Monday, August 13, 2007

Picking a Research Mentor

I don't claim myself to be a seasoned researcher, or a well-published academician. But, I think I've certainly been burnt enough that I thought I'd share my learnings about research. The main thing really, is picking the right research mentor.
I know it sounds obvious, but really, it's not. You have to think about what kind of person you are, how much experience you carry and how independent you are able to work. Then, balance that with how much autonomy you want your mentor to give you.

The Micromanager
A great mentor to start your career off with. Someone who examines everything you do under a microscope, and adds countless grey hairs to your already balding head from the stress he/she gives you. Your manuscript draft that he reviews is typically returned to you full of red (from the track changes function in Word). But someone who has invaluable experience who will teach you about the finer details. An example, my first projects kept crashing and burning, and I had trouble getting them published, because I realized I wasn't learning the art of writing papers and manuscripts, of drafting cover letters or replying to reviewer comments. Until I worked with Dr. W 2 years ago who was instrumental in teaching me the nitty-gritty.

The Invisible Man
This is typically an older, emeritus-professor types, who is close to retirement and who doesn't quite give a dang about how you phrase your manuscript (probably because he has over 100 publications and over $3 million in R01 grant awards). This person typically lets you fly on autopilot, which is nice if you know what you are doing and don't want anyone to be picky about where you place the comma or your style of writing. However, this would not be the person you want to work under if you're new to this and haven't popped your publication cherry. Because you're not going to learn much from this person. Your 25-page draft is typically returned to you with just one line of 'Looks good' or something like it. I learnt my lesson when one of my projects almost crashed and burnt because of a protocol problem that no one noticed (Thankfully I was able to salvage the project by coming up with a totally different control group. Took me a month but the paper's now done and submitted). Yup, don't count on practical advice from this one.

The Newbie
I hate to say this, but even consultants and professors (assistant profs) can be not-well-published. Nothing wrong with this, as academia isn't for everyone. And I'm a newbie too, and would not ever serve as anyone's mentor. These mentors can be overly enthusiastic trying to get you to write cases up for publication, or force their way into your study protocol although they weren't really involved. And the main problem is, while their level of motivation is nice, they often don't have the experience to give you good advise. Which leads to poor quality study designs, or manuscripts. Case in mind from years ago I've spent weeks doing chart reviews for a vague, thought to be feasible project, until the statistician pointed out a fatal flaw in the poorly designed study my mentor came up with for me. Often, they are highly motivated because they want more publications in their names (yours). Another caution- these advisors usually do not have funding, so plan on having no statistician, or artist or research coordinator in your protocol.

The God
This is also another good/bad example of how you can play the game. Once you've established yourself, and feel comfortable writing, and especially if you're in a bigger institution with big names, it's sometimes helpful to tag yourself with a world-expert in a certain field. That way, no reviewer is going to dare reject your manuscript, because of the name your paper carries. It's a simbiotic existence; you get a heavyweight name as your advisor on your paper, he gets a publication for minimal work. This person is similar to the Invisible Man, except that he has perhaps double the number of publications, and has an ego larger than the planet Jupiter. He usually would not micromanage your study, but beware: he knows His name lends a certain amount of credibility, and so he may end up being too fussy with your manuscript in order to not look bad.

The Type A
A variant of the micromanager, except this person gives less practical guidance, and pushes you harder. Also, be wary of changing deadlines- "Don't worry, the abstract is only due in 4 months" easily and without warning morphs into "You need to submit the 21-page manuscript in a month. And oh, I think you should write up a grant proposal for this and try to get some funding. Also, I've decided to expand your study's primary outcome". If you survive this one, you can expect high-quality publications in respectable journals. But plan on lots of caffeine, aspirin and Valium. And do make sure your 18th floor office windows are locked, in case you develop any temptations to jump out.
The Bully
I had a mentor like this in medical school. I cringe when I recall my experience with him. This is a person who is a very established researcher, well-published, IQ over 180, but totally lacks any interpersonal skills. He is a mentor by force; he has no ability nor desire to teach and guide.The only reason he's agreed to take on someone is because the head of department probably forced him to because it's in his contract, because he is after all employed by a teaching institution. Don't expect to learn much from this person. He's happy if you're invisible and leave him alone. He cares only for his lab animals, not you.
Stay far far away.