Promoting mentorship in translational research: Should we hope for Athena or train Mentor?

Beauty Athena StatueSteiner, J.F. (2014) Academic Medicine, 89 (5), 702-704.

This article was summarized by UMass Boston doctoral student Laura Yoviene.


Usually in the Chronicle we focus on youth mentoring relationships.  However, with this review we broaden the scope to include an article on the importance of mentoring relationships to research in the realm of academia.

The study refers to Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus’s young son, Telemachus receives advice from the goddess Athena who is disguised as Mentor. This ancient story emphasizes the importance of mentoring, but may send the wrong message, “that mentorship is divine rather than human…a gift rather than a teachable skill.” This aligns with the fact that less than half of research-intensive academic health centers (AHCs) have formal, face-to-face training for mentors.  Thus, the current study focuses on the importance of evidence-based training curricula in developing mentoring skills.


This study is based off the results of a multisite, randomized, controlled trial of a mentorship training program, conducted by Pfund and colleagues (2014). The trial randomized faculty members (N=283) to either receive an 8 hour, case-based mentoring curriculum or to rely on their instincts and experience, 21% of mentors reported prior training. Mentors also completed a battery of questionnaires assessing their mentorship skills at baseline and at 3 months when they finished the curriculum. Mentees, who were blind to their mentors’ intervention status, also rated their mentors’ skills.


The study shows that, undoubtedly, mentorship skills can be taught.

  • Mentors who received the training curriculum improved in their overall score on the self-assessment measures and in a retrospective comparison of their skills after training versus before training
  • Mentees of mentors who received the training, also noted significant improvements on retrospective assessment of their mentors’ skills and were also significantly more likely to identity positive changes in their mentors’ behavior than mentees in the comparison group
  • The training curriculum intervention was shown to be effective across the various sites, despite substantial differences in mentoring resources at the participating institutions
  • Mentees who identified an influential mentor during their training were substantially more likely (73% versus 36%) to become mentors themselves, often in areas other than research.  


Creating an Organizational Culture of Mentorship

Young research trainees enter academic programs every year, most to be met by organizations that lack formal mentorship programs and training.  The curriculum evaluated in this study can provide a helpful tool for academic institutions to help train their mentors with evidence-based material but in order to change the culture of mentoring in academia, structural supports as well as reinforcement and incentives are needed. This may include the following: standardized evaluation of mentors and mentees, plans to intervene if mentoring relationships are unsuccessful, exploitive, or neglectful, and appropriate allocation of resources (time, space, funding) to support the mentoring process. Specific outcome measures, such as number of publications coauthored with mentees, “number and rate of publications and grants awarded during and after training, entry and retention in academic careers, time devoted to research, and assumption of leadership roles.” Having these types of meaningful outcome measures reflecting on the mentoring process will benefit mentees and may also be particularly motivating for mentors.

Overall, this study by Pfund and colleagues leaves us with the musing that although it cannot be guaranteed that a mentor will have the “divine skill” to offer guidance like Athena, by incorporating evidence-based curricula, one can be sure that the Mentor has been well-trained.