Form Your Own Peer Mentoring Group: A How-To Guide for Scientists

By Joanne Kamens

This is the fourth post in the Addgene Blog Mentoring for Scientists Series.

I have been thinking a lot about Mentoring for over 10 years. Many successful scientists describe having a “posse” of mentors as one key to their success. But how do you find these elusive teachers, supporters and advisors? I tried to start a more formal mentoring program at my company, but there weren't enough senior people willing to step up and be matched with the many interested mentees. So I experimented with a group mentoring format where 1 mentor met with a group of mentees to get more “bang for the buck”.

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her mentoring style.Peer mentoring circle

While working on this project, I read the book “Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists” by Ellen Daniell. In “Every Other Thursday,” Daniell describes a group of 7 women scientists who met every other Thursday for 25 years. They helped one another navigate career changes and overcome barriers by sharing broader perspectives and holding one another accountable for their development plans. They all found the support of the group to be intrinsic to their success. Their stories made it clear to me that, executed correctly, the group mentoring format could work wonders. 

I have now seen the formation of hundreds of mentoring groups through my work with the renowned Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Boston Chapter and the Massachusetts Association for Women in Science (AWIS) mentoring programs. The groups in these programs typically consist of 1-2 mentors and 3-5 mentees who meet together for an 8 month formal program. After the formal program ends, some 50% of these groups continue to meet regularly, providing ongoing support, advice and accountability for development goals. These programs also serve as a great first-time mentoring experience. They make mentoring less mysterious and train the participants in skills useful for future mentoring relationships.  

If you would like to start a group mentoring program at your organization, contact me! I can provide a step-by-step, how-to guide to get one started.

Advantages of the group mentoring format

  • Adding peer advice increases the diversity of input and perspectives

  • Provides a good mechanism for accountability that makes mentoring effective

  • Goal setting is easier with more perspectives contributing to the process

  • Senior people (of which there are never enough, especially in underrepresented groups) reach multiple mentees efficiently

  • Allows all group members to lead and learn at the same time

  • Broadens the network of the participants

  • Can be a lot of fun!

Form your own peer mentoring group

In my travels speaking to grad students and postdocs I have started to talk to trainees more about peer mentoring. They want to find mentors to help them develop their skills and to hold them accountable for their development plans. However, they find it awkward to ask someone for the time commitment of a formal mentoring relationship or there aren’t enough senior mentors available to go around. My advice has been to find 5 interested peers and form your own peer mentoring circle. In a Peer Mentoring Group all participants act as both mentors and mentees. Because the participants are at a similar development stage, they have a lot to learn from each other. Some have taken my advice and I recently heard from peer groups meeting at both the Fox Chase Cancer Center and Brandeis University.

5 easy steps to forming your own peer mentoring group

  1. Find 5-8 colleagues that you think might be interested and willing to commit to the group. The group can be one gender and career stage (e.g. all women, all men, all postdocs, all grad students) or mixed for one or both of these criteria. If you can, include people from different labs, departments or organizations as it brings a diversity of perspective. Sometimes it is helpful to find peers that share a similar direction or problem. For example, a group of people who are all interested in making a transition.

  2. Schedule your first meeting and get organized. Discuss your general areas of interest and what you want to cover during the year. Suggest that each person bring 3 topics and write them on a board to see which ones get the most hits. Commit to a meeting schedule and meet regularly no matter what, even if one person can’t make it. One of the biggest group mentoring predictors of success is actually managing to get together. If you all work at the same place, a 1-2 hour lunch on a regular schedule might work. If not, perhaps a 3 hour breakfast once a month. All participants must commit to making the meetings a scheduling priority (and last minute lab emergencies are no excuse). 

  3. Assign each meeting a leader from the group in a rotation. The leader for that meeting is responsible for choosing a topic and leading the discussion. This is a chance to practice leadership and communication skills. The leader also provides materials such as pre-reads, videos or exercises to be completed in preparation for the meeting or to be read or watched during the meeting.  Scientists do better with process, so don’t just get together and chat. Have an agenda and get everyone ready for the discussion with resources. One of the most common questions I get is, “What are we going to talk about?” There are an infinite number of ideas on the internet, but start by downloading my handy list of suggestions

  4. Get started. Have regular meetings. Experiment with the process. Have each person write a Development Plan. Set concrete goals with input from the group to make the plan better. Track your goal progress as a group. Practice your job talks for one another (trainees never get to present formally often enough) and give honest, critical feedback for improvement. Go to a science or career seminar together and meet to debrief on the topic (career) or presentation style (science). Have a potluck dinner. Invite guests from a lab, career or industry of interest  learn about their career paths and get their advice. Attend a local networking event together and help each other practice meeting people – compete for fastest to set up a coffee date or most cards collected. The next blog in this series will have more ideas on what to do once you are in a mentoring relationship. 

  5. Celebrate your successes and support each other as you transition to the next stage in your careers! Stay in touch…this group will be the core of your network for years to come.
Download Addgene's Mentoring for Scientists eBook

Are you involved in Peer Mentoring relationships? Comment below with ideas from your own mentoring group or with any questions about mentoring. Read the other posts in the series to get more advice on mentoring:


Topics: Science Careers, Mentoring for Scientists, Early Career Researcher

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