All you need is “deep level” similarity: Predictors of quality mentoring matches

By Jean Rhodes

Conventional wisdom has long emphasized the importance of matching mentors and mentees based on surface-level characteristics like gender, race, and ethnicity. The assumption has been that sharing these demographic similarities would lead to more comfort, understanding, and ultimately, higher quality mentoring.

Yet a growing body of research is challenging this view and highlighting the greater significance of deep-level similarity – the extent to which a mentor and mentee share attitudes, values, perspectives, and beliefs. A recent national study by Trevor Tuma and Erin Dolan provides some of the most compelling evidence yet on this front.

Analyzing survey data from 565 science graduate students across 70 universities, the researchers used structural equation modeling to examine how different factors, including deep and surface-level similarities, influenced mentees’ perceptions of the mentoring support and relationship quality they received from their faculty advisors. The researchers assessed deep-level similarity using an eight-item scale adapted from previous works by Ensher et al. (2002) and de Janasz and Godshalk (2013).  The specific items used in the scale include:

  1. My mentor and I see things in the same way.
  2. My mentor and I share similar values.
  3. My mentor and I have similar perspectives on work-related issues.
  4. My mentor and I are more similar than dissimilar in important ways.
  5. My mentor and I think alike on many things.
  6. My mentor and I have similar attitudes.
  7. My mentor and I understand each other well.
  8. My mentor and I have a lot in common​​.

The results were striking. Contrary to widely held assumptions, sharing demographic characteristics like gender, race or ethnicity with one’s mentor was not associated with high quality mentoring relationships, as reported by the mentees. Instead, the single strongest predictor was the mentees’ sense of deep-level similarity – their perception of sharing outlooks, values and beliefs with their mentors. The effects were substantial, highlighting how deep-level similarity is a critical ingredient for fostering supportive and fulfilling mentoring bonds.

Discussion of Results

The study’s findings underscore the importance of deep-level similarity in fostering effective mentoring relationships. Mentees who perceived higher levels of deep-level similarity with their mentors reported better career and psychosocial support, as well as higher overall relationship quality. This aligns with prior research indicating that shared attitudes and values are critical for building trust and mutual understanding in mentoring relationships​​.

The researchers found this pattern held true across different demographic groups of mentees and mentors. In other words, mentees from underrepresented backgrounds could still develop high-quality mentoring relationships with mentors from different demographic backgrounds, provided there was a strong sense of deep-level personal similarity and shared perspectives.

These findings align with prior meta-analyses and studies at the undergraduate level which have consistently shown deep-level similarity to be more predictive of mentorship quality than demographic matching. As the authors note, surface-level categorizations like gender and race may obscure the diversity of lived experiences and self-concepts within these groups.


A key takeaway is that an excessive focus on demographic matching may be misguided and could actually undermine efforts to cultivate high-quality mentoring relationships at scale.

Instead, programs would benefit from developing strategies to assess and optimize for deep-level personal compatibility between prospective mentoring pairs. This could involve incorporating tools like personality assessments, values inventories, or structured conversations to identify areas of attitudinal alignment during the matching process.

Additionally, providing mentors with training on how to initiate conversations and activities that allow mentees to share their perspectives, backgrounds and personal values could help foster deeper personal connections. Trainings can provide mentors with specific prompts to facilitate such rapport-building discussions.

Of course, demographic diversity in mentoring relationships should not be disregarded entirely. The study found that mentees, particularly those from underrepresented groups, still valued and benefited from mentors who demonstrated cultural awareness and a willingness to discuss issues related to race, ethnicity and identity. Mentoring programs would be wise to continue providing training to help mentors develop competencies in culturally-responsive mentoring. This can create an inclusive environment where mentees feel their backgrounds are recognized and affirmed, even in mentoring relationships that may lack demographic similarity.

Ultimately, the findings underscore that human similarities and connections transcend surface-level categories. By prioritizing the matching of mentors and mentees based on deeper personal affinities, mentoring initiatives may be better positioned to forge the supportive, high-quality relationships that allow all mentees to thrive.


  1. Tuma, T.T. and Dolan, E.L., 2024. What Makes a Good Match? Predictors of Quality Mentorship Among Doctoral Students. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 23(2), pp.ar20.
  2. Ensher, E. A., Grant-Vallone, E. J., & Marelich, W. D. (2002). Effects of perceived attitudinal and demographic similarity on protégés’ support and satisfaction gained from their mentoring relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(7), pp. 1407–1430.
  3. de Janasz, S. C., & Godshalk, V. M. (2013). The role of e-mentoring in protégés’ learning and satisfaction. Group & Organization Management, 38(6), pp. 743–774.
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  5. Hernandez, P.R., Estrada, M., Woodcock, A. and Schultz, P.W., 2017. Protégé perceptions of high mentorship quality depend on shared values more than on demographic match. Journal of Experimental Education, 85(3), pp.450-468.
  6. Pedersen, R.M., Ferguson, C.F., Estrada, M., Schultz, P.W., Woodcock, A. and Hernandez, P.R., 2022. Similarity and contact frequency promote mentorship quality among Hispanic undergraduates in STEM. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(2), pp.ar27.
  7. Pfund, C., Branchaw, J. and Handelsman, J., 2015. Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to train a New Generation of Scientists. Macmillan.