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Peerless Inspiration

Peer mentoring groups provide support and ideas

Peer mentoring session.  Photo courtesy Galit Lahav.

For many of people, the concept of mentoring might conjure images of a dyadic, hierarchical relationship between a senior faculty member and a junior faculty member, or between a teacher and student.

When you ask Galit Lahav to contemplate mentoring, she is more likely to envision a collaborative partnership of HMS junior faculty members who provide one another with mutual support and career development guidance.

Such “peer mentoring” has recently gained recognition as a powerful complement to traditional forms of “top-down” mentoring.

Lahav, HMS associate professor of systems biology, was inspired to help create a peer mentoring group as a way of expanding upon positive peer relationships that developed during a two-day leadership workshop offered by the hfp consulting group for HMS quadrangle junior faculty members in 2009.

“The course was highly interactive, and beyond the new tools we acquired, it created a strong bonding between participants. We realized that we share many challenges and that we can help, and learn from, each other. At the end of that workshop, we decided to start the peer mentoring group, and we have kept meeting since then” said Lahav. 

Lahav describes the goals of the peer mentoring group as two-fold. The first goal is to provide an open and supportive environment to empower and support junior faculty members. The peer mentoring group offers a safe haven for discussing difficult topics that elude day-to-day conversations on the quadrangle. 

“We talk about all the things no one talks about. It helps knowing you are not the only one that struggles, not the only one whose papers and grants are rejected, not the only one that has no idea at the beginning how to hire the best people and how to run a lab,” said Lahav.

The second goal of the peer mentoring group is to share useful career advice and tips about specific topics from the group’s collective knowledge base.  Such topics include study design, grant and manuscript writing, time management skills, work-life balance issues, and trainee recruitment and supervision, among others.  

Since its inception, the peer group participants and meeting structure have evolved.  The group currently meets for lunch the second Tuesday of each month, and the meetings typically begin with an informal “check-in” to see if there are any high-priority issues among the group members. 

Typically, the group selects 2 to 3 topics to discuss at each meeting.  Group members have also taken advantage of workshops to further develop their mentoring and peer-coaching skills.

One of the keys to the group’s success has been the recognition by Lahav and others that members can occasionally benefit from tapping into external resources at HMS and beyond.  For example, following several peer-group sessions devoted to the topic of how to communicate with journal editors, Lahav invited a journal editor to share her experience with the group.  She has also invited senior faculty and representatives of the dean’s office to meet with them to discuss topics ranging from authorship conflict to the promotions process.  

Although a true believer in the powers of peer mentoring, Lahav emphasizes that it is a complement to, rather than a replacement for, traditional dyadic mentoring relationships between senior and junior faculty members.

 “We’ve realized that, in addition to this traditional form of mentoring, it is extremely empowering to share difficulties with, and get advice from, colleagues at similar stage. Senior faculty might not struggle with the same issues as junior faculty, and many times they forget how things were for them at the beginning. In addition, when meeting with a senior faculty, there is a delicate balance between asking for help while at the same time presenting oneself in a confident and impressive way. In our group, people feel safe to be vulnerable, to openly share sensitive issues and conflicts, without feeling that what they say can be interpreted as failure or weakness,” said Lahav.

Lahav also credits the group with providing more than mentoring. 

“The group is also a great way to get to know other colleagues at HMS. Many friendships have emerged from our group, and several collaborative projects have started between people in the group.  Those who have been in the group from the beginning also now enjoy providing advice to new members in the group. This by itself is proof of how much we have grown and how important such groups are for creating a nurturing, supportive environment in academia,” said Lahav. 

HMS quadrangle junior faculty members who are interested in joining the peer mentoring group are encouraged to contact Lahav by email at galit_lahav@hms.harvard.edu.