4 Formal Mentoring Programs: Characteristics, Benefits, and Outcomes

Rachel Arocho and Benjamin A. Johnson


In this chapter, we review the characteristics of mentoring that distinguish so-called formal from informal mentoring opportunities. Through this discussion, we provide a broad view of what could be formalized and how to distinguish these opportunities. We then turn to a discussion of the observed and anticipated benefits of formalized mentoring (and some benefits of mentoring broadly) and provide an argument for why mentoring, with all its recognized importance and impact at multiple levels, should not be left to chance. By formalizing mentoring opportunities and practices, to varying and customizable degrees, programs and institutions stand to distribute the benefits of such relationships more equitably and more effectively among their members and guard against the recognized risks of mentorship gone wrong. The benefits are clear to both mentees and mentors within formalized mentoring frameworks.

Correspondence and questions about this chapter should be sent to the first author: rachel.arocho@uvu.edu


We would like to acknowledge and thank David Law and Nora Dominguez for the conversations, ideas, and support that led to this chapter. As both mentoring experts and expert mentors, their influence is evident throughout this work.


Formal and informal mentoring experiences can benefit students, faculty, and staff, though universities tend to focus on the benefit to students or other mentees. Mentoring relationships can certainly exist between faculty members, between staff members, and between students (or any combination of these). Considering the emphasis on mentoring, faculty and staff may ask, what are the defining characteristics of mentoring programs and otherwise so-called formal mentoring opportunities? As faculty and staff more fully understand and plan their mentoring opportunities, or as program coordinators develop support services and resources for mentoring on a campus, mentors can help mentees acquire important skills to become more successful in higher education and in work. While informal mentoring can be extremely valuable, it can be very difficult to consistently make lasting impacts when potential mentors have so many other obligations. As Johnson (2017) argues, it is unrealistic to expect “harried and overtaxed” faculty to develop and carry out their own informal mentoring programs (p. 40). More significant for larger numbers of potential mentees are institutionally supported mentoring programs that formalize the roles of those involved and provide programs through which those being mentored can progress. Rather than leaving mentoring to chance, colleges and universities should create meaningful opportunities for mentoring within an established framework.

Mentoring experiences have lasting impacts on many levels. Individuals who participate in mentoring are likely to experience a wide variety of positive and beneficial outcomes (though the risk of negative outcomes of mentoring should be acknowledged, too), which will be described later. First, though, it can be useful to take a step back and look at the benefits of overall cultures of mentorship; why should an institution or program be interested in supporting mentoring activities and cultures in the first place? Perhaps even more importantly, when considering implementing formal mentoring programs: why add formality to a relationship that may flourish naturally without intervention? In other words, what outcomes of formal mentoring experiences justify the effort of formality?

Common Mentoring Characteristics

Chapter 1 in this handbook invokes the origin story of Homer’s The Odyssey and the initial use of the term “mentor” to describe someone who cultivates understanding or skills in another. While the mentoring process itself is ancient and predates The Odyssey, the popularization of the term dates from the early modern period, and it has especially risen to prominence in the last half-century (Dominguez, 2013).

According to Nora Dominguez (personal communication, August 15, 2022), mentoring opportunities, whether formal or informal, share the following characteristics:

  • A proximal connection
  • Common interest and a reason to work together
  • Affinity for another

These three characteristics may be expressed in different ways, but elements are found in each mentoring relationship. The proximal connection can be in the form of a shared space, perhaps working in the same department or classroom. As technology has developed, this could also be in the form of an online forum or project. Their common interest in a topic brings the two parties together, and then the relationship (affinity) can develop or struggle over time.

Faculty and staff who value mentoring will likely be drawn to mentor in both formal and informal situations, but there are some differences between formal and informal mentoring that are important to understand when choosing the types of mentoring to pursue. Perhaps the most important distinction of formal mentoring programs is the incorporation of a third party. Indeed, researchers note that third-party affiliation is the defining difference between formal and informal mentoring (Eby et al., 2008; Dominguez, personal communication, August 15, 2022). Often involved as some form of affiliation with university administration, this third party clearly affects the other characteristics of formal mentoring. Other significant differences between formal and informal mentoring programs may include the specificity of the content, the way the programs are structured, the culture within the program, and the reporting and funding needs. These characteristics merit a closer look.

Content – More typical of formal mentoring will be a specific expectation of curriculum to be shared. While in either type of mentoring, the focus may be on particular knowledge or discipline-based content, a formal mentoring experience more often has predetermined skills or knowledge those being mentored expect to acquire. This will be largely due to the structure of the program and the expectation by stakeholders that progress and goals will be reported by the end of the mentoring experience. That is not to say that content will not shift during the mentoring experience. It may simply be that formal mentoring programs will see less deviation outside of pre-arranged expectations of learning. This should hold true whether the mentoring experience is research- or program-focused and whether it is catered to faculty, staff, or students. Formal mentoring programs may also provide training or support to the mentors (Campbell, 2007) at a level not typical of informal mentoring.

Structure – To be sure, there are manifold mentoring organizational structures at universities, across or within departments, colleges, centers, or programs. There certainly is a “value of design” in a formal program, as the mentoring experience is set up in a way that will allow it to continue beyond the founding personnel. Successful formal mentoring programs that survive over time are created with specific structures, goals, and metrics (Chubin & Ward, 2009, p. 21). This structure should allow for a way to recruit both mentors and mentees and specify the boundaries, time expectations, and matching of mentors and mentees (Campbell, 2007). See Chapter 9 in this handbook for a discussion of matching, including Chapter 16. In sum, the formalized structure of the experience allows it to be sustained over time and provides some consistency of expectations among the mentors and mentees.

Culture – Every mentoring program has a culture with expectations of how much effort will be expended by any party, the way the parties will communicate, and how each will enter, sustain, and conclude their part in the program. Within formal mentoring programs, however, it is more likely that the culture will be affected by the structure of the program and the built-in reporting system. Formal programs will also usually have a specific target group of mentees, whether related to their area of study, their status as a minority population, or a specific need they share (Campbell, 2007). Another factor that may affect the culture of formal mentoring programs is the value placed on the program by department-, college-, and university-level administrators. Because a third party (often administration) is involved in formal mentoring, the third party’s priorities, values, and expectations cannot help but affect the culture of the program.

Reporting – Funds allocated to university mentoring programs are often contingent on reporting and results. Stakeholders wish to see and understand the impact of the mentoring program. Required reports may be a one-time event or based semesterly, annually, or seasonally. While reporting on the mentoring program will take more time and effort, this may also be an important opportunity to assess progress, change strategies as needed, and continue to improve program outcomes. The need for reporting can also be of benefit to new mentors joining mentoring programs. As success and improvements are documented over time, mentoring programs can achieve a more permanent status despite the fact that mentors, of necessity, must come and go in service opportunities. This leads to the continuity and stability of mentoring programs, ultimately benefiting mentees who engage in these opportunities.

To summarize, while formal and informal mentoring may share many common characteristics, formalizing a mentoring program promotes specific features. These include stability, more accountability and reporting, a culture more particularly affected by the priorities and emphases of stakeholders, and the potential for better continuity and maintenance of program identity over time. These characteristics ultimately allow mentoring experiences to be more beneficial to a higher number of mentees.

Purpose and Benefits of Formalizing Mentoring

Mentoring serves many purposes. For the individuals within the relationships, a significant number of benefits have been identified for those receiving mentoring and for those doing the mentoring (Dominguez, 2013; Johnson, 2017; also see Chapters 8 and 10 in this volume). However, an overall mentoring culture also serves an institution well, and by encouraging a healthy mentoring culture through formalized mentoring programs, an institution can harness these relationships and direct energies to the initiatives and outcomes that matter most (see Chapter 6 in this volume for more on gaining institutional buy-in and Chapter 8 for more on identifying outcomes).

It should go without saying that successful mentoring-style relationships can develop out of organic, unmitigated interaction—or “informal” mentoring in the context defined in this chapter. Typically, the term “informal” is utilized to highlight a satisfying mentoring experience compared to the term “formal.” Whether or not this is accurate really depends on the context. Informal collaborations with faculty and students, for example, in the hallway, at lunch, or at the office, are typically seen as positive. These microinteractions that extend beyond the classroom are seen as beneficial because of their informal, often personalized nature. Here, the appeal for informal mentoring resonates deeper than that of formal mentoring programs (Nottingham et al., 2017).

It is difficult, however, to make these informal mentoring experiences as impactful as we would like. For example, the ideal that mentoring new teachers “occurs naturally and with enthusiasm” has tended to be the exception; in reality, the mentoring of new teachers “tends to be irregular and short-lived” (Sherif Trask et al., 2009, p. 441). Without a third party (usually including funding or formal recognition) to assist with the mentoring experience, informal mentoring (even sometimes highly structured informal mentoring) may not be the best modality for many mentoring experiences. The power and key distinction of formal mentoring comes when a third party supports the experience through a formal recognition structure. From here, informal mentoring opportunities may occur but initially lack sufficient impetus to generate the mentoring experience on its own.

There is indeed evidence to suggest that formally and informally mentored individuals receive different levels of benefit, though both receive more advantages than nonmentored individuals (Chao et al., 1992; Eby et al., 2008). Informal mentoring among a workplace or educational institution can absolutely help to achieve the priorities of the institution. Nevertheless, by formalizing the creation and maintenance of mentoring relationships and by supporting, recognizing, and encouraging the continued application of mentorship among faculty, staff, and students, an institution can further enhance the effects of mentoring and spread the benefits more equitably among its members (Crisp et al., 2017). The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM (2019), highlights the way in which formalizing mentoring may more equitably distribute the benefits of mentoring and boost the overall ability of the institution to support its members and pursue its goals as well as support the overall diversification of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine). Indeed, given a history of less-than-encouraging results of some popular diversity-aimed initiatives (such as diversity training for diversifying managerial positions in business; Kalev et al., 2006), the (at least slight) positive results seen of mentoring for diversity in multiple areas might lead one to believe any mentoring is better than none. However, care should be taken when encouraging mentoring and particularly when formalizing it. Although not specific to higher education, a review of mentoring literature (Ehrich et al., 2004) in education studies (both alone and compared to medicine and business) suggests more benefits than risks to mentoring for the mentors, mentees, and organizations; though Ehrich and colleagues also highlight the considerations that must be kept in mind when planning to implement mentoring in any setting, including considerations of gender, race, and other identities that will play a role in the mentoring relationships.

One need not fear formalizing mentoring. Formalized mentoring does not refer to one specific type or model of mentoring, and it does not inherently mean that relationships will be robotic, forced, or less beneficial to those involved. In fact, the formalization of mentoring can be as small and simple as helping to match mentors to mentees (e.g., Bell & Treleaven, 2011; see Chapter 9 for more on matching processes) or could be as elaborate as facilitating not only the initial matching but also a proscribed list of activities, interactions, and goals (a variety of experiences is given in the case studies of this volume). Even when the intervention is minimal, however, the benefits of formalizing mentoring can be compelling, particularly by allowing for greater equity in the experiences of receiving mentorship and the benefits these relationships can bring (Crisp et al., 2017; NASEM, 2019; see Chapter 12 in this volume on mentoring for underrepresented populations). Underrepresented students, staff, and faculty may especially benefit from formalized mentorship experiences because they may have the chance to access relationships and resources that would be unavailable to them otherwise. For example, if an undergraduate student does not know to introduce themself to faculty, perhaps due to being the first of their family to attend college, they may miss out on mentoring opportunities from the beginning. Indeed, one of the expected benefits to institutions that formalize mentoring programs is the equitable support of minority students (such as described by Crisp, 2017; NASEM, 2019). For faculty (and postdoctoral trainees with goals to become faculty), receiving formalized mentoring may be one way to overcome gender gaps in research productivity and resulting promotions (Kalpazidou Schmidt & Faber, 2016). Faculty and staff may both benefit from formalizing a mentoring process so that the perceived and realized benefits of such relationships are not concentrated among only those who attract the attention of mentors or who know to pursue mentoring options (Bhopal, 2019).

Programs that introduce formalized mentoring may do well to monitor the level of formality that best helps their participants. For example, simply providing an opportunity for networking among prospective mentors and mentees may not be enough, and more formalized one-to-one matching worked better for at least one program aimed at mentoring junior faculty (Bell & Treleaven, 2011). Additionally, even when involved in formalized mentorships, both mentors and mentees may default to a sink-or-swim approach that could defeat the purpose of formalizing the mentorship in the first place (Thomas et al., 2015). For both mentors and mentees, various levels of formality may provide benefits in different ways (Komarraju et al., 2010) and should be considered. Continual monitoring and evaluation of a program’s functioning and outcomes are essential to providing the most effective and efficient benefits; see Chapter 13 of this volume for more on this point.

For both the individuals doing the mentoring and those receiving mentorship, the potential benefits are numerous and powerful. For an overview, it is useful to consider the benefits relevant to different entities and persons in the mentoring equation. It is also important to note that because of academe’s unique cultural and hierarchical contexts, the results from mentoring programs in other sectors may not apply readily to academic situations (Sherif Trask et al., 2009; Zellers et al., 2008). Therefore, careful attention should be paid to the unique nature of academia when considering the context of mentoring relationships.

Benefits to Universities

Formalizing mentoring experiences and encouraging effective mentoring within that formalization has the potential to produce outcomes important to universities and institutional stakeholders. One of the first outcomes universities might be interested in is student retention or graduation outcomes; some work has suggested this may be a benefit of mentoring (Lunsford et al., 2017, see also Chapter 18). One would be hopeful that the other positive benefits identified from mentoring experiences (detailed below) would lead to outcomes like retention and graduation rates. However, some of these results must be interpreted with caution, as the field of mentoring evaluation has not always attended to program evaluation characteristics required to assess cause (Gershenfeld, 2014) or studied a program long enough to see the long-term outcomes of such efforts. In some studies, researchers have attempted to isolate the effects of mentoring experiences through advanced techniques and found encouraging results. For example, in a matched-control, long-term evaluation of a 1-year formalized mentoring experience, a positive association was found between mentoring experiences and first-year retention, but after a long-term follow-up, mentored students’ eventual GPA and graduation rates were not statistically different from those of the nonmentored students (Campbell & Campbell, 2009). This is not to say mentoring does not have an effect! Rather, it just means that results should be interpreted with wisdom and that some effects may not be as immediately measurable or profitable as others. For example, after graduation and in later employment, students who report having experienced positive relationships with a professor (although not specified whether it was a formal mentorship, that may be one context in which such a relationship would develop) are more engaged with their work and more likely to be considered thriving than those who cannot report such experiences (Gallup & Purdue University, 2014/2016). Also, although not specific to employment in higher education, undergraduates are more attracted to organizations with stated formal mentoring. This is particularly true of those students with learning-goal orientation (Allen & O’Brien, 2006). A plethora of positive personal, emotional, and academic outcomes besides graduation and GPA are also noted in prior work (e.g., Lunsford et al., 2017) and reviewed below. The characteristics of the mentoring relationship must also be considered when thinking about mentoring outcomes for students; both mentoring configuration and the match between mentor and student are imperative to understand outcomes (see Chapter 3 for types of mentoring and Chapter 9 for more on matching).

For faculty and staff, a strong mentoring culture and positive mentoring experiences are powerful predictors of outcomes important to institutional priorities (Davis et al., 2016). In fact, because of the growing workload and changing nature of faculty roles, having multiple mentors and an overall supportive mentoring culture may be the best way to implement positive faculty development from mentoring (de Janasz & Sullivan, 2004; Kalpazidou Schmidt & Faber, 2016). Also for certain groups of faculty, mentoring may help reduce gaps often seen at the highest level of the professoriate. In one example, women faculty receiving a mentoring program stayed at their institution more, received more grant money, were promoted more, and had better perceptions of themselves compared to nonmentored women (Gardiner et al., 2007). Indeed, drawing on the work of those before her, Dominguez highlights how formal mentoring can help mentees address “the complexity of work settings” and how “mentoring programs have been proven to be an effective strategy to increase personnel retention and satisfaction, to accelerate the development of leadership, and to reduce the learning curve in response to a more demanding, competitive, and global market” (Dominguez, 2013, p. 2).

Importantly, effective and intentional mentoring could be a way to move faculty energy and institutional recognition for faculty work toward the scholarly teaching model proposed by Boyer (1990). For example, actively mentoring graduate students into the teaching side of faculty life could encourage intentional, scholarly, and reflective teaching (Sherif Trask et al., 2009). The proposed changes would then result in better, more effective teaching, leading to better experiences for students who are working under and with more engaged faculty. Other significant benefits to universities that promote formal mentoring programs are the prestige and emphasis assigned to these programs by donors, alumni, and members of the higher education community. Sometimes such programs are research-focused and may provide more prestige to the university via publications. There is also the direct and very tangible value of grants and monetary donations given to student-focused programs. Beyond just carrying out research, a goal of the university setting is to teach a new generation of scholars, and mentorship at all student levels—from undergraduate to graduate to postdoctoral—can aid this mission (Gonzalez, 2001). Closely related, the reputation and status of the university may also be directly and indirectly promoted by the cultivation of formal mentoring programs and a supportive mentoring culture.

Benefits to Mentors

The role of mentoring others is an important and weighty position. The opportunity of the mentor to shape others’ experiences and potential futures is not to be taken lightly. Mentors themselves are in a prime position to also grow from the experience. For example, mentors often report benefits associated with collaboration, reflection, and personal satisfaction from mentoring (Ehrich et al., 2004). Faculty who mentor other faculty also report benefits to their own career and experience, such as improved leadership and communication skills as well as expanded networks, relationships, and awareness (Kalpazidou Schmidt & Faber, 2016). Mentoring can provide opportunities for one’s own development of skills and knowledge as well as psychological and emotional benefits of generativity, or an active contribution to the wellness of the next generation and a way to leave a legacy.

Faculty who mentor students, particularly undergraduate students or early graduate students, must be careful that they do not expect the same level of reciprocity or outright benefit to their careers that they may receive in other mentoring relationships. Indeed, undergraduate faculty mentors must recognize that the majority of their mentoring activities will be quite different from other academic mentoring relationships and adjust expectations and behaviors accordingly (Anderson & Shore, 2008). With appropriate intentionality and care, however, the intrinsic rewards of undergraduate mentoring can be immense. Indeed, students themselves often do not recognize just how much faculty can actually benefit from a mentoring relationship (Campbell & Campbell, 2000).

Faculty are, of course, not the only academic players to mentor, nor are they the only ones to benefit from the role. Students assigned to mentor other students experience benefits as well. For example, experienced undergraduate students who were assigned to mentor first-year students reported benefits ranging from personal and altruistic to cognitive benefits such as communication and leadership skills (Beltman & Schaeben, 2012). Furthermore, another peer-mentoring study found that more effective mentee learning was associated with higher benefits to mentors, suggesting a mutually beneficial relationship (Stockkamp & Godshalk, 2022). Graduate students or postdoctoral trainees who mentor undergraduates may experience instrumental (e.g., research support), socioemotional (e.g., work satisfaction), interpersonal (e.g., developing communication skills), professional (e.g., clarity in career interests), and cognitive gains (through being required to explain and think through research in more detail than usual) from their mentoring experiences, though those experiences are likely not without challenges as well (Dolan & Johnson, 2009).

Benefits to Those Being Mentored

For those in the fortunate position of receiving effective and intentional mentorship, the outcomes can be numerous and potent. From educational outcomes to emotional benefits, those who are (broadly) mentored have generally displayed an advantage over those who do not receive such guidance and support, though the particular context of mentoring absolutely plays a role (Eby et al., 2008). Indeed, educators who receive mentoring report benefits in terms of general support (both personally and professionally), discussing or sharing ideas, and receiving feedback (Ehrich et al., 2004). Faculty and postdocs who receive peer mentoring regarding research describe benefits such as gains in professional skills, career guidance and planning, acceleration of experience, and improved well-being, among other positive outcomes (Kalpazidou Schmidt & Faber, 2016; Tran & Gibson, 2016). Specifically pertaining to research output, formally mentored researchers display gains above both nonmentored and informally mentored individuals (Muschallik & Pull, 2016), and women who received formal mentoring reported gains in grant money and promotion over nonmentored women (Gardiner et al., 2007). When looking directly at early career researchers (defined as those within 10 years of their terminal degree, including doctoral students, postdocs, and early career faculty), evidence was found for both positive, albeit sometimes small, and potentially negative effects of mentoring, as has been suggested elsewhere and is discussed in more detail later (Boeren et al., 2015).

As one of the major recipients of mentoring, it is not unexpected that students, undergraduate and graduate, have reported numerous benefits from receiving mentoring. From relationships with faculty being associated with greater academic motivation and achievement (Komarraju et al., 2010) to participation in mentored research allowing undergraduates to develop as students, future scientists and professionals, and leaders (Crisp et al., 2017; Dugan, 2011; Johnson & Harreld, 2012; NASEM, 2019), these various relationships could have powerful impacts. Students who are mentored by other students also experience positive outcomes. For example, a systematic review of graduate student peer mentoring found positive results ranging from academic outcomes (including but not limited to factors such as program norms as well as disciplinary knowledge, methodological skills, and publishing competencies) to social, psychological, and career benefits (Lorenzetti et al., 2019). For students completing their studies partially or entirely online, the results of peer-assisted learning are less immediately positive (Tibingana-Ahimbisibwe et al., 2022; Watts et al., 2015); however, with further work in this area, more specific challenges and benefits for these unique circumstances may come to light.

Staff should not be overlooked as either mentors or mentees. For example, higher-education IT staff can and do benefit from mentoring opportunities in a variety of settings and forms, and formal mentoring opportunities can further help staff achieve their goals and have safe spaces for processing workplace dynamics (Galanek & Campbell, 2019). In the absence of a formal mechanism for receiving mentorship, some university staff, particularly those in leadership or management positions, lament what they did not learn and wish they would have received from mentors (though it should be acknowledged that some do end up with informal mentors; Owusu-Agyeman, 2022).

Risks of Negative Outcomes

It would be naïve to assume that all mentoring results in positive outcomes for those involved. Indeed, it is documented that poor mentoring can hinder the development of those receiving such mentorship (Ehrich et al., 2004; Long, 1997; NASEM, 2019), and furthermore, negative outcomes and poor mentoring may be missed because the general perception of mentoring is often quite positive (Boeren et al., 2015). These poor mentoring practices could range from incompetence in technical matters to a lack of adequate time to interpersonal friction and a variety of experiences in between (Anderson & Shore, 2008; Campbell, 2007; Johnson, 2017). Those practicing these poor behaviors as mentors are also unlikely to experience the benefits discussed above, particularly if they do not see the outcomes that they expect their mentees to experience. As with any skill, mentoring is an ability that can and should be developed intentionally, and formalizing a mentorship practice can help ensure that mentors and mentees are both prepared for the relationship (see Chapters 10 and 11 in this volume for mentor and mentee preparation, respectively).

A major risk of an unregulated or unethical mentoring relationship is the possibility for boundaries becoming blurred or broken (Campbell, 2007; Johnson, 2017). Mentorship relationships can become intense, and both mentors and mentees can and often do develop affinities for each other, but all those involved in mentoring relationships should be aware of risks and attentive to boundary violations. One of the benefits of formalizing mentoring experiences, even in a very low-structure way, might be to broadcast an expectation of best practices and to arrange encounters in such a way as to support the greatest likelihood of positive, valuable, and lasting outcomes for all involved (Ehrich et al., 2004). A formalized relationship also increases the likelihood that problems may be recognized, or at least it can provide a third party to which a mentee or mentor might share challenges and receive support or who could step in to modify (or end) a mentoring relationship that is in danger of harming those within it. Indeed, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2019 report, The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM, specifically describes four steps for the mitigation of negative mentoring experiences. First, appoint someone, such as an ombudsperson, who can be a visible and active point of contact for those in mentoring relationships who may need third-party support. Second, program coordinators and other leaders should also monitor mentoring relationships and be prepared to step in if necessary. Third, mentors should be well-trained in both the risks of negative mentoring experiences and resources for dealing with issues that arise. Finally, mentees should maintain mentorship and support networks outside of a single individual. In these ways, formalized mentoring programs can help reduce the risk of negative mentoring practices occurring or address them more quickly if they do. However, it should also be noted that a potentially unique risk of a formalized mentorship program may be that those who are struggling within it face pressure to maintain the public image of the program (Eby & Allen, 2002). This should be kept in mind by program organizers and those monitoring the progress of a program.

Measuring Benefits

It is worth noting the variety of methods of evaluation used to determine the myriad benefits and risks described in the proceeding paragraphs. As has been stated elsewhere (Boeren et al., 2015; Eby et al., 2008; Gershenfeld, 2014; Zellers et al., 2008), one must attend to the causal (or lack thereof) methodologies employed in evaluation when interpreting findings. Because many of the studies reviewed in the discussion above collected data in ways that did not allow for manipulation or control, one must interpret these findings with caution and an eye toward confounding variables or alternative explanations. For example, those who are most able to access or respond to mentoring opportunities may already be those most likely to experience success in their educational or academic careers. A mix of quantitative and qualitative methodologies allow for a better understanding of the outcomes from these experiences as well as how the experiences were received. For example, formal program evaluation techniques, such as random assignment, as well as in-depth, fluid techniques, such as phenomenological analysis, are both valid and important methods to evaluate experiences and outcomes of mentoring. Therefore, all methods of evaluation should be welcome and considered as we further collective knowledge on mentoring and evaluate individual programs, a topic discussed in depth in Chapters 13 and 14.

Does it Have to be Formalized to Work?

Although we have given extensive attention to formalized mentoring opportunities within this chapter and, to some extent, this entire book, it is worth revisiting the question of the purposes of formalizing mentoring. Mentoring does not, by any means, have to be formalized to work. In fact, when pitted directly against each other (at least insomuch as they can be, given the challenges in defining and measuring formal mentoring that were mentioned above, let alone informal mentoring), those who came to mentoring relationships organically report sometimes better outcomes than do those who experienced a formalized mentoring relationship (Eby et al., 2008; Ehrich et al., 2004). This is not always the case; however, in Muschallik and Pull’s matched study, formally mentored individuals were more research productive than either informally mentored or nonmentored individuals, who did not differ from each other (2016). In any case, a comparison between the two experiences is unlikely to be direct (or simple, given the challenges in defining “formal” throughout much of the mentoring literature), and the immense variation that is—and likely should (Ewing et al., 2008)—be present in mentoring programs, means that direct comparison may be difficult to quantify. Indeed, because of the informal nature of informal mentoring, it may not be included as “mentoring” in comparisons of formal mentoring programs to ostensibly unmentored individuals (Gardiner et al., 2007, for example, specify as such in their use of a control group of unmentored women). The potential for formalizing mentoring on some level for increased access and equitable distribution of the potential benefits on a variety of characteristics is the real purpose of formalizing these relationships, however, and should not be discounted (Ehrich et al., 2004). Additionally, by potentially bolstering an overall culture of supportive mentorship (Zellers et al., 2008), institutions might also allow for the natural growth of informal mentorships among their populations. This development of a mentoring culture would further allow for positive developmental outcomes and provide options for individuals to have their diverse needs met (Goerisch et al., 2019; Guzman Johannessen et al., 2012).

An additional benefit of formalizing mentorship on some level is also the potential for recognition of mentoring as part of one’s workload. For both faculty and staff, much of the challenge of mentoring is finding appropriate time amid other job responsibilities (Bean et al., 2014; Law et al., 2019). Faculty and staff are more likely to achieve professional recognition for their work in mentoring when they engage in department, college, or university-supported formalized mentoring programs (and administrators and tenure committees can understand participation in a larger program where roles and outcomes are standardized and delineated). They may also be more likely to get compensation monetarily for participation or have it be part of their formalized service load. This signals the importance of the mentoring activity and may allow for greater participation by those who could both benefit from the activity and benefit others through their mentorship (Etzkorn & Braddock, 2020).

Conclusion and Future Directions

This chapter’s purpose was to provide a definition of formal mentoring (versus informal) that allowed for a greater, clearer discussion of the purposes, experiences, and outcomes of mentoring. By classifying experiences as formal, one acknowledges an outside interest in the mentoring relationship but also opens the opportunity for external support for the relationship. Formalizing mentoring may also allow for greater access to the potential benefits for those who would traditionally be less likely to receive mentoring through informal means.

Researchers and practitioners in the field of mentorship should further clarify and explore the boundaries of formal and informal mentoring. One of the challenges of detailing the benefits of formal mentoring is the lack of distinction made in some mentoring literature and the conflicting or muddy definitions in others. Therefore, analysts of this scholarship need to attend to the differences between formal and informal mentorship whenever possible to truly understand mentoring contexts. Definitions are a sticky point throughout this literature (Campbell, 2007; Dominguez & Kochan, 2020; Kalpazidou Schmidt & Faber, 2016), but clearly defining what is meant by mentoring can help in determining what benefits can and should be attributed to various experiences and relationships. It is also worth noting the richness of the research findings that have been documented and presented here, as well as the limitations that should be addressed in future work, as discussed earlier.

In this chapter, we have also overviewed some of those potential benefits. The outcomes reviewed in this chapter are not exhaustive; indeed, the reader is encouraged to consider other comprehensive reviews of mentoring benefits (e.g., Dominguez & Kochan, 2020; Crisp et al., 2017; Johnson, 2017; NASEM, 2019; other chapters in this volume), which delve into both current and classic works evaluating the outcomes of various mentoring experiences. For the institution and the individuals in these relationships, there is much to gain from good mentoring. However, there are risks that must be clearly acknowledged so mentors and mentees can be best prepared and equipped for successful relationships. Future research into mentoring must critically examine the experiences and be aware of the potential for negative outcomes (Boeren et al., 2015). Having third-party involvement is one way to potentially mitigate some risks, but this is not a task to be undertaken without information (in particular, see Chapter 7). Indeed, formalizing mentorship within an institution is a noble cause; doing it backed with research and examples, such as are given in this handbook, is imperative.


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