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Mentoring Matters—But What, Exactly, Does It Entail?

Researchers define a relationship that boosts you professionally and personally

How often have you heard the terms mentor, mentoring, or mentorship? These words are bandied about the workplace and academia with a vague sense that they matter—and indeed mentoring does—but without a clear sense of what's involved.

The reason is that there is very little research being done to define mentorship. But three researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are now conducting peer-reviewed research to create a definition of mentorship that can be used and understood by all.

Drs. Christine Pfund, Angela Byars-Winston, and Jenna Rogers are the caped crusaders of mentoring, gathering data, applying statistics, and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. Their research is focused on the mentorship occurring in professional realms and does not include the everyday life mentoring definitions used outside of professional areas.

With permission from Christine Pfund
Dr. Christine Pfund
Source: With permission from Christine Pfund
with permission from Angela Byars-Winston
Dr. Angela Byars-Winston
Source: with permission from Angela Byars-Winston
with permission from Jenna Rogers
Dr. Jenna Rogers
Source: with permission from Jenna Rogers

The researchers answered some basic questions about mentorship:

What is the definition of mentorship?

Historically there have been more than 50 definitions of mentoring (Crisp and Cruz, 2009). In the past few years, there has been a move toward seeing mentoring as dynamic, collaborative, and reciprocal relationships in which both the mentor and the mentee take an active role (McGee, R. 2016). Current research by the national Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM, 2019) provides this definition: "Mentorship is a professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support." While this was developed for practitioners and researchers, this definition is a common starting point for many disciplines, and mentoring relationships are encompassed within this definition.

How are mentoring relationships defined?

Two words sum it up—working alliance. There is an emphasis on the mutuality of the relationship. Mentorship requires the mentor and mentee to be engaged and benefit from the relationship. The working alliance is how good mentoring relationships are defined. Mentorship is a two-way street! Both mentor and mentee are involved and benefit from the relationship.

There are three dimensions of the working alliance:

  1. Bond - The bond refers to the mentor-mentee relational quality (e.g., regard, trust, rapport).
  2. Goal - The goal refers to mutually agreed-upon targeted outcome(s) based on the mentee's developmental need(s).
  3. Task - The task relates to perceptions that mentoring techniques or interventions will help achieve the desired goal(s).

The research on mentorship conducted by Drs. Pfund, Byars-Winston, and Rogers focused on mentoring relationships in higher education (undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate mentees). Dr. Byars-Winston (2016) has specifically studied historically underrepresented groups in the science fields to provide a common framework and language for all the components and attributes of mentoring relationships.

All three agree that "It is less important whether we call someone "mentor" or "mentee"; what is most critical is to be clear what roles each person is playing in the mentoring relationship."


Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring College Students: A Critical Review of the Literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50, 525-545.

McGee, R. (2016). “Biomedical Workforce Diversity: The Context for Mentoring to Develop Talents and Foster Success within the ‘Pipeline.’” AIDS and Behavior, 20(Suppl 2), 231–237.

The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM, Online Guide v1.0. (n.d.).…

Pfund C, Byars-Winston A, Branchaw J, Hurtado S, Eagan K. Defining Attributes and Metrics of Effective Research Mentoring Relationships. AIDS Behav. 2016. Sep;20 Suppl 2:238-48. PMID:27062425 | PMCID:PMC4995122.

Byars-Winston, A., Rogers, J.G., Branchaw, J.L., Pribbenow, C.M., Hanke, R., & Pfund, C. (2016). New Measures Assessing Predictors of Academic Persistence for Historically Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic Undergraduates in Science. CBE Life Sciences Education, 15.

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