Choosing a Mentor

Choosing a Mentor

Selecting a research mentor is one of the most important decisions fellows will make during their graduate career.  The process should begin with serious introspection:  What do I hope to gain from this experience?  Where do I want to be in my career five years from now?  What environment is most suitable for my style of learning and work?

Without self-knowledge and a clear view of career goals, no one can intelligently select a path to achieve those goals.  If you don't know where you're going, any map will do.  Thus, in what follows I will outline some issues that should be considered, but evaluating their significance will depend on your personal judgment.

Area of Research

A critical factor determining your happiness and your success at science is your enthusiasm about what you're doing -- you have to believe that your work is important, that you can make a difference in this field of knowledge and that you can succeed.  There are lots of interesting research projects available, and most people become enthusiastic about the work they're doing once they really get into it.  Good science is always exciting and stimulating.  But if there is some area in particular which piques your curiosity or motivates you, then this should be the major factor in choosing an advisor.

Mentoring vs Independence

Some people want or need to be in an environment where they work side-be-side with their mentor and receive frequent, individual attention.  Others are more interested in developing their own ideas and establishing themselves as independent investigators.  You will need to determine which style best suits your needs.  In a small lab you are more likely to get individual attention from the lab director.  In a bigger research environment, you may get strategic advice from your mentor, but day-to-day guidance may come from a senior student or postdoc.

Availability of Resources

The availability of intellectual, technical and financial resources can significantly affect the success of your research.  You should discuss these explicitly with any prospective mentor.  The mentor should be able to help you access a broad range of advice, expertise, techniques and equipment to enable you to pursue your research at the cutting edge.  These resources can be available either within the lab, the Department or through interactions with other labs.  The mentor should have adequate grant funding to support the research, so that your ability to do research is limited by your abilities, not primarily by dollars.  You can get an approximate idea of grant funding through the NIH Web page, but you also can -- and should -- ask the prospective mentor about other funding sources.

Evaluating the Productivity of a Lab

The past productivity of a lab or a mentor is often a guide to the future.  You can find out how productive the lab has been by looking at the publication record on Pubmed.  Alternatively, you can ask a prospective mentor for his or her CV (the faculty all know what your resume looks like -- you should know what theirs looks like).  In examining the publication record, take account of the number of publications and the scientific reputation of the journals (you can tell which are the good journals -- they're the ones you're assigned in classes and journal clubs).  Don't forget that a big lab will have more papers -- but not necessarily more papers per person.  The issue for you is, which mentors have produced the most successful trainees.  One or two first-author papers in a good to excellent journal is a reasonable goal for an MD trainee. Second-author and middle-author papers are very helpful, demonstrating productivity and a willingness to collaborate.

How We Can Help

The compressed nature of MD postdoctoral training makes impractical the selection of a research preceptor through a formal series of laboratory rotations. While our experience has been that many MD fellows come with strong ideas of what they want to do (international medicine, virology, antigen processing, hospital epidemiology, etc.), this is not universally the case. Fellows are provided information about the research interests of the faculty when they apply, and every effort is made to have prospective fellows meet with preceptors in their areas of interest during the interview.

Upon acceptance into the program the normal course of events is for the fellow to make 1 or 2 additional trips in the months prior to starting to meet with potential preceptors, and at these visits to discuss the choice of labs with the Program Director. We pay the expenses (from funds provided by the School of Medicine) for the new fellows to make these trips, and 100% of our fellows have taken advantage of this opportunity. The Program Director and Advisory Committee meet with all trainees early in the first year and are available to meet at any time with trainees who may wish to make a change in their preceptor. In the last 10 years, out of 24 MD trainees, we have had only 3 change their preceptor after beginning training, yet all 3 of these trainees have been successful.