Selecting mentors and projects

Dr. Josh Smith

July 6, 2015

In my fellowship program, our first year is predominantly clinical and the remaining 2 years are geared toward research. We received encouragement throughout the year to find a mentor and pick a project, but like all good first year fellows, I procrastinated.

I had an interest in medical education, but we didn’t really have anyone in our division who was doing research in that area. When I went to an ATS event toward the end of my first year, I saw the fellows ahead of me having success in a variety of projects. But I still had no idea what I was going to do, and I was expected to start my research in a month. Despite always having an interest in academic medicine, I started to think maybe I should just scrap that plan and focus on clinical rotations and not worry about finding a worthwhile research project.

I found myself having lunch one day with one of the junior faculty in our division, and he gave me some great advice that led me to find the perfect project and mentor. I’ll be walking away from my fellowship with a completed project, hopefully a publication, and, most importantly, a sense of accomplishment.

I’ll try to outline some tips I picked up along the way and pitfalls I ran into.

Mentors

This may be even more important than the project you ultimately do.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box (or division).
The critical piece of advice from the junior faculty member during lunch at ATS was to think about people outside of our division. I knew I was interested in medical education, and we had a few people in the internal medicine department who had similar interests. I e-mailed one faculty member and set up a meeting. She explained to me what she was currently doing and asked what my interests and ideas were. From there, we created a project that, in the end, I grew to love. Depending on your area of interest, you may want to think about people both in and out of the medicine department.

Availability.
Find someone who will be available for advice, direction, and feedback. You may team up with a world expert on lung cancer, but if they have too many irons in the fire or are perpetually out of the office, they may not be the best mentor. When you first get started on your project, you’re going to need guidance. This can be as simple as an e-mail or may require face-to-face time. Your mentor should be available for both. This does not mean you should expect him or her to drop everything, at the drop of a hat, just for you. Successful mentors have multiple mentees but know when to check in with them. They should generally ask for periodic meetings, in person or over the phone, to discuss the status of the project and the next step.

Stage of career.
This one may not be intuitive and is not an absolute. Choosing an established mentor will assist in multiple areas, including expertise and a track record of getting projects and grants (if needed) off the ground. A fresh junior faculty may have multiple departmental expectations, as well as getting their own career off the ground. Junior faculty will often be bubbling with excitement and new ideas and you should not avoid working with them on a project. If you do choose a junior faculty, you should consider the next point…

You don’t have to limit it to one.
Several fellows will establish a mentor panel that will include two to three different faculty members who will all be looking out for your best interest. These mentors “outside” of your project can offer constructive feedback on your project. If you end up working with a junior faculty member, you probably want to consider having an additional mentor who is more experienced and is familiar with the grant and manuscript processes. This can be invaluable once you get into the heart of your project.

Your research time will fly by, and there will likely be peaks and valleys in time commitment requirements.


Projects

Be open.
You may have an idea for a great project but, unfortunately, there just isn’t the infrastructure at your institution to make it feasible. You may have no idea what you want to do but ABSOLUTELY know that you can’t do basic science research. Some of the most successful researchers started off on a project that had little to do with their initial goals. Listen to your mentors, talk to other people in your division whom you trust. Run the project by a few people, and see what they think. You may find you actually really enjoy bench research or that your new or amended project is just as, if not more, enjoyable.

Face it - you aren’t going to cure cancer.
Or maybe you will, but not right now. When we think about research, sometimes our first thoughts jump to randomized controlled trials or identifying the genes that cause pulmonary fibrosis. In reality, it is very difficult to complete a solitary project within 2 to 3 years’ time. There is a reason physician-scientists dedicate their entire career to the study of one specific topic. Randomized trials take years to create, enroll patients, analyze, and finally publish. Your focus in fellowship should be on learning the techniques specific to your project and improving your scientific writing skills.

Prepare to adapt.
Depending on your project, there is a good chance it will evolve as you complete your research. There are multiple factors at play here, including: funding, resources, early results, schedule demands, etc. The idea I had when I first met with my mentor at the end of my first year is very different from the final product

Prepare for failure.
Hopefully, your project goes as close to according to plan as possible. There will be setbacks along the way. My project was dependent on getting grant funding to get it off the ground. Getting grants as a fellow can be very tricky and dependent on your mentor. I applied for a grant in October of my second year and didn’t find out until April that I didn’t get it. It could have been full on panic mode, but my mentors always had a plan B ready in case we didn’t get the funding.

Plan Ahead

Relating to the previous point, always be looking forward.

Your research time will fly by, and there will likely be peaks and valleys in time commitment requirements.
If you find yourself in a valley, think about things that will be needed a month away. Common pitfalls for fellows include IRB approval and budget planning. These may be two things to discuss with your mentor early in the project. If there are multiple collaborators on the project, be sure to establish authorship early. Things are always hectic around deadline time, and there will be curveballs thrown your way.

Have a plan B ready just in case. Most importantly, have fun with it!

Josh Smith is a third year Pulmonary & Critical Care Fellow at Indiana University. He will be joining the faculty at the University of Wisconsin after graduation. He completed his medical school at the University of North Carolina and residency and chief residency at Indiana University. He is interested in resident and fellow education and participated in research in web based education for residents.

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