Research is an integral part of an academic surgical residency. Participation in research during residency increases a resident’s comfort with evidence-based medicine, enhances analytical thinking, and provides time for reflection and creativity1-3. Some residency programs allow 1 to 3 years for the trainee to engage in formal research training. The quality of mentorship is arguably the most important key to success during the research. Mentorship is most optimal when both parties are committed to succeeding. Fortunately, there are plenty of mentors who are committed to helping the next generation of surgeon scientists achieve their goals. Once the resident has decided to pursue formal research training, they should select a mentor and establish the project prior to beginning their dedicated research time. In fact, having a co-mentor for a project should be encouraged as this provides more accountability and a different set of eyes on the project. Once you have established your mentor(s) and research project, how do you ensure a successful and productive relationship?
The first step is to discuss and articulate your goals with your mentor. What do you want to achieve at the end of your research training? State-specific goals such as: present at local and national meetings, learn how to use a database, develop a skill, like being proficient in running a Western blot or cell culture techniques. An important question to ask when determining these stated goals is: what is the long-term plan? For example, are you involved in research because you need to get a competitive fellowship, trying it out to see if you may like a career in research, or are you mandated by your program to complete a research training experience? Be honest with yourself as this will help you and your mentor identify ways to tailor your research experience. What are your expectations for your mentor and how can they help you achieve your goal?
Discuss any potential constraints to your mentorship. The common barrier is usually centered around time commitment. What other commitments do you anticipate during your research time-classes, clinical duties, other projects with other mentors? It is good to estimate how much time you will be dedicating to those other activities and how you plan to prioritize your project. If any of your other projects have a similar theme to your proposed project with your mentor, it could help to highlight how such connections can enhance your current projects.
The mentee and mentor should outline how often they would like to meet to discuss research progress. The mentee should plan to present research progress during lab meetings. Frequency of presentations should be clearly stated at the beginning of the project. Articulate what the short and long-term goals are for each project as well as deadlines. If one of the mentee’s goals is to present at a national meeting, then the deadline for abstract submission should be discussed upfront. Set expectations to publish original research articles, and review articles and book chapters. Discuss ways to fund your research and list funding opportunities that you plan to apply to during your training.
The mentee-mentor expectations should be explicitly documented in a contract and signed by both parties. This document should highlight the points above. A good framework for this contract is the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Postdoctoral Compact.4 Finally, sometimes the mentee-mentor relationship just doesn’t work out as anticipated (goals may change, other more interesting opportunities may arise). Don’t panic, life happens. If this is the case, reach out to your co-mentors or your research program director who can help you complete your project or navigate your exit.
- Kanna B, Deng C, Erickson SN, Valerio JA, Dimitrov V, Soni A. The research rotation: competency-based structured and novel approach to research training of internal medicine residents. BMC Med Educ. 2006;6:52.
- Hebert RS, Levine RB, Smith CG, Wright SM. A systematic review of resident research curricula. Acad Med. 2003;78:61e68.
- Lopez J, Ameri A, Susarla RM, et al. Does formal research training lead to academic success in plastic surgery? A comprehensive analysis of U.S. academic plastic surgeons. J Surg Educ. 2016;73:422e428.
- AAMC. Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors. Available at: https://store.aamc.org/compact-between-postdoctoral-appointees-and-their-mentors-pdf.html.