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Team Mentoring for Interdisciplinary Team Science: Lessons From K12 Scholars and Directors

Guise, Jeanne-Marie MD, MPH; Geller, Stacie PhD; Regensteiner, Judith G. PhD; Raymond, Nancy MD; Nagel, Joan MD, MPH; for the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health Program Leadership

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001330


The increasing complexity of science, technology, and issues facing society has created a demand for integrated interdisciplinary research teams to understand and solve these problems.1,2 Although in the United States an expectation of team science is becoming more common, little is known about the effects of interdisciplinary team mentoring on the development of junior researchers and what it takes to prepare trainees and faculty for this team discovery environment.

The Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) program, developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women’s Health, has demonstrated success for individual scholars (as assessed by funding rates, publication rates, and other outcomes) and for increasing the emphasis on team mentoring at an institutional level.3 This program, funded at 27 sites across the United States, is designed as three pillars—career development, mentoring, and interdisciplinary research—and is one of the longest-running interdisciplinary mentoring programs in biomedical science.4 Although there are differences in scientific focus and administrative details across participating institutions, all provide 75% protected time for faculty to pursue research in women’s health or sex differences, require interdisciplinary team mentoring, and have shared investments between NIH and the institution.

Mentoring has been repeatedly demonstrated to play a critical role in academic success. Fellows and faculty who are mentored are more likely to pursue and remain in an academic career,5–8 report greater job satisfaction (twofold increase for fellows),6,9 experience improvements in annual performance reviews (56% improvement in research, 26% in teaching, and 6% in patient care)10 and are more than two times more likely to be promoted to professor.11 Mentoring has been shown to have a particularly important role in influencing the selection of research as a career, shaping research careers, increasing the allocation of time to research,12–19 and increasing academic productivity.5,18,20–23 In addition, faculty who are mentored are two to three times more likely to become a principal investigator (PI) on research grants.18,23 These studies examined the influence of the traditional mentor–mentee dyadic relationship. Despite a relative dearth of quantitative evaluation of team mentoring experiences, team mentoring continues to be a critical element of training programs for the inter- and transdisciplinary research workforce. Although there are validated tools to evaluate the individual mentor–mentee relationship,24–27 it is not known whether being mentored by teams further amplifies these positive findings of mentoring or has negative effects.

As health care education and science moves toward interdisciplinary and interprofessional models, there is increasing interest in the competencies required for researchers to be successful in team science and how to cultivate them.28 Identified competencies for interdisciplinary team science include being able to use theories, methods, and concepts from different disciplines; demonstrating respect for other disciplines; successfully communicating with other disciplines; and collaborating with people from other disciplines to develop an interdisciplinary framework.29 It is important to understand training and mentoring approaches that cultivate such competencies. Interdisciplinary mentoring teams may offer advantages for trainees to develop such competencies, but they also have the potential to introduce new challenges. Potential advantages include the use of a progressive cutting-edge approach that brings leading scientists from various fields together to tackle complex research topics and a model which builds comfort and fluency working in interdisciplinary teams. Potential challenges include dealing with multiple scientific “languages” and approaches that raise challenges for scholars and require navigating differences and conflict among the research team.

The purpose of this study was to characterize the process, advantages, and challenges of team mentoring to career development and research, as described by interdisciplinary research program directors and past and current scholars.


We conducted a national survey of directors and active and former BIRCWH K12 scholars from the 27 current BIRCWH programs from October 3 to 17, 2014. We contacted BIRCWH directors by e-mail through the NIH BIRCWH program director/principal investigator (PD/PI) listserv and sent them one reminder inviting their participation in a survey to understand team mentoring practices and evaluation among BIRCWH sites. The e-mail included an information sheet about the study, a link to a director’s survey (see Supplemental Digital Appendix 1 at, and a request for the director to forward an invitation to a total of 10 scholars including all 4 current scholars as well as 6 recent past scholars in their program to complete a scholar’s survey (see Supplemental Digital Appendix 2 at All correspondence including invitations and reminders was distributed through BIRCWH directors. Current and past scholar participation was limited to 10 per site to allow for equal represen tation among all 27 sites. The study was approved by the Oregon Health & Science University institutional review board (IRB number 00011114).

Surveys contained both structured and unstructured questions seeking to assess mentoring practices. The first page of the survey contained an information sheet, and consent was given by clicking forward to take the survey. Survey questions were developed by one of the authors who is a BIRCWH program director (J.M.G.), distributed to coauthors who are also BIRCWH program directors (S.G., J.R., N.R.) for face validation, and reviewed by an evaluation expert. Survey topics included the backgrounds of the mentors or scholars, frequency and nature of meetings, the degree to which team mentoring provided benefits and/or challenges to career development and research, communication issues, and experiences and frequency of disagreements among mentors or mentors and scholars. We also asked respondents to provide 3 to 10 bullet points summarizing their observations about what leads to successful team mentoring, what leads to problems with team mentoring, advice for new scholars regarding team mentoring, and suggestions on how to evaluate team mentoring. All surveys were administered using SurveyMonkey.

Qualitative analyses adhered to processes believed to produce methodologically sound qualitative research, including independent review of texts, thematic coding by two trained reviewers, and triangulation across a multidisciplinary research team.30,31 Responses to open-ended questions were imported into NVivo9 software (QSR International, Cambridge, Massachusetts) and thematically coded independently by two objective research associates with training in conducting qualitative analyses. Because the practice of team mentoring is still developing, our analysis was guided by principles of grounded theory, wherein an understanding of the concept of interest arises from the empirical data rather than from a priori hypotheses.30 We globally reviewed narrative responses to identify initial themes and then re-reviewed in more detail to identify subthemes. Themes and subthemes were reviewed in detail by the lead investigator with training in qualitative analysis and by a multidisciplinary group at the national meeting of BIRCWH program directors in 2014.


Twenty-five of 27 programs (93%) responded to the PD survey and had at least 1 current scholar complete the scholar survey (range 0–6 current scholars per program). Twenty-four of 27 programs (89%) had at least 1 former scholar complete the survey (range 0–7 former scholars per program). In total, 78 of 108 potential current scholars (72%) and 91 of 162 potential former scholars (56%) completed the survey, with a median total scholar participation of 6 per program (range 0–10). The gender distribution of respondents reflected national BIRCWH statistics, with 139 (84%) scholars being female (compared with 80% nationally).3

Because there are logistic considerations in scheduling with many mentors, we asked scholars how frequently they met with their mentoring teams. Meeting practices varied widely, ranging from weekly to annually, with the most common being monthly, quarterly, or semiannually. Scholars reported having between 2 and 7 mentors, with most having between 2 and 4 mentors, and 25% to 30% having at least 1 off-site mentor. Ninety percent of scholars reported that team mentoring was beneficial to their career development (152/169) and research (148/169).

Program directors and current and former scholars all reported that in-person meetings were the most effective method for team mentoring (86% of program directors [25], 80% of current scholars [78], and 73% of former scholars [91]). Factors determining whether the team met in person included scheduling, whether the program required in-person meetings, whether there was perceived benefit from prior meetings, and whether the scholar had a specific need. Of the 63 former and 59 current scholars who described topics covered during group meetings, 50% (31/63) of former and 63% (37/59) of current scholars provided updates on their K12 project; 17% (11/63) of former and 17% (10/59) of current scholars discussed research methods or analysis; 19% (12/63) of former and 8% (5/59) of current scholars discussed career development including promotion; 11% (7/63) of former and 8% (5/59) of current scholars discussed grant planning; and 3% (2/63) of former and 2% (1/59) of current scholars reported working on publications.

To understand the benefits and challenges of team mentoring, program directors and scholars were asked to provide 3 to 10 bullet points on what makes team mentoring effective and what prevents it from being effective. Themes are presented in Table 1. Interestingly, many of the putative strengths of team mentoring were also mentioned as challenges. This included such issues as receiving multiple opinions, in-person team meetings, and scholar and/or mentor preparation for meetings. Scholars commented that it can be difficult given their junior status and inexperience for them to navigate conflict, especially when it arises between senior experienced mentors.

Table 1
Table 1:
Themes and Comments From NIH K12 Program Directors and Scholars About the Effectiveness of Team Mentoring, From a Study of the Advantages and Challenges to Team Mentoring, 2014

Given that the interdisciplinary team environment was likely unfamiliar to new faculty, we asked program directors and scholars for advice they would give to new scholars regarding team mentoring; these themes are presented in Table 2. Directors and scholars agreed on the importance of being open-minded listening to the diversity of opinions, choosing mentors wisely considering their existing skills and relationships, having clear expectations, being proactive about scheduling ahead and guiding meetings, and the importance of meeting in person.

Table 2
Table 2:
Advice From NIH K12 Program Directors, Current Scholars, and Former Scholars to New Scholars Regarding Team Mentoring, From a Study of the Advantages and Challenges to Team Mentoring, 2014

Because current evaluation tools do not specifically address team mentoring, we also asked program directors and scholars to suggest questions to evaluate team mentoring (Table 3). Although many of the proposed questions were common to the traditional dyadic mentoring model, some added unique dimensions to the traditional element—for example, looking at the number and disciplines of authors on research grants and publications as a way to evaluate the expansion of the scholar’s research network in addition to simple counts of the numbers of publications and grants. In addition, some of the questions were uniquely distinct to team mentoring, including questions about the frequency of disagreements and frustration; methods by which the scholar navigated conflicts; the degree to which mentors engaged individually and collectively to mentor the scholar; and whether scholars would choose individual versus team mentoring in the future. Scholars were also asked if they would have had an interdisciplinary mentoring team available to them if not for the BIRCWH program.

Table 3
Table 3:
Suggested Questions From NIH K12 Program Directors, Current Scholars, and Former Scholars to Evaluate Team Mentoring, From a Study of the Advantages and Challenges to Team Mentoring, 2014


Team science is rapidly becoming the preferred model for addressing increasingly complex scientific questions. It is also a key component of success in the current competitive funding environment. Team theory suggests that developing the interpersonal competencies and an open mind-set toward the challenges of interdisciplinary work are critical components to success in team science.29,32,33 Skills necessary to function successfully in a team, such as managing a team of individuals with diverse backgrounds and differing approaches to research, are best learned by working with teams during training and in the early years of one’s career. The interdisciplinary team mentoring format of the BIRCWH program models team science and cultivates the skills needed to succeed in the collaborative team science program. With 15 years of successful interdisciplinary team mentoring experience, the structure and process of team mentoring in the BIRCWH program can inform other programs and provide insights into the unique dimensions of team mentoring that should be considered in mentoring programs and mentoring evaluations. Scholars who effectively learn to navigate an interdisciplinary mentoring team have the advantages of expanding their research networks and taking advantage of resources not only in their own departments but also with regard to resources and collaborators in other departments and schools. Figure 1 illustrates how BIRCWH programs expand research networks for their scholars. Learning to navigate collaborations and mentoring relationships with faculty from other disciplines and to work across these differences is critical to being a successful team scientist. Thus, training programs such as the BIRCWH program serve as good platforms for training team scientists. Many new research collaborations have been formed among scholars, between scholars and mentors, and among mentors by serving on the mentoring team of a BIRCWH scholar. Scholars have also been connected with key research collaborators locally and nationally by their BIRCWH program, thereby allowing the scholar’s research to become more robust and go in unanticipated yet exciting directions.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Model depicting how BIRCWH programs expand research networks and career opportunities for their scholars, with multiple inputs that help BIRCWH scholars optimize their time in the BIRCWH program and optimally develop their career. These inputs include the multidisciplinary mentoring team; the cohort benefits of being among other BIRCWH scholars; the national BIRCWH program faculty, scholars, mentors, and National Institutes of Health leaders to whom the scholar is exposed during the national meeting; and the resources of the scholar’s institution.Abbreviation: BIRCWH indicates Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health.

The majority of scholars reported that team mentoring was helpful to their career development in offering different models of academic success, expanding professional and social networks, and offering a diverse palate of approaches to career opportunities and challenges. Similarly, they reported that interdisciplinary teams advanced their science by strengthening study designs, expanding ideas and brainstorming, and bringing expanded credibility to the scholar in areas they are not directly trained in. The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer program similarly found advantages to the interdisciplinary research environment, reporting a significant positive correlation between multimentoring experiences and transdisciplinary research orientation (r = 0.58, P < .05) and perceived collaborative productivity (r = 0.44, P < .05).28 The Association of American Medical Colleges stated: “At its best, biomedical and health science training, both through training programs and research project grants, not only creates environments for trainees to develop in-depth discipline-based expertise, but also helps prepare them for a broad diversity of careers, including industry, public policy, and other areas, all of which potentially contribute to health and medicine. Increasingly, young scientists train to work in teams and in collaborations on cross-disciplinary research.”34 This report recommended that the NIH Biomedical Workforce Working Group should “Promote training programs with team-based focus, and encourage interdisciplinary training and collaborations.”34 Together, these views suggest that interdisciplinary team mentoring provides an important learning experience and model for the interdisciplinary research teams that scholars will likely need to be successful in science.

This study has important limitations. Because institutions vary in what year their BIRCWH program first began and also until recently in the number of active scholars, programs were asked to limit total scholar respondents to 10, to ensure that larger and older programs did not dominate results. Although current scholar recruitment was comprehensive, it is possible that directors’ selection of former scholars may have been biased. However, directors follow up with all graduates on a regular basis as part of their annual reporting, so it is unclear how likely this might be. An additional limitation is that mentors were not surveyed. The complexity of accounting for multiple comparisons and mixtures of mentors given mentors that may mentor several BIRCWH scholars was thought to be too complicated for this initial study.

Our findings suggest that there are important, unique dimensions to be considered in team mentoring. Even traditional measures such as publications and grants should be expanded beyond simple counts to consider the number of coauthors and authors’ disciplines. Social network analysis has been increasingly used to evaluate the number and type of coauthors a scholar has over time to demonstrate an expansion of their research network. The suggestion of BIRCWH directors and scholars to examine the total number of authors on publications as part of scholar and program evaluation is consistent with findings of the NCI’s interdisciplinary Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers (TTURCs). These centers found that the total annual publications, cumulative publications, and average number of authors per publication all were higher in their interdisciplinary TTURCs compared with similarly funded grant types that were not team focused.28 Similarly, scholars involved in team mentoring learn to navigate challenges faced by the scientific community involved in team science including the different languages and approaches between those from different disciplines. Taken to an extreme, lack of these skills can lead to delays in scientific progress, but when these challenges are navigated well, scholars build skills that will benefit them in team science endeavors and increase their overall productivity.

Our findings suggest that like team science, team mentoring requires special skills for the scholar—skills which are often not taught to junior faculty. These are confidence to speak up (not be intimidated), being a proactive advocate for their mentoring experience, scheduling (which is not a minor challenge, given the stature and busy schedules of their mentors), and being open to looking at issues with a different and sometimes foreign lens. Responses from scholars and directors also suggest that the process of team mentoring may have important operational differences and different requirements from the traditional dyadic mentoring model. Their descriptions imply that team mentoring involves a more formalized process where scholars present their findings, challenges, and career plans to the group of mentors and coordinate discussions and feedback. This finding suggests that training and practice in concisely summarizing information, public speaking, presentation skills, and managing group discussions are increasingly important topics for academic education. Institutional infrastructures can help junior faculty by teaching them these skills, giving permission for the junior faculty to advocate for themselves, and developing clear guidance for mentor and scholar expectations in the team environment (including how they will navigate differences of opinion or conflict) as well as setting an expectation for periodic in-person meetings guided by thoughtful prepared materials on behalf of the scholar. Programs that support team mentoring must therefore monitor for signals of trouble in the team dynamics to assist the scholar in successfully navigating to a positive resolution of the conflict. Suggestions on how programs can support career development in the team mentoring/team science environment included requiring in-person meetings among all mentors to promote communication and shared goals, and paying attention to these meetings because stopping of the meetings may be a signal of troublesome conflict. Additional suggestions for programs to support scholars in a team mentoring environment included assisting in setting clear roles and expectations among the mentoring team, and encouraging the scholars to take full advantage of their mentoring team (networking, advice on promotion, research design, journal selection, etc.). Thus, team mentoring poses both challenges and opportunity for scholars. However, by the end of the training, both the scholars and mentors often have many new collaborators, new approaches to solving both scientific and interpersonal issues that arise in the pursuit of knowledge through team science, and increased confidence regarding their careers.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Caitlin Dickinson and Thai-Hien Do for their assistance with the qualitative analysis of themes from narrative survey responses.


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