Mentorship an ‘essential ingredient’ for nursing Ph.D. students

A new School of Nursing initiative places doctoral students into small peer-mentorship groups. The researchers who implemented this found it offers an important supplement to one-on-one peer support and faculty advising.

An illustration of people helping each other move from small pedestal to medium pedestal to large pedestal, in an effort to demonstrate peers helping each other.

Students in doctoral programs nearly always have faculty mentors. Sometimes formalized peer relationships also exist to offer one-on-one guidance. But, despite having these two avenues of support, Ph.D. students in Penn’s School of Nursing reported wanting more by way of mentorship.

With that in mind, graduate student leaders partnered with faculty to create a new initiative they called the Ph.D. Constellation Mentorship Program (PCMP). This incorporated an additional element, in the form of a group of six to eight students, one acting as a facilitator, plus a faculty participant selected by the students. 

Since spring 2020, these groups have constituted a safe, confidential space for doctoral students to connect virtually with peers. They’ve also fostered camaraderie and provided a monthly forum for open conversation. 

In a paper published in the journal Nursing Outlook, a Penn Nursing team including recent Ph.D. graduate Joshua Porat-Dahlerbruch and researchers Nancy Hodgson and Dalmacio Dennis Flores describe the benefits of a predoctoral mentorship of this sort, real-time changes they made based on participant feedback, and how other nursing doctoral programs might incorporate something similar. 

“Ph.D. training requires content mastery and methods training. However, there’s also a ‘hidden curriculum’ that involves socialization into roles as junior scientists and new investigators,” says Flores, an assistant professor of nursing. “With this model, trainees have access to a cohort of peers in varying stages of their own training and a faculty member with insight on issues trainees may not be privy to yet.” 

Flores learned about these benefits firsthand when he was a doctoral student at Duke University. 

Six years ago, he helped create a program like this there and soon after arriving at Penn brought the idea to Hodgson. “We know that students benefit from multiple types of mentorship relationships,” says Hodgson, the Anthony Buividas Term Chair in Gerontology. Each Ph.D. student automatically has a dissertation committee. “Historically, we have also assigned them an individual peer mentor who is a little ahead of them in the program and can help them along the way,” she says. “For some students, that’s sufficient, but for others it may not be.” 

With this model, trainees have access to a cohort of peers in varying stages of their own training and a faculty member with insight on issues trainees may not be privy to yet. Dennis Flores, assistant professor of nursing

At the time that Flores and Hodgson began thinking about instituting group mentorship, Porat-Dahlerbruch and Olivia Arnold, also a recent Ph.D. graduate, were co-leading the school’s Doctoral Student Organization. They wanted to facilitate as many mentorship opportunities as possible for their cohort and others behind them. So, they teamed up with the faculty to create what would become the PCMP.

As had always happened, students were paired with individual peer mentors. But, in addition, those who wanted could join one of the new pods. In the end, 43 doctoral students formed eight small groups. Each had a volunteer student facilitator who scheduled meetings, led the conversations, and communicated with the student coordinators, as well as an invited faculty member. Fifteen percent of the school’s faculty participated, including a variety of junior faculty, post-tenured faculty, and practice professors. 

The groups began meeting in February 2020, with just one in-person session before going virtual because of COVID-19. “The pods offered successful camaraderie during the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Porat-Dahlerbruch says. “Students were able to connect with their peers in a formal monthly setting that allowed them to socialize and discuss what was going on in their lives when we weren’t seeing each other on a daily basis.” 

That positive feedback extended to the program as a whole, Porat-Dahlerbruch says. “Students felt they benefited and that their peers benefited, too. But we also saw areas where we could improve, and we took the results and started to make changes,” he says. 

For example, they instituted new guidelines for facilitators, set a meeting length and frequency, and asked faculty members to join for only half of each call to provide an opportunity for the students to speak just to each other. 

PCMP has now been running for a year and a half and will continue this coming academic year. Other than the program at Duke, the researchers don’t know of another like it, for nursing or any other field. It’s something they hope changes now that these results are public. “A big motivation for this research is to help foster more students going into academia and having the proper experience to succeed,” Porat-Dahlerbruch says. 

Mentorship is crucial in Ph.D. training, says Hodgson. “It’s an essential ingredient to success.” 

Funding for this research came from the National Institutes for Nursing Research (grants T32NR007104 and F31NR019527) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars Program. 

Dalmacio Dennis Flores is an assistant professor in the Family and Community Health Department in the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania

Nancy Hodgson is the Anthony Buividas Term Chair in Gerontology, a professor of nursing, and chair of the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences in the School of Nursing

Joshua Porat-Dahlerbruch completed his Ph.D. in May 2021 at the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the School of Nursing. He will soon begin a postdoctoral Fulbright Scholarship in Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. 

Other paper authors include May Penn Ph.D. graduate Olivia Arnold, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Janae Lamoureux, associate director of graduate academic affairs at the School of Nursing.