how to best interact with their supervisor or boss (e.g., how do I get my supervisor to read my thesis drafts more quickly?). It enables them to discuss whether they feel academic research is for them, in a neutral setting without it impacting future opportunities. It brings with it its own challenges however, including less frequent face to face interactions, and the even greater need for the mentor to refrain from just advising the student.
Mentors may be seen as surrogate parents and role models, whose core values will influence their mentees. A good mentor-mentee relationship can even be the basis for a lifelong friendship, and like all human relationships, that between mentors and mentee will work best if there is a real rapport between them.
In order to evaluate the success of the mentorship scheme upon completion of the ScreenTB project, LINQ management conducted a survey among the mentor-mentee pairings, complemented by a series of personal interviews. These are the results:
The mentor-mentee experience
The majority of ScreenTB members appreciated the opportunity to take part in the project mentorship scheme and has taken great value from it: „The mentor-mentee-scheme has been an incredibly valuable experience and really had a profound impact on my professional and personal development in the last years”. Participants also report that they have had some tangible results and that the programme has had positive effects: “Being mentored has helped me prioritizing and managing time better, and we keep each other motivated”.
Mentor-mentee relationships require a foundation of trust, mutual understanding, common interests and dedication. This can be established over time and most participants were able to overcome potential initial barriers, cultural differences, demanding schedules and managed to break the ice. Prof. Dockrell facilitated this process by allocating time to the mentors and mentees to bond during the annual meetings. Face-to-face meetings with frequent intervals were cited throughout as the most beneficial way of establishing a mentor-mentee relationship, yet additional structured guidance documents might facilitate the process.
One mentee stated: “I liked the fact that I had someone who would be attentive to my work-related issues in a more in-depth way. In other words, someone who would help me find solutions rather than just listening and agreeing, as colleagues often do.” A mentee wrote: “The opportunity to visit and learn from different labs at Screen TB partner institutions, attend conferences and work on publication abstracts and manuscripts.“ Other mentors responded: “Just being of service to someone who might need a sympathetic ear, advice or a beer!” and “That I have gained and made a very dear friend out of a total stranger!” “…talking about work, life, social issues – and complex looking life changing decisions, as well as areas where one wonders if they are appreciated in what they do. These were always gratifying discussions – on both sides.”
Challenging vs rewarding elements
Keeping a mentor mentee relationship alive and fruitful isn’t always easy. Major challenges cited by many of the participants are time dedication, lack of commitment and the upkeeping of frequent long-distance interactions. The effort that mentorship requires varies strongly depending on the initiative, expectations and needs of a mentee. A regular outreach and clear indication of interest from the mentees are strongly encouraged as some mentors cited the lack of initiative as a challenge. However, the rewarding aspects of the program clearly outweighed the challenges, and benefits were seen in many different areas. One mentor said: “The rewards are to feel you are helping or at least providing new insights and avenues that they could pursue. And providing a platform for discussion.” Another participant said: “Every person needs a sounding board, not just to help with decision making but also for a mentee to think more about issues where the options and directions can be complex to work out. To discuss challenges and work-related issues and frustrations. To get assurance that areas that seem complex and are not new in work and life situations, others have faced similar issues, and one can mentally gear up to handling these without feeling inadequate.”
One mentor specifically emphasized the importance of mentoring women and the major impact she believes mentorship schemes can have on future career paths of female scientists in Africa. ScreenTB had a remarkable gender balance, with exactly 50% of the participants of the final meeting being female, and a large number of mentees enrolled in the programme were female scientists as well. Some of them made great progress in their careers during the project lifetime – to which we believe the mentoring may have added.
The mentorship scheme is intended to be an informal setting that can be shaped according to the respective mentor and mentee’s circumstances and demands. Numerous participants emphasized the importance of being paired with the ‘right’ partner. One suggested introducing “speed dating” sessions as a playful approach to quickly get to know a number of attendees and to determine who you “click with”. If the dynamic doesn’t lead to a fruitful collaboration, moving on to another mentor or mentee has been found most effective. Providing a more structured framework such as guidance documents with speaking points and mandatory prescheduled appointments might be helpful in the initial stages. Furthermore, pairing of participants that are at similar levels of seniority instead of the common senior-junior matching proved to be very rewarding as well and should be encouraged in the future.
What is mentoring and what makes it different from supervising?
A research supervisor will help you do what you NEED to do, while a mentor will help you do what you WANT to do.
My mentor has linked me to new interesting colleagues and people in the field of clinical trials, research and projects.Jacob Sheehama
I have gained and made a very dear friend out of a total stranger!Shirley McAnda
I don’t think mentee- mentor relationships should be about giving advice, it’s really about letting people talk, maybe focusing the discussion a bit and letting people realize what they already know about what their next steps should be.Gerhard Walzl
I liked being of service to someone who might need a sympathetic ear, advice or a beer!Monique Rijks-Surette
We have the same challenges and are in similar situations in many regards. We can pass on best practice or laugh at mistakes that we’ve made and the other can always take something from it.Claudia Schacht
I got much more from the mentorship scheme than I had expected.Anna-Ritah Namuganga