The Training Page


The Synergistic Role of Secondary Mentoring


Scientists at all levels need mentoring to acquire expertise for their field of research, develop communication and other skills, and expand their network. Typically, the principal investigator (PI) is thought of as the mentor in most scientific relationships. However, PIs usually have multiple mentees and a wide range of responsibilities that limit their availability to focus on all aspects of each person’s scientific and career development. For this reason, trainees may benefit from additional or secondary mentors who can provide training in their chosen career path and expand their professional network.

Several institutes have successful secondary mentoring—sometimes called co-mentoring programs—including the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which has four; the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disease (NIDDK); the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA); and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

We conducted a survey of these programs, interviewed some of the participants, and learned that having multiple mentors provides critical opportunities for trainees to increase their self-awareness and develop their professional identity. Secondary mentors represent different areas of expertise that complement the expertise of the trainee’s PI, provide insight into the trainees’ career paths, and help trainees assess their skills.

Independent Programs

For trainees interested in establishing secondary mentoring relationships on their own, here are some tips:

Define your goals: Determine whether you want to acquire experience with a new technique; access expertise in a related field; want insight into a specific career path; or learn how to improve or optimize your work-life balance. It may help to complete a self-assessment and career-development plan to pinpoint those issues that require additional training or mentoring.

Evaluate whether it’s your PI or other mentors who can best provide mentoring for the skills you want to build.

Identify potential mentors: Look for collaborators, members of affinity groups, professionals in your field of interest, or the National Research Mentoring Network ( to identify potential mentors who have expertise in your area of interest.

Establish contact: Ask a colleague or your PI for an introduction, introduce yourself at a conference or after a seminar, or send a cold-call e-mail. A cold-call e-mail should take less than a minute to read and have three parts: a brief introduction; a short explanation of why you are contacting them; and a request for a meeting or phone call (include potential dates and times).

The first meeting should be an informational interview. Research your contact’s background beforehand so that you can ask targeted questions. Prepare questions related to your goal or intended career path. You will be expected to drive the conversation, so the more prepared you are before the meeting, the more you will gain from it.

After the first meeting: Determine whether all of your questions were answered and/or if you would benefit from additional meetings, what else you would like to learn from your contact, whether you feel inspired, and how comfortable you felt discussing your career and goals with your contact. Write a thank-you note or an e-mail and ask for a second meeting if appropriate.

Decide if you want an informal or formal mentoring relationship: Before your second meeting, you need to decide whether you want an informal or formal mentoring relationship. For informal relationships, you do not need to broach the topic of mentoring and can set up meetings as needed. For formal mentoring relationships, you should ask whether the potential mentor could advise you in a specific area and lay out your needs (frequency of meetings, accessibility of mentor, etc.). Do not be discouraged if a potential mentor does not have sufficient time to put toward such a relationship or redirects you to someone else who may be better suited to mentor you.

After you find a mentor: Make sure to keep in touch and set up meetings as needed. Typically, the mentee drives the relationship, especially at the beginning. At each meeting, have plenty of questions and be prepared to discuss your progress, problems you are facing in reaching your goal, and trepidations you may have about your future prospects or ability to reach your career or science goal. As you continue to develop your mentoring relationship, try to give back by sharing your skills and expertise with your mentor. Something as simple as sharing a journal article or notes from a conference or seminar can show that you are paying attention to what interests them.

We are confident that trainees would benefit from having additional mentors. If institutes and centers could provide the legitimacy for such relationships, by either starting formal programs or adding a mentoring section to individual-development plans, trainees would have a framework for incorporating these experiences into their training at the NIH.

Secondary Mentoring Programs at NIH

National Cancer Institute secondary mentoring programs

Career Mentoring Advantage Program (CMAP): CMAP is NCI’s internal, year-long, facilitated mentoring program that promotes sharing and teaching of critical skills and institutional knowledge, and nurtures the professional growth of its employees. It is open to all GS levels. CMAP does not provide a list of ready-made mentors but instead asks participants to do self-reflection exercises aimed at identifying the goals of the mentoring partnership and potential mentors. The program offers a series of monthly self- and career-development workshops. CMAP alum Julia Shaw (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases NIAID), who wanted to move into a science administrator role after her postdoc, established a mentoring relationship with Carole Heilman, who served as director of NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Disease until her retirement in February. Heilman invited her to attend precouncil meetings, introduced her to staff to grow her network, encouraged her to engage in informational interviews, and guided her in the application process for her current position as a program officer in NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation. For these reasons and many others, Shaw highly recommends this program to other trainees. For more information, go to (NCI access only)

Sallie Rosen Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellowship for Woman Scientists in Cancer Research(SRK): Successful women from industry, government, and academia serve as secondary mentors. The fellows are introduced to potential mentors at an icebreaker event and then each selects someone she can relate to best in personality and background. Some fellows even develop a long-term relationship with their secondary mentor. Because secondary mentors are not directly involved in the fellows’ research, it becomes easier for the fellows to talk and share their experience as well as to seek out advice from them. For more information, go to the March-April 2015 issue of the NIH Catalyst ( or to

Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG) Fellowship Program: This program provides a mentoring program similar to a graduate student’s thesis committee. Due to the nature of their studies, many within DCEG tend to form collaborations within their subgroup and/or with members of multiple subgroups. Therefore, most fellows typically have multiple mentors. If desired by the fellow and supported by their PI, a formalized mentoring committee of three or four PIs can be assembled to assess the fellow’s progress every six months. There isn’t a great deal of oversight over these committees, allowing for flexibility. Mentoring in this program tends to be mainly research-driven; however, some committees are more career-focused. For more information, go to

Diversity Career Development Program (DCDP): NCI’s DCDP seeks to provide postdoctoral trainees with the tools necessary to develop as leaders in academic independent research careers. The program encourages nominations of candidates from under-represented groups, individuals with disabilities, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program focuses on confronting limiting thoughts, strategies for having difficult conversations, and building a strong network through a combination of mentoring (referred to as co-mentoring), coaching, and workshops. The trainees begin by identifying their talents and developing their vision of their independent research careers. The program is great, according to current participant Anna Serquiña. Although the process of finding a co-mentor was stressful, once she found one, the outcome has been a wonderful learning experience. Having a co-mentor is important because you get to hear a different perspective, Serquiña said. “It’s like opening a door to unexplored possibilities.” She noted that the biggest benefit of having a co-mentor is that they get to talk about her own opinion and anything about her career or career transitions outside the context of her current work. Her co-mentor has advised her to always keep an open mind for other possibilities and not to self-select out of a career track. Another participant, Kerrie Marie, noted that her co-mentor has provided insights related to family, balancing work and life, and women in science; helped her understand what a realistic timeline and expectations should be; and advised her on what she needs to achieve to better prepare for her future career. For more information about the program, go to

National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disease (NIDDK): NIDDK initiated a secondary-mentoring resource in 2016 in response to many fellows reporting that they could not discuss their career plans with their supervisor. The goal of the program is to provide easy access to additional mentors who can meet with postdocs once a month to discuss their scientific or career goals. Currently, the program has two mentors, Connie Noguchi and Harris Bernstein, who are available once a month and have worked with almost 20 NIDDK fellows. One former fellow, Nermi Parrow, wanted to transition from a medical lab to academia. She worked with Noguchi to learn how to bridge the gap between clinical research and basic science. The best part of the program, Parrow said, is that it’s “an open opportunity to meet with other investigators and get their take on your career and discuss your science.” This type of opportunity is particularly useful to fellows who are not accustomed to reaching out and networking with senior scientists or to being proactive about career development. Parrow is now at St. Louis University (St. Louis).

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) already have secondary mentoring as a requirement on all fellows Individual Development Plans (IDPs). NIDA has fellows complete their IDPs upon arrival, at which time they must identify a secondary mentor. In contrast, NIEHS offers yearly seminars about IDPs, including tips for identifying a secondary mentor, and asks fellows to identify a secondary mentor within the first year of arriving at NIEHS.

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI): NHGRI’s Social Behavioral Research Branch requires postdoctoral fellows to select a mentoring committee consisting of three to four mentors including the fellow’s supervisor, at least one member from outside NIH, and often a member from within the branch. Laura Koehly, branch chief, asks her fellows to envision their niche within the field and to look for aspects in committee members that are not within their PI’s expertise. The committee meets twice a year to assess the fellow’s professional development and progress.


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