Research training is typically a challenging, long-term developmental process. It is developmental because trainees, under the supervision of experienced researchers, gradually progress from the stage of initially engaging in task-oriented learning activities to one of becoming independent practitioners with increasing competence in all aspects of the investigatory process. It is critical that novice researchers have the opportunity and support to fully develop and refine research skills. This support, in the form of mentoring, can reduce the learning curve for someone new to a field. Indeed, not only is mentoring especially influential for one's early career in establishing competence in the many roles to be fulfilled, but also the future development can suffer if a researcher has not experienced mentoring in an earlier stage of life (Tenner, 2004).
Mentoring has been recognized as the social foundation of research, "Without it the trainee is deigned to traverse the labyrinth of professional development in the research enterprise as a solitary soul, making it all but impossible to reach full potential. It is the mentor who draws the best from the junior person by acting as an adviser, teacher, role model, motivational friend and supportive advocate" (Vasgird, 2004)
There are a number of reasons for supporting a mentoring relationship (Matthews, 2003; Anderson, Oju, & Falkner, 2001; Fox, 1983):
- Provide instruction on conducting research responsibly and encouraging the incorporation of a sound code of research behavior
- Improve trainee's self-confidence
- Critique and support trainee's research
- Define clear research focus
- Assist in defining and achieving career goals
- Socialize trainee into the profession
- Assist in development of extensive collegial networks
- Advise how to balance work and personal life
- Teach more efficient utilization of resources
- Assist in the developments future colleagues
Provide instruction on conducting research responsibly
Mentors can have an affirming influence on trainees not just by monitoring research practices on a continuing basis or offering advice on challenges, but by providing a positive role model. This is particularly important for promoting a code of research ethics. Trainees who observe a scrupulous pattern of behaviors may be more likely conduct research responsibly than researchers who have had little or no supervision, or were provided a negative role model. Tenner (2004) remarks that research mentors are only as good as the ethics and concepts they impart. A survey administered to research fellows at the University of California, San Francisco, revealed that 40% had received no guidance in ethical research from a scientific mentor. Brown and Kalichman (1998) similarly found that half of graduate students surveyed at the University of California, San Diego responded that the total time spent discussing responsible conduct from thesis advisers (who may have been in a position to mentor), was one hour or less. Perhaps more surprisingly, Swazey and Anderson (1998) found that more than 50% of respondents reported getting little or no assistance from faculty in almost every defined category of ethics training queried. Anderson's results (2001) provide support for the perception that the risk of scientific misconduct lessens in settings where mentoring is provided.
While trainees can receive training that develop information and skills from a variety of sources, including program advisors, other senior researchers, and trainees with more experience, the mentor may be in an ideal position to closely supervise the practice of those skills on a continuing basis. Trainees exhibiting a deviation from conventional research practice have a good opportunity to receive a demonstration of correct procedures by diligent mentors. As trainees become increasingly skilled and competent, they can be expected to contribute to a variety of research issues. In addition, they may be asked to think and function more independently. Trainees who have been encouraged all along to conduct research in a responsible manner will be more likely have a higher standard for acceptable practices and ultimately gain greater credibility for their research from colleagues.
Improve trainee's self-confidence
At the early stages of a trainee's career, mentors deal with novices who may feel uncertain about their abilities to conduct research competently. Strengthening a trainee's skills in a consistent, systematic and reliable manner, providing regular feedback, can facilitate growth in self-confidence and ultimately career enhancement. As trainees' gain competence in their skills, they may witness their input contribute to advances, leading to greater self-confidence and perhaps an increased commitment to their profession. Increasing self-confidence can have a significant impact on future skills development of trainees and is recognized as one of the most beneficial functions of mentoring (Rigsby, Siegel, Spiceland, 1998).
Critique and support of trainee research
An important function of mentors is to provide regular and honest feedback to trainees. Acceptance of a mentor's assessment relies on trust that the feedback accurately reflects the current status of trainee's progress. An experienced researcher will be able to identify weaknesses in a trainee's conceptualization, design, implementation, analysis, or interpretation and suggest improvements. Issues can arise with goals that trainees wish to establish. For example, written goals can be somewhat vague, unrealistic or impractical, or lack a timetable for completion and mentors can provide constructive feedback to help trainees refine their research goals. Mentors can provide support for a trainee's research by identifying funding sources (i.e., targeting appropriate, well known, or obscure sources) or resources that might improve chances for receiving funds (i.e., such as an institutional writing center or a relevant research article). Trainees can benefit by having various components of their research reviewed and critiqued. Mentors could query trainees about their selection of questionable research designs or procedures, thus avoiding lost time, resources, or possible research misconduct.
Define clear research focus
Initially, trainees may come into a particular research field with some unarticulated interests, having little direction or no knowledge of how to establish a clear research focus. Mentors can provide trainees with the guidance, motivation, and advice that in the long run help trainees avoid unnecessary trial and error, saving time and effort. The mentor's assistance in determining possible topic options, sharing personal reflections and experiences, and identifying relevant available resources, may even lead to greater trainee satisfaction, increased commitment to a career, and enhanced reputation to the institution (Mathews, 2003).
Assist in defining and achieving career goals
Trainees may have some idea on what research they want to pursue in the immediate present, but may not be thinking about what research they will conduct or where they will conduct it after completing their training. The mentor can assist by requesting that a trainee clearly articulates goals after being exposed to a range of options shared by the experienced researcher. Trainee may have a desire to participate in collaborative research efforts, but be unaware of how one would go about this. Mentors could use this opportunity to not only share their own collaborative research experiences, but also to relate it to RCR issues as well. Some goals expressed may be realistic enough, but may be difficult to achieve in the timetable set. Other goals may appear to be somewhat unrealistic without a major effort to address a specific weakness. For instance, a trainee with a significant weakness in writing may wish to hold a position that requires a great deal of expertise in editing and writing. Unless the mentor is able to direct the trainee to resources capable of addressing the weakness, it may be appropriate for the mentor to suggest other career possibilities.
Socialize trainee into the profession
Mentoring programs, a vehicle for socialization, are found in both academic and non-academic institutions as a means to socialize new employees and increase a successful transfer of training into practice (Mathews, 2003). In the research context, socialization is the process where mentors share knowledge about the field (culture, legal/social/financial aspect of research) and inculcate important research-related values to trainees. This is very beneficial for the trainee because it can reduce the time required to acquire such knowledge. This process can be especially critical in the research arena. Cunningham (1999) identifies increased scholarly productivity, higher job satisfaction, and retention as benefits of socialization.
Assist in the development of extensive collegial networks
In addition to gaining a greater knowledge and understanding of the research field through socialization, trainees may also benefit by gaining access to networks of communication that can carry significant professional information (Vasgird, 2004). Opportunities for expanding networks can take place at professional meetings which mentors may encourage trainees to attend. At these events, mentors can introduce trainees to relevant researchers in the field. These new relationships may eventually lead to collaborative research endeavors, making this activity an indispensable service to open doors of opportunity and enhancing a trainee's career.
Advise how to balance work and personal life
Trainees may not adequately anticipate the degree of commitment or effort required to successfully balance the demands of a research training program with the other areas of their lives. These other areas include family, outside employment, or recreation. It is essential that trainees have an accurate idea early on how an imbalance in one or more areas may compromise a trainee's ability to handle day to day challenges. A major source of conflict is disagreement in the way responsibilities are prioritized. The demands of instruction, assignments, lab responsibilities may conflict with family obligations, or the necessity of supporting one's self. This can be further aggravated when a trainee must coordinate simultaneously competing interests such as writing and submitting grant applications, completing an experiment, or editing a final report.
Teach more efficient utilization of resources
Mentors can assist trainees by virtue of sharing their own experience of making inappropriate or unwise choices. These poor decisions may have resulted in waste of limited resources, unnecessary delays, and harm to one's reputation. Trainees can benefit from the mentors' shared experience by learning more efficient ways to implement procedures, and use resources better. Resources include funds, materials, facilities, and personnel.
Assist in the development of future colleagues
Yet another rationale for research mentoring is its benefits to mentors themselves. By collaborating with trainees in research endeavors, mentors can extend their influence by disseminating their own research ideas to trainees and possibly enhancing their reputations in the process. Mentors in effect, are passing their legacy onto to a new generation of researchers and preparing them to assume the position held by mentors. Mentors may also become revitalized by maintaining contact with trainees who potentially will become the new and innovative leaders of the future.
While this section focused on the rationale and needs for research mentoring, it is not intended to suggest that individuals who are not mentored become inferior researchers. Reactions from former trainees on how a mentoring relationship has affected them ranges from 1) being instrumental in launching careers, 2) having little or no impact, 3) to having a profoundly negative consequence (Tenner, 2004). Mentors who fail to conduct research in a responsible manner run the risk of unduly influencing their trainees by providing a negative role model. However, the benefits listed do offer compelling reasons to consider the use of mentoring as an important component of RCR instruction.
Anderson , M.S., Oju, E.C., and Falkner, T.M.R., 2001. Help from Faculty: Findings from the Acadia Institute Graduate Education Study. Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 4: 487-504.
Brown, S., Kalichman, M.W. (1998). Effects of training in the responsible conduct of research: a survey of graduate students in experimental sciences. Science and engineering ethics, 4(4): 487-498.
Cunningham, S. (1999) Who's mentoring the mentors?: The disciplining dimensions of faculty development in Christian higher education. Theological Education: New Perspectives on Theological Education, 34(2):31-49.
Matthews, P. 2003. Academic mentoring: enhancing the use of scarce resources. Educational Management & Administration. 31(3): 313-334.
Rigsby, J.T., Siegel, P.H., Spiceland, J.D. (1998). Mentoring among management advisory services professionals: an adaptive mechanism to cope with rapid change. Managerial Auditing Journal, 13:107-116.
Swazey J.P., Anderson M.S. 1998. Mentors, Advisors, and Role Models in Graduate and Professional Education. In Rubin ER, ed., Mission Management. Washington , D.C. : Association of Academic Health Centers.
Tenner, E. 2004. The pitfalls of academic mentorship. The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 13, 2004. B7-B10.
Vasgird, D. 2004. RCR Mentoring: Responsible Conduct of Research. Accessed on May 10, 2005. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_mentoring/introduction/index.html .