Finding a Research Mentor (Part 2)

This is part 2 of our series on finding a research mentor.  This segment will be dedicated to what qualities make for a good research mentor.  In part 1, we outlined how to determine what specialty to select for performing research and points to consider when deciding on what type of research you would like to become involved in.  Part 3 will outline various other small considerations that can have a dramatic impact on your experience and productivity.

What qualities should I be looking for in a mentor?

Academic physicians are extremely busy and are pulled in so many directions with their time.  Many split their time between clinical responsibilities, teaching duties, administrative tasks, conducting research, and securing funding for their research activities.  Still, there are some individuals that despite all of the other demands for their time and attention, spend an extraordinary amount of time mentoring and working with medical students.  These are the type of mentors that you want to work with throughout your time in medical school.

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One quality that I took for granite initially was accessibility to the mentor.  In trying to secure research mentors during my first year of medical school, I found out how incredibly difficult it was just to make initial contact with and schedule a meeting with some physicians.  The first mentor I tried to reach out to was an orthopedic surgeon.  Making initial contact with him took three emails.  After making contact and scheduling a meeting, he ended up canceling our initial meeting four times despite making myself available to meet with him at any time and at any location.  I trecked from the medical school library to attempt to meet him at the main hospital, in an affiliated surgery center, at the VA hospital, and at his office all to be stood up.  After four cancellations, he set me up with a meeting with a medical student research fellow working for him.  The research fellow vaguely discussed a project idea and told me to get started without any instructions or direction.  In contrast, I reached out to the chair of urology at my institution about a month later.  He responded directly to my initial email within 48 hours.  He said he would be happy to meet to discuss opportunities and already had numerous project ideas ready for me.  He mentioned that he was out of town that week, but carbon copied his endourology fellow to meet with me that week and discuss the various projects opportunities.  I met with the fellow that week, and met with the attending upon his return.  I probably don’t have to tell you that I chose the urology mentor for my summer research experience.

Another important component to investigate before even deciding to contact a potential mentor is to look at the physician’s research output.  You want to work with someone who is publishing a lot.  Don’t take just sheer number of publications as the only indicator.  Determine when those articles were published.  For example, an attending nearing the end of his or her career may have amassed a substantial number of scholarly publications.  However, if the last one was 10 years ago, then that mentor may not be a good mentor for you.  On the other end of the spectrum, attendings right out of residency or fellowship often carry some risk.  In my experience, these attendings are more than happy to mentor and work with medical students as they remember what it was like being a medical student.  They also are eager to start accelerating their own career and building an arsenal of medical student researchers is a great way to do so.  While they may have good intentions with project ideas, I have found that they can lack the experience to know how likely a project is to be published and may struggle with study design and implementation.  Of course there are exceptions, these are just some points to be cognizant of before signing up with a particular mentor and diving into a project.  I tell you this so you can learn from my mistakes: I can’t even tabulate the number of hours I have spent working on projects that have amounted to nothing.

Enthusiasm of the mentor is another helpful gauge.  If they are excited to work with you, that makes the entire research experience more enjoyable.  They will be more willing to meet with you, more willing to help teach you, more likely to encourage you to present and publish your work, and more helpful in securing you funding to pursue those opportunities.  If working with you is a burden to them, that creates for a less productive, enjoyable, and educational experience for all parties.

There are also different styles of mentoring.  After working with the chair of urology, I soon learned that he was a very hands-on mentor.  After drafting a manuscript for my first project, I sent it to him for review.  Instead of just sending back edits or completely rewriting the paper, he scheduled a meeting for us to go through my draft.  We sat in his office and went line by line through the paper addressing the content and style of my writing.  After a lengthy discussion, he told me to go home and rework the paper based on what we had discussed.  After re-drafting the manuscript, we again met and went line by line re-writing and editing the paper simultaneously sitting down together looking at the same computer screen.  This was an invaluable experience and after repeating this process with other projects, he helped turn me into a confident academic writer.  Another urology mentor that I have worked with extensively has nearly the opposite mentoring style.  He was about as hands-off as a mentor could be.  The first project I did with him, he sent me a paper from a study published in another field and told me to figure out how to replicate it in urology.  He had provided me with the idea, and it was my role to design the study, collect the data, perform the statistics, and draft the manuscript.  When I sent him the manuscript draft, he made edits and sent back the paper for me to adjust it.  From the start of the project to the end, I don’t think we ever met or discussed anything in person, but instead had a couple brief phone calls when questions arose.  Both of these individuals were excellent mentors, despite their stark differences in how they mentored.

Many of the qualities that make for a great research mentor include general qualities that make for a successful individual in any field of work.  Good organizational habits, professional etiquette, and timeliness.

When you are meeting with various research mentors about potential project ideas for longitudinal research during medical school or for a dedicated research period, look for these qualities in a mentor to discern if the physician will make for an encouraging and supportive mentor for your research endeavors.

What qualities do you look for in a research mentor? Comment below or send your thoughts to Med Student Edge directly.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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