Ask the Experts: How to Find the Right Research Mentor for YouAsk the Experts: Physicians and Appropriate Use of Social Media

You find yourself in a whole different world as you are beginning your residency. Your time, always a precious commodity, is becoming scarcer than ever. High on your priority list is building your curriculum vitae (CV). You may be considering how best to get started with and pursue research. You may be thinking there is much you don’t know in this area, or perhaps you have some uncertainty on how to approach the process.

You’re not alone. Our question to ECHO website visitors throughout September was What kind of information about publishing research would you like to know more about? The top answer was “Finding a mentor.”

For expert advice, we reached out to Adeel A. Butt, MD, MS, FACP, FIDSA. With years of experience mentoring young physicians, Dr. Butt has extremely helpful insights on what to look for in a mentor and on how to navigate the process to find a mentor best suited to you. We asked him questions about the importance of research in career advancement and on how you can go about finding and working with a research mentor.

Dr. Butt provides much-needed perspective by placing research and the research mentor in context. Dr. Butt explains why research can be such an important component of your credentials. He discusses the different ways in which a research mentor can help guide, focus, and accelerate the progress of your research. He also provides pointers on how to successfully cultivate and maintain your relationship with your research mentor. After all, selecting that mentor, as crucial as that decision may be, is only the beginning of the relationship which, hopefully, will be of great benefit to you and your career.

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  Why should I pursue research?

There are at least two major reasons why research is important, and is looked upon very favorably.

One is that the reviewer of your CV or the program director will understand your interests, as well as learn about your motivation, and your ambition. If you have completed successful projects, that also tells a program director that you will follow through on other things.

The other is that when you do research, you learn a lot about a new topic, and you go very deeply into that topic. Your knowledge base increases tremendously in that area. This is helpful when you are discussing medical topics with your peers, supervisors, and patients.

  Is it essential for me to do research?

Research is not so essential that, without it, you will not be able to find a residency, or never be able to graduate, but it does add to your CV. In today’s competitive world, when each program has 20 to 50 CV’s or more for each position, you want your CV to stand out, to be different from others. Research is one way to make your CV different.

If you have not done any productive research, other items in your CV could still make it attractive. For example, if your scores are stellar, or you have exceptionally good letters of recommendation, or you have done volunteer work, or you have other unique life/career experiences, you can still have an advantage. Research is one way to gain that advantage, but by no means the only way to gain that advantage.

  If it’s not essential, then why should I engage in a research project?

A scholarly project is a requirement for graduating from a U.S. residency program. However, a scholarly project is defined very broadly by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). A scholarly project can be original bench research, or clinical research, or much lesser things like a review of literature, a case presentation, or a case report.

Apart from that requirement, most residents do not have the time or the resources to do really cutting-edge research. You would have to sit down with your program director and find an appropriate mentor who could help you do that.

If you are looking for a competitive fellowship in a competitive field of medicine, research would be a tremendous asset for you in attempting to gain a good spot.

  How can a mentor, particularly a research mentor, help me?

A mentor is a person who can “hold your hand” and guide you through the initial phases of what is a relatively new field for most of us. When we enter medical careers, no one knows everything about everything. Even when you have been in your career for decades, you cannot possibly know everything. A mentor can help identify and fill some gaps in your knowledge and expertise.

Mentors can be extremely helpful in areas other than research as well. A career mentor can sit with you and explore all pros and cons of choosing specific career tracks. A lifestyle mentor can help you adjust to work-life balance. While a given person might fill all those roles, you might also look for different people to fill different mentoring roles.

An important thing a mentor can do is to “open doors” for you. More importantly, when you are going on a certain path, he or she can accelerate that path for you. For example, where something might take you two, three, four, or five years without a mentor, this person, because of his/her experience, can shorten that time for you by helping you navigate the road. It’s like being in a car and having a GPS, which can guide you much more quickly to your destination, as opposed to stopping at every corner, every turn, and trying to figure out on your own how to get to a certain place without any direction at all.

  When should I begin looking for a research mentor?

The first six months of your residency are very difficult in terms of time management, and you are getting to know new things, new systems, new people, etc. I would not recommend looking for someone as soon as you get to a new place. However, you should start talking to senior residents, or other people who have done research, as to who might be a good person to go and talk to. Sometime after the first three or four or five months, you should start setting up meetings with potential mentors to see if there’s a synergy, and if there would be a good match.

  Who, besides colleagues, should I ask for mentor recommendations?

Program directors would be a good source, but also faculty members or division heads. You might mention in your introductory e-mail that you would like to do research in such-and-such a field but you don’t know who to approach. The chief of a division you are interested in might be able to offer guidance as to who you should approach for mentor possibilities. They could either meet you in person and guide you, or advise you by e-mail as to who to approach, who to talk to. The bottom line is talk to as many people as you can.

  What would I look for in a potential mentor?

First, you would narrow the possibilities by basic factors. These would include making sure you have common interests, whether the person is working in the field you are interested in, or even more specifically, has this person been working in the specialty that interests you and that you want to work in.

At that point, there are at least four things that you should carefully look for in a potential mentor.

One is their availability, whether the person has the time to devote to you. You should be very clear in asking this question of the potential mentor, as well as other people the person has mentored. Does this person have the time to give you to guide you to your goals?

A second factor is the person’s ability to provide appropriate guidance, in terms of the quality of the stewardship they can provide for your career in research. Here, you want to know what their record is with other people they have mentored. Ask the other people who have been under their guidance: Does this person provide good, sound advice? Is their advice helpful in navigating a research career?

The third thing to look for is prominence in the field. The person should be someone who has at least some recognition in their area of expertise. You don’t want to go to a mentor who himself/herself does not have much recognition or much experience. Prominence in one’s field can be judged variously by presence on national committees, being in a senior position within the organization, the amount of invited lectures they give, etc.

A fourth major factor is productivity. Your mentor should be productive in writing papers, in having abstracts at major international meetings. The best way to look at that is by doing a PubMed search, or a MEDLINE search on your mentor as to how many papers your mentor has published in the last 12 months, or in the last five years. Also, how many mentees of that person have published in the last one or two years?

All of this will give you a very good idea as to whether this person is going to be helpful to your career or not.

  What communications should I have, and what information should I exchange, with a potential mentor?

You should set up a face-to-face meeting with your mentor to clearly lay out your expectations, and also clearly ask what your mentor’s expectations are. As a resident, you need to be very clear. “I am a resident. I will not have enough time to sit down in your lab or be with you on a full-time basis. I will be coming in when and as my program and my training allow me.” It is critical that they understand your time limitations. You should discuss with your residency program director how much time you would be able to spend on those things. The last thing you want is to promise more than you can deliver. That would make your mentor very unhappy.

Similarly, you have to ask your mentor how much time they would be able to give you; what flexibility and what amount of responsibility would be given to you; and what is expected of you, considering the time constraints you have.

Sending them a CV is important—certainly if you have published before or done some research before, or if you have skill sets that are useful. For example, if you know some lab techniques, it would be very helpful for your mentor to know them.

  Once I have a mentor, how do I proceed with beginning research?

There are two ways you can go about it. If you are one of those bright, motivated people who already knows what you want to work on, you can develop a project and take it to your mentor. This assumes your mentor is working in the same field and that your mentor has the expertise and the resources to be able to help you with that. Mentors will be very happy if you have already done that because it means less work for them. It also means that they can branch out with you into an area which might expand their own field.

The second way is to join an existing project that your mentor is already doing. Many residents do that, and there are pros and cons to this approach. The pros are that the project is already ongoing, you can tag along, you don’t have to think too much, and you don’t have to spend too much time developing a project. In other words, your timeline is shorter in terms of getting a project done, and you can achieve more in a shorter period of time. The downside to that is you probably will not be the lead author, or the lead presenter, as this person is probably already chosen.

So you have to weigh those two options. If you start your own project, you might be the lead person, but it will also take a much longer time to develop, start, implement, and then finish that project.

  How long might it take for me to complete a research project if I were to begin it on my own?

It varies tremendously. It can be as little as a few days or as much as many years. It depends on the complexity of the project and the topic that you want to study. There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” in these matters.

If you develop a project from the beginning, there are certain regulatory things you need to do. For example, for a research project you will need approval from your Institutional Review Board (IRB). There is an initial submission, then they may ask some follow up questions before you get an approval. IRB approval may take somewhere between one to three months at most institutions, even if you have completely developed a project. Those one to three months have to be added to the development time.

One other critical point needs to be considered. At every institution of higher learning in the United States, if you are working with human subjects, you must be credentialed, must have human subjects training, and must have best practices training. If you are working with animals, you need appropriate training in that field. Most institutions have on-line modules to complete such training, and print out a certificate of completion.

For more information on other administrative requirements, you can contact your senior residents, write to the IRB at your institution, or review the website at your institution. Find out what is required to start a project and see if you can do them up front.

  How can I maintain the best possible relationship with my mentor?

First, always be honest, meaning that if you don’t know something, don’t try to make it up. Always ask, and don’t assume.

Also, be very clear and honest about your commitments and your deadlines. You need to make sure you have the time, the ability, and the resources to complete the assigned tasks. It would be much better to give a realistic timeline. Once you have set a timeline, stick with it.

Have frequent face-to-face meetings with your mentor. Busy mentors are often away for long periods of time, so develop good relationships with their assistants or the individuals who manage their schedules. Try to schedule meetings at least once a month. This will also depend on your project. Have an open, candid exchange during those meetings. Keep asking: “Am I doing OK? Is there anything else I need to do or improve upon?” Yet also tell your mentor about your frustrations, or the challenges that you are facing, so that your mentor can help you navigate some of them.

Honesty and communication are two important things that you need to maintain in your relationship, as well as, of course, delivering upon what you have promised.

  Is there anything else I should know?

There is one final thing. I have seen it time and again that people choose a mentor and, for reasons beyond their control, or beyond the mentor’s control, the relationship does not work out. It does happen. You should not beat yourself up on that. You should evaluate yourself on a regular basis, and if you see that the relationship is not working out, you may have to cut those ties and look for a new mentor.

Thanks to Dr. Adeel Butt for guiding us on a most insightful and helpful tour of this important area.

Adeel A. Butt, MD, MS, FACP, FIDSA is Associate Professor of Medicine and Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He also serves as Chair of the Department of Medicine at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, which is managed by the Cleveland Clinic. During the period 2003-2011, Dr. Butt was program director for the International Scholars Program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He has served as a career mentor and research mentor for numerous residents. Many of his trainees have proceeded to extremely competitive fellowships and joined successful academic careers. Dr. Butt has conducted career counseling seminars for young physicians nationally and internationally for nearly a decade.

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