Amer Zeidan, MBBS, MHS
You are so lucky! You have just matched in your topchoice hematology/oncology fellowship program at a great university. You have always wanted to become an academic investigator and contribute to help move the field forward, and, finally, you have the chance to do so. You may think it is too early to consider finding a mentor; that you may, instead, wait until you have completed your first clinical year of fellowship. Big mistake!
It is never too early to start thinking about your research mentor. Choosing a research mentor is one of the most important steps when beginning a successful academic research career. Therefore, selecting a mentor should be done in a very thoughtful and deliberate manner, and should not be taken lightly or done in hasty fashion. Whereas some fellows may have taken part in an accelerated MD/PhD track program, earned a PhD, completed several years of full-time research (whether clinical or laboratory research), decided to remain as fellows in the same institutions where they are finishing their internal medicine residency, formulated a clear idea about what type of research career they want, and connected with the mentor with whom they will be training (and may even have worked with already), the majority of fellows probably are not so prepared. A majority of fellows do not have an extensive amount of prior research experience when they match in a new program in a new city where they don’t know many people. Many enter this new role without a plan as to whether they want to work in academia, private practice, or industry; let alone have they thought about seeking a research mentor.
Just a few years ago, I was in the second category (the less prepared). I had just joined a prestigious fellowship program at a top-notch university with a worldwide reputation in cancer research, but I didn’t know anyone in the city or even in the university. Although I knew I wanted to have a career in hematologic oncology research, I was not sure whether I wanted to do laboratory or clinical research. Also, I had not yet identified a particular cancer area to study or a mentor with whom to work. With agonizing uncertainty, I remember spending long weeks and months trying to figure out where my future would take me career-wise and stressing about how to find a mentor who would fit my personality best and offer me the finest opportunity to become an independent researcher.
Looking back at those days, I thought I would share with you my experience in finding the right mentor and what time taught me in tackling this process. I should note here that before moving to the United States to pursue residency and fellowship for early phase clinical/translational research in hematologic malignancies, I had obtained my medical diploma in another country. Although my experience may vary from that of others who have finished medical school in the United States, have done basic laboratory research, or are interested in pure oncology research, I believe that the general thoughts and principles I highlight can apply across this entire spectrum.
Start Looking as Early as Possible
Do not wait until you are about to begin the research portion of your fellowship to start looking for a mentor. This is likely to be a long and a time-consuming process in which you will talk to many different people and assess multiple prospective mentors. It is wise to start seeking a mentor as early as possible. You may even want to consider looking for a mentor as soon as you know which institution you have matched with (before you even start your fellowship).
Find Your Passion
You probably have heard that being an oncologist is a lifestyle, not just a career. Well, that is absolutely true and even more so for a clinical researcher in oncology. Not only will you conduct clinical research, but you will need to be an excellent and devoted physician to your patients. Your work is not likely to end when you go home. Rather, you will likely find yourself busily writing manuscripts, revising grants, preparing presentations, and calling referring community oncologists, among other tasks, after your regular work hours, on weekends, and even while you are away at conferences or on vacation.
As you read this, you may be wondering what this has to do with finding a mentor. Well, choosing a mentor before you know what you want to do is like putting the wagon in front of the horse. Whether you want to spend years using pipettes and injecting mice or feel that your niche may be in clinical research and direct patient care, you need to make a decision about your career goals early. No mentor will find your passion for you.