The definition of mentoring in itself is fairly simple: “to advise or train someone.” However, behind the simplicity of the definition lies an ambiguous process. Mentoring can take on various forms and approaches, ranging from teaching someone how to conduct a particular task to managing work/life balance. Mentors can be our teachers, our parents or relatives, or even good friends or colleagues. And since mentoring can be as simple as providing or receiving emotional support in times of need, sometimes people can be mentors or mentees without even realizing it. Given the complex challenges encountered during graduate and post-doctoral training, finding quality mentors with expertise in the necessary areas can be challenging. To address this issue, our team organized a Speed Mentoring Event to facilitate these crucial connections.
Providing Opportunities for Mentoring and Finding Mentors
During the spring semester of 2018, our team participated in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), sponsored by The Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services. Before the start of the program, each of the ELI participants conducted interviews with five Duke stakeholders about the campus environment for graduate students and postdocs at Duke. For example, we asked the stakeholders to identify an issue or matter of wide concern to graduate students and postdocs at Duke. We also asked them what was working well and what issue(s) they thought should be addressed. The stakeholders identified a plethora of concerns. Graduate students commented in interviews, “I don’t know what is expected of me,” and asked, “How do I communicate with my professors and classmates?” Faculty and staff often mentioned a need to develop a work/life balance and stress management for graduate students and postdocs, while postdocs expressed concern about networking and job opportunities.
As a whole, we identified that both graduate students and postdocs were looking for ways to develop their communication skills, self-awareness, professional adaptability, interdisciplinary teamwork, and leadership skills (coincidentally, these are the same competencies targeted by the ELI program). Because of the breadth of concerns presented by stakeholders, there were a variety of possible solutions. That’s when the idea came to us that mentoring would be the most broadly suitable method for addressing these issues. Most importantly, our team harnessed the diversity of mentoring in and of itself in an effort to develop a program that provides insight and perspective for both mentors and mentees.
From our team’s perspective, mentoring could be used to address the various issues that the stakeholders shared with us in an event with a format similar to speed dating. We developed the Speed Mentoring Event to create opportunities for first- and second-year graduate students (mentees) to gain different perspectives from their peers on a set of topics and learn a variety of strategies for tackling their own individual challenges. Mentees could interact with multiple fourth- and fifth-year graduate students and postdocs (mentors) who have had similar experiences while earning their degrees. These mentors came from a variety of backgrounds and fields of study and had valuable knowledge and experience to share about succeeding in graduate school.
A Trial Run
The Speed Mentoring Event was a creative and ambitious idea. It required us, as a team, to cooperate and communicate fully with each other and identify each of our own particular niches to help drive the project forward. In addition to our diverse professional backgrounds, we also had unique skill sets, strengths, networks, and resources to tackle our task list:
- Recruiting mentors and mentees to participate in the event
- Securing sponsorships to supply food and drinks
- Coordinating with the Career Center to find a moderator for the event
- Enlisting help from a media specialist to record and edit a video to summarize the event
- Creating presentations for the event itself as well as the capstone project overview
- Participating in the event ourselves
Because the ELI program was only eight weeks long, teamwork was essential. We used Slack to communicate with each other and Doodle to set up meetings. We stayed on track by setting up an agenda so we could focus on the tasks at hand. To identify topics of interest to both mentors and mentees, we sent a pre-event survey to participants and shared the survey results with everyone who participated. This allowed participants to prepare questions and answers ahead of time. The structure of the event was fairly straightforward. The mentors stayed seated and the mentees rotated among the mentors. True to its name, speed mentoring only allowed about four minutes per "mentor session" so that everyone in the room was allowed an opportunity to communicate, network, and gain different perspectives.
A Learning Experience for Mentors and Mentees
The event exceeded our expectations. Both mentors and mentees highlighted what they learned in brief evaluations at the end of the session. Taking part in this event allowed mentees to broaden their network of peer-mentors who could provide multiple resources for not only completing their respective graduate programs but to thrive within them as well. Mentees reported that the event successfully provided perspective on their questions and concerns. Most importantly, we provided contact information for the mentors and encouraged mentees to follow up with mentors who especially resonated with them after the event concluded. Based on follow-up after the event we found that 20% of the participating mentees took advantage of the opportunity to formally reach out to some of the mentors after the event, fulfilling our main goal for the project. We are encouraged by the informal interactions that were fostered and look forward to improving the follow-up rate with future targeted events.
Mentors reported that they enjoyed sharing their knowledge and experiences with mentees, but the experience also exposed them to individuals with different personalities, needs, and circumstances. This event helped the mentors improve their communication skills and adapt to different people and social environments.
The overwhelming success of the Speed Mentoring Event is promising and suggests that this format could be easily adapted to particular themes. For example, this event could be tailored to fourth- and fifth-year graduate students as mentees while postdocs serve as mentors to communicate networking styles for postdoc positions, tips and tricks for writing dissertations, and strategies for writing cover letters. Furthermore, this event garnered positive attention from the departments of Political Science and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, and we were encouraged to see that both departments were excited to implement something similar. We hope this Speed Mentoring event continues to foster mentoring relationships among graduate students and postdocs and improve their experiences at Duke University.
Our team is very grateful to all the people who have kindly helped us with this project: David McDonald from Graduate Career Services, Shaun King for multimedia assistance, the MGM Program for sponsoring refreshments for the event, and all the mentors and mentees who volunteered to participate. We would also like to express our sincere gratitude to all the facilitators in the ELI program – Melissa Bostrom, Anthony Laffoley, Rhonda Sutton, and Kristin Murphy – as well as our fellow participants in the 2018 ELI cohort.
PhD candidate, Molecular Cancer Biology
Joanne Dai is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular Cancer Biology. Her research focuses on how the Epstein-Barr virus hijacks the regulation of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in infected B cells and how this contributes to tumorigenesis and the establishment of latent infection. Originally from California, Joanne graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 and worked as a research assistant at UCSF, where she studied breast cancer development and metastasis. She hopes to continue studying cancer development in academia or industry.
PhD candidate, Political Economy
Anh Do is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Political Economy. Her research interests include migration, educational and gender inequality with a focus on Southeast Asia. Her dissertation examines the effects of high-skilled migration on human capital formation in Malaysia and Vietnam. Following her PhD completion, she aspires to work toward improving the quality of life for the poor in low and middle income countries.
PhD candidate, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
Rebekah Dumm is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. Her research is focused on the biology of infectious respiratory diseases, ranging from viral pathogenesis to host tissue repair mechanisms. Throughout this work, she has developed an appreciation for the multifaceted nature of infectious disease and hopes to pursue clinically focused research in the future.
Sean Piwarski, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Chemistry
Sean Piwarski is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemistry. He is a toxicologist and cancer biologist who is interested in how small molecules from the environment and diet affect cancer cell growth and metastasis. His research at Duke studies how small molecules target RNA in prostate cancer cells as a novel form of treatment and how long non-coding RNA affects cancer growth. Following the completion of his postdoc position, he aspires to work toward studying how to target cancer stem cells in tumors as a way to prevent treatment-resistance and tumor recurrence.