This is part of a series of blog posts explaining our push for centering mentoring in academia. We are organizing a meeting in Chicago in June 2019 to take action – you can learn more about the effort here.

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This is a guest post by a member of the FoR Board of Directors, Dr. Jack Nicoludis.


Despite diversity initiatives throughout the biomedical research enterprise, from institutions to funding agencies, there is still a lack of diversity in academia, with the least amount of diversity in the highest positions. While enrollment in PhD programs by underrepresented minority (URM) students has increased significantly (from 2.5 to 9% of the total population of graduate students in basic sciences from 1980 to 2014), URM assistant faculty have grown only moderately (3.9% to 5.8%) (Gibbs et al., 2014). In fact, Gibbs et al. (2014) found, using a model of the pathway from graduate student to faculty, that the percentage of URM graduate students is statistically uncoupled from the URM hiring rate. Here I will discuss how improving mentoring may be a way to increase diversity in academia.


Within the corporate world, there is also a problem retaining and promoting URM workers (Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). Many measures to combat workplace discrimination, such as mandatory diversity trainings, fail to increase diversity and in some cases even show regression in diversity. Even more poignantly, when grievance systems fail to seriously investigate claims, workers stop speaking up and companies become oblivious to discrimination problems. In this example we can see a clear parallel to a major discrimination issue in academia: the failure of Title IX to appropriately investigate claims of sexual harassment in academia may explain why universities take so long to respond to these claims and why women often decide to keep their harassment experiences to themselves.


While many of these measures fail to increase workplace diversity, other methods have had success (Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). One such example is mentoring. Formal mentoring programs, where neither the mentor or mentee is fully responsible to initiating the relationship, can promote a protégé effect, with the mentor promoting the success of the mentee. While academia currently has formal mentoring, the variability in these relationships can obscure potential bias.


Of course, the importance of mentorship in academia has not been overlooked by academic study. And in fact, mentorship of diverse students has been explored explicitly (Sedlacek et al. 2007). The importance of understanding cultural expectations and values of the mentor and mentee is key to a productive mentoring relationship. We often expect URM faculty to serve as mentors to URM students, which has had success in increasing female representation in STEM (McCollum, 2015), but clearly creates an undue burden on URM faculty. With a lack of URM faculty, it is often difficult for URM students to even find a representative faculty to serve as a role model. Thus, all faculty have a responsibility to learn the cultural expectations and values of URM students if they seek to increase diversity in academia. However, forced diversity training often results in backlash and little improvement to institutional diversity (Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). Even on Twitter, we see faculty resist requiring a commitment to diversity (Flier, 2018). Faculty must themselves be committed to improving diversity for these efforts to be successful.


In order to mentor URM students effectively and increase diversity of the academic professoriate, we need more faculty to show interest in mentoring URM students and to provide tools for them to understand the cultural expectations and values of URM students. We hope our effort to center mentoring at the heart of academia can highlight the importance of mentoring to the success of the biomedical research enterprise and provide tools for institutions to promote good mentorship.



Dobbin and Kalev (2016). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review. July-August: 52-60.


Flier, Jeffrey.


Gibbs, K.D., Basson, J., Xierali, I.M., Broniatowski, D.A. (2014) Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US. eLife, 5: e21393.


McCollum, L. (2015, April, 12) The Importance of Mentoring to Increase Diversity in STEM. Inside Higher Education.


Sedlacek, W. E., Benjamin, E., Schlosser, L. Z., & Sheu, H. B. (2007). Mentoring in academia: Considerations for diverse populations. In T. D. Allen & L. T. Eby (Eds.), The Blackwell handbook of mentoring: A multiple perspectives approach (pp. 259-280). Malden, MA: Blackwell.


Donate to our mentoring effort!