Both trainee and mentor stand to benefit greatly when the goals and expectations of their mentoring relationship are clearly defined, the responsibilities and activities are well executed, and goals and objectives are achieved in a timely fashion. While these are reasonable expectations of a harmonious relationship, untoward events can damage the trainee/mentor bond. Relationships suffer when trainee, mentor, or both fail to adhere to responsibilities established in the memorandum of understanding (MOU). Reasons for this failing may include evolving needs and shifting priorities, conflicting personalities, and inability to adapt to changing situations. It is crucial that both parties increase awareness to possible areas of conflict and proactively develop a contingency plan for successfully dealing with these barriers.
An important first step is the acknowledgment that a chief attribute of the trainee/mentor relationship is its inherent imbalance of power. This imbalance results from major differences in key areas between mentor and trainee. These include the level of research experience, depth of knowledge, professional status, and an established collegial network. By virtue of the mentor's greater authority, the trainee is likely to be the vulnerable party in barriers and conflicts that arise. Trainees are dependent on mentors for providing information critical to success, access to proceeding with instruction, or even locating sources of funding. Because of this dependency trainees may find it difficult to challenge mentors who may abuse their power (sometimes unintentionally). Competing interests may sometimes compromise a mentor's commitment to protecting the welfare of the trainee, resulting in manipulation, abuse, and exploitation. Alternatively, the source of the barriers and conflicts may originate with the trainee. Failure to honor responsibilities, loss of interest in completing assignments, or unwillingness to communicate can lead to dysfunctional interactions with the mentor.
There are a number of consequences of a failed trainee/mentor relationship. The consequences could impact not just the two parties, but the integrity of the research endeavor and the institution as well. Examples of these consequences include:
the trainee loses the benefit that could have been gained from receiving knowledge, insight, and vicarious experiences from the mentor; the mentor loses an opportunity to share his/her own research values and perspectives to a potential collaborator.
lost opportunities for the mentor to model responsible of conduct of research.
poor advice from mentor or negative research experiences may hinder trainee's progress to career goals.
trainee may have a sense that the trust placed in the scientific community in general, and colleagues in particular, was violated.
This section describes a representative sample of difficulties that could arise between trainee and mentor. Mentors can become proactive by increasing their awareness to these possibilities:
- Power differential
- Competing and conflicting roles
- Inability to meet research deadlines
- Failure to give credit
- Failure to ensure a supportive research environment
- Failure to provide sound advice
- Failure to monitor trainee conduct
- Failure to treat trainees fairly
- Failure to ensure the trainee is making progress in a timely fashion
- Failure to recognize problems
- Observing violation of research protocol
With the exception of peer mentoring, mentoring relationships have an inherent asymmetrical status arrangement. This 'power differential' , reflected by the status of mentors, based on level of research experience, educational attainment, intellectual maturity, publication and presentation record, standing within research organizations, and recognition from professional peers, will be significantly greater than a novice researcher. Senior researchers should be aware of this factor when interacting with trainees. Trainees, who are shy, may be reluctant to approach senior researchers, let alone engage them in conversation that is relevant to the trainee's career. Even if a mentoring arrangement is agreed to, trainees may not be willing to speak up for themselves when necessary, or ask for assistance when needed. The more powerful party in this relationship would be better able to reach out to trainees, if the mentor appears to be approachable and available.
Competing and conflicting roles
In addition to their roles as trainees and mentors, researchers often hold other roles that may from time to time compete and conflict with each other. The senior researcher can be both a mentor and an employer to a trainee, while the novice can be both a trainee and an employee. Problems can arise when fulfilling the obligations of one role is incompatible with fulfilling obligations of another. An example would be an individual who may be overwhelmed by trying to manage simultaneously multiple demands as a trainee (i.e., fulfilling course work requirement, time-sensitive assignments) and as an employee (i.e., completing data collection, analyses, write up). The senior researcher might view obligations to the welfare of the trainee as conflicting with his/her responsibility to meet research project deadlines. If communication with the trainee is poor, the mentor may not even be aware of a developing problem, if the trainee is hesitant to reveal it.
Inability to meet research deadlines
Maintaining strict adherence to a well-defined timeline is an expectation in the competitive research environment and a crucial aspect of the responsible conduct of research. Trainees are taught to value obligations and accommodate their schedules around grant deadlines, preparation for presentations at professional conferences, and submission of scientific reports.
Missing deadlines consistently may be an indication that a trainee may be deficient in some necessary skills or unable to adapt to situational demands. A trainee may either be inadequately trained, have poor organizational and time management skills, or be unable to handle excessive competing demands. Lack of trainee/mentor communication may result in the mentor making incorrect inferences about the possible cause(s) that affect a trainee's ability to function in a demanding research environment.
Failure to give credit
Publishing in professional journals can be crucial to the early success of a research trainee's career. A mentor can greatly benefit a trainee by ensuring that suitable recognition is provided in collaborative publication efforts. Publications can help establish a trainee in a field of study, promote the development of collegial networks,
and enhance prospects for securing a desired research position. Given the aforementioned imbalance of power, trainees are vulnerable to having someone in a position of authority take advantage of them. Trainees who are treated unfairly by not receiving proper credit for research contributions can suffer disruption in the progress of their research careers. This can lead to animosity and bitterness between colleagues, loss of trust in research institutions, damaged reputations, and in extreme cases, termination of careers.
Failure to ensure a supportive research environment
A supportive research environment not only enhances the quality of the trainee's experience, but is essential to promote responsible conduct of research. Without a supportive environment trainees may be unable to learn and consistently practice proper research procedures. Efforts to conduct research in an atmosphere of divisive and combative interpersonal relationships may subsequently stymie attempts to develop the necessary skills of professional collegiality.
The stress of training in highly specialized fields can only be compounded when trainees are exposed to disruptive surroundings. Examples of mentoring activities that promote a supportive research environment include:
closely monitor implementation of research protocols
obtain and maintain equipment adequately
promote positive relations between colleagues
implement contingency plans for problems that arise
maintain adherence to deadlines
Whether a trainee has experience conducting research independently or is new to the field, a deficient research environment compromises the integrity of research conducted, invalidates results, and may risk the safety of both research participants and staff. Responsible mentors have an obligation to investigate all threats to a supportive research environment.
Failure to provide sound advice
While research trainees may seek different kinds of advice from a variety of sources, trainees may depend on mentors to counsel them on specific career-related matters. Depending on their stage of training, level of competence, and need, trainees depend on mentors to guide them through the sometimes perilous journey to becoming a competent researcher. Well-timed advice targeting the specific and evolving needs of the trainee can be instrumental in overcoming obstacles during the training period. Reviewing and assessing the quality of trainees work can lead to identifying areas that need improvement. Mentor's advice that fails to target trainee needs, is ill-timed, or wholly inaccurate can be disruptive to the process of becoming a competent researcher. For example, prematurely suggesting that trainee present research findings at a professional conference when the trainee has not validated the research fully or lacks public speaking experience and self-confidence can compromise the trainee's credibility as well as the research project. A responsible mentor might identify a trainee's weaknesses as well as develop a plan to address them.
Failure to monitor trainee's conduct
Occasionally trainees could engage in their own form of inappropriate conduct with colleagues of equal or lesser rank either intentionally or unintentionally. Unprofessional behavior can create a dysfunctional environment in which to pursue research. For example, an environment where individuals feel threatened might discourage the reporting of a suspected case of scientific misconduct for fear of retribution. Whether or not the research environment lies within the mentor's purview, mentors may sometimes take on the responsibility of protecting a trainee's welfare as well monitoring trainee's
actions that may threaten research integrity and run counter to responsible research behavior. While the nature and frequency of monitoring will depend on the trainee's stage of development, the one constant is an emphasis on promoting behavior that protects the integrity of the research process.
Failure to treat trainees fairly
The fair treatment of trainees requires that they neither be treated with favoritism nor discrimination.
Mentors that consistently provide trainees with unfair advantages can unintentionally send the wrong message to a developing researcher. Trainees who expect to continue receiving favors when their training is complete, may find themselves resorting to cutting corners if they no longer can depend on these advantages. On the other hand, trainees who perceive that they are discriminated against may feel exploited. These trainees may complain they are not acknowledged, appreciated, or given adequate opportunity to refine research skills. If they are unable to change mentors, they may feel trapped. If indeed, the mentor has demonstrated discrimination, the trainee may lose out on a chance to benefit from the mentor's research experiences.
Failure to ensure the trainee is making progress in a timely fashion
One important commitment that mentors agree to is ensuring that trainees make good progress toward completing their training. This may require regularly monitoring, assessing, and reviewing trainee performance. Mentors may identify areas of strengths and weakness, and make recommendations on improvement. A significant disruption to the trainee's regular progress should be addressed by identifying the reason(s) for the delay: unforeseen circumstances affect the trainee's ability to perform optimally; the trainee may have trepidations about completing their training (i.e., concerns about job prospects); the mentor may benefit from having extending the association with the trainee. A trainee who has collaborated with a mentor on research studies may represent an investment of time and resources. The mentor may be reluctant to lose a qualified and reliable assistant. In this case, a mentor may experience a conflict between self-interest and the welfare of the trainee.
Failure to recognize problems
Trainees vary in their level of maturity and ability to cope with the stresses and demands of a rigorous research training program. Some trainees may have developed these skills before beginning their training, others acquire coping strategies during training, and yet other individuals remain limited in their capacity to handle stress. Mentors should assess these capabilities and monitor trainees who are vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress. While a mentor cannot be expected to diagnose and manage a trainee's serious emotional conflicts, the mentor should be aware of competent professional help available at the institution and make the necessary recommendation to the trainee.
Observing violations of research protocol
Whether a mentor observes a trainee violating research protocol or vice versa, either individual may experience a sense of disappointment from the other person failing to meet a higher standard. Mentors observing violation by a trainee may use that as a teachable moment for trainees who may have unintentionally engaged in scientific misconduct. While mentors are likely to describe correct procedures, they may also choose to discuss a code of responsible research conduct and its impact on preserving the integrity of research. Trainees, who on the other hand may have acted intentionally, are likely to be retrained, reprimanded, or even dismissed. Due to the inherent imbalance of power in the trainee/mentor relationship, trainees who have observed misconduct by a mentor may find themselves in a compromising situation. Negative repercussions for a mishandled response could result in a strained relationship or even dissolution of the relationship, retribution on the part of the mentor against the trainee, or an understanding that the violation is acceptable. This may be particularly destructive to trainees as it may condone irresponsible research conduct.
This section described a number of potential barriers trainees and mentor can face that limit the possible benefits both parties stand to gain. This list is not intended to be exhaustive in scope. The source of the barriers may rest with the trainee, mentor, or a combination of both. While both parties share the burden and responsibility for honoring their obligations established in the MOU, ultimately, both share a mutual responsibility to serve the interest of research by encouraging a high standard of integrity. Problematic events may occur that threaten the continuation of the relationship, compromise the trainee's training and future career, and even endanger the integrity of research itself. The next section will discuss a proactive approach to help minimize the impact of these barriers.
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