The Long-Distance Mentor


Most people think of a mentor as an experienced colleague in their own department or office. But it’s often extremely productive and valuable to work with a mentor in another location.

The long-distance relationship can bring advantages beyond the usual advice, insights, and support. One is a broader perspective, says Hakim Weatherspoon, assistant professor of computer science at Cornell University. “A mentor at another institution may be working on something quite different from the focus at your own,” says Weatherspoon, who mentors students across the U.S. Another is the opportunity to learn about scientists in a different culture or professional situation.

Mentoring Topics

Wally van de Nes worked on his M.S. thesis at Seoul National University in Korea, in 2010. He earned his undergraduate engineering degree from the University of Delft, The Netherlands, where a professor there introduced him to a post-doc fellow with similar research interests. For a thesis, “You need a mentor for feedback, expertise and limits,” Van de Nes says. “You can find additional topics just outside your subject area boundaries. But she’d tell me I didn’t have room for it, or that something I wanted to delete would weaken the manuscript. She helped me tighten my content,” says van de Nes, a stress engineer at Airbus in Hamburg, Germany.

With undergraduate mentees, Weatherspoon usually discusses career paths, including whether to pursue graduate school or industry, and which classes best support their goal. Graduate students typically seek candid career advice from someone outside their own academic department or university.

Christopher Edwards is president of Still Point Coaching, who coaches scientists in Europe and Asia. “Sometimes a degree of cultural transition is involved,” observes Edwards, “especially if their aim is a job in an English-speaking country. Asian scientists, for instance, may be uncomfortable showing individual initiative and creativity, but that’s what you need in the U.S.”

Professional advancement concerns come up often, especially after a promotion, says Edwards. “Often, engineers and other scientists haven’t learned how to manage people, how to bring out the best in others.  We work on specific activities, like having a productive conservation in a scientific setting that is challenging but non-threatening.”

Maintaining Contact

How do long-distance mentors keep in touch?  Van de Nes’s contacts were mainly by Skype, occasional phone calls, and many e-mails.  A thesis requires frequent feedback. “We had at least one weekly ‘meeting’ and one e-mail exchange. Some meetings were brief, others lasted over an hour, like if she explained why I needed more time on a particular topic,” he remembers.

The seven-hour time difference between Korea and Holland required careful meeting planning. “My schedule was flexible, but hers was crowded. To work with a distant mentor, be willing to make evening appointments. If one of you is strict about nine-to-five, it’s much harder,” he says.

Weatherspoon’s contacts are by e-mail and phone calls, typically lasting 20 to 30 minutes. With graduate students, he’ll usually have several conversations during the first semester, and then two a year.

Edwards requires voice contact. Skype works well for each half-hour conversation. “If they want me to look at a presentation we talked about, they can send me a draft or PowerPoint [to discuss the following week.]”

Finding a Distant Mentor

Identifying your goals as clearly as possible will help you select someone with the right expertise. Compatible personalities are also essential to a successful long-distance relationship.

Weatherspoon often talks with potential graduate students visiting Cornell. Some who choose to attend another university feel enough rapport to ask him to become their “remote” mentor. He meets undergraduates attending Cornell’s week-long summer program for minority college students. About half accept his offer to become their mentor for the next academic year.

Here are some ways to recruit a long-distance mentor.

  • Ask former or current professors if they can suggest someone with similar interests.

  • Find out if your college’s career placement office or alumni association helps to locate mentors.

  • A respected national organization, Mentornet, matches engineers and scientists with online mentors.

These relationships aren’t one-sided. “I like encouraging the next generation of engineers and scientists especially to pursue advanced degrees rather than just go to industry. Our society, becoming more dependent on technology, requires more scientists,” says Weatherspoon.

For Edwards, “It’s immensely satisfying to watch people grow and develop. I know some scientists who had a good mentor and were several years ahead, in both confidence and competence, by the end of graduate school.”

“I became a better writer and scientist,” affirms van de Nes. And for his job at a global business, “Gaining those cross-time zone communication skills really helps.”

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

I know some scientists who had a good mentor and were several years ahead, in both confidence and competence, by the end of graduate school.

Christopher Edwards, president, Still Point Coaching


September 2012

by Carol Milano,