Research In Action

Research In Action

mentoring trainees
Mentoring Trainees Goes Both Ways
January 26, 2016

Mentorship is a necessary and critical role in any profession as it passes on invaluable experience to the next generation. In the scientific and academic community, specifically, mentorship provides future scientists with vital guidance in career development and real-world exposure to research projects.

Although mentoring can be rewarding, it’s also very time-consuming. With the appropriate framework, however, mentoring trainees can foster professional growth for both the mentor and mentee. Here are some tips to accomplish that feat -- no matter what your style of management may be -- based on my years of experience mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Regular meetings are key. Trainees are not experienced, full-time employees; they may not know the next steps after completing assignments or whether they are performing their tasks correctly. They may be bashful or timid about initiating conversations with you, even when in need of more guidance. Mentors need to take the initiative and stay engaged.
  • Match the project to the interest. Obviously, all research projects come with uninteresting, monotonous tasks that are often completed by trainees. To keep interest high, be sure to reevaluate the assigned research project if you detect disinterest. Passion for the research project (even if the tasks are relatively unexciting) will make trainees more productive and the research experience more rewarding. 
  • Balance time on projects. Although trainees, particularly graduate students, usually take ownership of some aspect of a research project that represents the majority of their effort, devoting their time to a single project can backfire. It can lead to burnout and be counterproductive to the goal of training – to help cultivate the next generation of scientists.  I have accomplished balance with my own mentees by ensuring that each has a primary research project that is relevant to their skillset and experience level, allowing them to hone their existing research skills and take ownership of a specific research topic. I also require participation in additional projects outside their area of expertise to:
    • take them out of their comfort zone
    • develop new skills
    • become well-rounded researchers
  • Be prepared for more, not less, efficiency. Mentors often overestimate the amount of time required to complete tasks assigned to trainees. Since they are not bogged down with the administrative tasks of grant writing or project management, trainees can sometimes complete tasks more quickly than anticipated (sometimes in a day instead of a week). Don’t fill this time with busywork. Instead, have a tentative plan in place for the duration of their internship but be prepared to adapt to their ability level.

As the newly appointed CIRP@CHOP Director of Training, I look forward to covering the topic of mentoring research trainees in future Research In Action posts. Stay tuned!