“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

I thought of this quote, and my own primary mentor, when I heard that January is National Mentoring Month. Initially begun to promote youth mentoring in 2002, the month-long focus on mentoring applies to individuals at all levels and career types. For early career researchers, one of the most important things a mentor can do is help his or her trainees create a career roadmap.

Chief among the initial steps of that path is to correctly initiate a mentor-mentee relationship with an agreement upon the “rules of engagement,” often called a Mentor-Mentee Agreement or Mentor-Mentee Action Plan. These agreements are designed to help a mentor and mentee agree upon, and directly articulate, the foundations of their relationship, and lay out key components and responsibilities for each party.

We are working to revise our agreement documents and would love to hear directly from you about features which you find particularly important, or not, to the success of these agreements.  Please directly email eric.austin@vumc.org or rebecca.helton@vumc.org with your ideas regarding good and bad features of mentor-mentee agreements, agreement templates that you particularly like, or other thoughts on the subject.  In addition, feel free to use the comments box below to participate in a more public dialogue about the topic related to this post.

Recently, the Early Career Committee of the Cardiopulmonary, Critical Care, and Resuscitation Council of the American Heart Association (AHA) outlined several key features, including but not limited to mentorship, of a successful career roadmap.1 Let’s take a closer look at several key components.

The Mentor-Mentee Relationship

  • Robust mentorship is universally accepted as crucial.
  • Multiple mentors, or mentor-like individuals, are often necessary over the course of a career. At times, teams of mentors serve multifaceted roles for mentees.
  • A Mentor-Mentee “agreement” or “plan of action” supports a healthy relationship from the start by clearly outlining expectations. It describes a path to conflict resolution if needed.
  • Mentees should actively participate in the relationship, including but not limited to crafting meeting agendas, pursuing new scientific ideas, and seeking guidance across an array of domains as needed related to their career development timelines.

Characteristics for the Mentor to Foster in the Investigator

  • Resiliency and persistence.
  • Receptiveness to feedback on one’s writing and career plans.
  • A carefully crafted plan for grants and manuscripts with one’s mentor(s), and follow-through on the plan.
  • Knowledge and access to all of one’s resources (intellectual, funding, departmental, etc.).
  • Careful focus on and time reserved for writing.

Pursuit of Diverse Funding and Writing Opportunities

  • Map of 1, 3, and 5 year submission plans with Mentor(s).
  • Engagement in grant writing and manuscript resources (e.g., manuscript sprints).
  • Communication with to Program Officers when appropriate.
  • The ability to start early, seek feedback, revise often, and avoid last-minute stress.

Work-Life Balance and Related Issues

  • Division Chief and/or Center Leader(s) can be excellent advocates for you when needed, in concert with your Mentor.
  • Develop a mechanism to manage your time effectively.
  • Learn to say no, but sometimes say yes.
  • Support family and personal wellness.

This is one take on a roadmap to success. Notable to me is that while the initial component specifically addresses mentoring, most, if not all, of these components rely on strong mentorship—at least they did, and still do, for me.  For example, early in my junior faculty time, I had the opportunity to assume leadership of a clinical program directly related to a line of my translational research; however, my mentor wisely steered me to work closely with my division chief (with input as well from my department chair) to carefully determine the right timeline for this transition, which helped protect me from my own exuberance. The resulting delay in transition ultimately resulted in more success for our clinical program as well as my research and career development.

So as January comes to a close, take a moment to think about your mentorship milieu and overall plan for career development. And if able, give a shout out to your mentor(s) this week—they are easy to see if you just look down as you stand on their shoulders.

1 Agarwal S, Spiekerkoetter E, Austin ED, de Jesus Perez V, Dezfulian C, Maron BA, Ryan JJ, Starks MA, Yu PB, Bonnet S and Perman SM. Career Development of Young Physician-Scientists in the Cardiovascular Sciences: Perspective and Advice from the Early Career Committee of the Cardiopulmonary, Critical Care, and Resuscitation Council of the American Heart Association. Circ Res. 2018;122:1330-1333.

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