From Women in Toxicology SIG: How to Make a Long Distance Mentoring Relationship Work

By Kristina Chadwick, PhD, DABT and Jessica Sapiro, MS

Kristina (mentor) and Jessica (mentee) have participated in a long distance mentoring relationship for the past 3½ years after being paired through the SOT Mentor Match Program. Mentoring is a professional and personal development activity between a more experienced individual (mentor) and less experienced individual (mentee). From a real world "been there done that" perspective, a mentor helps guide a mentee in reaching his or her career goals and aspirations. Mentoring is a relationship sharing common traits with many other types of relationships (i.e., respect, vulnerability and establishment of trust, authenticity, and strong communication). This relationship is one that typically involves a long-term ongoing commitment and a genuine investment in the accomplishment of the desired goals and well-being of the other person.

This is different from an average networking contact that could be associated with introductions and communication as necessary. A mentor and mentee typically develop strong chemistry over time such that a real exchange of information becomes shared. In this relationship, both people have roles and responsibilities to fulfill, whereas, with a networking contact, no commitment is generally required. With the advancement of technology, mentoring meetings do not need to occur in person, although periodic face-to-face interaction is helpful in advancing the goals and strengthening the connection. The following tips are based on our experience that have contributed to making our relationship successful. 

  • Fully commit to the relationship: A successful mentoring relationship requires a small, but ongoing, commitment of time and effort from both the mentor and mentee. Both a mentor and mentee need to have a strong desire to make the relationship work and show it through actions (on time/engaged for phone calls, avoiding canceling meetings, following through on action items).
  •  Strong communication: Especially with mentoring from a distance, excellent verbal communication is essential. Without body language, it is impossible to visually read the other person, so keen listening skills are critical. During our first conversation, which was by phone, we mutually agreed upon the means and frequency of communication. Phone and email work well for our long distance communication, but other avenues such as Skype or chat rooms can work too. We talk on the phone approximately every 4–6 weeks (request initiated by Jessica, the mentee) and supplement with email when needed. But, we both make ourselves available if something comes up that needs to be discussed sooner.
  •  Trust: Of utmost importance to the mentoring relationship is trust. While much of the interaction tends to be routine and not especially sensitive in nature, it is important for the partners to feel that what is shared remains within the partnership. Discussion and advice can be better tailored when all the details and concerns are on the table; the participants need to trust each other to know that sensitive matters will not be shared outside of the relationship. The "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" philosophy applies well in a mentoring relationship.
  •  Take ownership of your mentoring relationship: As a mentee, you are seeking advice and input from your mentor so you need to take the lead in the relationship. Seek out a mentor (through the Mentor Match Program, your advisor, and/or manager). Once you have established a relationship make sure to keep it going—scheduling/requesting meetings is not the responsibility of the mentor but of the mentee. The mentee should be driving the relationship in the direction of where they would like advice and/or assistance. Some advisors and managers serve in a mentoring capacity for their students or subordinates. An "outside" mentor who does not have supervisory authority can provide a different perspective and help you clarify thoughts and aspirations. Although Jessica had specific goals for the relationship (some have been met and others still in progress), she has furthered her development in many additional ways as a result of asking questions, actively listening and reflecting, and making decisions and putting them into action.
  •  Do not be afraid to ask your mentor for help: Although your mentor is likely a very busy professional and may be very senior, they cannot help you if you do not ask. Mentors look forward to discussions with mentees and will give of themselves to motivated and determined mentees who want to learn and grow. It is normal to feel somewhat nervous and think that you are taking valuable time away from your mentor’s daily activities, but it will get easier over time.
  •  If at first it does not work, try again: Sometimes people just do not mesh, perhaps it is personality differences or lack of time commitment by the mentor to meet the needs of the mentee. Do not discard the whole idea of a mentor; try a different one or two. Likewise, the mentoring partnership is not a life-long commitment and can last for a few months or several years, but at some point the relationship will end. Some relationships are focused more on specific long term professional development goals while others are geared at a specific event (prelims, first job search, mid-career change, etc.). It is perfectly reasonable to have a fit-for-purpose mentor. You work together for a limited period of time and then go your separate ways. This does not mean you cannot still reach out to them on a less frequent basis to get their thoughts or start a new mentoring relationship with someone else based on your current needs. Overtime, in a strong mentoring relationship in which a deep connection may form, you will likely develop a strong amount of trust in your mentor and truly believe in the advice they share even if you feel some reservation as the action will take you out of your comfort zone. But, always remember to evaluate the advice and make your own decision.

Our mentoring relationship has been mutually beneficial for both of us; it is a two-way street.  I (Kristina) really enjoy mentoring, I strive to apply the learnings that I have gained through my education and career to help others. I like to think of it as "what would I have liked to know when I was in their shoes?" But I also learn from the mentees as well. What are their concerns, what does the future hold for a young scientist, how are their minds working? I find that mentoring helps me be both a better manager and mentee myself, as I too have a mentor. Some specifics in my (Jessica) growth through this relationship include enhancement of communication skills, strategies in working with challenging individuals, gaining a greater level of confidence, and developing thicker skin as a rising scientist. It has been a fun, rewarding, and enriching experience! We hope that all of you consider participating in a mentoring relationship as a mentor, mentee, or both. It is well worth your time and effort as the outcomes can be endless!

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