Partners are needed to meet the demand for mentoring at scale

Mentoring. It’s perhaps the most heard need from early career researchers, and (beyond training) the most frequently suggested solution to helping them build and navigate their careers. But it’s one of the hardest needs to address, especially at any scale.

There are four strategies that could make it possible to do more: defining the need better; establishing other ways to access expertise; growing the mentor pool; and preparing both sides for better relationships.

There aren’t enough experienced, senior researchers available and able – because of time or inclination – to meet the demand, and there’s very little structured support in institutions.

Early career researchers face a myriad of challenges – and especially when they’re trying to build careers in institutions with little structured support, or in strained systems, or where academic and wider cultures are significantly hierarchical and strongly gendered.

It’s difficult to meet demand

There have been many excellent initiatives to address the mentoring need, usually around fellowship schemes or research programmes, focusing on small, selected cohorts of mentees. But the numbers of early career researchers needing support make this a valuable drop in a very big ocean of need.

We’ve tried through our AuthorAID community to provide mentoring support at scale to any researcher who needs it – but with limited resources we have struggled to secure sufficient numbers of mentors, facilitate and sustain good mentor-mentee matches and ensure both sides are prepared for the relationship.

Is there still a way to address this need for mentoring at scale? We think there might be. Here’s why.

Redefining the problem

Firstly, mentoring means different things to different people. We’ve dug into the research literature, we’ve spoken to colleagues, we’ve surveyed early career researchers and – most recently – we’ve used WhatsApp focus-group-style to surface further insights.

When early career researchers talk of needing mentoring, they are often talking about the need for more bespoke guidance and support. The questions they have might be well-answered by available resources, or in training programmes, but they’re looking for something that’s specifically matched to their needs and circumstances.

Often, early career researchers are trying to deal with a specific problem – rather than a longer term, career-development issue. It might be editing help on a paper they’re trying to get published, or assistance to respond to peer review. Or it might be help with statistical analysis, a specific methodology or piece of software.

In some cases, they’re looking for connections – someone to help them build their network. In other cases, they simply want to tap into the wisdom and experience of someone who’s been there before, often a reflection of the lack of that kind of support in home institutions.

Some members of our community have referred to online workshops or discussion sessions as meeting a mentoring need – simply the opportunity to hear from experienced colleagues, ask questions and receive advice.

For some early career researchers, their need is undoubtedly developmental or psychosocial, focused on navigating an increasingly complex academic career and balancing this with their home life – but that’s not the principal issue that most describe when asked.

In some instances, mentoring is confused with supervision, with training or with coaching. In short, it’s become a catch-all term that doesn’t help us identify the real need.

This conceptual confusion makes it difficult to respond well – while unpacking it can help us see what the needs really are, and how they might be met from a broader range of support.

Aligning expectations

Secondly, mentors expect to provide a specific type of support to prospective mentees. They’re often frustrated when their precious and generously offered time is consumed by basic queries that they expect mentees to be able to answer elsewhere, or requests for help with proofreading or editing.

Often mentors complain that mentees are unprepared for conversations and looking for too much direction – looking for a shortcut that simply isn’t there.

Such differences in expectations and levels of commitment can make it hard to establish, and hard to maintain mentoring relationships.

This is challenging for all researchers, but particularly for women, when there are already too few women in senior positions to act as role models and who are able to offer advice about how to progress careers, while the combination of professional and family responsibilities makes it even harder for many to offer time as mentors.

In some places, cultural norms make it difficult to establish mentoring relationships across genders, which further reduces the support available.

New ways to support researchers

So what if we could rethink mentoring, and in doing so broaden the ways in which early career researchers could meet their ‘mentoring’ needs? We think there are four opportunities here.

Firstly, to understand the ‘mentoring need’ better and then to respond with more immediate support where appropriate.

Our experience suggests that if we were to triage mentoring requests better, we could help many early career researchers meet their immediate learning needs, many of which could be addressed through existing online courses, tutorials and peer advice.

This would also help to ‘protect’ both mentees and mentors from frustrating encounters, and might help to reduce the ‘noise’ so we can identify where a mentoring-type relationship is really needed. We believe AI tools – carefully deployed – might have a role here.

Secondly, to establish other ways in which researchers can access expert advice and expertise – for example, peer mentoring and peer learning cohorts or group mentoring ‘clinics’. Access to focused, short-term, one-to-one support could also be provided to help solve specific problems.

We could facilitate skills exchange amongst peers – for example, someone with data expertise could trade skills with someone who’s good at communications.

Thirdly, to grow the ‘mentor pool’ by assisting more researchers to develop a better grasp of what mentoring and related forms of expert support involve, how they can provide it, how it can enhance their own career and development, and to build a peer learning community that can develop capacity and confidence together.

Fourthly, to ensure anyone who is approaching another for support – whether experienced, senior researchers or more immediate peer – is well prepared: clear about what they need, their expectations, what skills they have and what their responsibility is in the relationship.

Within our four possible strategies, we also need to make sure we understand how they might play out for women as well as men. Are there ways to combine these approaches to not only solve the general gap in support for early career researchers, but specifically to rebalance access to that support, so proportionally more women are able to benefit, and to contribute?

Partnerships for support at scale

We’ve got to crack this issue at scale if we’re really going to transform the prospects for early career researchers and unlock the world’s talent – talent that we urgently need for a changing planet.

We’ll be exploring these strategies further. Our AuthorAID initiative – which enables several thousand researchers every year to strengthen skills through online training and supports an active community of 14,000 global researchers – has given us some ideas of what might be possible at scale.

But we know that for success at scale, partnerships are critical, so if you’re also grappling with these questions and think we could work together, get in touch.

Jon Harle is director of programmes at international development charity INASP which coordinates AuthorAID. Andy Nobes is project manager, AuthorAID, United Kingdom, and Tabitha Buchner is a programme coordinator at INASP. Email: