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You Are a Research Mentor!

MAJ Joshua Oliver, MD

“How far that little candle throws [its] beams!  So shines a good deed in a weary world.”  

-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

At the mid-point of my Army career, I am very grateful to be in my current position. As the research director within a residency program, I have the opportunity to influence many young physicians and encourage them to pursue careers in academics. However, there were many times when my research career failed to launch. In my undergraduate and medical school education, I tried repeatedly to break into research without success. The problem was not a lack of effort.  The problem was I did not know where to start. I needed a research mentor.  

That all changed during my intern year of residency when one of my faculty mentioned that a patient we were taking care of represented a great case report and that they were willing to mentor me through the process of writing it and submitting it for publication. As a result of that mentorship I learned: what type of cases are publishable, how to conduct a literature search, how to write scientifically, and how to submit a publication to a peer-reviewed journal. Simultaneously, my mentor walked me through the process of turning that case report into a poster presentation and submitting it to a conference. Those were all big wins, but the most important lesson that my research mentor imparted was that I needed to pass on what I had learned to other residents and that I now had the experience—and obligation—to mentor others through their case reports and poster presentations. 

There are those who will minimize the value of case reports, but they are a great way to break into research and learn the fundamentals of the process. If you have published a case report, you are qualified to be a research mentor.  After taking up the mantle of research mentorship, you may be surprised how far your candle throws its beams. If the sentimental introduction did not pull at your heartstrings, a more practical reason to become a research mentor is that it will make you a commodity and give you more control over your military career.  It will also make you more competitive for academic positions after leaving the military. Since graduating from Emergency Medicine residency, I have been lucky enough to remain faculty within a residency program. Experience tells me that this is because of early involvement in research.  Despite being at an academic center, there are simply not enough faculty involved in research.  Indeed, the of the most cited obstacles preventing residents from doing research is the lack of mentorship.1–4 Yet, the production of scholarly activity remains a requirement for both residents and faculty within a residency program.2 Demonstrating an aptitude for research mentorship will make you stand out to residency program directors and department chiefs when applying for academic positions.

“If you have published a case report, you are qualified to be a research mentor.”

From the perspective of my own mental health, research also provides a complement to patient care.  It has been very well documented that the medical profession is associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidality, and burnout.5,6 Having a sense of purpose is protective against this burnout.7 I love what I do, but if my only professional outlet was patient care, I suspect I would be much more susceptible to burnout.  The additional sense of purpose I gain from research mentorship is incredibly fulfilling and protective.  In discussions with friends and colleagues from other specialties, I doubt very much that this is a sentiment unique to the practice of Emergency Medicine. That sense of purpose is something that can be passed on to our learners through mentorship, protecting them from burnout as well.  Research, therefore, may not only be protective against the mental health consequences of burnout; it may also prevent physicians from leaving patient care as a result of burnout.    

Another concept that has come to prominence within graduate medical education is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Recently, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has included the concepts of DEI within the core competency of professionalism.2 This means that as faculty we are responsible for teaching and modeling DEI. As someone who is white, male, and heterosexual, it can be difficult to determine how I fit into that education.  However, when I reflect on who my fellow research colleagues are, the majority of them look like me. Indeed, multiple studies of the demographics of researchers demonstrate that physicians that are members of minority groups are less likely to pursue careers in research.1,8 When you are offering to mentor learners through their first case reports, consider to whom you are making that offer.  All learners need our help, but I would ask you to reflect on the following question.  Are you extending that offer to those who do not look like you? The intent of that question is not to shame you, as it is an area where I need to improve as well. The intent is to highlight an opportunity to improve DEI within your department.

Hopefully, I have piqued your interest in research mentorship. As a closing thought, I would like to leave you with a simple “how-to” get started as a research mentor.  If you come to work every day with the intent of finding interesting cases, you will find them. This is an easy way for you to create opportunities for your learners.  Becoming a research mentor is as simple as that.  If you can do that, you will have a large impact on your learners’ careers.  “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  I do not have any relevant financial conflicts of interest.

  1. Schwartz L, Luban N, Hall A, McQuail D, Haywood Y. The mentored experience to enhance opportunities in research (METEOR) program. Med Educ Online. 2022;27(1). doi:10.1080/10872981.2021.2014290
  2. Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Common program requirements (Residency). Sect III B. 2020;(1):1-55. https://www.acgme.org/globalassets/PFAssets/ProgramRequirements/CPRResidency2020.pdf.
  3. Morrison L, Johnston B, Cooper M. Mixed methods systematic review: Factors influencing research activity among nurses in clinical practice. J Clin Nurs. 2021;(July):1-15. doi:10.1111/jocn.16133
  4. Oliver JJ, Ross JM, Davis ; W Tyler, Patrick ;, Summers SM, April MD. The Development of an Emergency Medicine Resident Research Program in the United States Military. doi:10.1093/milmed/usz071
  5. Sharp M, Burkart KM. Trainee Wellness: Why It Matters, and How to Promote It. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2017;14(4):505-512. doi:10.1513/AnnalsATS.201612-1006PS
  6. Shanafelt TD, Gorringe G, Menaker R, et al. Impact of organizational leadership on physician burnout and satisfaction. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(4):432-440. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.01.012
  7. Bohman B, Drybye L, Sinsky C, et al. Physician Well-Being: The Reciprocity of Practice Efficiency, Culture of Wellness, and Personal Resilience. https://catalyst.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/CAT.17.0429. Accessed May 14, 2022.
  8. Wu KJ. Scientific Journals Commit to Diversity but Lack the Data - The New York Times. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/science/diversity-science-journals.html. Accessed January 18, 2022.

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