Mentorship Challenges

Experienced mentors and junior faculty shared challenging scenarios and suggestions for their resolution. Individual responses are shown to demonstrate multiple perspectives.

Thanks to UCSF Mentoring for their deep resources and for inspiring this approach and several questions.

Please email the Research Workforce Development at with your perplexing scenarios—perhaps others have the same challenge!

Struggling with meeting the IDP goals

Harry has not kept up with the goals of his IDP over the last few years. He remains unpublished, without grants, and seems unhappy. His mentoring team, including his career mentor in the department, is very pessimistic about his chances to advance. What do you advise should happen next?


Scholar: An individual meeting with Harry prior to a meeting with the entire mentorship team, to try to understand where the struggles originate. Is it a lack of interest? A lack of mentorship? Confusion about the goals? Competing personal goals?

Scholar: Identify what the gaps are? Did he have protected time to be productive? Did he have adequate resources to perform research? Was the research a dead end and he needs to redirect? Are the papers/grants salvageable? Does he need new mentors on his mentoring team?

Mentor: The fact that he seems unhappy should be addressed. Is this unhappiness from a recent grant denial or from an underlying behavioral health issue? He may need additional assistance in addressing his own goals and plans (and receiving help/support where needed) before he can successfully perform in his academic endeavors.

Mentor: This requires an open honest discussion between the mentee and the primary mentor to really understand where Harry's passions lie, before a discussion with the mentoring team. It may turn out that the mentee sees himself more as a clinician who supports lab researchers rather than driving the research themselves. It may be important to have the open discussion and without judgment readjust the career goals to better align with the mentee's strengths.


Harriett developed an individual development plan that was approved by her advisory committee, although as her mentor, you felt it was over ambitious. In the year since, she revised her IDP and moved her plans for a K-Award application further out, in order to write more manuscripts. How would you work to re-set reasonable goals for this project?


Scholar: Identify a minimum set of publications to make a K award attainable and then work to get those publications done; set a month by month timeline.

Scholar: Prioritize aspects of IDP (e.g. manuscripts) to attain goals towards the K application. Re-assess her readiness at the earliest time frame and accept the revised IDP accordingly.

Scholar: Take the IDP, revise the goals, and revise the timeline. I think it's OK to be ambitious but also OK to revise/realistic.

Mentor: I would meet again and update the IDP. Review the planned manuscripts and make sure they are in line with her focused area of research.

Mentee struggling with manuscript writing

Your mentee has been working to analyze data and write a manuscript. The first draft of the manuscript was poorly written despite your extensive editorial and substantive scientific comments. The second draft was not much better and many of your editorial changes have not been incorporated. What is the most effective way to communicate your concerns and insure that progress is made in a timely and effective manner?


Scholar: Provide feedback in the sandwich model: something reassuring, something not-so-reassuring, then attainable goals. It may be worth trying to understand why the notes weren't incorporated - does the mentee understand the comments? Is there a time constraint? Do they struggle with writing?

Scholar: Identify the roadblocks, and learn if any assistance or guidance will help the mentee in revising the manuscript. If unable to do so, discuss another co-first author or change authorship order according to contribution to final product.

Scholar: I would review the manuscript together and use it as a teaching opportunity. Let the mentee know what is expected. Be encouraging and set timelines and goals. Provide examples about writing if needed. The mentee may not have known how to incorporate the comments and edits -- identifying the barriers first is likely the first step (is it time that's the problem? Or lack of experience?).

Mentor: Set up a writing team. Ask the mentee to focus on the results section and work through the figures the with team, and then to work on the text for the results section. Once this has been done to the team's satisfaction then work on the next sections piece by piece.

Mentor: To be honest, I have had this happen before and I wasn't sure what to do. I generally give up on mentees like this and assign them other non-writing related projects. I would be interested to learn better ways to handle this.

Need for protected research time

John’s K award provides 75% FTE protected time. John's department head informs him that due to multiple resignations in the department, John needs to increase his clinical obligations. Can John refuse his demands? What might this 'cost' in the short term? in the long term?


Scholar: Technically John can refuse the obligations, but practically it is much harder. During the pandemic, K awardees wanted to both help the team and help the family with financial productivity. The short term cost was making deadlines but longer term its important to get the time back later in a different way that is equitable.

Scholar: Yes. negotiate short vs long term.

Mentor: Best to remind them of the obligation to NIH and that he can increase in the short term but that it must eventually be 75% over the course of the year.

Last minute administrative support

Susan finds out from a colleague that there is a small $50K pilot award available that fits her area of research but the support materials, budget and approvals needed by the department and grants and contracts group take an average of 20 working days, at best. She has completed what she can but needs all those approvals within 7 working days. What do you advise?


Scholar: Reach out to chair and mentor for expediting and getting support.

Scholar: Reach out department and grants/contracts if accelerated timeline is possible

Mentor: I would advise her to have an honest conversation with grants and contracts group to see if it can be accommodated. If not, she may have to find another grant.

Mentors spread across multiple institutions

How do you navigate the challenges and benefits of having a mentorship team spread across multiple institutions? While this seems more common/feasible with improved virtual meetings, it still seems to raise concerns for some reviewers.


Scholar: Mentorship across different institutions can add expertise not available at your own institution so it is definitely a strength. Prior to video conferencing, coordinating conference calls was more challenging and it was hard to have effective communication but now it’s somewhat easier. Using both input from clinical and science mentors is important and the focus of the audience you want for your paper might help drive the input factored in.

Scholar: Try to get hands-on people (clinical as well as technical) to be at least part-time at the primary institution. Advisors can be from multiple locations.

Scholar: This is challenging. Sometimes mentor opinions may conflict. Virtual group meetings help. Make sure everyone is on the same page with overall goals. Having a Division Chief to support your balance of research/clinical time is important.

Mentor: Virtual meetings assist with mentorship teams across institutions. Designating times for joint meetings with multiple mentors can also allow mentors to interact and provide differing feedback on the same topic.

Mentor: I manage my mentorship team with scheduled in person meetings at national conferences of mutual interest and regular virtual meetings. This has been well received.

Advice for leading lab meetings

Your mentee complains that lab meetings in her research group feel unfocused and issues related to the project are never resolved. What advice would you give this mentee about leading meetings? How can mentorship meetings be short but productive?


Scholar: Try having an agenda with projects at different stages and a list of questions to trouble shoot, followed by next steps or plans clearly defined with roles assigned to those steps. Adhere to deadlines as close to possible.

Scholar: Set up an individual meeting with the PI apart from the lab meeting. Bring an agenda with prepared questions.

Scholar: Advance agenda and goals sent to all participants. Set tangible 'to-do' list.

Mentor: Setting goals for the meeting with a defined outline will help address the lack of focus. Identifying which members will present and when will help streamline presentations.

Mentor: If mentor is not PI, then they should advise mentee to discuss with the PI. Would recommend trainee provide minutes of meeting with action items.

Mentee research not independent enough

You have been a co-mentor to a junior colleague who has been very successful. The mentee, Richard, has many first-author papers and just received a K-award. The two of you enjoy working together, and contribute to each other's ideas. However, Richard recently came up for his mid-promotion review and the department committee was concerned that his research was not as independent from your research as it should be. What advice would you give to Richard? What advice would you give to his lead mentor?


Scholar: Make plans for establishing more independent research, come up with plan and present together to lead mentor.

Scholar: To assign separate aspects of the research project where each of you contribute, but have relative independence.

Scholar: Meet with Richard and lead mentor and identify routes where the research projects diverge, divide ownership, clarify differences.

Mentor: Try to break off pieces of research that a junior colleague can expand with their own unique expertise to carve out their own area so we have complementary skills.

Dealing with disappointment about rejection of grants and manuscripts

You have been a co-mentor to a junior colleague who has been very successful. The mentee, Richard, has many first-author papers and just received a K-award. The two of you enjoy working together, and contribute to each other's ideas. However, Richard recently came up for his mid-promotion review and the department committee was concerned that his research was not as independent from your research as it should be. What advice would you give to Richard? What advice would you give to his lead mentor?


Scholar: Stay persistent since this is part of the process. You can use this same application and resubmit to the same mechanism or repackage and submit for a different mechanism or different study section.

Scholar: Give real life examples of success after initial failure. Give the endless real examples of my personal experiences of "failures" and rejection, and encourage moving forward, taking the critiques and developing a plan for next steps.

Scholar: Try again. It is not an indication of the work done. This is a part of the path of research and we have all dealt with rejection, it is how we move on from it that matters. Research is very competitive.

Mentor: Sharing personal failures and later successes could be helpful in providing support. Also, identifying her own personal successes and lessons learned from these rejections could help set her up to be successful at the next opportunity.

Mentor: It is important that as a mentor you acknowledge her achievements in terms of submitting the grant and the manuscript to a high tier journal which are important achievements in their own right. It is also important that the mentee understands that research is not a sprint but a marathon. It is a commitment to the long-term goals and while these disappointments can be painful, it is important to reassure her that the paper will get published eventually and that you know, based on your extensive track record as a mentor, that she has what it takes to be a successful researcher and that her dedication and hard work will pay off and she will get grant funded. But in the meantime, you can reassure her that you will ensure that she has the funding, infrastructure and protected time she needs to set her up for maximal success so she can realize her potential in the long term.

Mentor: I tell my mentees that I apply for ten grants to get one. I try to prepare them for the rejection before even submitting and reassure them that they are doing a great job and that eventually their intelligence and hard work will be rewarded.

An unapproachable mentor

What is the best way to thrive while working with mentors who have a reputation for being 'difficult' or may not seem approachable? How might you ask for letters of recommendation? How might you benefit from their expertise if you don't communicate well?


Scholar: Discuss modes of feasible communication up front, including timelines, e.g. meeting schedules, interim review of progress and goals, etc. Work on your own communication skills.

Scholar: Hard one. I need help with this! Just be polite.

Mentor: Consider establishing expectations. What you will do, and what you ask the mentor to do.

Mentor: Additional mentors or co-mentors can be helpful to "bridge the gap." Discussing what the mentor would like from you in order to draft the letter of recommendation is helpful -- i.e. CV, an initial draft or additional documents.

Who can serve as a mentor

Can a junior faculty member's Division Chief or Chair be their mentor? Where should you look to find mentors?


Scholar: Yes, that person could be a great career mentor.

Scholar: I think there could be a conflict of interest and you should have an external mentor in addition to chief/chair.

Mentor: I think is often the situation for a division. Also, it is critical to appreciate that a mentee should not think they have a single mentor or role model. Take the best from those around you and develop a mentorship family.

Mentor: Yes, a chair can make a wonderful mentor because they can provide support and insights that may not be available to others.

What to do when the mentor leaves

Mary is a post doc working with a NIH funded researcher who enables the mouse work to be realized; the researcher announces that he is leaving to take a position on the West Coast putting the research work in jeopardy. What are Mary's options?


Scholar: Move or find new collaborator/mentor, locally while keeping tele-relation with existing researcher.

Mentor: Mary is at a stage in her career where she needs to have continuous "boots on the ground" mentorship. Therefore, unless she is able to move to the west coast with her mentor to continue her research project with them there, then she is really left with no other option than to find a new mentor (and most likely a new project).

Mentee is not productive

A junior faculty is hired to start a new research project with the understanding that within 2 years new grants should be written and submitted so that independent funding is secured for the longer term. Initially, 75% time is protected for research, paper and grant writing. Three and a half years into the position, the junior faculty finally decides not to submit a grant, and has submitted 2 manuscripts in 4 years. When is it right to stop funding this individual as goals have not been met?


Scholar: Now; and an assessment at 1 and 2 years of the progress towards those goals to see if it could have been anticipated that the new grant wouldn't have been submitted or productivity was low.

Scholar: After formal review of progress and failure to be productive after a period of 'probation.' As long as there has been documentation, I think a 6-month final goal.

Mentor: I think honest conversations with the individual should be had regarding why the goals have not been met. Perhaps the faculty has other interests.

Mentor: There should be a transition plan away from research. This could mean to a clinical position which fulfills department needs. After 4 years it should be clear as whether faculty member has skill set to perform research or whether there were/are other complicating factors that prevented productivity.

Balancing mentor vs mentee publication goals

The timeline for a mentee in terms of accomplishments and milestones may be different than that of a mentor. A mentee may settle for a faster, 'lesser' publication in order to facilitate applying for early career grants, while a mentor may prefer a slower, 'higher impact' publication in order to preserve prestige of the lab. How can a mentee find ways to advocate for his/her pathway over that of the mentor's?


Scholar: Do both. Get some quicker lower impact publications but also strive for at least one more comprehensive high impact one.

Scholar: Provide a timeline that incorporates relevance to another, future timeline, and argue for ways in which the short-term goals can contribute to bigger goals later.

Mentor: Discussion of which papers can go to "lesser" publications and which should be saved for "higher impact" journals would allow some faster publications while still having a goal of higher impact journals, ultimately. But realistically, a junior faculty needs to have publications so sometimes you want to settle for less!

Assistant Professor asked to assume administrative role

As an Assistant Professor, Inez is asked by her chair to help prepare a fellowship training grant application and to take the role of director if the grant is funded. She feels flattered by the invitation and enjoys helping with training but is concerned that she will have to sacrifice her own research productivity to lead this new program. What are her options?


Scholar: Do it. Her chair is her manager and boss, and this is the "price to play" as an employee. Ask her chair to recap the possible benefits to the dept and risk to her research, and discuss which is more important for the dept.

Scholar: Offer to help prepare the grant, and ask if she can take the role of co-director if it’s funded, if it aligns with her goals. Politely decline the role of director, since she is early in her career and needs to focus on her research.

Scholar: Discuss with the chair her own academic goals and priorities and whether this training grant leadership is appropriate at her career level. Perhaps a more senior faculty can lead and Inez can contribute as feasible, keeping her own research as 1st priority.

Mentor: She can clarify what the responsibilities would be and how much time it is expected to take. She could also define options beforehand if it does take away time she has available for her research productivity.

Mentor: Acknowledge to her Chair how flattered she is to be asked and that she agreed this is an important opportunity and one that she is passionate about. But it is important for Inez to meet with her Chair to obtain more information especially regarding the time commitments required for the job before she makes a decision. During the meeting she needs to express her concerns openly to her Chair regarding the potential conflict of time with her own research program. And this should allow an open dialog to discuss options to ensure she has the support she needs (e.g. in terms of protected time/effort and admin support etc.) to be able to successfully take on this role without sacrificing her own research.

Mentor: She should have frank conversation with the Chair. Assess the workload and level of administrative assistance she will have. Offer potential to assist as assistant fellowship director. Ultimately be ready to decline.

Unsure of research career path

Denise is a junior faculty who won a supplemental grant on another mentor's R01 in her first year that funds most of her salary. About a year after getting the supplement Denise told her mentor that she is not sure if she is cut out to do research, and she thinks she wants to become an educator. Since she has the supplement for three years, she plans to see how things go and decide about her career path in academic medicine when the supplement runs out. What emotions come up for you? What communication strategies and experiences work or are less helpful?


Scholar: Disappointment. But also realize life goals and priorities can change, and incorporate that to revise common goals.

Scholar: Try to understand feelings of "not cut out" it is temporary feeling? imposter syndrome? are there specific reasons that do sound like it isn't working for her? How is her work to date? is she committed to the project?

Mentor: My baseline is to do what is best for the trainee. There are fluctuations in dedication and interest. A discussion should occur on reasons for this change. To maintain the funding the trainee needs to fulfill obligations to the grant and not just accept funds.

Balancing committees, clinical load and research productivity

Kris is in her 3rd year as assistant professor. Her mentor. who is also the chair, frequently provides Kris with 'opportunities,” including a substantial clinical load and several time-consuming committees and administrative assignments. Kris is concerned that these activities detract from her research productivity. You are the head of Kris' new research mentoring team. On review of her CV you note that she had several first authored papers as a fellow but that her output has fallen off recently. What are the communication challenges in this scenario-between research mentor and mentee; mentee and chair; mentor and chair?


Scholar: Research mentors need to keep continuous and open lines of communication with clinical leadership of dual-track faculty. Incentives will push clinical researchers to do more clinical work, and junior clinical staff don't have the power to shape their clinical environment. This is exceedingly difficult when the clinical and research leadership are different people.

Scholar: Inability of Kris to say No. This is where the mentor may need to step in to communicate with the Chair.

Scholar: This warrants a meeting with mentee, mentor and chair, with clear guidelines of expectations, protected time and academic priorities. If chair cannot commit, mentor should be able to elicit support from chair's supervisor meetings should be set q3 months that expectations initially set are being maintained in terms of clinical load and distractors.

Mentor: The mentor needs to speak to the Chair and have a frank discussion. The mentor may need to enlist senior colleagues to support a discussion with the Chair. The discussion is highly dependent on the Chair's personality and understanding of research. Depending on the state of the department there may need to be find a balance. The mentee should not be placed in the middle of the discussion but when potential plans formulated, the mentee should be brought in to discuss options to optimize research plans for promotion.