How TriageTB’s capacity scheme navigates the inherent challenges of long-distance mentoring relationships

July 13, 2020


A mentor-mentee meeting between Paul Corstjens (Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands) and Charles Manyelo (Stellenbosch University, South Africa.)

Motivation is a key factor in successful mentor-mentee relationships, of that Prof Hazel Dockrell, Lead for Capacity Building, is sure. She designed TriageTB’s capacity scheme, based on this belief as she gave it a flexible structure that can easily be tailored to each participant’s unique wishes and needs.

In a Zoom call, talking about how TriageTB’s capacity strengthening scheme navigates the many inherent challenges of long-distance mentoring programmes, Prof Dockrell said: ‘I wanted to create something highly beneficial but not too bureaucratic […] not a programme where there is extensive focus on a signed contract, or where success is evaluated by ticking boxes.’

The TriageTB capacity scheme started long before the actual project did. It is built on TriageTB’s predecessor ScreenTB’s capacity strengthening scheme, which in turn had grown out of capacity building activities carried out in its predecessor project, AE-TBC.

At the time of this writing, the TriageTB mentoring scheme is made up of 13 mentor-mentee pairs. Some of them are new, and some have come through from AE-TBC and ScreenTB.  

Capacity strengthening activities for mentees in different stages of their career  

While many mentoring programmes are designed specifically for PhD students or postdoctoral researchers, the TriageTB capacity scheme welcomes everyone who wishes to participate. As a result, the mentees in this scheme are in many different stages of their career, and not all are based in academic institutions. The consortium also has recognised mentoring relationships that people have outside TriageTB – in another consortium, or in their home institutions – as Prof Dockrell does not believe that one individual needs to have multiple mentors simultaneously.

When designing the TriageTB capacity building scheme, Prof Dockrell refrained from establishing strict rules for how, how often, and when the participants should connect.

Having a formal scheme can be useful, according to Prof Dockrell, but there is no perfect universal formula for creating an environment where experiences and knowledge are satisfactorily shared between consortium members.

To set the right frame, the TriageTB kick-off meeting included a session with a training in mentoring conducted by Prof. Dockrell. This was especially valuable for those consortium members who were new to the mentoring concept.

Challenging to ensure continuity in long-distance mentoring relationships  

Ensuring continuity and arranging active and mutually beneficial mentoring relationships in capacity strengthening schemes of international research projects is a challenge.

Even when a project, like TriageTB, builds on a predecessor, many members of the earlier consortia do not come through to the next consortium.

Moreover, just like many of us struggle to motivate ourselves to go to the fitness studio despite the rewarding feelings a visit typically rewards us with, Prof Dockrell says that many mentees struggle to block out time to spend on their development.

Another challenge of ling-distance mentoring is that it does not allow the mentor and mentee to meet face-to-face regularly. For several reasons, including lack of funds or travel restrictions, mentors and mentees cannot even be guaranteed to meet in person once a year during the annual project meeting. Prof Dockrell tried to find a part-solution to this problem in ScreenTB when she decided to include a broader semi-formal capacity building session in the last annual meeting. In this session, all participants got the chance to sit down and discuss their individual career development plans with another meeting attendee if they wished.

Digital solutions offer capacity building schemes a chance to tap new opportunities

Modern information and communication technologies are neither ideal nor likely to replace in-person meetings completely, but they do offer mentors and mentees a time- and cost-effective way to stay connected between in-person meetings. As the next TriageTB meeting is likely to be a virtual one, Prof Dockrell is thinking about how this can be used to evaluate the mentoring scheme.

Confident that motivation must come from within, Prof Dockrell is careful to design activities and training that serve to pull, rather than push, mentees into working more actively with their mentors. She is also careful to ensure that all capacity building activities are relevant for everyone.

For the next annual meeting, she considers having separate sessions, one for mentees and one for mentors, analysing the group-specific challenges and opportunities – with the aim of feeding back the results of the discussions to the entire group afterwards. In addition, all pairs will have the opportunity to ‘e-meet’ via video conference.

TriageTB’s capacity strengthening scheme’s 13 mentor-mentee pairs show that while mentoring from afar can be challenging, it is possible to establish and maintain a productive mentoring relationship over long distance by having the right motivation and taking advantage of recent advances in communication technology.


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