Cultivate Mentoring Relationships

Phases of a Mentoring Relationship

Productive mentoring relationships have structure, goals, and a lifecycle. These relationships typically follow the phases outlined below.

Graphic showing the phases of a mentoring relationship: Prepare, Launch, Maintain, Conclude.


Before you begin a mentoring relationship, take the time to get to know yourself and identify the kind of support you need. Network to identify and connect with mentors with the right expertise.


When starting a new mentoring relationship, establish goals and have a formal discussion about expectations and ground rules upfront. Mentoring agreement documents and goal-setting exercises can be useful tools for establishing mutual responsibilities both for one-on-one mentoring relationships as well as for small-group and peer mentoring relationships. Use the templates linked below to document your agreements. 

Mentee-Mentor Agreement Template

Group Mentoring Agreement Template

Use the Prepare for Career Development Conversations document to explore your expectations for new mentoring relationships in more depth.


Once your mentoring relationship is established, begin to make progress towards your goals and milestones. Jointly create a strategic plan for how you will achieve your goals and establish a system to track and document your progress and achievements. While working together, focus on effective communication, conflict resolution, and advocacy, and periodically assess how the relationship is working. 

Communicate Effectively

Maintaining a productive mentoring relationship requires strong communication. Both the mentee and mentor should practice active listening [PDF] and routinely request and respond to feedback [PDF]

Manage Time and Projects

As a mentoring team, it is important to create a strategic plan for how you will achieve your goals and establish a system to track and document your progress and achievements. For support with this process, take Project Management Strategies for Research Team Members, a four-part webinar series on the principles of project management. 

Resolve Conflict

Even the strongest mentoring relationships encounter challenges. Starting early in your relationship, you should have a plan in place for resolving conflict. 

The Harvard Ombuds Office is a valuable, confidential resource for anyone in the Harvard community that offers informal space to discuss any issues affecting work or studies. The Ombuds Office also offers trainings and provides recommended readings and self-help handouts on a number of topics including negotiation, preparing for challenging conversations, authorship, and more. 

Assess Progress

Periodically review your initial mentoring agreements and goal setting exercises to reassess expectations and check in on progress towards milestones. Consider using formal assessment tools like the Mentoring Competency Assessment (MCA) to evaluate the relationship.

Advocate and Foster Independence

Effective mentoring relationships value advocacy and foster independence. 

Strategies mentors can use to advocate and foster their mentees’ independence:

  • Respect their mentees’ contributions and celebrate their successes. 
  • Acknowledge the challenges faced by historically underrepresented groups in the workforce and use their influence to advocate for inclusion and equity.
  • Suggest that their mentees attend and present at important conferences.
  • Coach their mentees in how to have conversations with new connections.
  • Guide their mentees in effectively communicating their science (e.g., choosing a journal, strategies for publication, presenting talks and posters). 
  • Be a role model in responsible conduct of research.
  • Provide guidance and support as mentees begin to serve as mentors for others.
  • Guide discussions on career planning, and support mentees through career transitions.

Strategies mentees can use to practice self-advocacy and foster their own growth: 

  • Negotiate for opportunities, resources, training, and credit. 
  • Know where to turn for support when challenges arise.  
  • Build their network by seeking out new connections.
  • Identify professional societies and conferences in their field (or the field that they would like to enter) and familiarize themselves with them.
  • Recognize scientific journals and their respective impact factor that are relevant to their work.
  • Discuss ways to use their network to foster recognition.
  • Seek feedback and input from mentors as they prepare for the next phase of their career. 



Over time, your personal and professional goals change and the type of support that you need evolves [PDF]. As your needs change, so will your mentoring network. 

Every mentoring relationship should have defined end-points that signify that the relationship is ready to transition. Conclude your mentoring relationships on good terms and maintain contact with former mentors. Return to the “Prepare” phase and reassess your strengths, goals, values, and mentoring needs. Seek out new mentors who can provide you with the new skills and support that you need.