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How the pandemic widened scientists' mentoring networks

A person in a boat throws a net to cast for fish in a lake.

Credit: Arthit Somsakul/Getty

Julie Gould finds out how Zoom will change mentoring in a post-pandemic world.

In the final episode of this seven-part series about mentoring, Ruth Gotian and Christine Pfund outline their hopes for post-pandemic mentoring and the changing nature of other collaborative relationships in scientific research.

As lockdowns took hold and mentoring sessions went online, many conversations moved beyond workplace topics and led to honest exchanges about work-life balance for the first time, they say.

The most successful relationships were ones where mentors led by example by showing their own vulnerabilities as they juggled home schooling, running labs, and trying to publish, they add.

“The pandemic opened an opportunity for us to talk about what’s happening in our home life in a way that had never happened before,” says Pfund, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gotian, chief learning officer and assistant professor of education in anaesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, anticipates a future where early career researchers cast their net more widely when selecting mentors.

“I think the pool of mentors has expanded exponentially, because we can easily and comfortably look outside of our department, outside of our institution and outside of our industry. No longer do we have to meet in person,” she says.



Julie Gould finds out how Zoom will change mentoring in a post-pandemic world.

Julie Gould: 00.10

Hello, I'm Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to our series all about mentoring.For this final episode of this seven-part series on mentoring, I wanted to find out how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed mentoring forever.

The pandemic flipped many lives upside down. And for the last two years (maybe a bit more) we didn't experience things the same, but we did experience the same thing. And mentoring has been a key part to helping us cope through all the challenges that we faced.

Some people were at home, not able to continue their normal working routines in the lab or the office. Others were shifted to working on the front line and helping with the COVID-19 efforts.

And sadly, some had to shift careers altogether. But whatever the situation that you were in, there was that added cognitive load that everybody had to deal with.

So to figure out how mentoring relationships were shifted so that people could help each other through this difficult time, and how mentoring has changed for the future, I spoke with Ruth Gotian, Assistant Professor of Education at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Christine Pfund, the director of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research. Now in all my interviews for this particular series about mentoring, I've always started the conversation by asking what mentoring is. And as I've learned over the weeks and months, mentoring is different for everybody. And this is no exception. So this chat starts with me asking Christine Pfund, or Chris, what mentoring is.

Christine Pfund: 2:01

A great question. And actually, I'm going to turn it a bit on its head and suggest that instead of the word mentoring, we might even use the word mentorship.

And I'll tell you why.

So there have been many, many definitions of mentoring. And they are across the gamut. And some of the recent work that I have the privilege of being part of included a report from the National Academies of Science and engineering and Math. Medicine, sorry!

And that group of folks that put that report together spent two years working in looking at the literature on mentoring, and came up with a definition for what we termed mentorship.

And the reason we moved from mentoring to mentorship is that mentoring puts all of the focus on the mentor. And we wanted to highlight that in any mentoring relationship, there are two people. Many times there's more. There are mentoring networks as well. But they've been in a network, it's many didactic relationships. And we want to elevate that.

And so we define mentorship as a professional working alliance. And I love that term working alliance, in which individuals work together over time to support each other's personal and professional growth. And they do that through two kinds of, really, areas of support. One is career support. And the other is psychosocial support.

Julie Gould: 03:33

Ruth, have you got anything to add to that? Are you in the mentorship camp as well? Are you still with the mentoring side of things?

Ruth Gotian: 03:39

It's absolutely….it's really the foundation of mentoring is actually the relationship. And in any relationship it really is bi-directional.

And I think the true mentoring relationships, you often forget who is the mentor and who is the mentee, because each one is learning, and each one is teaching, and each one is believing in the other more than they believe in themselves.

And that can really come from anyone at any level in any industry. So if you were to ask me what my definition is, it's to find not just one, but a team of people who believe in you and your work, and the opportunity and the impact it can have, more than you believe in yourself. And they help bring that to fruition.

Julie Gould: 04:30

To find people who believe more in you than you believe in yourself. How do you do that? How do you find that sort of group of people? That must be quite difficult?

Ruth Gotian: 04:42

Well, I think that's where the organic relationships are so pivotal, is that you need to find people who you connect with, and you have the synergy with.

And just think of who your friends are, right?

Your friends are people who believe in you. So if your friends believe in you, your mentors certainly should. Because as Chris said, these are people who help you with your career. And they help you with the psychosocial support, which is Dr. Kathy Krams’ seminal work.

So you need to find people who can do that. And trust me, everyone has espeicially in science, there are isolating days, there are those days that nothing works, there are days you want to throw in the towel.

And those are the days that your mentor can really, really help you. Because they help you put things in perspective, they show you that whatever challenge you're facing is only temporary. They put it in the context of the bigger picture. And they believe in you so much that they help you strategize how to get up out of the funk.

Julie Gould: 5.15

Okay, so over the last year and a half, coming close to two years now, people have had a pretty tough time, and some worse than others. It's been an unfortunate side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And so support in many formats has been needed, but has also been really difficult because of the lack of social contact and, you know, keeping friends, family and colleagues at bay, to keep everybody safe. So how, in your views, has mentoring been affected by the pandemic?

And Ruth,because of your answer just now, I'm going to go to you first because you were so much about, you know, pulling people out of the funk, like. Maybe people needed that during the pandemic, but it wasn't so readily available, or it wasn't so obvious that people were in that position that they needed that help. So how do you think the pandemic really affected mentoring?

Ruth Gotian: 06:50I think this was the time that the true mentoring that I think really thrived during the pandemic, are the ones that were grounded in empathy. Where they could really understand and relate to the cognitive load and the weight of what is happening to the mentee, the mentor, everyone around them, and how they're able to balance everything, because every single person was impacted in some way.

And when you can align on the empathy piece, I think, and understand that sometimes you need to shift that “to do” list.

And really, at the beginning, I actually said, “Lower the expectations.”

This was not a time to actually work on your brilliant grant, right? This was a time to just get through the hour, get through the day. And finding out the commonalities which were deeply rooted in empathy was really, really, the best way to do it.

And frankly, the mentors who succeeded are the ones who showed that they are also facing hardship in some way.

And those hardships can be different, because maybe instead, they have little children, or maybe they're caring for adult parents. Or maybe all of a sudden, they're homeschooling, while trying to run the lab, while trying to publish. Showing how they made the adjustments in their life actually showed their vulnerability. They were able to lead by example. And in essence, they gave their mentees permission to be vulnerable as well. They were leading by example.

Julie Gould: 08:29

Chris, have you got anything to add to that?

Christine Pfund: 08:31

I think Ruth said it beautifully. And I think that, for the relationships that were grounded in empathy, and had already allowed space for vulnerability, as she said, they actually had a moment to thrive.

And I would add that the relationships that didn't have that at their core, or that those skills weren't practiced, or there were mentors or mentees that didn't lean into that, it actually provided a really interesting opportunity for them to consider what it could be like if they did. Even if it was risky.

And because I think that the pandemic and above you know, really heightened focus on racialized violence, it caused a moment that made us reflect and go back to the humanity of what is at the core of mentorship, which is human relationships. That it was about people, not just the work we were doing together.

And we know from the research that mentoring relationships that really can solidify are grounded in what's known as deep similarities.

But what those deep similarities are can be a range of things. You know, they can be a demographic in nature, they can be lived experience. And we had a moment of shared deep similarity over the last almost two years.

We didn't experience things the same, but we were experiencing the same things. That created an opportunity to bring mentors and mentors together. And if they seize the opportunity, and actually think in a lot of relationships, it deepened them in a way that no one quite expected.

And so I actually am really hopeful that again, it isn't the lived experience of every mentor and mentee. There were certainly mentors and mentees that were so overwhelmed by what was going on, they couldn't put energy into their relationships.

And that is totally understandable. But there were also relationships that found a whole other way of being because of the shared experience.

Julie Gould: 10:34

How do you build this sort of relationship with someone, that deep connection with them, in order for you to be able to flourish and thrive and support each other?

Especially, you know, should another pandemic be around the corner? Chris, you go first on this one?

Christine Pfund: 10:47

Yeah. So I mean, I think that at the heart of any relationship (and mentoring relationships are no different) is trust and understanding and as we said, empathy.

And so I think that in some cases, people were probably looking for new mentors in the current context, if certain needs weren't being fulfilled. That actually I think, was quite challenging because I know even for myself, I was a little I had to really think about taking on new mentees, because I was so stretched, and my own cognitive and emotional and professional work that I didn't want to say yes, if I couldn't fulfill that.

But I think in the existing relationships, what was really interesting is that even if it wasn't grounded in great trust, or practice, there were things that opened up those opportunities to reset the baseline of the relationship.

So, for example, we heard so many mentors and mentees say, “Because we were meeting over Zoom, it opened an opportunity for us to talk about what's happening in our home life in a way that had never happened before.” And suddenly, it was like, “Oh, I wasn't thinking about everything you had to navigate at home, when I was asking you to do these 17 tasks. Let's talk about how you're managing that.”

And that wasn't just the mentee, that was the mentor. Those types of understanding of what people who they are, what they value, what they navigate, they build the base of trust in the relationship. And that trusting base and that understanding, we know from lots of literature, that has huge implications, actually, I'm things that are on the other end of the spectrum, which are career decision, productivity, satisfaction.

And so while they may seem like wow those are the really personal things, we know how deeply they are connected to motivation, and to ultimate productivity. And of course, this is Ruth’s area of focus. So I'll just hand it to her here, because this is what she studies.

Ruth Gotian: 12:49

But you're right. Chris hit the nail on the head. People like to work with people who they know, like, and trust. And they don't need to be like us. That is definitely one of the similarities. But I think a lot of us have these new internet friends that came up during the pandemic. People we've actually never met in person.

But we've been on so many endless hours of Zooms with them that we feel like we know them. And I know of countless collaborations that have started from people who have never even met each other in person, including Chris and myself.

Perfect example. It really created that opportunity for people to connect at a different level. And when people know, like and trust each other, and they tap into a shared intrinsic motivation, something that fuels them from the inside, even if it's not overlapping perfectly.

But there is that shared experience there. That just creates just these new beautiful partnerships of mentorships and collaborations and, and endless opportunities.

Julie Gould: 14:04

Okay, so tell me about your own example then, given that you have started it. I assume it started a new collaboration during the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020-2021. How did that go? How did it start? Like how did you get all this together in such a weird time?

Ruth Gotian: 14:24

It is a funny story.

Christine Pfund: 14.30

It's rooted in a mistake that I made.

Ruth Gotian: 14:34

And, and Nature played a part actually, in this matchmaking. So, early in the pandemic, right before it started, my dad was in the hospital. And I was at his bedside 18 hours a day. And when things are so out of control, I need to be able to focus on something I can control. And writing to me is that outlet.

And the pandemic started and the first COVID patients were brought in down the hall. And I knew immediately mentoring would have to shift. And at my dad's bedside at the hospital, I penned the article on mentoring during COVID. And that was the Nature article that came early in the pandemic. I think it was published in April 2020.

And that article really sort of got to life on its own because it gave people a template for how to mentor during this, this new crazy time that we couldn't understand and wrap our heads around.

Christine Pfund: 15:41

So at the same time, but unbeknownst to myself and my collaborators on a second article, we, because we work in mentorship, and we work in mentorship interventions, we were getting inundated with emails saying, “How do I mentor in the context of COVID? Can you create a talk or something on this.”

And the only thing out there was what Ruth had written. And it should be this.

And so we started working on an article that took much longer, it actually was finished around the same time, because we wanted to get something out fast. But it took a long time to get it published. And so it was an article that said, “Listen, I know everyone's feeling panic, like you have to throw out everything you know about how mentorship works.”

You don't. The core actions in the core important elements of mentorship are the same but use this as an opportunity to realign your relationships and reimagine them.

And so we had an article that was “reassess, realign and reimagine.” And we basically took all we knew about mentorship. And we basically said, “just ask the questions differently in this context. “

But then we also raised up the need to really focus on the psychosocial elements of your relationship. You could not be a mentor, or mentee and go like, “We're only going to focus on the work.”

That is so not genuine of what people were living. And so to lean into that even if it was a place of discomfort and why that's important. So of course, when we were writing the article, we wanted to reference the work that was out there on anybody who had written about mentoring, relationships, and COVID.

And of course, Ruth was the one. We, of course, referenced her article. And in doing so, despite all of our editing, I misspelled her name in the reference section!

And so Ruth reached out to me and said, “Oh, my gosh, thank you for acknowledging our work. And hey, by the way, mis-spelled in the bibliography, and of course, I was horrified how it went through rounds of editing. No one caught it. Of course, they corrected it immediately online.

And by the way, we've both written on this. She said, “I've been watching your work.” I'm like, “Oh, my gosh, I've been watching yours. She's like, we should do something together.” And so we did. So what did you do? What have you been doing?

Juile Gould: 18:02

So that was the second Nature paper.

I've got it up in front of me right now. And as you were saying, the words reassess, realign, and then I was looking for the word reimagined. But that's not the next title. The next title is actually break goals down into chunks. So I was looking for that. So that's really cool.

Ruth Gotian: 18:19

One thing I want to tell you, Julie, I thought, I thought five times before reaching out to Chris, about the error because I didn't want to highlight it. And I was such a fan girl of her work that I, you know, there was some trepidation.

And then I was like, “Well, my name is spelled wrong, I have to.” And then I said, you know, maybe, you know, one thing that the pandemic taught me is, you know, there's a silver lining in everything. So I said, “Well, maybe we can actually get to chat.” And I'll get to chat with the great Chris Pfund. So we did.

And then we thought that we had that alignment. And that then led to that second Nature article on mentoring during year two of COVID, which is really mentorship during transitions. And then that article led to many other things as well. So we have something brewing here.

Julie Gould: 19:17

Nice. I like it. I'm so glad to be a part of it. Because my last question for you is mentoring in the future, pandemics or no. You know, this gets like part three of your series.

So what is the future of mentoring gonna look like? You know, how much of what you've already learned during the last two years is going to be carried forward, how much of what we've previously done is going to be left behind and we're not going to do again?I'm going to go to you first, Chris, and then Ruth you can add to that one afterwards.

Christine Pfund: 19:50I'm actually incredibly hopeful, I think at this point about several linings. I think that COVID-19 In the height of heightened racialized violence, and the focus on that, it broke some of the patterns in mentorship. It forced a reckoning. What are these relationships? And what point are they serving? And what are they not serving? And where are they putting bounds around them that are actually limiting?

And it forces everyone to kind of confront them. Not everyone is there.

But I don't think we can go back, I don't think you can go back now and say like, “Oh, well, now we're not in a pandemic wave. So let's not focus on the humanity in the relationship. We're never going back. And that's a good thing. It's going to take people learning skills, finding new comfort, figuring out what their professional personal boundaries are, and how to talk about that differently. But I am more hopeful about mentoring relationships now than I think I was two years ago. And it took something really big to shake it up at this scale. And as painful as it has been, from loss of life to just mental health, to deep sadness, there is a silver lining here that made us look at relationships differently again.

Julie Gould: 21:10

Ruth, what sort of changes do you see coming to mentoring over the next few years over the next decades, when it comes to you know, working within academia, but also outside of academia? What are the changes that you're going to see?

Ruth Gotian: 21:23

I actually see and this is actually something that I noticed from the early days of the pandemic was that the communication tools that we are using, have completely been altered.

No longer do we have to meet in person. No longer do we need to align schedules that just don't ever align. No longer do they need to be synchronous, the mentoring in the conversations. They could happen in other ways they can happen in different parts of the world.

So I think the pool of mentors has expanded exponentially, because we can easily and comfortably look outside of our department, outside of our institution and outside of our industry.

I also think for women in particular, this was a an issue during the #MeToo era, when, especially when it started, how are men in senior roles supposed to mentor women and becomes awkward and to keep the door open? And when do you do it? And do you have meals, you don't have meals? That's off the table. Because you can have those mentoring conversations over Zoom. So it creates new opportunities for people who were too often marginalized.

Julie Gould: 22:48

So Chris, I want to ask you then based on what Ruth has just said, you know, the fact that there is a new infinite possibilities, infinite pool of people that you could have as mentors.

How do you find the right mentor for you if that pool is just so much bigger? Like, where do you go? Like, I know, there's LinkedIn, but you were talking earlier in our conversations about these deep connections, then trust that you build with people.

And it's not so easy to build that connection in a digital way? Or maybe I'm wrong. What do you think?

Christine Pfund: 23:18

Yeah, well, I'll take the second part of what you just said first. I actually agree with Ruth. And I know this is not universal. So I will say, I actually think that folks, including myself, are coming around to understand that you can form deep connections in a virtual space. I think our younger generation have not met for a while. I think about my own adult children. Some of their dearest friends they have never met. They are online every week with them, they share everything with them, they just have never shared a space with them outside the virtual realm.

I think for folks, um, you know, I'll say of our generation that seems unthinkable. I think COVID 19 forced us to consider it was possible and that they weren't just pulling our leg that it actually could happen.

So I do think it's possible and then that opens up a world of opportunity. And I know not everyone is a believer in that. I know not everyone is comfortable. I am an extrovert and I love being in the same room with people and I miss it desperately. But I can have deep relationships. I mean, I can't believe like you know, Ruth and I didn't ever talk to him a year ago and now I feel like I could reach out at a moment's notice and say, “Hey, can I talk to you?”

And we would have never even met and we have yet so much to learn about each other but what we've already connected on. So I think in the first part about the stance is I think for mentees in particular if you see yourself in that role, whatever career stage you are, what is a bit daunting is about how to ask someone to be a mentor. And I just actually was giving a session a couple days ago, and really tending to this.

And I think that what we really want to encourage folks to do is to think about what they need. And then we have lots of ways to do that. So what they ask isn't, “Will you be my mentor?” which feels like, “Hey, will you be my everything?” And it's more specific, so the ask can be, “Would you be willing to mentor me, for example, in some of my current career exploration, as I decide what I want to do next?” That ask is bounded. Now it could turn out that you end up being in a relationship with that person for 10 years. But it doesn't have to be. It also can be a short mentorship engagement that is focused on a specific thing. Now, when you go in the world, and you ask that and someone says, “Oh, I share your interest in that career path, I'd be happy to talk to you about that.” So we're working a lot with helping folks, especially junior folks, not feel the daunting task, which is daunting to say, “Will you be my mentor?” But to be more specific about the role? They're asking someone to play? Will you help motivate me? Will you help pick me up off the ground when I feel like nothing's working? Will you help me write a paper?

Those are concrete asks, and then mentors can lean into that space in a different way. So I think that the evolution of asking specifically changes the ask and it changes the bar, so people can go out and go, would anyone be willing to help me on this? Here's some things to know about me. And it's pretty amazing what people are willing to do if they know what they're agreeing to.Ruth Gotian: 26:42

Okay I agree with that. Because you ask someone to be your friend. Why would you ask somebody to be your mentor? You just ask them for their perspective on something, ask them for their help on something specific. And then you're usually going to get an agreeable answer.Julie Gould: 26:58

So yeah, maybe that's something to think about is you know, how old were you the last time you said to someone, “Will you be my friend?”Christine Pfund: 27:05

Right? Would you ask us like, would you like to take a walk? Can we have a phone call? Can we so ease in and then you can start to use all the lenses to assess, this is someone that I want to work with, in this capacity? We do a lot of mentoring for what? Yeah, it's not just mentoring. Mentoring, for what purpose? We have to enter into relationships, knowing what they're for. And I think this has been part of the challenge is that people entered into mentoring relationships with no defined roles.

And so it then became expected to be everything, and no single relationship can be everything. And then people got disappointed that it wasn't everything. And people got frustrated that certain roles weren't being served, but they never talked about it. And those are such fixable things in relationships.

Julie Gould: 27:53

Ruth, any final thoughts from you before I close this?

Ruth Gotian: 27:57

I think mentorship is something that's growing and evolving, just like the mentors and mentees are growing and evolving. And the relationship grows and evolves with it. So I think being open to those changes and open to the transitions, and aware that they will occur, I think will just strengthen that relationship.

Julie Gould: 28:18

Chris, Ruth, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking to both of you about mentoring, the pandemic and the future of what is to come for mentoring. I've really enjoyed it. And thank you both very, very much.

Ruth Gotian: 28.24

Thank you.

Christine Pfund: 28.26

Thank you.

Julie Gould: 28:30

A big thank you must go to all of those who I spoke to for this series. And of course, thanks to you for listening.


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