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Traditional Mentoring Systems Fail Both Mentors and Mentees

Mentors cannot fix a broken system; and we shouldn't ask them to.


When I started in research, I was told to find a mentor. That mentor, they said, would be my ticket to success. I struggled to find a mentor who would invest in me. When I finally found one, the relationship floundered: I had a massive skills deficit that no one mentor could fill; and the mentor, who was also building their own career, didn't have the time or energy I needed. The result was an epic fail: We both walked away with disappointed expectations. 

I finally understood the problem when I studied  the pathway for creating PhD researchers. PhD researchers are "created" by, not one mentor, but an entire system. They start their early PhD experience developing theoretical expertise. Then they rotate through different research programs to determine fit. Next, they join a research program where they practice graduated research leadership. Finally, they constitute a thesis committee to support first major research debut. The entire PhD program is designed to support research success. 


Additionally, throughout their program, the PhD candidate attends research seminars, applies for grant funding, and participates in research assistantships. After graduation, they gain additional expertise through one or more post-doctoral fellowships. By the time they apply for their first faculty job, PhD researchers already have 7-10 years of research experience built within a research mentoring system.


From the above, you can begin to appreciate the challenge inherent to research training for clinicians. Clinical faculty, who barely have 18 months of uninterrupted research training, expect to fill their massive research skills gap with one mentor. Even with three years of "protected research time," one mentor cannot make up your 7-10 years of research training deficit.


Based on how the system is set up, challenges are the rule and not the exception. For those of you who've had challenging mentoring relationships, please understand that challenges are the norm. If you can't find a mentor crazy enough to take on this impossible challenge, it is not your fault. However, you can do something about it. Your first task is to recognize the challenges inherent to the system and adjust your expectations.


In Clinician Researcher podcast, Season 2 Episode 13, we address the significant gap in clinicians' research training relying on a single mentor. In particular, we discuss the following:


  1. Structural problems inherent in clinician research training.

  2. Challenges faced by mentors in addressing the diverse needs of mentees.

  3. Letting go of the single mentor model to embrace mentoring networks.

  4. The need to leverage institutional systems and communities.

  5. The role of coaching in helping you create a system that is tailored to you.


This week, ask yourself, "Is my current mentoring system serving me?" If the answer is "Yes," then congratulations, you have a mentoring system that is guaranteed to help you succeed. If the answer is no, then I want you to ask, "How can I do things differently?" In your answer lies the keys to your radical success. 


If you stopped accepting the default systems and instead, created a community that is tailored to you, how much more of that frustrated energy could you channel into building the research program you have wanted all along? 


You absolutely can. And it is time to invest in yourself to make it happen.


🎙️ Are you ready for change?

Are you ready to let go of unrealistic mentoring systems that don't work for you? Are you ready to explore systems especially tailored to clinicians? Are you ready to fulfill the scholarship dreams you had when you first signed up for your career in academic medicine? If the answers to any of these questions is "yes," then "Clinician Researcher Academy" is for you. Interested? Sign up to join the waitlist here


Please note that if you are a fellow at my institution, your tuition is free. We also offer deeply discounted tuition for all clinical postdoctoral fellows.


🎙️ Sponsor Spotlight

This episode is proudly sponsored by Coag Coach LLC, dedicated to providing coaching resources for clinicians transitioning into research leadership. If you are looking to coach with Dr. Onwuemene, sign up for your discovery call here. You can also join our LinkedIn group: Clinician Researcher to get exclusive updates!






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