What Mentees Really Think of Mentors, and More

 July 29, 2020

Mentoring graphic

The Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), offered by the Duke Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services, is a professional development program designed to prepare Duke graduate students and postdocs to perform as leaders at Duke and beyond. During this program, our ELI cohort was split into interdisciplinary teams tasked with designing projects to improve graduate student and postdoc life across the Duke campus. In this spirit, our diverse team, composed of trainees from the Departments of Cell Biology, Chemistry, Global Health, and Nursing, designed a survey to evaluate the perceptions of mentoring among Duke graduate students, postdocs and their mentors.

Identifying room for growth at Duke

Initially, our entire ELI cohort conducted stakeholder interviews across the university to identify important aspects of the graduate student and postdoc experience. We were specifically interested in facilitators and barriers to success at Duke. Based on content of these qualitative interviews, we created an affinity diagram that identified mentorship as being both important and an area for improvement at Duke.

Assessing mentorship at Duke


Mentoring attributes graphic

Our team sought to learn more about the perception of mentoring relationships at Duke and to identify areas of strength and potential areas for growth. Successful mentorship has been linked to positive attitude, engagement and accessibility of mentors.  Attitude describes a mentor’s behavior towards a mentee, engagement refers to the time and quality of the mentorship, and accessibility is the mentor’s ability to be contacted when needed. Thus, we adapted an existing survey to assess mentor attitude, engagement, and accessibility from the perspective of both mentees and mentors (our survey had five questions for each domain, for a total of 15 questions). Additionally, a few questions were asked to assess whether mentors and mentees felt like they could discuss issues in their mentoring relationship. Qualtrics surveys were sent to master’s students, doctoral students, postdoctoral trainees, and their respective mentors/advisors/PIs in the four departments of our ELI group (Cell Biology, Chemistry, Global Health, and Nursing).

We received survey responses from 110 mentees and 36 mentors. In general, our survey found that mentors rated their mentoring experiences to be more satisfactory than mentees across the three domains of attitude, engagement and accessibility. We found several areas of agreement: both groups felt that mentors are invested in mentees’ work and that mentees are able to get in touch with mentors as needed. Both groups also felt that mentors could improve their review of a mentee’s work before meeting.

There were some areas of disagreement, however, between mentor and mentee perceptions on mentorship. For example, mentors rated themselves more highly than mentees did when asked about setting clear goals and providing career opportunities for mentees. Our results also showed that 70% of mentees reported that they felt comfortable discussing mentorship issues with their mentors and 60% felt they could reach out for external help regarding issues with their mentor. However, it is important to note that a large proportion (40%) didn’t feel comfortable to reach out for help in the event of mentorship issues with their mentors.

What our findings may mean

On the surface, our findings support the idea that mentees and mentors have a different perception of mentorship. It is also encouraging to see that a majority of participants felt comfortable discussing issues with mentors. However, because our survey was anonymous, we did not evaluate the direct mentorship relationship between mentees and mentors as we were unable to match answers between mentee and mentor pairs. It is also possible that sampling bias (the idea that better mentors answered the survey) reflects the highest perception of mentorship observed for the mentors.

Reflections on our project

We are excited about this project because, to our knowledge, there is no standardized mechanism at Duke to assess the mentee/mentor relationship to identify areas of success and potential areas for improvement. We recognize the limitations of our survey, including lack of randomization, limited response rate, and unfortunate timing (COVID-19). However, despite these limitations, we feel these survey responses provide a baseline for participating departments if they choose to continue to assess mentoring in the future, as well as a potential tool for other departments to use to assess mentoring.

Participating in the ELI program and working on this project allowed us to grow as individuals and as a team. Initially we sought to survey all of the departments across Duke; however, with the guidance and recommendations of our program leadership, we recognized early on that it would not be feasible in our restricted time to complete the project. Thus, we demonstrated flexibility and embraced a learning mindset, focusing instead on just our own four departments and recognizing the potential for the survey to be shared with other departments at a later date.

Our results also led us to reflect on our own experiences in mentorship. Outside of ELI, each member of our team, for example, serves as both a mentor and mentee at Duke in some capacity—whether it is in the lab or in the hospital. We hope to cultivate accessibility, engagement and attitude in these mentor-mentee relationships and provide a space where our own mentees and mentors can reflect on their experiences. We appreciate that our time in ELI has allowed us to explore these possibilities.  


Jennifer David-Bercholz, Ph.D.
Jennifer David-Bercholz, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral associate, Cell Biology

Jennifer is a postdoctoral associate in Cell Biology. Originally from France, she received her Ph.D. in Neurosciences in Dublin, Ireland at Trinity College Dublin University. Her research at Duke focuses on stroke and brain repair.


Colin Smith, M.D.
Colin Smith, M.D.

Master's student, Global Health

Colin Smith is a master’s student in the Global Health Pathway for Residents at the Duke Global Health Institute/Hubert-Yeargan Center for Global Health and a fourth-year Internal Medicine-Psychiatry resident at Duke University Hospital. His research is focused on exploring the healthcare needs and experiences of American Indian/Alaska Native people living with HIV.  


Kristin J. Wainwright, B.S.N., B.A., R.N.
Kristin J. Wainwright

Ph.D. candidate, Nursing

Kristin Wainwright, B.S.N., B.A., R.N. is a Ph.D. candidate in Nursing, where she is an NINR F31 Fellow and a Jonas Veterans Healthcare Scholar. Her research in symptom science is focused on developing symptom phenotypes for adults with Multiple Sclerosis.


Zi Wang
Zi Wang

Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry

Zi Wang is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry. His research focuses on engineering mechanical properties of bulk polymeric materials from precisely designing the molecular structures of polymers.