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RESOURCE: Mentoring – Karen Fitzgibbon

29 April 2016

Contributor – Karen Fitzgibbon

Senior HR Advisor, School of Biosciences



A good mentoring relationship can be crucial to the success of postdoctoral researchers as they develop original research ideas and move toward greater independence and maturity. So what is mentoring? “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction” (John Crosby, American Politician). Mentors can play a wide range of roles: coach; networker; facilitator; critical friend; sounding-board; role model.

If you think you would benefit from having a mentor, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want from this relationship?help-1013700_640
  • What sort of person would be best able to help me (in terms of experience, personality, their availability, and so on)?
  • What sort of person would I find it easiest to build a relationship with?
  • Am I prepared to trade-off some of the comfort of familiarity for greater potential for learning?
  • Do I know someone who would fit the bill?
  • If not, do I know someone who could recommend the right sort of person? Could they arrange an introduction?

Ideally, your mentor should be able to relate to your background and experience, but do not let this exclude others who may be better people developers. Remember that one of the skills a mentor requires is the ability to view problems differently from you, and this may be easier for someone who has a different set of assumptions from you. If you are seeking mainly support from your mentoring relationship, then it may important that you like and get on with your mentor. If you want to maximise learning, however, you might be better to look for someone very different. Studies of how people learn show that the similarity of personality and background, which often attracts people to one another, provides relatively little opportunity for learning.

If you would like to know more about Mentoring, including help with finding a Mentor, please email

Top tips for being mentored

Being mentored can help you develop your career, skills and expertise. Following these top tips will help you to ensure that your approach to being mentored is successful.

Meet Your Mentor

Aim to have an informal meeting with your potential mentor before officially beginning the mentoring relationship. Prepare some questions for this meeting to help you determine whether you and the mentor are right for one another. Depending on your needs and objectives, these questions might relate to the mentor’s skills, background or experience. After this meeting determine whether you feel you and the mentor are a good match.

Make Time for Mentoring

Once you have engaged in a mentoring relationship, you should give your mentoring session’s high priority. When a mentoring session has been booked, you should avoid changing the appointment unless you absolutely have to. Equally, when you are in a mentoring session, you should give the mentor your full attention. Making sure you are not distracted will help you get maximum benefit from your conversations with your mentor, and will demonstrate your commitment to the mentoring relationship.

Set the Agenda

Perhaps there is a particular skill you would like them to help you develop or maybe you would like them to help you tap into their network. While this is something you may have established in your initial meeting with your mentor, it is good practice to reiterate this at the start of the first formal mentoring session. Once the relationship is under way, it is important to take some time before each mentoring session to consider what you would like to discuss, and what you want to achieve from your conversation with your mentor.

Be Open and Honest

Mentoring conversations can only be truly effective when the mentee is prepared to share information willingly and openly with their mentor. It is important that you are as honest as possible when responding to your mentor’s questions, comments and insights. Don’t worry about how long it takes you to formulate and articulate your thoughts; your mentor will want you to take the time you need to genuinely reflect on what they have said and to respond honestly.

Adapt, Don’t Adopt!

While your mentor is likely to share some of their experiences with you, it is important to use this as a guide, rather than a template, for how you should act. What worked particularly well for your mentor in a certain situation may not work as well for you. Equally, you shouldn’t reject ideas just because they didn’t work for your mentor. A good mentor should be able to help you develop your own solutions by listening carefully, asking relevant questions and providing constructive feedback.

Ask Your Mentor Questions

During your conversations, you may wish to ask your mentor questions about their experiences. This might be to understand why they took a certain action, or to learn the outcome of a decision they made. If these questions are relevant to your conversation, it is perfectly acceptable for you to ask them, as long as you do so in a polite and respectful manner. Your mentor may find these questions thought-provoking or even challenging, but should be able to provide you with an honest answer after engaging in some self-reflection.

Identify and Action Next Steps

At the end of each mentoring session, you and your mentor may agree some next steps for you to action (e.g. practising a new skill or technique at work). It is important that both you and your mentor agree that these next steps are appropriate, realistic and achievable. If your mentor makes a suggestion you don’t feel is feasible or relevant, you should be honest about this and explore some more appropriate alternatives. You should always aim to complete your next actions within the agreed timeframe and to discuss the outcomes you achieved and lessons you learned.

Review Progress

As the mentoring relationship moves forward it is important to review your progress against the objectives you first set. Your mentor may provide you with some tools or individual exercises to help you do this. Alternatively, you may find it helpful to spend some time before your mentoring session reviewing your own progress and making a note of the areas you still feel need work. Feeding this back to your mentor at the start of your next session will help you both keep the relationship on track and ensure that your objectives are being met.

About the contributor:

Karen FitzgibbonKaren Fitzgibbon – is Senior HR Advisor at Cardiff University, in the College of Biomedical & Life Sciences. She has been a part of the University for over 8 years after making the break from the private sector to be a part of something much bigger and better. Karen is a great believer in the power of coaching and mentoring, after all what would have become of Frodo without Gandalf?

Karen can also be found at:

Twitter – @KarenCdf

LinkedIn –


Adapted from The Mentoring Manual (2014) by J. Starr, and Mentoring Skills Workbook (2015) by G. Williams




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