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The pros and cons of mentoring by Skype

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Biomedical researcher Shoba Amarnath (left) values the non-hierarchical nature of her remote mentoring arrangement with immunobiologist Judi Allen (right).Credit: Shoba Amarnath, Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston

Shoba Amarnath is a research fellow at the Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, UK, and is mentored by Judi Allen, an immunobiologist at the University of Manchester, UK. Their mentoring arrangement was organized as part of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences Springboard programme, which offers financial and practical support to biomedical researchers.

The research focus of Amarnath’s lab is understanding how the immune system prevents responses to particular proteins in the body (known as immunotolerance), specifically how cell-surface receptors such as PD-1 regulate T cells and innate lymphoid cells. Allen’s lab studies the interaction between helminth parasitic worms and their hosts.

Shoba Amarnath

I applied for the Springboard programme because it came with a bespoke mentoring system. I liked the fact that it isn’t hierarchical mentoring. It’s not someone in your department who is a senior principal investigator (PI). Instead, it’s a person who is accomplished in their field. And you get to pick them, rather than them being assigned to you. I picked someone in immunology. I wanted to understand the landscape.

Judi gives me a broad perspective. Although I did my PhD in the United Kingdom, I never really got into the scientific culture here. I completed a master’s and a PhD in cancer immunotherapy at the University of Hull, UK, after moving here from Chennai, India. I then did a postdoc in Wanjun Chen’s lab at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. After spending a total of ten years at NIH, you forget how everything else works. For example, the NIH receives core funding from the federal government, and researchers there don’t write grant applications at all. So I’d never written one. I had no idea.

I first spoke to Judi in late 2016, and we met for the first time in December that year. We communicate using Skype, but also at immunology meetings. I e-mail her about my progress and have contacted her again to discuss a couple of things that were happening in my group, including a paper I was working on for The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

She really centres my thought processes. A couple of months ago, for example, she suggested that the next step for me would be to focus on a big grant. As a new PI, this is all very helpful. You don’t know what the important milestones are. In academia it’s all unspoken. There are no set rules.

I mentor people now and I ask Judi about that. It’s important to be there for junior colleagues. As the PI, it’s my ideas that are being pushed forward. I really try to step aside and let students drive the projects and their careers.

One thing I’m learning, which is very hard, is not to push people towards academic training. Academia should not always be the focus. That’s a bit hard for an academic to reconcile. I was fortunate to be aware of alternative tracks, because all my friends at the NIH moved into non-academic careers, including policy and grant management. We need scientists in these careers who can advocate for science.

Judi Allen

When those at the Academy of Medical Sciences asked me to mentor Shoba, they said I had to take a mentoring course. The thing I learned from that course, which I had not fully appreciated, is the difference between mentoring someone in your own lab, who you have a vested interest in, and someone who is outside of your direct influence.

Those whom I mentor through the academy are totally removed from anything to do with me. I’m much more likely to tell someone remote that they should give up or that something isn’t going to work, but I’d find it much harder to say that to someone here in Manchester, because I know them personally and their success is a reflection on me in my lab. I need them to succeed. It’s a very different process.

I mentor two people through the Springboard programme. I’m very aware that I don’t know the internal politics of where Shoba and the other person works, so a lot of the advice in remote mentoring is centred on how well someone gets on with their head of department. I try to establish whether they have a good relationship and urge them to go to him or her first. Sometimes women don’t think to ask: “What are your expectations of me? What will it take for me to get to the next promotion stage?” I stress that whatever I say should not be the final word.

Skype is an amazing invention and I’m happy to use it any time, but I do think it’s important to have met in person. I have a meeting in Newcastle in a few weeks and will suggest to Shoba that we meet up again for lunch.

The main challenge of remote mentoring is that you might not click with someone, but the academy makes clear that the person being mentored is in the driving seat, so if they don’t keep in touch, the relationship will fizzle out. Another challenge is time, which is why I have limited the number of people I mentor remotely. I was amazed when Shoba said how much she had got out of our first conversation.

It all comes down to personalities, and so far, it’s all going fine. I’m asked questions, and I use my experience to answer them. I’m very careful to say it might not be the right answer.

I’ve had some great mentors along the way. Richard Stephens supervised my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and Rick Maizels was my mentor when I moved to Imperial College London for my postdoc.

Both were men, obviously, and I make that distinction because I am constantly being asked to mentor because I’m a woman. I didn’t used to believe in specific female mentoring programmes. One reason I found it difficult is because I’ve not had children, so I find it hard to know how people manage with kids. But there are many other issues around being a woman in science. It’s taken me years to see that there are bigger issues that I’d not felt as much earlier on.

These are total generalizations and there are exceptions, but women are often less willing to put themselves forward and less ready to ask for a salary rise, for example. They rarely think that they are as good as they really are, and are much more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Also, the UK funding system is very oriented towards individuals, whereas women tend to be more team players.

But from the pure science side, I guess the point I’m making is that men can be just as good at mentoring as women are. Mine taught me the politics of running a research group, and the male perspective might have been useful. They also both truly believed in me, even when I didn’t.


These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


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