Mentoring and coaching researchers

Mentoring and coaching can help the development of those being mentored or coached (mentee or coachee), and of the mentor or coach themself.

Both activities can take different forms, depending on the needs of the researcher, and the skills of the coach or mentor. You can use the skills developed in many situations.

Principal investigators (PIs) and researchers can be involved in mentoring or coaching in various ways:

  • PI adopts a coaching approach to managing researchers
  • researcher receives mentoring or coaching from someone not directly involved in their management or supervision (off-line)
  • PI provides off-line mentoring to other researchers
  • PI receives mentoring or coaching
  • PI or researcher undertakes peer coaching or mentoring.


There can be huge benefits to mentoring or coaching for researchers and for you as PI including:

  • increased motivation, productivity and performance
  • improved interpersonal relationships, communication and networks
  • more awareness of personal impact
  • clearer idea of career path or goals
  • better understanding of what is required in their role
  • greater confidence
  • easier integration into a new role, institution, culture, or country.

A mentoring or coaching relationship may boost the confidence of a researcher to write a paper, to contribute to writing a grant, or to present at a conference.  A commitment to action is central, giving researchers impetus and encouragement.

For the mentor and coach, benefits include:

  • increased self-awareness
  • increased learning from listening to others; prompting reflection and a change in behaviour
  • reflective space
  • a sense of satisfaction due to making a difference
  • intellectual challenge
  • improved skills eg listening and questioning
  • learning by increased awareness of issues (other people's/organisational).

As PI in the position of manager or supervisor you can use mentoring and coaching skills directly, and you can use coaching skills to enhance the mentoring process.


You should also be aware that mentoring or coaching could lead to some problems:

  • the researcher may become dependent on the mentor or coach; ground rules and boundaries at the outset can be helpful
  • a time commitment is required - the researcher or mentor/coach may find they need to use their own time, or to forgo other activities.

What is the difference between mentoring and coaching?

Mentoring and coaching use many of the same skills, such as active listening, questioning and supporting. The terms are often used interchangeably, but there are some broadly recognised differences, as articulated by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) they  are laid out in the table below.

Mentoring Coaching
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long period of time Relationship generally has a set duration
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some advice, guidance or support Generally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled on a regular basis
More long-term and takes a broader view of the person Short-term (sometimes time-bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues
Mentor is usually more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee’. Often a senior person in the organisation who can pass on knowledge, experience and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities Coaching is generally not performed on the basis that the coach needs to have direct experience of their client’s formal occupational role, unless the coaching is specific and skills-focused
Focus is on career and personal development Focus is generally on development/issues at work
Agenda is set by the mentee, with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles The agenda is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals
Mentoring revolves more around developing the mentee as a professional Coaching revolves more around specific development areas/issues

Modes of interaction

Mentoring or coaching can be undertaken through different media.  Face-to-face meetings are common; however telephone, email and online meetings are also possible and can be effective.  Remote contact can be a particular advantage if the mentor and mentee are geographically remote.

Next steps

Here are some possible options for becoming involved in mentoring or coaching:

  • investigate whether formal schemes exist at your institution
  • encourage your researchers to become involved in mentoring or coaching
  • help to identify possible mentors for your researchers
  • volunteer as a mentor (e.g. within your institution or through your professional body)
  • adopt a mentoring/coaching style of managing your researchers
  • undertake training in mentoring and coaching skills.

Within this section, you will find more information about different approaches to coaching and mentoring, and  the skills required of a mentor or coach.

See also our institutional case studies on coaching schemes for researchers.