The Power of Peer Mentoring: One Case Study

I just learned about a really cool new mentoring program. If you follow my blog, you already know that I’m all about the importance of and benefits from mentoring for navigating your career. (It’s valuable both for the mentor AND the mentee!). But hearing about this new program was an excellent reminder that mentoring is not just senior professional to mid or early career professional. The peer to peer mentoring is also key.

The National Initiative on Gender, Culture, and Leadership in Medicine (C-Change) at Brandeis University got a huge grant from National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their peer group mentoring. This involves a “cohort of physician-scientists [who] meet quarterly…to develop their careers through reflective dialogue and skill development in areas necessary for professional advancement.” The peer mentoring approach is critical for a number of reasons.

It’s More Welcoming for Women, People of Color and Diverse Populations

Especially in fields like science and medicine, a traditional model of a senior person mentoring a junior professional may fall flat. These disciplines have not been as friendly to women, nor welcoming to diverse opinions and approaches. Not to mention that the senior faculty and leaders are usually men, and often white men, who haven’t faced the barriers and challenges faced by today’s women scholars and diverse populations.

Peer mentors are not only closer in experience and age, they also can relate to, empathize with, validate, and make visible to their employers the real issues that these populations share. By bringing together peer groups to mentor one another, it gives them the space to reflect on and share any tactics that have worked for them in navigating roadblocks.

It’s in Real Time

Representation matters. You need to be able to see and hear from people just like you who have experienced the same things, and who can either help troubleshoot or at least relate to what you are going through. And to do that as one collective peer mentoring cohort, at the same time, in real time? Powerful stuff.

You’re not just going to be hearing from your mentor things like “Well, when I faced XYZ…” When was that? 3 years ago? 10? 20? How useful is that going to be for solving the problem you’re dealing with right now, today?

To be able to gather together regularly, in person to share, listen, and learn from one another in real time can not only benefit the group, but also can reveal to stakeholders and facilitators what the organization can and needs to do now to address and mitigate issues.

It’s More Aligned with Today’s Workplace Challenges

Even when a mentee can find a trusted and skilled mentor who takes the time to help them navigate their careers, their mentor often has not experienced the same challenges. Thus even the most well-meaning and wise mentor may be dispensing advice and strategies that worked for them, but which are not tenable for their mentee. As the press release for this grant award notes:

Research has shown that [the model of a senior staff member taking a younger one under their wing] to be problematic because older mentors are hard to find and their goals and expectations may not accord with those of their mentees.

Not only are today’s early- and mid-career professionals facing the standard tried-and-true challenges of having few opportunities to advance upward, the competitive nature of their field, their expertise being challenged simply because they’re younger, and the stresses associated with staying current in their fields, they ALSO face additional barriers.

Minorities struggle to find mentors who understand microagressions and discrimination – because there is not much diversity among more senior positions. Parents struggle to find mentors who can remember or relate to the additional stresses that caregiving brings. Women struggle to find mentors who can relate to sexist presumptions. And professionals today need a different fundamental relationship with their employer: one who aligns with THEIR values and recognizes and values THEIR contributions, rather than just a transactional, paycheck relationship.

All amidst a rapidly changing field where patient loads are too high, professionals start careers with enormous student loan debts (against relatively stagnant pay), and technology changes and administrative burdens rise, making the learning curve even more steep.

It’s for Mid-Career Professionals, Too

Finally, this particular program stood out to me because it’s not just positively impacting women and people of color, it has the promise of supporting professionals as they move into mid-career and beyond. It’s a model that could be self-sustaining for participants long term.

We often think of the importance of mentoring for early career professionals. And that is vital. But speaking as a mid-career professional myself, I find myself facing new career challenges all the time that I need guidance on – and sometimes (often?) these are things that my senior mentors have never had to face. Something exactly like this would have helped me enormously – in so many ways, when I wasn’t finding any mentoring in my museums work. What if I had gone through a program like this, where even when our formal peer mentoring cohort ended, we still knew who we could trust and rely on moving forward? I would know who I could call on for help, support, a sympathetic ear, validation of what I’m facing, and ideas for troubleshooting.

It’s a Portable Model

The press release for this grant award and the links to the C-Change center provide a wealth of details and information that could steer the planning and launch of a peer mentoring group in any industry, at any workplace. They outline the structure of some of the key elements of their program.

One year in length for each cohort, meeting face to face quarterly. Facilitated by skilled staff. Their site provides publications, that provide real, valid, actual data that points to how mentoring’s efficacy can be measured and monitored. (And for employers that can afford it, they even consult!). But this is a model that would easily be translated and piloted anywhere – for employers in any industries, at low stakes and low cost.

Close Menu

Looking for a Change?

Join the Hive

Premium articles, resources, & tips to change the course of your career. 

Subscribe now

Academics at Work respects your privacy and treats your personal information with the utmost care.View our privacy policy here.