Mentoring peer-peer networks – a recipe for success
Isabel Peset1 & Alba Maiques-Diaz2
1 Senior Scientist, Microscopy, Medicines Discovery Catapult, Manchester, UK;
2 Postdoctoral scientist, Biomedical Epigenomics group, IDIBAPS, Barcelona, Spain; YoungEHA committee member.
If you are an early career researcher, you have probably found yourself thinking about your future career more than once. You might have attended a career advice event in your city or read some blog posts online. After all these inspiring actions, you probably end up with a list of ideas of things you should start doing, starting from “find a good mentor”. If you are lucky enough you might have found a very supportive, open-minded supervisor that takes this mentoring role seriously and frees up some time to discuss all the above with you. These vertical supervisor-mentee relationships are indeed essential for strengthening your career. But the advice provided by lab-peers at your similar professional stage, can be also crucial.
Who can you freely share with your doubts about career plans and your feelings about them? How do you make yourself accountable for your own career goals? What if you are looking for a role outside the lab but you don’t know where to start? Luckily, you just need to look around you – you have an institute full of peers that have similar concerns, doubts, dreams and wishes.
The strength of peer-peer mentoring
Last year we developed the Early Career Researcher Mentoring Circles (ECR-mentoring) initiative at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (University of Manchester, UK), inspired by previous peer-to-peer mentoring experiences[i]. We wanted to complement vertical mentoring programs already in place at the University, in which junior mentees are paired with senior mentors. These programs are highly valuable, but they may reinforce inherent power dynamics and may not boost a proactive role from the mentee. Also, mentors and mentees might not have similar expectations, career-goals, and level of commitment, or they might simply not connect to establish a fruitful relation.
Our vision was to develop small peer groups where all participants are equal, and can practice both sides of a mentoring relationship: being both the supervisor and the mentee. We believed this would induce a proactive role among participants, who would provide and receive essential career support and advice. We wanted to have mentoring sessions that could guide self-assessment and help us create our own strategic professional development, by identifying future career opportunities and maximizing our chances to obtain them. In parallel, we wanted to create supportive peer networks within the institute that would foster a sense of community, and enable the sharing of practical advice between junior researchers working at the University.
Each ERC-mentoring circle was composed of a maximum of 10 researchers, both male and female, with one to seven years of postdoctoral training. We had monthly meetings that were self-organized: each session was facilitated by one or two members of the circle, ensuring everyone would at least lead one session per year. Topics were decided within each group during the first session, and a calendar and commitment were agreed for a period of six months. Those topics typically included practical targeted career development skills (such as how to network effectively or manage students), information on funding opportunities, or ways to increase your scientific communication and dissemination impact. But essentially the circle was a safe space for reflecting and talking about your circumstances, and for sharing experiences, doubts, plans and expectations.
How to create a peer mentoring group in your institute
We would like to encourage junior researchers to join or create ECR-mentoring programs at their institutes. We are sure that both researchers and institutions will strongly benefit from it. Here are a few important considerations to establish a peer mentoring program or group, based on our own experience:
- Find a starting group: It might be challenging to start this on your own! We highly recommend finding a core of 2-4 people that share the vision and commitment of setting it up in your institute/university. Talk with your colleagues and friends about the idea; suggest it to the postdoc association if there is one; or even send an e-mail around your institute and make a call for people that might be interested. You can send them some inspiring articles like these ones1,[ii].
- Identify participants: Decide whether you want to make a peer cohort from a specific demographic or gender. Decide if you want to set a cut-off on the amount of research experience. For example, we included only postdoc and scientific staff as we believed the support needed for PhD candidates was different, but we encouraged diversity by including different genders, origins and research departments under the umbrella of cancer research (with people working within Manchester University, either at the hospital, or at the two main cancer departments).
- Define the format: Consider first whether you need a one-to-one versus a mentoring program format. One-to-one peer mentoring takes much more administrative management and it can be challenging to implement. Relationship and schedule-agreements may be more difficult in a group, even if it is small. If you go for a circle model, will the mentor-mentee roles be established from the beginning and keep static, or will they rotate among group members?
- Look for institutional support: Speak with the administrative or education offices of your institute and let them know what you would like to launch. They will be able to give you support at different levels (sending e-mails or information in a newsletter, support with recruiting outside speakers, etc.). Overall, institutes tend be very supportive to this kind of initiative.
- Organize a kick-off event: This might be a very novel concept for your peers. By organizing a formal event you will be able to share your plans and get more people engaged with it. For example, we organized an online seminar with Dr. Zafira Castaño (Harvard University, @IMFAHE) who has led several mentoring initiatives and gave us her vision and advice.
- Define goals and align expectations: A key point to consider, particularly for a peer mentoring group, is to have everyone on the same page. Be sure that you use the first one or two sessions to agree a common vision for the group, and to have everyone’s expectations aligned. This will ensure that all members find themselves included and engaged, and will help build a sense of trust and team spirit. It is also essential to emphasize confidentiality to allow free discussion of sometimes difficult or personal topics.
- Ask for commitment: Make a clear point that for a successful peer program regular attendance at the sessions is essential to create the right atmosphere and boundaries between participants. This is not a course to get transferable skills, it’s much more.
- Make a calendar on the first day: Agendas are a major issue to overcome, especially when dealing with multiple people. We encourage you to fix dates for the first 3-6 sessions, including time, place, topic and person in charge of that day’s session. Try to be flexible in allocating everyone. Avoid using ‘doodle’ and long e-mail chains to define each session! This programming will make the group have a sense of where it is going, and what the next steps are.
- Focus on problem solving. Peer mentoring should not evolve into a therapy session or serve as a forum for complaints. While talking about difficulties is essential, it is important to create a proactive environment and focus on developing an action plan in response to issues. This can include helping identify obstacles, strategies, end goals and ways to move forward for any difficult situation.
- Foster a sense of community. One of the major strengths of peer mentoring is that it can set up connections with people outside your field, department or lab, which could be very helpful in the long term. It is important for the success of group mentoring to endeavor building a close and confident relationship that includes diversity and each one’s necessities. Taking this into account is essential and will be a good idea to set up particular measures from the beginning. For example, you can think about including social sessions, such as going out for dinner after a session, or bringing food/drinks to make it less formal; encourage everyone’s participation and space (working in couples and small groups at times); consider creating an online space (though free messaging platforms or shared e-mail listserv) that can help participants in the group stay easily connected.
- Be brave and flexible. In our experience starting a peer-peer mentoring circle initiative involves vision, endurance and flexibility. There is still a change of culture needed in research where mentoring is not seen as a weakness, but as a strength of a person, group or institute that is working to achieve their goals.
- Evaluate your impact: send out evaluation forms frequently to all members in order to understand the impact the sessions have had on individual’s career progression and wellbeing. This will help to improve aspects of the mentoring circle itself, and for future groups. It will also help to provide evidence of the impact of such initiatives to your supporting institution and beyond.
Through the process of building this initiative, we experienced the strength supportive research communities have. We need to build more spaces within academia where researchers can share between peers, openly and outside any possible toxic relationship or conflict of interest. These spaces will undoubtedly help early career researchers take full commitment of their own career, empower themselves and acquire the tools to reach their goals.
[i]Kuhn C &Castaño Z. Boosting the career development of postdocs with a peer-to-peer mentor circles program. Nature Biotechnology 2016; 34(7): 781-783