Graduate School Launches Groundbreaking UMass Mentoring Initiative

A NRMN representative facilitates a workshop on evidence-based mentoring practices for UMass faculty.
A NRMN representative facilitates a workshop on evidence-based mentoring practices for UMass faculty.

A groundbreaking university-wide effort launched earlier this fall aims to reshape the campus community’s approach to mentorship as a strategy for augmenting the success of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

Implemented by the Graduate School, the UMass Mentoring Initiative is one of the first training programs in the country to promote the use of evidence-based mentoring practices across a major research institution. Still in its infancy, this undertaking has already introduced more than 200 UMass researchers to numerous techniques that the Graduate School expects to boost degree completion rates, scholarly productivity and job placement among mentees by cultivating positive mentoring relationships. In the coming months, the initiative will expand its programming with the goals of reaching several hundred additional UMass scholars and enhancing the university’s culture of mentorship.  

While mentorship takes many forms, this new effort focuses on one-on-one faculty guidance of students and postdoctoral researchers in the acquisition of key academic and professional competencies. Although faculty members often serve as mentors to dozens of student and postdoctoral mentees during their careers, formal mentoring training has not historically existed within academia. Consequently, the path to becoming an effective mentor has long been challenging, frequently requiring faculty to engage in years of exploration, experimentation and reassessment.  Despite its time-consuming nature, however, this approach typically yields uneven results because it involves the widespread use of improvised or untested mentoring methods. To create an environment that facilitates the large-scale adoption of proven mentoring techniques, the Graduate School has established the initiative as a mechanism for efficiently disseminating evidence-based strategies across campus.

“Over the past 15 years, a growing body of research has dramatically expanded our knowledge of key mentoring practices that shorten time-to-degree, encourage better publication records and improve job placement for mentees,” says Beth Jakob, director of the UMass Mentoring Initiative and associate dean of the Graduate School. “However, nationwide, most faculty still learn how to mentor through trial and error, a process that can demand significant time and effort before resulting in an effective mentoring style. We’ve designed the UMass Mentoring Initiative to help faculty rapidly succeed as mentors by introducing them to current research on mentoring through a series of engaging talks and interactive events. This compact but robust programming is expected to accelerate the process through which faculty become confident and competent mentors."

Reflecting a comprehensive approach to mentorship, the initiative will also expose graduate student and postdoctoral mentees to an evidence-based model for enhancing their mentoring relationships. “Just as high-quality mentoring requires the cultivation of discrete skills, excelling as a mentee demands a complementary approach,” Jakob says.  “While students and postdocs often assume that faculty alone determine the trajectory of mentoring relationships, there is also a range of strategies that they can employ to strengthen their relationships with mentors. We have already sponsored one mentee-focused event that demonstrated to students and postdocs how they can 'manage up' to make these relationships as rewarding and effective as possible. And we will develop much more programming along these lines in the future."

The Mentoring Initiative officially launched on Oct. 20 with two interactive performances—one for faculty and a second for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers—by Theater Delta, an acting company that uses improvisation, scripted vignettes, and facilitated discussions to promote positive institutional change. During these events, performers illustrated how implementing relatively simple practices—such as regularly scheduling mentor-mentee check-ins, creating a shared set of goals, or resisting the urge to make uninformed assumptions when unforeseen obstacles undermine research goals—can ensure the overall stability and supportive quality of a mentoring relationship.

“Audience evaluations indicate that Theater Delta provided a great opening event for the initiative,” Jakob says. “Faculty, graduate students and postdocs were equally impressed by the group’s realistic portrayal of a deteriorating mentoring relationship and how it could feasibly be strengthened using strategies that have emerged from empirical academic research. Almost all of our audience members indicated that the performances enhanced their ability to recognize problems in their own mentoring relationships and take definitive steps to remedy these issues. This was exactly the reaction we were hoping Theater Delta would elicit.”

Following these performances, the initiative accelerated its training component by organizing a full-day faculty workshop designed to build mentoring competency in five main areas: communicating effectively, aligning expectations, fostering intellectual independence, facilitating professional development, and addressing equity and inclusion. Relying on a curriculum developed by the federally funded National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), this event immersed 30 participants in a series of case studies examining common mentoring predicaments while also presenting possible solutions to these problems.

“As in the case of our kickoff programming, faculty found the NRMN workshop invaluable,” Jakob says. “Attendees were particularly appreciative of the workshop’s relevant content and well planned format. For example, faculty reported that they gained important insights by evaluating a collection of mentor-mentee compacts designed to build mutual understanding between faculty and students. This kind of document has proven to be extremely effective in helping mentors and mentees establish a clear set of shared expectations, but such an easily implemented approach is rarely used in academia. Our faculty also benefited from working in small groups, where they were able to discuss case studies that prompted a lively exchange of analyses, perspectives, and ideas. In this respect, the workshop served as a kind of ‘think tank’ on mentorship and will act as a springboard for future conversations beyond the confines of the meeting room where this training took place.”

Directly after the NRMN workshop, the Graduate School further expanded the initiative by implementing a Mentoring Fellows program that Jakob believes will have a far-reaching effect on the university. Through this project, Jakob recruited 12 faculty members to supplement their daylong mentoring training with a second full-day workshop that prepared them to facilitate the NRMN curriculum. After completing this training, participants joined the initiative as mentoring fellows, each of whom will lead two evidence-based mentoring workshops for approximately 25 UMass faculty members, graduate students, or postdoctoral scholars in the next two years.

“While other schools offer NRMN programming, UMass is unique in its creation of a faculty network that will conduct this training widely across campus," Jakob says. "We believe that the fellows program will eventually allow the Mentoring Initiative to provide in-depth training to at least 300 additional members of the academic community from every department on campus. In doing so, we will help faculty, students and postdocs generate a common language that will significantly alter the way our campus communicates about and approaches mentorship. This cultural transformation will, we anticipate, help our students and postdocs—and perhaps even our faculty – attain greater academic and professional success.”

In addition to garnering a positive reception from event participants, the initiative has also attracted strong institutional support. “Reaction to the Mentoring Initiative across the university has been very encouraging,” Jakob says. “Upon hearing about our plans for the academic year, several UMass entities—including the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development, the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Humanities and Fine Arts—partnered with the Graduate School to co-sponsor the Mentoring Initiative. All of these co-sponsors have been immensely helpful in raising awareness about the benefits of evidence-based mentoring and publicizing the initiative’s training opportunities. More importantly, these endorsements reflect a campus-wide commitment to systematically improving mentorship practices in our research environment. As a result, we are optimistic that the UMass Mentoring Initiative will have a lasting impact on our faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.”