The mentoring relationship can be very important because of its potential to inculcate habits of responsible conduct of research in trainees. But to have that degree of influence, the trainee and mentor must enjoy a functional relationship. This relationship has a greater likelihood of success if the two-way matching process (trainees selecting mentors and mentor accepting trainees) is conducted responsibly. It is advantageous for both parties to have some familiarity with the matching criteria that might increase a probability of a successful relationship.
The topics dealing with establishing the trainee-mentor relationship in this section include:
- Types of research mentoring
- Matching mentors and trainees
- Characteristics, roles, and responsibilities
- Mentor characteristics
- Mentor roles
- Mentor responsibilities
- Trainee characteristics
- Trainee roles
- Trainee responsibilities
- Memorandum of Understanding
It should be noted that not all academic, private, or government research institutions where training is conducted offer trainees the flexibility to match themselves with a mentor. In some settings, there may be no formal mentoring program while in other settings mentors may be assigned to beginning trainees without much regard for compatible characteristics. This might be the case in settings such as research laboratories. Thus, the relevance for the process of matching mentors and trainees will depend on institutional policies regarding the value of mentoring or how the mentoring relationship is structured.
Types of research mentoring
There are a number of factors responsible for the complexity of research mentoring relationships. Some are intrapersonal (profile of personal characteristics and attributes), others interpersonal (style of interaction), and yet others are environmental (institutions with varying rules, organizational structures, and expectations). As no two mentors may have the same profile of personal characteristics (each with his/her own unique research experiences and personalities) there is uncertainty as to how the dynamics will play out with trainees, who also have their own unique profiles. Trainees can be mentored in a variety of settings that have vastly different social and intellectual climates. Examples include private or public research laboratories, academic institutions, clinical sites, or any combinations of these.
Mentoring can be observed as 1) a highly formalized institutional practice or 2) practiced informally with little institutional support or recognition. There are also disagreements on the degree of 'closeness' between trainee and mentor. One position argues that a formal systematized mentoring relationship impedes the emotional impact that a nurturing relationship is expected to have. The alternate opinion posits the need to have definite boundaries so that trainees and mentors do not become overly invested and attached to each other.
The types of mentoring relationships can be discerned by relative differences in status and research experience, and by numerical arrangement (one-on-on or group). Some relationships may not even have been recognized as being mentoring in nature while they were in process. In this case, senior researchers are sometimes surprised to learn they have been identified as mentors by former students. This is more likely to occur in settings where mentoring relationship are somewhat informal.
In addition to individual research mentoring, other forms include research mentoring workshops, study groups, peer led team learning groups, work sessions, and help desk (Cornerstone, 2005). The list of mentoring relationship might include:
There are at least three types of the one-on-one mentoring relationship. The determining factor for selecting the appropriate type should be based on the circumstances and focus of research training.
This type of relationship involves one-on-one mentoring between a senior researcher/faculty and a junior researcher/faculty/student. If the relationship proves to be a positive experience, a strong bond with the senior may form.
Senior student - junior student: This type of relationship demonstrates less of a power differential compared to the senior-junior relationship because differences in research experience are not nearly as great. An example of a senior student - junior student relationship would be between a graduate student with one or more years of training and a new student.
Peer - A peer relationship, typically egalitarian, has the focus on offering mutual help. Usually, there is little or no difference in age, experience or rank (Harnish, Wild, 1994). Peers can be fellow researchers, faculty, or students.
One mentor - several trainees: this arrangement benefits from a larger group dynamic, (multiple persons contributing input) compared to a one-on-one configuration. Contributions from trainees with varying research and academic experiences can trigger engaging discussion that result in innovative approaches to problem solving. The mentor should monitor issues of incompatibility to address possible group conflict situations.
One trainee - several mentors: this is not an uncommon arrangement for a number of reasons. No one mentor can truly be expected to be all things to their trainees. Depending on the complexity of a trainees' research agenda, multiple experts may be needed to provide supervision. Multiple mentors, each with his/her own demanding workloads, can share the burden of trainee responsibility. Whether this arrangement is formal or informal, it can benefit all parties.
Although not typical, this arrangement can be observed when junior researchers who happen to be more familiar with the latest technologies mentor senior researchers. An example would be on the use of innovative computer applications in research-related activities.
The various types of mentoring relationships reflect the variety of training circumstances (i.e., the setting) and the purpose and duration of training. While the listed types are not meant to be an exhaustive, they do reflect the main mentoring options. The following section provides criteria for establishing a mentor-trainee match.
Matching mentors and trainees
The matching procedure for mentors and trainees is by no means standardized. Academic and research institutions with formalized mentoring programs may assign trainees to senior researchers who have agreed to serve as mentors. However, 'mentor' training can range from incidental with little follow-up, to rigorously systemized with sustained support. Other mentoring programs provide less direction to trainees, offering only a list of senior researchers who may have expressed an interest in mentoring, but have not demonstrated a firm commitment. Some institutions have no discernable mentoring policy, leaving trainees to seek out their own mentor candidates through a process of direct interaction, or by gathering relevant information through institutional resources (ex. research director, department chairperson, colleagues, or mentoring manual).
The criteria matching a mentor and trainee can vary in a number of ways. According to Linney (1999), a trainee may choose a mentor who has a value system that is admired, while prospective mentors may prefer trainees who are perceived to be dedicated and have potential. Ideally, trainees must also feel that their research efforts will be acknowledged and appreciated by the mentor. The mentor, on the other hand, may want some assurances that potential trainees are diligent, sincere, and are able to meet deadlines.
While it may initially appear that a mutually advantageous trainee/mentor match is based primarily on 'shared' research interests, other determinants of equal import will be reviewed in this section. A better trainee/mentor match may also depend on the willingness of both parties to refine a necessary set of skills and cultivate an appropriate attitude toward making the relationship work.
Characteristics, roles and responsibilities
Ideally, the best mentoring relationships occur when there is a good match between trainee and mentor personalities. This can be observed with complementary rather than conflicting styles of interaction. Occasionally, matches may involve compromise between both parties. However, if personality differences are too great, the interpersonal relationship is likely to be affected. A conflict of personalities, reflected in poor communication, hinders efforts to work in a productive manner. A mentor, realizing the relationship is likely to be a poor fit, can act responsibly by recommending that the trainee seek out an alternative mentor who is hopefully a better match.
The following sections describe characteristics that can enhance interpersonal relationships as well the roles and responsibilities that both mentor and trainees must assume if the relationship is going to succeed. The initial discussion will focus on mentors, while the last discussion highlights trainees.
Rylatt (1994) notes that a mentoring relationship, "must foster openness, trust and mutual respect" if stated goals and objectives are to be met. These characteristics, along with other characteristics and skills can enhance a mentor's effectiveness to play varying roles, and honor the responsibilities they have to trainees. The presence and use of these characteristics and skills can help ensure a supportive and encouraging research environment.
Before one can engage in a discussion of favorable mentor characteristics and attributes, a tacit assumption is that individuals should possess the appropriate qualifications to be able to serve as a mentor. These qualifications will of course vary by the status of trainee (ex. undergraduate, masters, doctoral, junior faculty, clinical lab technician/researcher), setting (ex. academic, private/public researcher site), and personnel to be involved (ex. student, research staff). A partial list of these qualifications requires that the senior researcher:
be professionally mature and successful (ex. have an established record of conducting research, publications, and professional service).
has experience with the program or department and is able to socialize trainees with institutional norms, values, and procedures.
is proficient in the area needed by trainee (ex. research, grant writing)
Certainly, other qualifications may be more relevant in some situations (peer, senior student/junior student, private research laboratory). However, while possessing adequate professional qualifications is a given, it still does not guarantee that trainees will receive outstanding or even adequate training. It is suggested that mentors should preferably exhibit a number of personal characteristics that can enhance a mentoring relationship regardless of the setting or nature of the relationship. Mentors should:
be good, active listeners, observers, problem solvers
be approachable and accessible
value the trainee as a person
be able to maintain confidentiality
These characteristics may appear to be indicative of a person filling a counseling or guidance role. Indeed, Garrick and Alexander (1994) recommend mentors engage in reflective discussion, empathic responding, recognizing and assessing trainee's needs, utilizing open-end questions, giving feedback and providing suggestions which are factual, specific and accurate. Mentors that exhibit these attributes are more likely to open up communication, create safe environments for learning, give constructive and specific feedback rather than vague comments, help the trainee solve his or her own problem rather than solving it for them, and focus on the trainee's development and resist the urge to produce a clone (Linney, 1999). Trainees may be more likely to sense that their interests and goals are respected and honored.
Mentors are recognized as serving numerous roles, sometimes sequentially, while at other times concurrently. A partial listing of these roles might include: instructor, advisor, career guide, information source, advocate, consultant, reviewer, co-author, research collaborator, supervisor, boss, and friend. Each role has a necessary function and may be time sensitive. For instance, mentors are likely to serve in the capacity as instructor and advisor before becoming a collaborator or co-author.
A model of mentoring by Harieng-Hidore (1985) identifies eight possible functions or roles served by mentors, divided into two broad categories: psychosocial (role modeling, encouraging, counseling, and traditional figure); vocational (education, consulting/coaching, sponsoring, and protecting). An alternative model of mentoring (Kram and Isabella, 1985) conceptualizes three types of mentor roles: information peer for information sharing; collegial peer for career strategizing; and special peer for emotional support and friendship.
Depending on the nature and quality of the interpersonal relationships, each role may entail varying levels of involvement. Mentor can be viewed as being most effective when acting passively in their capacity as a role model (ex. show the value and necessity of research ethics by demonstration) while others feel a mentor is most useful when they are active (ex. inviting trainee to become in a research project) (Scanon, 1997).
Mentors, whether serving alone or as part of a group of senior researchers, are not the only institutional staff that typically provides assistance to trainees. Examples include 'thesis adviser', 'research advisor', or 'academic advisor'. While anyone of these advisors could potentially become a mentor, this role might just as likely be filled by someone who has not previously served as an advisor. In some cases, academic or administrative research responsibilities may be shared by two or more individuals (ex. advisors and mentor), while other responsibilities are likely to be recognized as the purview of only one (ex. either an advisor or a mentor). For example, thesis advisers are responsible for making sure that students meet departmental and institutional requirements toward progress for the graduate degree and for providing advice about research directions, methods, and publication. Mentors, on the other hand, provide information beyond scientific concepts and laboratory techniques - information that is essential for professional success, such as how to obtain funding, manage a research lab or group, use time effectively, and understand departmental politics and institutional committees.
While the goal of the mentoring relationship is to establish a productive, competent, responsible, independent researcher, one of the primary responsibilities of mentors is to demonstrate a code of responsible practice when conducting all aspects of research. This can be communicated directly (ex. mentor and trainee discuss at length) or indirectly (ex. trainees observing the mentor's behavior in actual practice). Ideally, verbal and role model strategies should be used so that messages are reinforced, repeatedly over a sustain period of time. This eliminates the uncertainty of trainees having to infer the practice of responsible conduct from chance observations. Trainees should not only be made aware of acceptable standards of practice, but encouraged to see the value of adhering to them as well. A partial list of other mentor responsibilities includes:
instruct trainees how to conduct research responsibly
provide proper supervision and review of trainee's work
critique and support trainees' research
promote trainee's research career
socialize trainees into profession
assist trainees to establish a network of professional collegial relationships
steer trainees' research agenda or training in a productive direction
Each one of these broad responsibilities can be made up of other specific responsibilities. Under the identified responsibility' provide proper supervision and review', the mentor is likely to review lab books and sources of data collection, read trainee's manuscripts to ensure accuracy, set and maintain a schedule of meetings, and encourage trainee to present and discuss data at lab meetings.
Regarding the responsibility of 'instructing trainees how to conduct research responsibly', mentors are accountable for expanding a trainee's awareness and sensitivity to both IRB and RCR issues. Mentors should present and discuss RCR core areas when appropriate.