Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of jwhMary Ann Liebert, Inc.Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.JournalsSearchAlerts
Journal of Women's Health
J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2012 November; 21(11): 1114–1127.
PMCID: PMC3491631

Best Practices and Pearls in Interdisciplinary Mentoring from Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health Directors

Jeanne-Marie Guise, M.D., M.P.H.,corresponding author1 Joan D. Nagel, M.D., M.P.H.,2 and Judith G. Regensteiner, Ph.D.3
1Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, and Department of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon.
2Office of Research on Women's Health, National Institutes of Health, Washington, District of Columbia.
3Department of Medicine, Center for Women's Health Research, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, Colorado.
the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health Directors



Increasingly, national programs and leaders are looking at interdisciplinary collaborations as essential to future research. Twelve years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) developed and implemented the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) K12 program to focus on interdisciplinary mentored career development for junior faculty in women's health research.


We applied a mixed-methods approach using an electronic survey and in-person presentations and discussions to understand best practices and lessons learned for interdisciplinary mentoring across BIRCWH K12 program leaders.

Results and Conclusions

We received responses from all 29 active BIRCWH programs. Factors associated with success included ensuring sufficient protected time for regular (weekly or biweekly) mentoring; mentors promoting the research independence of the Scholar; a team mentoring approach, including career as well as content mentors; and explicit and clear expectations outlined between the Scholar and mentor. The majority of programs conduct formal evaluations of mentorship, and 79% of programs offer training in mentorship for either Scholars, mentors, or both. This article presents program leaders' best practices, challenges, and lessons learned from mentoring junior faculty who are conducting women's health research, whether basic, clinical, behavioral, translational, or health services research, using an interdisciplinary mentoring approach.


Effective mentoring is considered to be one of the most important components of a successful career in academia. Over recent years, momentum has been increasing for promoting interdisciplinary mentoring that includes collaboration across scientific disciplines.1,2 The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) developed and implemented the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) K12 program to promote interdisciplinary mentored career development for junior faculty in women's health research in 2000. As the concept of interdisciplinary research continues to be expanded through the NIH Roadmap and Common Fund initiatives, understanding how to mentor and train scientists successfully in interdisciplinary research is increasingly important.3

The ORWH recognized in the early 1990s that women's health research by its very nature must be interdisciplinary and should encompass not only clinical studies but also the full spectrum of research types, ranging from molecular and genetic studies to those of prevention, behavior, outcomes of interventions, and clinical translation of newly proven hypotheses.4 The ORWH BIRCWH K12 program is built around three pillars: interdisciplinary research, mentoring, and career development.5 The concept of interdisciplinary mentoring under the BIRCWH program necessitates the use of a team of mentors rather than a single mentor, recognizing that mentors from more than one area of expertise are better able to address complex health conditions that are relevant to women's health, such as HIV, diabetes, obesity, stroke, pain syndromes, and others. However, few studies have assessed the skills that are needed for successful interdisciplinary mentoring. Because the BIRCWH program has over a decade of experience in interdisciplinary mentorship and career development, best practices and lessons learned from NIH, ORWH BIRCWH programs may provide helpful information to other institutions and organizations that are focusing on career development of junior faculty.

This article describes the mentoring practices that are being used under the national BIRCWH mentored junior faculty (also known as “Scholar”) career development program in women's health from ORWH. Currently, there are 29 BIRCWH sites across the United States (Appendix), and over 450 Scholars have participated as BIRCWH Scholars. The goal of this article is to provide an overview of the existing best practices in mentoring in an interdisciplinary environment under the BIRCWH program to inform further research efforts of this type of career development practice. This report seeks to identify the critical elements for successful mentoring approaches and techniques that may be used to provide tools for junior faculty development at other research-intensive academic institutions. Understanding the lessons learned in interdisciplinary mentoring has generalizable implications in terms of potentially leading to changes in the paradigm of mentoring practice across different training programs and ultimately for all disciplines of science.

Materials and Methods

We applied a mixed-methods approach to integrate findings from presentations, discussions, and an electronic survey. A 1-day interactive directors' roundtable of best practices of mentoring was held for BIRCWH program directors at the Annual Meeting of BIRCWH Directors at the NIH in November 2011. The workshop was facilitated by the three authors (J.M.G., J.D.N, J.G.R.). Half of the active BIRCWH sites presented information about their sites, and all programs participated in the discussions that followed. In advance of the meeting, three guiding questions were provided to the presenting programs to organize their presentations. Time was reserved at the end of the presentations for open discussion among all principal investigators and program directors (PI/PD). Summaries of program experiences, challenges, and pearls to successful research mentoring were provided from each program's presentation materials and from discussions.

After the meeting, all BIRCWH programs were invited to submit written responses to the three guiding questions (Table 1), as well as responses to general structured questions about numbers of mentors, evaluation of mentoring, and training in mentoring. Lastly, all programs were asked to submit a bulleted list of 150 words or less of pearls for best practices for mentoring. This process was conducted between October 2011 and February 2012. The Oregon Health & Science University Institutional Review Boards determined that the project did not meet the definition of human subject research per 45 CFR 46.102.

Table 1.
Guiding Questions About Mentoring


Quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. Qualitative data were analyzed using content analysis performed by two authors (J.M.G., J.G.R.) and also independently using NVivo software by two objective research associates with training in qualitative analyses. Narrative responses were reviewed as a whole to identify initial themes and then again in more detail to identify subthemes. Counts for occurrences of themes are presented in parentheses in results.


We received responses from 29 (100 %) current BIRCWH program leaders. On average, programs reported that Scholars had an average of three mentors, with a range of one to seven mentors. Programs were asked to compare and contrast successful vs. less successful mentoring relationships and to describe the characteristics that are associated with success. Themes obtained from the three guiding questions are provided in Table 2. Factors associated with success included ensuring that both mentor and Scholar have sufficient protected time to invest in regular (weekly or biweekly) mentoring, mentors being able to support the independent research of the Scholar (referred to by several respondents as “mentor altruism”) as opposed to having the Scholar work on the mentor's research, interdisciplinary team mentoring including career as well as content mentors, and clear expectations and goals outlined between the Scholar and mentor from the beginning.

Table 2.
Responses to Guiding Questions Interdisciplinary Mentoring About Ingredients of Successful Mentorship and Common Challenges

BIRCWH programs were asked how they select mentors for their BIRCWH Scholars. The majority of programs reported that potential Scholars can self-select mentors but that each mentor needs to be approved by the BIRCWH leadership or BIRCWH committee (and ORWH). They also reported that the BIRCWH leadership or BIRCWH committee may select specific mentors for Scholars where a need is identified for either content or career mentoring. Some sites recommended the use of a contract or formal agreement to outline expectations and goals between mentor and Scholar (n=11). Innovative programs designed to support Scholars and mentors included providing protected time and institutional incentives to promote mentoring, an institutional mentoring academy, a virtual mentoring network, and mentoring toolkits.

Among the 33 factors reported to be associated with failure of the mentoring relationship, the leading factors reported were lack of support for mentor or Scholar or both (n=7), poorly stated or lack of clear expectations (n=6), and time constraints (n=6). Other common challenges included lack of time/resources for mentoring and poor time management for either Scholars or mentors.

Twenty-eight of 29 BIRCWH programs formally evaluate mentoring. Most sites evaluated mentoring using surveys, although interviews were also used. Twenty of twenty-nine programs ask Scholars to evaluate their mentor(s), mentors to evaluate the Scholar, and program leadership to evaluate mentoring and Scholar productivity. A minority (5 of 29) reported having mentors self-evaluate their mentoring. As far as frequency of evaluations, 18 of 29 (62%) conduct evaluations of mentoring on a semiannual basis, 9 of 29 (31%) evaluate annually, and 2 of 29 (7%) conduct evaluations quarterly.

Best practices and pearls from BIRCWH programs

Pearls and best practices from BIRCWH programs are summarized in Table 3, and details are presented by program in Table 4. Several themes arose across BIRCWH program pearls (frequencies of mentioned items are shown in parentheses). Pearls specific to mentors included the concepts of team mentoring (18), mentors actively engaging Scholars (19), and choosing the appropriate mentor (11). Pearls specific to Scholars included the importance of peer mentoring among Scholars (8) and having clearly defined roles and expectations for the Scholar (8). A major finding across sites is that programs are increasingly finding success using peer mentoring. Pearls relating to the mentor-Scholar relationship included having ample time allotted to mentoring to promote a strong relationship (7) and mentoring awards and incentives (5). Institutional or programmatic factors that were mentioned among program pearls included promoting regular meetings between mentor and Scholar (12) and provision of workshops, seminars, and learning opportunities (8). Lastly, programs recommended reassigning mentors when necessary, providing prompt feedback early in the relationship (before 6 months), and use of formal mentoring contracts to avoid or address challenges.

Table 3.
Summary of Practice/Pearls in Mentoring
Table 4.
Best Practices and Pearls from Program Leaders

Twenty-three of 29 (79%) BIRCWH programs offer mentorship training at their institutions. Among 45 responses to narrative descriptions of formats used for training, the most common formats used were workshops, symposia, or seminars (28), followed by classes or coursework (8), newsletters or virtual materials (6), single lectures (3), toolkits (3), and single occurrences for a resource center, a reference book, and career coaching. All but 1 of the programs that offer training in mentoring target this to both mentors and Scholars, whereas 1 focused exclusively on Scholars.


This is the first formal evaluation of interdisciplinary mentoring practices across the national BIRCWH K12 programs. Because the BIRCWH is one of the longest running programs dedicated to interdisciplinary mentoring, understanding common pearls, struggles, and solutions can be very informative to other, similar efforts. Several themes emerged from the experiences of the BIRCWH programs over the years. The most commonly cited factors associated with success included that both mentors and Scholars need sufficient protected time to meet (at least weekly), mentors need to demonstrate mentor altruism, and Scholars need an interdisciplinary and collaborative team mentoring approach, including career mentors as well as sufficiently diverse content mentors.

In terms of factors associated with breakdowns in the mentoring relationship, major issues reported included lack of support for the mentor or Scholar or both, poorly stated or lack of clear expectations, and time constraints. As time pressures and financial pressures continue to increase for faculty, programs and institutions will be looking for mechanisms, tools, education, and organizational structures to support the work and promote the efficiency, productivity, and rewards for mentoring.

Although in the last few years, there has been extensive discussion of eliminating silos* and encouraging interdisciplinarity in science, the importance of mentoring with an interdisciplinary focus in contrast to other types of mentoring has only recently received study.6 Schultz et al.7 reported that building interdisciplinary research capacity took deliberate focus and effort on the part of the institution. The Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA) Consortium recently conducted a semistructured phone survey to assess best practices for the KL2 program (similar to the K12 program) across 46 CTSA sites.8 Although the two evaluations, CTSA and BIRCWH, differ somewhat in their focus, information from the two provides complementary information about career mentoring and emerging issues. The CTSA survey similarly found that rewards and incentives to recruit and retain qualified mentors were an important factor across institutions. Although, unlike the CTSA survey, we did not specifically ask a question directed at this issue, some BIRCWH programs mentioned institutional commitments to protect time that faculty devote to mentoring and issuing institutional mentorship awards to recognize successful faculty mentoring. The CTSA authors found substantial variability in mentoring practices across sites and limited consensus about the core elements of “effective mentoring practices.”8 In contrast to the CTSA findings, BIRCWH program directors appeared to share many common mentoring practices. BIRCWH programs over time appear to have identified similar elements for mentorship that include (1) an average of three mentors, one of whom would be a career mentor and at least two other content mentors that differ in their specialty, (2) a primary mentor who meets at least weekly with the Scholar, (3) explicit statement of expectations and roles of mentors and Scholars from the beginning of their work together (often in the form of written contracts), (4) at least annual evaluation from Scholar, mentor, and program leadership, (5) programmatic evaluation to ensure that mentors support the research independence, networking, and other needs of Scholars, and (6) the emergence of educational programs and tools to support the mentorship work of mentors and Scholars.

As highlighted by Domino et al.,9 the BIRCWH program allows one of the most longitudinal looks at the interdisciplinary mentoring approach. Over time, the BIRCWH programs nationwide appear to have embraced common themes in supporting and evaluating interdisciplinary mentoring at the individual, program, and institutional levels. However, there are limitations to the current report. We are not able to connect particular interdisciplinary mentoring elements identified by BIRCWH programs directly with successful outcomes. Nevertheless, it is notable that BIRCWH programs have been highly successful; 2011 NIH research project grant funding data reveal that 38% of R01 applications submitted by BIRCWH Scholars were funded. This is higher than the overall NIH research project grant success rate of 29.3%.

Success for a BIRCWH Scholar can be measured by many different variables, and future studies may build on these data to further explore the relationships between specific mentoring practices and research independence outcomes more directly. This article is written from the perspective of PIs and PDs, and it is not known if providing Scholars with multiple mentors creates an added burden to Scholars, although that did not emerge as a finding from any of the reports of the Scholar/mentor relationship. It is also worth noting that in the majority of BIRCWH programs, there is a designated primary mentor who works with the scholar to oversee the overall functioning of the interdisciplinary team. Another issue is that the best practices and challenges reported across programs may not take into account other activities that support mentoring within a given institution.1013 Because organizational culture certainly can influence the cultivation of interdisciplinary science, this is another dimension that would be interesting to study.

Although it is certainly challenging to quantify the effectiveness of mentoring, especially at the individual level, any faculty member can speak to the importance of mentors to their careers, and institutional leaders can speak to the importance of good mentoring to attract highly qualified students and faculty. This reflection of a highly successful national research mentoring program provides a unique glimpse into common practices that academic institutions have found successful to cultivate the next generation of interdisciplinary research leaders. This information may be relevant not only for women's health but also for other fields and disciplines.


Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) Program Leadership Boston University: Karen M. Freund, M.D., M.P.H., Rebecca Silliman, M.D., Ph.D., Bonnie J. Sherman, Ph.D.; Duke University-North Carolina Central University: Phyllis C. Leppert, M.D., Ph.D.; Harvard University: Jill M. Goldstein, Ph.D., M.P.H., Ursula B. Kaiser, M.D.; Mayo Clinic: Virginia M. Miller, Ph.D., Rebecca S. Bahn, M.D., Walter A. Rocca, M.D., Lynne T. Shuster, M.D., Adil E. Bharucha, MBBS, M.D.; Medical University of South Carolina: Kathleen T. Brady, M.D., Ph.D., Jacqueline F. McGinty, Ph.D.; Michigan State University: Mary D. Nettleman, M.D., M.S., Claudia Holzman, D.V.M., M.P.H., Ph.D.; Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine: Margrit Urbanek, Ph.D., Teresa Woodruff, Ph.D., Andrea Dunaif, M.D.; Oregon Health & Science University: Jeanne-Marie Guise, M.D., M.P.H., Daniel Dorsa, Ph.D.; Pennsylvania State University: Carol S. Weisman, Ph.D., Kristen Kjerulff, Ph.D.; Tulane University: Adrienne B. Warren, M.P.H., Jeanette H. Magnus, M.D., Ph.D., Carolyn C. Johnson, Ph.D., Marie Krousel-Wood M.D., MSPH; University of California, Davis: Claire Pomeroy, M.D., M.B.A., Ellen Gold, Ph.D., Nancy E. Lane, M.D.; University of California, San Francisco: Monica Gandhi M.D., M.P.H.; University of Cincinnati: Joel Tsevat, M.D., M.P.H., Michael S. Yi, M.D., M.Sc.; University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus: Judith Regensteiner, Ph.D., Margaret Neville, Ph.D., Judy Zerzan, M.D.; University of Illinois at Chicago: Stacie E. Geller, Ph.D., Tonda L. Hughes, Ph.D., Pauline M. Maki, Ph.D., Abby Koch, M.A.; University of Kansas Medical Center: Patricia A. Thomas, M.D., Susan Carlson, Ph.D.; University of Kentucky: Thomas E. Curry, Ph.D., Catherine A. Martin, M.D., Ann L. Coker, Ph.D.; University of Maryland Baltimore: Patricia Langenberg, Ph.D., Istvan Merchenthaler, M.D., D.Sc.; University of Michigan: Steven E. Domino M.D., Ph.D., Yolanda R. Smith, M.D., M.S., Timothy R.B. Johnson, M.D.; University of Minnesota: Jean F. Wyman, Ph.D., Nancy Raymond, M.D.; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Eugene P. Orringer, M.D., Kim Boggess, M.D.; University of Pittsburgh: James M. Roberts, M.D., Michelle Broido, Ph.D.; University of Rochester: Deborah Cory-Slechta, Ph.D., Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D.; University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston: Abbey B. Berenson, M.D., Ph.D., M.M.S., Jean Freeman, Ph.D.; University of Wisconsin, Madison: Gloria E. Sarto, M.D., Ph.D.; Vanderbilt University: Katherine E Hartmann, M.D., Ph.D., Nancy J. Brown, M.D.; Virginia Commonwealth University: Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D., PonJola Coney, M.D, Jerome F. Strauss, III, M.D., Ph.D.; Washington University in St. Louis: Thomas J. Baranski, M.D., Ph.D., Clay F. Semenkovich, M.D.; Yale University: Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., Samuel Ball, Ph.D.


*Researchers working in relative isolation within their department or field.


We acknowledge Vivian Pinn, M.D., former Associate Director, Research on women's Health, NIH, and Former Director, Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH), NIH; Janine A. Clayton, M.D., Acting Director, ORWH; and Joyce Rudick, Director of Programs and Management, ORWH, for their strong support of this project. We thank Caitlin Summers, M.P.H., and Nanette Yandell, M.P.H., who assisted with objective qualitative analyses using NVivo for this article. The findings and conclusions in this document are those of the authors and do not represent the official policies of the Office of Research on Women's Health or the National Institutes of Health.

Disclosure Statement

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.


1. Leshner AI. Science at the leading edge. Science. 2004;303:729. [PubMed]
2. McCarthy J. Tackling the challenges of interdisciplinary bioscience. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2004;5:933–937. [PubMed]
4. Pinn VW. Research on women's health: Progress and opportunities. JAMA. 2005;294:1407–1410. [PubMed]
5. Pinn VW. Blehar MC. Interdisciplinary women's health research and career development. In: Rayburn WF, editor; Schulkin J, editor. Changing landscape of academic women's health care in the United States. International Library of Ethics, Law and the New Medicine 48; New York: Springer: 2011. p. 53.
6. Heller C. de Melo-Martín I. Clinical and Translational Science Awards: Can they increase the efficiency and speed of clinical and translational research? Acad Med. 2009;84:424–432. [PubMed]
7. Schultz D. Keyser D. Pincus HA. Developing interdisciplinary centers in aging: Learning from the RAND/Hartford Building Interdisciplinary Geriatric Health Care Research Centers initiative. Acad Med. 2011;86:1318–1324. [PubMed]
8. Silet KA. Asquith P. Fleming MF. Survey of mentoring programs for KL2 Scholars. Clin Transl Sci. 2010;3:299–304. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
9. Domino SE. Smith YR. Johnson TR. Opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary research career development: Implementation of a women's health research training program. J Womens Health. 2007;16:256–261. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
10. Sambunjak D. Straus SE. Marusic A. A systematic review of qualitative research on the meaning and characteristics of mentoring in academic medicine. J Gen Intern Med. 2010;25:72–78. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
11. Pololi LH. Knight SM. Dennis K. Frankel RM. Helping medical school faculty realize their dreams: An innovative, collaborative mentoring program. Acad Med. 2002;77:377–384. [PubMed]
12. Pololi L. Knight S. Mentoring faculty in academic medicine. A new paradigm? J Gen Intern Med. 2005;20:866–870. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
13. Keyser DJ. Lakoski JM. Lara-Cinisomo S, et al. Advancing institutional efforts to support research mentorship: A conceptual framework and self-assessment tool. Acad Med. 2008;83:217–225. [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of Women's Health are provided here courtesy of Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.