Identifying the right primary mentor for your research program is one of the most important things you’ll do as a junior faculty member. Choosing the right person will help ensure ongoing success and productivity, while selecting a less effective may make things tough. I’ve heard more than one successful surgeon-scientist reflect that they “got lucky” when they connected with a strong mentor. It was serendipitous. The previous research fellow set everything up, and he or she walked right in to execute the research that landed in Science or JAMA. There is of course some truth to these stories. Being at the right place at the right time always helps. But, I think many – perhaps unknowingly – used the same insight and judgment that they subsequently applied to their successful research careers to identify individuals who were capable of providing strong mentorship.
I have spent a fair amount of time during my first two years on the faculty identifying individuals who could be excellent mentors for my career and research. I would like to share a few thoughts for those who are planning on submitting a career development award (i.e. NIH K-08, NIH K-23, VA CDA) and are looking for a primary mentor. I have also included some quotes from the legendary New York Yankee, 10-time World Series champion, and originator of countless “Yogisms” – Yogi Berra.
“You can observe a lot by watching”
1 – Look both inside and outside of your Department of Surgery: The most sensible place to start your mentor search is within your Department. These individuals likely know you well. They know your field, and they understand what it takes to be a successful surgeon researcher. However, don’t stop there. Look in the other Departments across your campus. Regardless of whether you’re a basic scientist or health services researcher, explore the Departments of Economics, Engineering, Psychology, Chemistry, and Education among others. Other clinical departments, such as Radiology, Primary Care, Medicine and Nursing, have mentored many successful surgeon-scientists. Two of my mentors, Atul Gawande and Caprice Greenberg – were both initially mentored by Medicine faculty members (David Bates and Jane Weeks, respectively). There are several advantages to working with primary mentors outside of your department. They bring a different, often critically important perspective on even the most fundamental issues (one of my mentors routinely questions the effectiveness of bariatric surgery; I am a bariatric surgeon). By definition, they bring a multi-disciplinary approach which is always helpful for grantsmanship purposes. Perhaps, most importantly, they simply have more time than many surgeons.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else”
2 – Consider a trial period with your potential primary mentor: During this trial run, which may last several months, look for a few things: 1) How far down in the weeds is this person willing to get? Will he/she review your grants and manuscripts and provide detailed feedback? 2) How responsive is this person? Does he/she return your emails in a timely manner? Can you set up meetings regularly? These folks are busy, but they need to be willing and able to prioritize and invest in your training. You are initially a gamble for them because you’re an unknown commodity. But, if you are successful, you become a tremendous investment for them. Thus, it needs to be a two-way street. You deserve their time and mental energy. 3) How do your personalities mesh? You don’t have to be able to complete each other’s sentences, but you need to be able to clearly communicate well and have a comfortable mentoring-mentee relationship. This is obviously hard to articulate, but these things often become apparent once you start regularly interacting. If it turns out that the mentor isn’t a great fit, politely transition. Finish up your manuscript with him/her. Continue collaborating to the extent you feel you need to. But, start looking for a new primary mentor. A few months down the wrong road isn’t a huge deal but several years of poor mentorship hurts.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
3 – Review your primary mentor’s record of mentorship: I recently had a call with an NIH program officer who reviewed with me all of my mentors’ biosketches specifically looking for prior K-mentees and T-32 participants. Not all of the mentors on your grant need to have mentored K awardees, but your primary mentor will be considered much stronger if he or she has (ideally multiple K or CDA awardees). R-01s and Merit awards from your proposed mentor are great, but that track record of mentorship is key.
“It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.”
4 – Assemble a mentoring team: Your primary mentor probably will not be able to provide guidance in all areas. He or she may be a content expert, a methodologic expert or in a best case scenario, both. However, your grant will likely involve multiple components and you will need experts in each of these areas. If you’re a health services researcher, you may need quantitative, qualitative, decision analysis, econometric, and/or interventional experts. Basic scientists will likely need mentors with expertise in a particular scientific area or perhaps a specific experimental technique. Work with your primary mentor to find these individuals. Further, your grant and mentorship team will be significantly strengthened if one of your mentors is focused on providing general career mentoring. It is helpful if this person does not have any conflicts of interest regarding your research and clinical productivity. This person needs to be able to advocate for you if you are being asked to do things that are not in alignment with what your department leadership expects from a research standpoint.
“We made way too many wrong mistakes.”
5 – Try not to get too frustrated (confession: I got frustrated at times): Be ready for some swings and misses. The relationships you establish with faculty members who may not become a mentor will be valuable. You never know where your research is going to take you. Your paths may cross in the future, and sooner than you think. This individual may not be a great primary mentor. But he or she may be a phenomenal collaborator and may even want you to serve as a co-PI on projects in the future. Don’t burn any bridges.
In summary, finding strong mentorship is key for junior faculty members to get their research careers started. Fortunately, our institutions and our professional societies, notably the AAS, are filled with surgeons who have gone through this exact thing and made it to the other side. Talk to them about it. Meet with them. Pick up the phone. Google them. Email. Text. Tweet. Do whatever it takes to obtain the insight you need to get your research career started.
“It ain’t over till it’s over.” RIP Yogi.