Does mentoring work?

Centrally coordinated and supported mentoring schemes are a relatively new addition to the professional and career development opportunities offered within Higher Education. The University of St Andrews has been one of the early adopters to such schemes, with the Early Career Academics’ Mentoring scheme first trialed in 2005 and still running (this is a cross-institutional collaboration with the University of Dundee) and a separate support staff scheme running for the last three years.

The potential for mentoring to provide valuable professional and career development support is generally accepted, but because mentoring programmes in higher education have only fairly recently taken hold there has been little discussion, or analysis, of the long term benefits of such schemes.

This provided us with an exciting opportunity to launch an early study into the long term results of mentoring schemes, which may perhaps lead to further research, expanding on our general conclusions.

Over the summer Daniel O’Hara, an Undergraduate in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, has been working at CAPOD as an intern. His project has been to carry out this study and through a combination of interviews and questionnaires Daniel was able to draw some general conclusions about the perceived value of mentoring, as well as identify some concrete outcomes cited by participants on our schemes gong back as far as the original pilot in 2005.

Based on the responses of participants in the study Daniel produced a revealing word cloud to reflect the strength of common themes.


During his study Daniel specifically asked participants about the quality of the match between themselves and their mentoring partners. 86% of respondents stated that the match was ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’. This indicates that the process that has been adopted has been highly effective in creating partnerships which have been productive and effective in achieving the aims of the scheme members.

When asked if they would recommend the scheme to a colleague the vast majority (85%) said that they would. This again is a strong indication that participants in mentoring schemes believe that that the process is worthwhile and beneficial, and that this belief persists long after the conclusion of the mentoring partnership.

When mentees were asked if they would consider mentoring in the future, again a significant amount indicated they would do so, which also supports the view that the perceived benefits of mentoring exist well beyond the period of active participation in mentoring.

The original pilot scheme in 2005 was based on female-female matching, and in the current schemes gender is one of the matching preferences which applicants are asked to state. It therefore seemed worth asking if gender-based matching works better. By analysing the results of the study by gender matches in partnerships we were able to conclude that same-gender matches are no more or less effective than mixed-gender matches. However, since matches are made with gender preferences being given the highest priority, it is probably more accurate to say that respecting participants’ stated preference for the gender of their mentoring partner results in a high level of satisfaction with the partnership. Further study and comparison with schemes where participants are unable to state a gender preference may be more revealing on this issue.

Overall, the results of the study showed that participation in a mentoring scheme has definitely had positive effects on:

• Career Development
• Professional Development
• Adjusting to University Life
• Setting and Achieving SMART Goals

Some participants were also able to say that their relationships had provided concrete outcomes that contributed to their career, including:

• Joint research projects
• New positions
• Joint PhD supervision
• Interdepartmental research collaboration
• Cross institutional research collaboration
• Changed career or research focus.

Qualitative statements about the short term benefits of mentoring are plentiful and are captured on a regular basis through informal monitoring and formal evaluations of annual cycles of mentoring schemes. This study has shown that very similar qualitative statements about the perceived value of mentoring are made by participants even years after their mentoring partnership has concluded.

Establishing clear quantitative evidence of the long term benefits of mentoring, in terms of measurable outcomes such as career progression, publication, funding, collaborations and so on, has been difficult to assess within the scope and scale of this study. Further data collection through follow-up studies of current and future membership will be required to build up a sufficiently large and reliable data set.

However, what we do have is anecdotal evidence strongly in favour of the benefits of the scheme lasting in the long term, particularly where participants feel that participation contributed to gaining a new post. In some cases however respondents from earlier cycles of schemes have said that they struggle to remember if identifiable aspects of career and professional development were as a result of their involvement of the scheme. This problem of attribution will always exist, where so many other factors play a part and this naturally increases as the time elapsed from participation increases.

However, in future, by more regular contact and monitoring of career and professional development of participants, it may be possible to make a clearer attribution and to ensure that participants themselves have a clearer sense of the contribution the mentoring experience has made.

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