The specifics of how trainees and mentor work together are influenced by intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental factors unique to all parties. The nature of the work is also determined by responsibilities identified and agreed upon in the memorandum of understanding (MOU). While responsibilities may be identified, it is the activities associated with those responsibilities that trainees and mentors will have to carry out.
The MOU permits trainees to identify and organize responsibilities as well as their associated activities. For example, the responsibility of providing proper supervision and review could be associated with meeting with one's trainee at regularly scheduled times or critiquing and reviewing a trainee's research outcomes. The responsibility of promoting a trainee's research career could require that a trainee meet with other individuals from the mentor's professional organization or a broader network of professional colleagues or encourage trainee to present at professional conferences. The particularly important responsibility of having the trainee commit to learning the range of acceptable practice in the selected research profession might require that the trainee review a code of ethical research practices, or perhaps examine discipline-specific literature to learn how articles are written to accommodate specific journals.
It is the mentor's obligation to provide full disclosure on the expectation that the trainee can or cannot expect to work directly with the mentor. If the mentor does not reasonably expect be able to spend the time required to adequately supervise trainees (due to anticipated increases in demand), trainees should determine how that might affect the working relationship. Certainly, not all activities will require a face-to-face, side-by-side arrangement. Even an activity that traditionally is face-to-face, such as trainee/mentor meetings, can be conducted at a distance by telephone, teleconference, or even online synchronous chat. Other activities will require trainees to practice research skills independently.
Regardless of the duration or frequency of trainee/mentor activities, mentors should engage in the practice of combining mentoring knowledge and discussion with activities that suit the trainee's needs. The unique mentoring needs of the trainee may be instrumental in determining whether the mentor chooses to offer greater or lesser research supervision, provides novel or repeated experiences, and decides on the frequency that research/academic challenges need to be presented.
This section describes representative trainee/mentor activities that are assigned in order to adhere to responsibilities identified in the MOU. In spite of the diversity of the described activities, the primary focus of each should remain on promoting the responsible conduct of research. The topics to be discussed include:
- Meeting with trainee at regularly scheduled times
- Encouraging trainee to develop professional skills
- Using research articles as training tools
- Discussing the process of managing research projects
- Having trainee assist mentors with research-writing
- Having mentor prepare trainee
- Ascertaining trainee's progress
Meeting with trainee at regularly scheduled times
Setting and attending regularly scheduled meetings can be crucial activity that is one measure of a commitment to making the trainee/mentor relationship a success. Of course the definition of a 'regularly scheduled time' can vary significantly (weekly, monthly, and quarterly). What is important is that there is mutual agreement on what is appropriate for the specific needs of the trainee. Implicit in this particular activity is a contingency plan for, 1) missed appointments, 2) accommodation for unexpected scheduling conflicts that arise, 3) modifying schedules based on the evolving needs of trainee. However, the description of this activity should not be view simply as a time management approach for trainees and mentors. Trainees stand to benefit professionally by having the subject matter of meetings touch on practices, policies, and strategies that promote responsible conduct of research (University of Michigan Medical School Guidelines for Responsible Research, 2004).
Encouraging trainee to develop professional skills
There are a number of activities that promote the development of a trainee's professional skills. Mentors may instruct trainees either directly through discussions, indirectly through modeling the skills, or by recommending qualified resources for independent study. Whatever the instructional strategy used to teach skills, they should all be taught within the context of the responsible conduct of research. The recommended proactive approach focuses more on promoting research integrity and preventing research misconduct rather than simply improving the handling of allegations of research misconduct.
The development of interpersonal skills can be essential in a field where success may depend on the ability to effectively acknowledge and/or collaborate with colleagues. Ultimately, these skills allow one to more easily express oneself, share ideas, and do it consistently in a variety of settings. As scientific endeavors become increasingly collaborative, trainees could confer on themselves an advantage. It should be noted that some trainees who have personality issues that compromise the development of interpersonal skill, may require skills beyond what a mentor can provide and thus may decide to pursue professional assistance.
Mentors may ask trainees to collaborate on writing grant proposals and implementing grant projects together. This provides an opportunity for trainees to observe, participate in one of the most important activities they are likely to engage in as professionals. This activity can teach trainees to construct clear and concise proposals that meet strict guidelines of funding agencies, including a recommendation that institutions consider the need for providing RCR instruction for researchers and staff. Trainees can also learn to refine their ability to develop appropriate research questions and select suitable research designs that promote research integrity. If this activity is encouraged early in a trainee's training, he/she are likely to become more competent to perform independent research that has a high level of integrity.
Mentors should encourage trainees to refine both oral and written communication skills in a variety of venues. Opportunities for developing oral skills could involve activities such as leading discussions in classes, peer meetings, brainstorming sessions, poster sessions, or presentation of papers at national professional conventions. For building on written communication skills, participation might include writing in journal clubs, letters to journal editors, or submission of research findings. Developing both oral and written skills also offers opportunities to engage in a dialogue concerning issues related to responsible conduct of research.
Trainees may be encouraged to engage in activities that promote leadership building, practice teamwork, or enhance creative thinking skills. This can prepare trainees for high level participation in a variety of organizations and cooperative problem solving.
It has been noted that trainees may be asked to join and take a leadership role in a variety of organizations such as disciplinary societies, journal clubs, volunteer activities, (Mentoring Guide, 2005). Cooperative problem solving requires coordination of efforts between different parties, and sharing similar and complementary skills. Mentors may provide trainees with a safe environment and the freedom to engage in original and innovative thinking.
Using research articles as training tools
A mentor supplying research articles to a trainee to read and discuss can provide guidance for that trainee seeking a research direction. The mentor's familiarity with both the trainee's needs as well as having a working knowledge of a relevant field of research can be just the assistance the trainee needs to focus on a specific field of study.
Trainees also are exposed to the variations of how research is conducted with regard to research design, analytic procedures, and interpretation. While the mentor initially supplies the articles, the trainee can eventually pursue articles independently. The mentor can also include articles that discuss research misconduct cases. Being accused does not mean one is guilty. This might provide an opportunity for trainees and mentors to discuss how the integrity of the research was compromised, and what strategies researchers could implement to conduct research responsibly.
Another activity is having a trainee assist the mentor in locating new literature in the field. A mentor may ask a trainee to collaborate on a review of new developments in select areas of research. This activity allows the trainee to practice efficient ways to identify relevant articles, delineate new research directions, and perhaps spur innovative approaches to research problems. By reviewing many articles, the trainee also develops a sense for how published articles are tailored for varying journals in terms of style, format, and topic selection.
Discussing the process of managing research projects
This is a particularly beneficial activity for the trainee, which involves the mentor encouraging the trainee to engage in the process of thinking through the logistics of managing research projects. The trainee stands to benefit from the mentor's experience by avoiding pitfalls, anticipating potential scenarios, and making more efficient use of resources. The mentor should encourage the trainee to ask a variety of questions, so that the trainee gradually develops the skills to become an independent researcher.
Having trainee assists mentor with research-writing
Research writing is one of the many essential activities of the scientific process. Depending on level of research competence, trainees can contribute to research writing by documenting investigative procedures, assisting in analyses, or suggesting interpretations for findings. The mentor is in a position to critique and provide feedback so that the trainee's writing meets the conventional standards of the field. Deviations from the set standards can be identified and corrected, with suggestions made as to how to improve. If there has been any violation or compromise of scientific integrity by the trainee, the focus should be to help the trainee correct it, learn from it, and report it, if necessary.
Having mentor prepare trainee
An important aspect of preparing trainees to become professionals is readiness to publicly present research findings. This aspect of socialization into the profession is particularly important for introducing the trainee to the scientific community. Chances for a favorable impression can be enhanced by ensuring that the trainee has organized material in a logical style, adequately rehearse the presentation, and if appropriate, develop a plan to engage audience members.
Trainees should be able to respond to questions posed during a presentation in a calm, precise and cogent manner. Mentors can help to ensure that no research gaps exist, such as a potential violation of research protocol. By being well-prepared, the trainee is likely to project a favorable impression of not only themselves, but of their mentor and associated institution. In addition to gaining greater self-confidence, trainees can take this opportunity to expand their professional networks which may eventually lead to future research collaborations.
Ascertaining trainee's progress
There is a tacit assumption that mentors exhibit a commitment to the welfare of a new generation of researchers. This commitment requires that mentors provide honest feedback, whether or not it is positive, to trainees on an ongoing basis. The feedback should be based on the performance of mutually agreed upon activities. For example, the trainee may be assessed on whether they attended all scheduled meetings or the degree to which they complete all assigned tasks. The trainee may also be asked to reflect on their progress, identifying strengths and weaknesses. Mentors may suggest improvements where needed and may attempt to motivate trainees by encouragement or reward. Trainees should be able to ask questions on a variety of research related topics, including theory, methods, or issues related to scientific misconduct. Regarding the last point, mentors can also monitor how well trainees adhere to the high standards of responsible conduct of research, and praise where appropriate, or question the trainee if necessary.
A major method of assessing trainee progress is to observe to what degree each stated and measurable objective has been accomplished. For example, if an objective was to expand one's professional collegial networks, indicators might include the number of conferences attended, number of contacts made, and current level of research-related activity with those contacts.
The identified activities were not intended to be an exhaustive list for trainees and mentors to engage in. Rather, this representative listing was intended to promote ideas for how trainee and mentor might identify and meet responsibilities critical to the success of the relationship as well as promoting the responsible conduct of research. While the specifics of responsibilities and their associated activities vary by discipline, the rationale for engaging in this process remains steadfast.
Mentoring Guide, Accessed May 25, 2005. http://www.fisheries.org/html/hutton/mentoringguide.shtml .
University of Michigan Medical School Guidelines for Responsible Research, 2004. Accessed on April 30, 2005, http://www.responsibility.research.umich.edu/UMMSmentor.html .