The various methodologies described above informed our conceptual approach towards compiling a list of suggested competencies for mentors of C/T junior researchers. Our review of the literature revealed a broad set of desired attributes or generic characteristics that span the field of mentoring. These positive mentor characteristics, in some cases framed as competencies, cut across disciplines like business and management, sports, education, and the health sciences. However, beyond these generic competencies, the health sciences mentor requires additional skills to guide their mentee through the research process. illustrates the transition from generic to more C/T specific mentor competencies.
Although specific knowledge, skills, or attitudes for mentors of C/T researchers were not widely available in the literature, we identified eight major categories of mentor characteristics from a wide range of literature that while “generic” (i.e., mentors of any type of mentee should possess some or all of these characteristics) are relevant to C/T research mentors: 13–20
(1) Leadership; (2) Empowerment; (3) Strategic Perspective; (4) Integrity Skills; (5) Judgment Skills; (6) Political Skills; (7) Creative Thinking; (8) Communication Skills.
The above characteristics are of an overarching order. We took these characteristics and along with the results of the other methodologies, created a discrete set of competencies, listed in . The competencies are organized by thematic areas. We list the relevant competencies for each area and then provide actionable examples for achieving these competencies. Later we discuss each of the thematic areas and some associated competencies. Throughout the discussion we link back to the importance and unique challenge of mentoring a C/T junior investigator, and address C/T specific competencies in the sixth and final thematic area.
Derived competencies for mentors of junior clinical and translational investigators.
Communication & managing the relationship
At its core, mentoring occurs within the fluid dynamics of an interpersonal and interdependent relationship and “the interpersonal skills brought to the relationship influence how the relationship gets started, how it unfolds over time, and the range of possible functions.”6
Because each mentoring relationship is unique, being able to reflect upon and identify specific characteristics of effective communication becomes important in order to maximize the potential within each dyad.
In the mentoring curriculum Entering Mentoring, Handelsman et al. distinguish elements of effective communication and ask mentors to reflect on and practice: 11
(1) Providing constructive feedback, (2) Communicating effectively across diverse backgrounds, disciplines, generations, ethnicities, positions of power, etc., (3) Identify different communication styles, (4) Engage in active listening.
The authors’ elaborate, “Good communication helps to develop a positive working relationship between mentor and mentee by helping the mentee to better understand directions and feedback from the mentor, feel represented and understood, and motivated to learn from the mentor. When mentoring, effective communication involves more than providing information or giving advice; it requires asking questions, listening carefully, trying to understand a mentee’s concerns or needs, demonstrating a caring attitude, remaining open-minded, and helping to solve problems.”
While clear communication is essential throughout the mentoring relationship, focus group participants reiterated that it is of particular importance early in the development of the relationship. Not only do frequent conversations confirm the fit of the mentor and mentee pair, but also mitigate the potential pitfalls in the lab where “you have multiple people with competing interests and it can be disastrous.”
To avoid both a mentor/mentee mismatch and miscommunication around roles and responsibilities, it is important that expectations are aligned and clearly communicated. Early conversations should revolve around helping the mentee identify their own goals and what they are seeking from the mentoring relationship. Once mentors understand the goals of the mentee, the mentor should help them map out the steps towards achieving their goals, including formal organizational requirements and informal expectations and roles. The more precise a mentor can be about the expectations for each stage in the process of goal achievement the better, and if possible give the mentee examples, templates, and other resources one can use to understand the expectations of formal requirements. Formal, written goals and expectations help to prepare the mentor and mentee for the fact that the development of the mentee’s master plan is an ongoing, iterative process. As such, the mentor needs to meet with mentees frequently to assess progress toward goals and expectations and to be prepared for changes to the mentee’s course.
Finally, it is important to recognize that communication skills are important not only for establishing shared understanding but also for developing trust. “Meaningful coaching, counseling, friendship, and role-modeling are almost impossible in a situation characterized by low trust and minimal communication.” 6
Indeed, when asked to react to the statement “The effectiveness of the mentoring relationship is enhanced when the mentee and mentor share an understanding of the expectations they have of each other,” focus group mentees replies confirmed the relationship between communication and trust:
“I think it’s true sort of from two perspectives. One, if you’ve got enough communication to be able to tell each other what you expect, then you’ve got enough trust and enough sort of ability to deal with each other in a professional way that you can both—so that’s—if you can get to that point it means the process is going okay. And then second, you don’t have the misconceptions of what you’re supposed to be—what the mentor is supposed to be doing and that the mentee is supposed to be doing.”
“From my experience, you need to have really, really wide open lines of communication, which also means you need to have a lot of trust in your mentor because my mentor’s lab program is ginormous compared to mine. And if I’m sharing all of my data with him, if there was any thought on my part that he might try to pop on or take something, then those lines of communication will be closed like that because I would get destroyed.”
This thematic area is exemplified by mentoring behaviors such as motivating, nurturing, encouraging, and empathizing. A relatively broad competency within this area is “attending to cultural diversity issues.” A mentor should be able to communicate effectively across diverse dimensions including differences in demographic characteristics (race, ethnicity, and gender), scientific disciplines, and levels of power and seniority. Moreover, understanding how individual differences and cultures influence mentoring relationships is important. Serving as a role model is commonly endorsed by young researchers as a characteristic highly valued in their mentors, although what role modeling comprises is often not well specified. One example would be providing guidance on work-life balance, a topic of increasing concern to young professionals who are trying to weigh competing personal and professional concerns. Another example would be providing support during difficult periods of manuscript and grant rejection, research roadblocks, and interpersonal conflicts. Resiliency is an essential attribute that a mentor can try to both role model and instill.
Generational and phase-of-career differences create inevitable gaps between what a mentor can provide and what his or her protégé needs in certain situations. When this occurs, “encouraging peer mentoring” is another valuable competency. Empowering mentees to seek guidance and help from other investigators and faculty at their level of training (or at least closer to their cohort in stage of career) can enhance what the more senior mentor can provide, just like siblings and parents have complementary supportive roles in the family unit. Because each mentoring relationship is unique and the mentee’s needs for support are more often longitudinally revealed than disclosed in advance, the “capacity to reflect on and enhance the mentoring relationship” is especially important for psychosocial support. While all mentor competencies need to be adapted and fine-tuned to the individual mentee, the type and amount of psychosocial support optimal for a specific person is among the most highly variable, fluctuating and unpredictable needs. Thus, tailoring support to the individual mentee’s personality and circumstances rather than a one-size-fits-all approach is optimal.
Celebrating one mentee’s research achievements and success is often over looked. Arranging special recognition events, whether it be formal announcements in the university press or websites, or a simple lunch with a research group can carry a mentee through the lonely hours of writing papers and grants. All too often research mentor focus on dealing with scientific problems and challenges and miss the opportunity to celebrate the outstanding work of our mentees.
Career and professional development
For junior investigators in C/T research, professional development must include learning how to get grants, publish papers, and develop effective leadership and management skills.21
Guiding mentees to master these skills may take a team of mentors with complementary skills. Mentoring behaviors in this thematic area are focused on guiding the mentee to proactively plan their personal and professional development, achieve success through implementing the plan, and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
A key mentor activity in this area is assisting the mentee to prepare a comprehensive and realistic plan to guide their career and professional development. It is important for a mentor to promote effective communication with the mentee in order to chart their professional goals, as mentioned under the “Communication and Relationship Management” thematic area above. To accomplish this, the mentor will need to “develop strategies to assist the mentee to identify gaps in their knowledge, skills, and experience and to collaboratively set realistic expectations for the scholars’ growth and independence.” In addition, the mentor must be aware of the academic and institutional systems and timelines in which the mentee operates, and the opportunities and resources that might be available to support their academic and institutional advancement. The mentor should “develop strategies to effectively guide and assist the mentee with implementation of their plan.” Setting up a system for regular contact to monitor progress and assist the mentee to problem solve or revise the plan as necessary is vital. Other strategies might include providing or assisting the mentee to identify opportunities for developing needed skills, helping them to prioritize demands and opportunities, and to identify problems with time-management and avoid activities that may be detrimental to implementation of their plan. The mentor should also actively promote the mentee within the institution and their discipline by identifying and providing opportunities for collaboration and networking and encouraging and supporting their attendance and presentations at local and national meetings. The mentor may need to advocate for the mentee to have adequate opportunity to do their academic work such as negotiating for fewer clinical responsibilities. The mentor will also need to build the mentee’s confidence and adjust their responsibilities over time to foster their independence.
The mentor should develop strategies to help the scholar to understand the fiscal and leadership responsibilities of an academic career and acquire the necessary skills such as negotiating with industry and others, working with contracts and grants, hiring and managing staff, and team leadership. Strategies might include role modeling, sharing responsibilities, role-play, reviewing budgets and other documents, and providing timely feedback after meetings. Mentors should also provide opportunities for mentees to discuss work-life balance, guide them to have realistic expectations and help them to develop strategies to ensure their goals for their personal and family life are met.
Professional enculturation & scientific integrity
The NIH mandates all researchers receiving training funds to undergo responsible conduct of research training.22
However, beyond the institution’s role, it is necessary for the mentor to understand his/her role. Though the need to promote ethical and responsible conduct in research is well established,23
the mentor’s responsibilities in this domain seldom appeared in most of the methods employed in this paper. The literature on promoting ethics and responsible conduct in research is inconclusive on the role of the mentor in supporting and educating the mentee on these issues. Further, it is not given that mentors themselves have been adequately trained to provide such guidance to their mentees.24,25
Through the expert consensus process, it was established that while not a common theme, it is an important consideration in a compilation of mentor competencies.
It is important for the research mentor to establish guidelines with the mentee and model ethical and responsible conduct of research such as the protection of research subjects. Mentors need to teach mentees the skills required to ensure integrity in research. The interdisciplinary focus in C/T research means that the process of enculturation needs to move beyond the narrow field of the mentee’s primary discipline to an awareness of other disciplines and the scientific community more broadly. Mentoring on ethics issues is not solely the responsibility of the research mentor. The pressure to produce results can be overwhelming. Advising mentee on research principles and the quality of their data will further promote the integrity of the mentee’s data. Therefore it is important for all mentors advising mentees on career and professional development to emphasize the interconnection of “good science” and ethical research conduct.
Research skills development
Teaching one’s mentee how to conduct research is a key competency for research mentors. Some would argue this is the primary and most critical role of a primary research mentor. Teaching research skills in C/T science includes identifying current level of knowledge in research design, measures, outcomes, sampling, statistical analysis, bias, and regulatory issues. Using a standardized self-assessment questionnaire with a mentee can be helpful in assessing the mentees perception of their current skill level and areas that need additional training.26
Asking the mentee to critique previously submitted NIH grants and published papers in the mentees area of interest can also help to assess a mentee’s readiness to begin their own research studies.
Once the mentees skill level has been ascertained a research mentor can help the mentee design a set of training experiences to assist them to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to carry out research. This may include formal course work, seminars, working with secondary data sets, attending regional, or national training events, participating in group projects and spending time at other universities with content experts. It is unusual for a research mentor to have all the scientific knowledge, experience and skills needed to train young investigators in clinical translational science.
Another key aspect is to help a mentee develop a research study that is focused on a targeted and appropriate research question. This can be accomplished in the time available and is based on the current state of the art. It is important for the mentor to tell the mentee difficult to hear information. For example “You don’t have the resources to answer this question.” “We don’t have the methods or measures to address this question.” “You will not be able to build a sustainable research program that focuses on this area.” “While this is an interesting question I wouldn’t start with this one.” “This is not a fundable area of research based on current federal funding priorities.” Mentees often react negatively to the realities of a research career but this is a primary role of a research mentor.
The ongoing assessment of how their mentee’s research is going is another primary responsibility. Many research studies and experiments do not produce the intended result. Some will not get past the IRB application. As all successful mentors know, one learns more from research failures than experiments or protocols that go exactly as planned. It is important for mentors to support and encourage mentees who are struggling. Sharing one’s own failures and challenges can be helpful. Sometimes mentees need to take a break or to reevaluate whether they have the fortitude and commitment to develop sustainable externally funded research program. Dealing with peer review and conducting high level clinical translational science can be daunting to the young investigator.
C/T investigator development
Most of the competencies listed above would apply to any mentor whose mentees are aspiring scientists, including aspiring C/T scientists. Yet should we expect that mentors have specific competencies in order to effectively serve mentees in C/T sciences? We believe that they should and that these C/T mentor competencies derive largely from the Core Competencies in C/T Research. The CTSA Education and Career Development Key Function Committee formed an Education Core Competency Work Group to define the training standards for core competencies in C/T research. The work group’s final recommendations for core competencies include 14 thematic areas that should shape the training experiences of junior investigators by defining the skills, attributes, and knowledge that can be shared across multidisciplinary teams of clinician-scientists.10,27
Although we do not expect every individual mentor to be fully knowledgeable and competent across each of the 14 thematic areas and the full range of translational sciences, there are certain specific elements that are essential. In particular, C/T mentors are expected to have the capacity to:
Assist mentees in formulating clinical and translational research questions. Developing C/T investigators are expected to learn how to formulate well-defined clinical or translational research questions to be studied in human or animal models. Mentors should have the capacity to help them identify basic and preclinical studies that suggest potential testable clinical research hypotheses as well as research observations that could be the basis of clinical trials. Furthermore, they should be able to assist their mentees to integrate elements of translational research into basic or clinical study designs, such as the collection of biological specimens nested in population studies, clinical trials or studies of community-based interventions as well as incorporate regulatory precepts into the design of a clinical or translational study.
Model and advise mentees on building and managing an effective multidisciplinary team. Future C/T investigators are expected to lead interdisciplinary team-based efforts that match the particular translational objectives of the research. Mentors will need to help them develop strategies to effectively meet the challenges of identifying the necessary expertise and merging scholars from diverse backgrounds into a high performing team. Needed skills include the ability to clarify language differences and translate concepts across multiple disciplines, implement group decision-making techniques and manage conflict. An important element of this competency is demonstrating these capacities by initiating, participating, and coordinating interdisciplinary mentoring team activities.
Identify mentee developmental and scientific needs across the translational aspects of research and assist them in designing strategies and establishing linkages/networks to meet those needs. Although mentors are not expected to be experts across the full range of translational research, they should be able to assist mentees in fulfilling the full range of C/T competencies they are expected to achieve. In other words, they need not have proficiency in, for example, population sciences, health disparities, statistics, commercialization, national policy, or community engagement. But C/T mentors should be able to help mentees identify their gaps in these and other areas relevant to their C/T training goals, provide advice, suggest tasks, and educational experiences within their range of expertise and link them with appropriate resources, networks, and experts in areas of C/T research outside their own expertise.