Mentor, Get in the Weeds.

By Michael Gisondi (@MikeGisondi)

This post is meant to be a check-in for all the education research mentors out there.

Is that you? Are you someone’s mentor?

If so, what does that mean? What should mentors do?

And how deep in the weeds should an education research mentor go?

I’ll argue: deep.

Are you in the weeds?

At certain times, a mentor simply needs to be a trusted sage… at other times, they need to be very hands on. For education research mentors, I say, get in the weeds.

Ask yourself, what role do I currently play for my mentee? Mentor as teacher? Mentor as mind reader? We mentors sometimes forget what it was like starting out. “Put yourself in their shoes,” is easier said than imagined. Time heals the wounds of our own, long ago battles with research as a student or a resident. We probably leaned on mentors of our own then. So take stock, and get in the weeds.

It can be tough to diagnose the needs of your mentee at any one time. Lean in, figure it out. Each mentee is unique, their needs are unique, and their path is unique. We will only have a handful of mentors in our lives… and similarly, we will have a limited number of mentees. You can’t approach all your mentees exactly the same. Get in the weeds.

Recognize when it is your mentee’s first time doing something, and hand hold them through the process. Demonstrate, role model, teach, get in the weeds.

Here are 6 ways education research mentors can get in the weeds.

1. Copy editing

Don’t: “My edits are attached.”

Do: “My edits are attached. The paper reads well but there are a number of areas where the grammar needed to be improved. For example, in paragraph 3, I changed the structure of sentence 2 because…”

In the weeds: If you don’t explain the rationale for your edits, how can you expect that your mentee won’t make the same errors again? Offer ‘hard edits’ or ‘in-line edits’ using track changes, so that your mentee can learn from the before/after.

2. Project management

Don’t: “You aren’t hitting the milestones we agreed upon.”

Do: “Let’s design a GANTT chart for the project that will help keep us both on track. We should contact one another if we are at risk of missing agreed upon deadlines. Let’s review which project management software is most appropriate for this study…”

In the weeds: Trainees are as busy as we are, with school and other responsibilities affecting their abilities to move projects forward. Introduce them to GANTT charts and your preferred project management software. Agree upon a communications strategy for the project.

3. Grant writing

Don’t: “The study aims are confusing.”

Do: “There is an art to writing study aims. You should follow a widely-used format that will streamline the process for you. Let’s discuss the exact wording of the aims now, and we can edit the full document once you have had a chance to make some revisions.”

In the weeds: Writing a first grant is a daunting task. Successful grant writers aren’t born that way, they were closely mentored through their initial small and large grants. Consider grant writing to be a core skill to teach your mentee, just like manuscript preparation.

4. Sponsorship

Don’t: “I’ll write you a letter of recommendation for that new job.”

Do: “I know your prospective employer well. Let me call her and do a warm introduction, timed with the submission of your curriculum vita. Are you comfortable with your CV or do you need some help preparing it? I’ll certainly be your advocate in this process but I expect a high level of professionalism at each touch point.”

In the weeds: Nothing is more stressful than searching for your first job. The job market is tight for medical education researchers and the field is small. Sponsor your mentee and set clear expectations for their immediate and future deliverables. (See Bonus Content, below.)

5. Strategy

Don’t: “You need a niche. What’s yours?”

Do: “Sustainable extramural funding and successful promotion in the professoriate are more likely for researchers who have a theme or narrative to their work. What aspects of our current projects interest you the most? How do you see yourself building off of our work to design the next follow-up study… and the one after that?”

In the weeds: Every researcher is tempted to bounce around from topic to topic based on their current interests. It takes discipline to remain focused on a body of research that builds over years. Counsel your mentees to be selective in the projects they push forward and ensure that they have a longitudinal plan for their early research career.

6. Collaboration

Don’t: “I’ve been doing it this way for years. My approach is just fine.”

Do: “That resource you identified is outstanding. I wish I had found that when I was in your stage of my career. Thanks for sharing it with me. Let’s review it together and make the necessary adjustments to your specific aims page.”

In the weeds: Remain humble. Mentors are experienced and knowledgeable about many pertinent topics, but they are not all knowing. There is much co-learning to be had in a rich mentoring experience. (Shout out to our current Stanford Medical Education Scholarship Fellow, Dr. Leo Aliaga, for sharing the above referenced specific aims resource with me!)

So before you take on the role of mentoring someone new, do you have the time and energy to appropriately invest in them… and to get deep in the weeds?


Bonus Material: Are you sure you’re a mentor?

The definitions of mentor, advisor, and other similar terms that define relationships with trainees are vague and overlapping. For the purposes of this post, let me offer my personal definitions:

Mentor: Someone who guides a trainee for many years across many milestones. Perhaps the relationship was initially assigned as part of a program of study, or perhaps the relationship developed organically. Either way, mentors play a special role in a trainee’s development and career, one that endures longitudinally but will eventually end. We only have a few mentors in our lives. Example: a pre-medical school advisor in college who remains a valued confidant to a medical student many years beyond when the assigned advising relationship should have ended.

Advisor: A faculty member who is paid to guide a trainee for a specified period of time or through a distinct project. Advisors have deep knowledge of a particular topic. They are able to work with many advisees simultaneously and tailor their advice accordingly. Example: a faculty member advising a cohort of senior medical students who are seeking to match to residency programs.

Sports Coach: Someone who is paid to help a trainee improve a specific task. Example: a swim coach who helps an athlete improve their time by teaching the correct way to jump off the block.

Professional Coach: Someone who is paid to share their knowledge and expertise with a leader, usually an executive. Example: a professional coach who is hired to guide a newly-promoted middle manager.

Coach in Medical Education: A faculty member who is paid to guide a trainee towards their personal or professional goals using appreciative inquiry. These individuals have no formal role in the assessment of a trainee. Example: a faculty member coach who meets regularly with their trainee and who is not assigned to the Clinical Competency Committee.

Sponsor: An individual who uses their power or influence to advance the career of someone junior to them. They expend political capital on behalf of this individual and they expect something in return in the future. Example: a senior faculty member who helps a trainee land their first job out of residency by advocating on their behalf to their new chair.


About the Author: Michael A. Gisondi, MD is an emergency physician, medical educator, and education researcher who lives in Palo Alto, California. Michael currently holds a position as Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Education in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University. Twitter: @MikeGisondi

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