Women Mentoring Women: An Emerging Leaders Institute Team Project

 November 6, 2019

Women Mentoring Women

Mentorship goes beyond a productive relationship between two people: mentorship is a culture of supporting, nurturing, and restoring one another. Strong and diverse mentorship is especially important for people who lack guidance in the workplace. As women-identified postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in vastly different fields, now identified as potential leaders through our participation in the 2019 Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), the three of us looked to our own experiences. How did we identify ourselves as leaders? What were parts of our identities or experiences that shaped our conceptions of leadership? Who were the leaders in our lives on whom we could model our own forms of leadership? As we considered these questions, we discovered that we all shared uncertainty about whether academic research careers were right for us, as well as a lack of people to whom we could look in order to expand our understanding of broader career options.

A core component of the ELI experience is executing an interdisciplinary team project that improves the Duke campus environment for graduate students and postdocs. The initial stage of developing our project involved interviewing stakeholders in this campus environment, including Deans in the Duke Graduate School who had made the transition from research-based academia to administrative careers on campus, staff in the Women’s Center for information on the resources available to women struggling to fit into their work environments, and staff in the Career Center to understand what resources were already available to postdocs and grad students interested in diverse careers. The breadth of our stakeholder pool pointed us to a need for ready-made, personalized, one-on-one career mentorship. We discovered that our own desires to find mentorship were echoed in the interests of our stakeholders in expanding available resources.

From the information we collected in the first stage of our project, we developed Women Mentoring Women. The mission of our project was to streamline the work of connecting women with other women in their fields of interest. The program aimed to fill the information gap of what non-academic careers can look like, as well as what the transition from academia to professional fields entails. The program included a survey developed to assess the needs of a volunteer group of mentees, guidelines to facilitate conversations, and a resource bank to help mentees imagine themselves as future mentors and to assist future iterations of this program. To assist our participants in continuing this process, we provided them with a list of resources that focused on communication and additional mentee and mentor opportunities. We concluded our program by opening a Lean In Circle that will allow new mentee and mentor pairs to find each other.

To pioneer this program, we coordinated with the Duke University Graduate Student Affairs office. The Graduate School maintains a database of alumni who are interested in being interviewed for its Alumni Profiles Series. We paired alumni mentors in research careers beyond the academy with volunteer mentees who expressed matching interests. One of the greatest challenges our mentees expressed was uncertainty about the process of transitioning out of academic research; for that reason, that topic was the focus of the guiding questions we provided to spur the initial conversations.

The required questions focused on discovering common ground between each of the conversations, whereas the optional questions would provide additional professional insight for mentees based upon what each mentee thought might be critical to the process. Our core questions addressed the three components this program focused on: (1) mentor-mentee relationships (2) among women-identified trainees seeking (3) careers outside academic research. Specifically, they inquired about the timeline between graduation from Duke and arriving in their desired careers. The optional questions offered presented the unique opportunity for mentees to better understand the transition process, the career options available, and what it means to be both a mentor and a mentee. We encouraged participating mentees to think of additional questions relevant to their own career hopes and disciplines.

At the conclusion of the conversation, we asked each participant to take a reflection survey so we could understand how the discussions went. Overall, there were favorable responses: mentees thought their conversations went either “moderately well” or “excellently.”  They also responded that they were “likely” or “very likely” to speak to their mentor again and participate in a similar conversation in the future with a different mentor. Each mentor also responded positively regarding the tone of the conversation, the connection created, and the likelihood of continuing their participation in such a project. Some mentees shared their gratitude that mentors were willing to be candid in their conversations, as well as that they had the opportunity to experience the importance of finding mentors who can help guide them in selecting a job.

The overall goal of Women Mentoring Women was to address a need for guidance in career development in Duke University’s community of women-identified people. Our hope is that programs like ours can be taken up by organizations such as the Women’s Center, the Graduate and Professional Student Council, the Office of Postdoctoral Services, the Career Center, or other organizations on campus that serve the needs of graduate students and postdocs. As both organizers and participants in this project, we felt empowered by creating the next step in having access to a streamlined design for connecting us and our peers to professional women who have found success outside of academia. We left ELI hopeful that a project like Women Mentoring Women can model a successful program that fulfills a need at Duke University and other academic research institutions more broadly.


Jessica Gokhberg
Jessica Gokhberg

PhD candidate, Program in Literature

Jessica Gokhberg, M.A., is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke. Her dissertation focuses on Russian author Boris Pasternak’s novel Doktor Zhivago in order to examine the role of literature in the Cold War, and how this novel in particular was staged by political and scholarly actors as a cultural weapon with the power to change the global geopolitical alignment of power at the time. When not writing or reading, you can find Jessica playing with any dog she can find or drinking too much coffee.


Imran Ozer
Imran Ozer

PhD candidate, Biomedical Engineering

Imran Ozer, M.Sc., is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biomedical Engineering Department. Her current research focuses on the development of biomaterials that overcome immune recognition. Before Duke, she earned her M.Sc. degree in Biotechnology & Bioengineering. When not in the lab, you can find her hiking, traveling, or spending time with her friends.


Angela McCall
Angela L. McCall

Postdoctoral associate, Pediatrics

Angela L. McCall, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Associate in Dr. Mai ElMallah’s Lab in the Department of Pediatrics. She received both her B.S. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and her Ph.D. in Medical Sciences from the University of Florida. Her research interests include understanding the mechanism of macro- and microscopic pathophysiology of neuromuscular disorders as well as the development of adeno-associated virus mediated gene therapy vectors to treat these disorders. Outside the lab, Angela is involved in the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Organization.