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Moving away from a one-size-fits-all mentorship

Mentorship can enhance your degree, but every program offers different takeaways.


Mentorship programs, when executed well, can be catalysts for success in academia. Whether it’s a tenured professor coaching a new faculty member, a postdoc supporting an undergraduate student with a research initiative, or a community member mentoring a mentee, these relationships have the potential to enhance research and learning environments in any faculty or department.

But traditional mentorship models don’t always yield the best results.

Traditional models include one-to-one matching. Both mentors and mentees are typically selected from a pool of applicants recruited simultaneously, which leaves little room to design the program around participant needs. One-to-one matching can limit participants or administrators, only allowing the former to explore the skills and experiences of a single person and exhausting the latter when trying to generate matches that make sense. In addition, mentorship programs are sometimes required, with the implicit understanding that everyone will benefit from meeting with a mentor.

While there’s extrinsic, long-term value in mentorship programs, not everyone has the requisite skills to be a mentor or the disposition of an ideal mentee. And the relationship is often as much about timing as it is about the people involved; a growing body of research suggests informal, organic mentor-mentee relationships are more fruitful than structured or mandated programs.

The University of Alberta has more than two dozen mentorship programs, each serving a different purpose. Below, we describe three key programs that we run, focusing on the ways each program diverges from traditional mentorship models to offer participants new approaches.

1. Career mentoring program

Launched in 2009, the career mentoring program connects U of A undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with volunteer career mentors from the Edmonton community for a six-month mentoring experience. Mentors, mentees and the career education coordinator (who facilitates the program) work together to help mentees develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and connections required to explore the next steps in their careers.

Mentees are selected based on an application and interview designed to identify highly committed individuals with clear goals. During this application process, potential mentees describe the skills and qualities of their ideal mentor. The career education coordinator then leverages networks at the U of A and in Edmonton to recruit volunteer mentors who meet the criteria set out by each mentee.

While this approach is challenging for program administrators – demanding ample time, resources and troubleshooting – the customization leads to participants who double down on their commitment to mentorship. Mentees are offered an opportunity to have a say in the matching process, so they’re motivated to drive the program forward by initiating meetings with their mentor and asking meaningful questions. Mentors recruited to the program know they have been handpicked to meet their mentee’s needs, and display an unbridled enthusiasm to share what they know.

2. Peter Lougheed leadership college mentorship program

The Peter Lougheed Leadership College creates opportunities for undergraduates and emerging leaders to gain the skills and experience needed to demonstrate excellence in leadership. An integral part of the College’s offering is the mentorship program. Mentors are community changemakers recruited from all sectors and industries; they are open-minded listeners who receive coaching training as part of their onboarding.

The mentorship program is non-compulsory, meaning students opt-in at any time. The mentorship coordinator then holds an intake session, working with the mentee to identify their needs and design a custom plan to connect them with one or more mentors who can provide coaching, support, and advice.

This year, the College piloted group mentorship: roughly a dozen mentors and mentees met for a few hours, to get to know each other and discussing problems the students brought to the table. Being in a group diffused some of the anxiety students typically experience when meeting accomplished professionals one-on-one. Evaluations showed the model worked, with mentees noting it “should become a staple” for the program.

3. UAWiSE/WISER mentorship program

The University of Alberta Women in Science and Engineering / Women in Science, Engineering and Research (UAWiSE/WISER) mentorship program founded in 2015, is designed to connect students and professionals in STEM fields (not just women). This amazing program is completely volunteer-run. Mentors are drawn from a pool of local professional applicants, while mentees are undergraduate students – typical of traditional mentorship programs.

What makes UAWiSE/WISER’s mentorship program unique is the addition of an early-career professional (usually a recent graduate or graduate student) who acts as both mentor and mentee. This third participant rounds out UAWiSE/WISER’s signature mentorship trio. On average there are 20 trios in each program year. The trios meet over six months and participate in three workshops designed to strengthen the mentoring relationships.

As mentees, undergraduate students participating in the program benefit from two mentors at different stages in their careers. The early career professional enjoys the luxury of building skills as a mentor while also receiving coaching as a mentee. Finally, the professional mentor can tackle the challenge of advising and supporting two mentees with varying professional development needs.

Mentors are selected based on disciplinary expertise and experience in their respective fields and history of mentorship. Mentees are selected based on their application, which includes goals for the mentoring program and a clearly articulated vision of how mentorship will support them in the immediate future. Trios, which promote flexibility in the matching process, are created based on the careers and career aspirations of all participants, as well as alignment with mentee ambitions and mentor’s skills.

Mentorship can’t solve every problem, but it’s usually a low-risk, high-reward investment for both mentors and mentees alike. While traditional models of mentorship often work, there’s much to be gained from new and innovative approaches to career and professional development. Rather than treat every relationship as the same, we encourage both program administrators and participants alike to move away from one-size-fits-all mentorship, and towards more dynamic relationships.

Dinuka Gunaratne, Kelly Hobson & Zeenat Ladak
Dinuka Gunaratne is the career education coordinator (graduate students) for the graduate student career mentoring program offered in collaboration with the University of Alberta career centre and faculty of graduate studies and research. Kelly Hobson is a current MBA student and the mentorship coordinator for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. Zeenat Ladak is a M.Sc. student and is the mentorship program co-lead for the UA-WiSE/WISER trio mentorship program.
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  1. MARTIN W FERGUSON-PELL / January 29, 2019 at 22:44

    The initial premise of this article focuses on the benefits of mentorship to support academic achievement. This classical internally oriented, academic focus certainly has its place but plays to the academy’s comfort zone. Community stakeholders (employers, community leaders and others) consistently emphasize the importance of learning to engage with mentors who can prepare our students for life after their rarefied university lifestyle. They consistently report their frustration with graduates who are not equipped to embrace ambiguity and seek “rubrics” in the workplace.
    The beauty of mentorship programs is that they engage students with the unfamiliar (hardened representatives of community reality) who are not obliged or enamored with working to a rubric and “learning objectives” to which their professor can be held accountable through multiple layers of appeal. They usually are not particularly empathetic to students who are focused on following the Yellow Brick Road to find their Emerald Castle. Through experience they support a model that builds the skills to hack through the jungle and carve out a new trail to success. They embrace the bumps and scrapes of real life to build resiliency, creativity and self-confidence.
    The undergraduate experience we have evolved in the last few decades has, on the whole, created a chasm between the idealized aspirations, experiences, values and expectations of the undergraduate and their professors, and the requirements of real life. University mentorship programs offer an opportunity to build a bridge between the academic preparation of undergraduates and the real world they will shortly engage. Central to this process is the importance building our students’ Tolerance Of Ambiguity (TOA). Mentorship programs should consider TOA as the “learning objective” of the program. Maybe the group mentorship concepts described in this article are a first step a student can take on their journey to developing TOA. But ultimately thriving on one-on-one relationships in a developing network with the right Mentors will take them out of their undergraduate straitjacket and start the process of maturation needed to become a community leader who embraces ambiguity with confidence and creativity.