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Helping Researchers Become Better Mentors

What works and how institutions should approach research trainee mentorships

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December 5, 2012 | by Erin White

CHICAGO --- Many good mentors in the world of academic science and medical research have learned by making mistakes, rather than from formal curriculums or programs.

Now a major four-year review of the literature led by Northwestern Medicine researcher Michael Fleming, M.D., offers a thorough understanding of what actually works and what doesn’t when it comes to mentoring and how institutions should approach research trainee mentorships. 

Based on a series of white papers and a review of mentorship literature, a set of recommendations were published Nov. 20 in a viewpoint column in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The first-of-its kind recommendations include protected time for mentoring and financial support to offset training costs.

They are specifically established for mentoring clinical translational science research trainees at the dozens of universities that receive National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding through Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA) programs.

“Physicians, social and basic scientists should be trained on how to be a mentor, it's not something you're born with,” Fleming said. “It’s been proven that active mentorship is one of the most powerful predictors of academic success, and learning how to mentor by trial and error is not an effective approach.”

Fleming is a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of family and community medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

He worked with a multidisciplinary group of physicians, educators and scientists from CTSA institutions to develop recommendations for mentor selection, support, competencies, training, evaluation and feedback as well as how to manage alignment of mentee-mentor expectations.

“A lot of times mentees and mentors are disappointed in each other, maybe even mad at each other, because they had different expectations,” Fleming said. “Moving forward it will be important to do more research on managing these expectations.”

Here is an outline of the recommendations for mentoring research trainees from the group:

  • Mentor selection: Institutional leaders (research deans, chairpersons, institutional research training PIs) responsible for the training of new investigators need to guide the process of selection and matching and not leave it to the new investigator alone to navigate this critical process.
  • Mentor support: Mentors need support, including protected time for mentoring and financial support to offset training costs, and formal academic acknowledgment of their mentoring from their institutions.
  • Alignment of mentee-mentor expectations:  The mentees and primary mentor need to formally ensure the ongoing alignment of expectations using strategies such as individual development plans, compacts and formal agreements.
  • Mentor competencies: Institutions should define skill-based competencies they expect mentors to have or acquire through training prior to serving as a primary research mentor.
  • Mentor training: Institutions should offer comprehensive, competency-based mentor training seminars or workshops for mentors and trainees at all levels.
  • Mentor evaluation:  Institutions should implement competency-based evaluation of research mentors using validated measures and assessment procedure. 
  • Mentor feedback: Institutions should provide formal feedback to primary mentors based on competency-based evaluations and offer additional guidance and training in areas that need improvement.