Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—household names in ancient philosophy—have a lot more in common with today’s medical professionals than you might think. In an era where fame was reserved almost exclusively for those sitting on thrones of wealth or power, how did three simple brooders from Athens manage to capture the world’s attention in such an unprecedented way? And what does all this have to do with medicine?
The answer is simple: mentorship! Socrates mentored Plato, who in turn guided Aristotle to greatness.1 While mentorship is important in all modern professions, medicine has kept a tighter grip than most on the practice over the years. The mentor-mentee model is foundational to residency training and is even more integral in fellowships that often employ a one-on-one apprenticeship-like model. Even just getting to that point requires strong mentorship throughout the pre-med and medical school years, and this is especially true for those attempting to do research.
Finding a research mentor, let alone a good one, is a daunting task that few students know how to approach effectively. Many aren’t aware of the numerous factors that must be considered, leaving them blindly clinging to the first faculty member who will simply say “Yes”. This article will put an end to that, offering a clear, step-by-step approach to finding a mentor that is not only worth following, but also an ideal fit for your unique abilities and needs.
Separating the Best from the Rest
So what actually makes a mentor great? Which traits and qualities should you seek out and which should you steer clear of? The exact answers to those questions will vary from one student to the next, but we can still paint a general picture of the ideal mentor before diving into the more variable details.
In general, the mentor should embody traits you find desirable and are seeking to develop in yourself. Want to improve your scientific writing? Seek out a mentor who is very well published. Prefer to focus on honing your public speaking? Try approaching somebody who recently gave an excellent lecture. The ideal mentor should be successful already and very productive, preferably in a field that aligns with your specialty of interest. A track record of working with students previously is always a plus, especially if they can provide positive reviews. Finally, the value of working with somebody who is well-known and well-networked cannot be overlooked.
Individual students must also consider their unique needs and preferences, as mentors are not one size fits all, and many different shades of “great” exist. Medical students often limit their search to MDs and DOs for their clinical ties, but those seeking to learn rigorous research fundamentals should always consider the benefits of working with a PhD. As an added perk, the relationship may be easier to maintain, since physicians can be notoriously hard to get in touch with.
Finally, the style of mentorship must be weighed. Extremely motivated students may prefer a hands-off mentor who gives them the tools for success and then sets them free. The less experienced (or those who tend to procrastinate) may want to work with a stronger personality who will guide them forward and demand results. Often, some mix of the two extremes creates the perfect fit. Only you can decide which is best, and a thorough knowledge of yourself and your goals is necessary to make an optimal choice.
Pursuing the Perfect Match
Now that you’ve decided on your ideal type of mentor, it’s time to find that person and seal the deal. This can seem like searching for a needle in a haystack, but a little strategy goes a long way.
In a perfect world, you will already know somebody who meets your criteria and can simply step into a formal mentor role. However, for many this is not the case. Finding a mentor out of the blue is still very doable but requires a bit more effort and guesswork. Put these candidates under the microscope and scrutinize them closely, but don’t be afraid to take a chance on somebody.
Schools employ a surplus of incredible people, and combing the institution’s website or looking for openings in a formal research program is often worth a shot. Set up a few meetings with the potential mentors you find most interesting and use these to narrow down your list. Take them seriously, and try to treat them like formal job interviews in the following two ways:
First, use the meeting to evaluate all those criteria discussed above. Is this person your ideal mentor, or at least close to it? Do they strike you as the style of mentor you’re looking for? As you talk, try to feel out if you think you’d work well together. Evaluating the prospective mentor’s tangible qualities is just as important as assessing for overall mentor-mentee chemistry. If things don’t feel quite right, be sure to meet with a few others before making a commitment.
Second, remember that they are also interviewing you! Always maintain professionalism even if they are more casual, just be sure to let a bit of your personality show through too. Read up on their ongoing projects and skim their newest papers on PubMed, citing specific examples from these when justifying why you want to join their lab or team. Showing you’ve done your homework can really go a long way.
Above all else, make sure to sell yourself! Identify where you might fit into their world and how you will contribute. Mentorship is a two-way street; it may be a part of their job description, but it also shouldn’t be charity work. Will you dedicate hours to the lab, diligently crunch data, or maybe apply for grant funding to keep the projects afloat? Whatever your contribution is, you must convince them that taking you on will be worthwhile. Your mentor will be sacrificing a lot of time to help you grow, so make sure they know you are willing to work for that privilege.
Managing the Mentorship
So you’ve just landed your dream mentor and are on top of the world. Nothing can stop you now, right? Wrong! To get the most out of the mentorship, you need to uphold your end of the bargain too. Neglect your duties or act inappropriately, and your mentor will quickly lose interest in helping you. In extreme cases, they may even “fire” you. Luckily, a little common sense and knowledge of the most common Mentee Missteps can help to ensure that your experience is nothing but smooth sailing.2
First and foremost, do your work and do it on time. Live by the mantra of “underpromise and overdeliver” as often as you can, and not the other way around. You’ve made a commitment to this person, and not following through on it will undermine all other aspects of the mentorship. You don’t have to be perfect, but in times when you cannot deliver be sure to communicate this early and effectively so that your mentor can adjust their expectations and help you out.
Communication, for that matter, underpins all other aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship. Figure out your mentor’s preferred style and adapt your own to meet it. Most importantly, communicate often. Start by communicating your needs and goals in the initial “interview” meeting, and ensure they are willing to help you reach them. Meet often, send updates regularly, ask for help early, and respond promptly when they reach out. Good communication will make you less of a burden and more of a pleasure to work with, allowing your mentor to dedicate more time to teaching and less to micromanaging.
Take some time to read and familiarize yourself with the common missteps cited in the JAMA article linked above.2 Not surprisingly, aspects of communication are woven into nearly all of them. Pick out those that are most likely to trip you up and set goals to avoid this. Communicate these goals to your mentor so that you’re both on the same page, and in the event that you do make an error it will become a teaching moment instead of a scolding.
Reaping the Rewards
After all this hard work of finding and keeping your mentor, be sure to take steps to make it all worthwhile. You’re here for a reason, so go ahead and utilize your mentor’s wisdom and resources!
Don’t be afraid to speak up about your needs, like publishing a manuscript, just remember that holding up your end of the bargain is a necessary prerequisite. Mentorship is, again, a two-way street. There is a fine line between being a learner and being a leech, and it is up to you to make sure you are not becoming a burden. Assuming you communicate often and strive to be a great mentee, this should not be a problem and your mentor will remain your biggest ally and asset.
The specifics of what your mentor can offer will vary, but helping you to network and build your CV are nearly always on the table. Go with them to conferences and ask to be introduced to big names in the field. You never know who will be sitting on the other side of the desk come residency interview season. Even better, prepare a poster or presentation to submit and then learn from their expertise as they coach you through it all. These skills are essential for your future success, and who better to learn from than somebody who has been honing them for years?
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that you’ll eventually have to ask your mentor for a letter of recommendation. The more projects you work on together the better they will be able to highlight your unique strengths. Follow through on your promises, show genuine interest, and be a pleasure to work with and they will only ever have positive things to say.
A great mentor can be the single most valuable aspect of your medical school experience, and this also holds true for residency and beyond. Medicine is a unique field, and like it or not you too will have to step into the role of mentor someday. This thought alone could terrify the average student, but fear not and trust that all of your mentors along the way will slowly prepare you for this eventual transition. Keep the above strategies in mind, and always remember to thank those who take you under their wing. After all, it won’t be long until you’re passing their wisdom on to mentees of your own.
1. Steven Kreis. Greek Thought: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The History Guide. http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture8b.html. Updated August 3, 2009. Accessed October 23, 2018.
2. Vaughn V, Saint S, Chopra V. Mentee Missteps: Tales from the academic trenches. JAMA 2017;317(5):475-76.
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU.