A newly appointed junior academic will often feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities and expectations of her or his new position. These will include the need to teach, to establish an independent research programme and to contribute in a meaningful way to one’s chosen profession. The challenge very often is time management and the identification of priorities, especially in a competitive environment where career development and academic promotion loom large. In a survey of academic physicians, 98% cited a lack of mentoring as the largest or second largest factor holding back their career advancement.
One of the most daunting yet necessary skills that a young academic staff member needs to master is grant writing. This is where a mentor with a strong track record in securing research grants can provide invaluable advice. The primary source of grant funding for medical research in the USA is the National Institutes of Health, in the UK it’s the Wellcome Trust, while in South Africa it’s the Medical Research Council. Successful grantsmanship – considered the sine qua non for entry into the academy – provides the young researcher with a sense of independence to pursue her or his own agenda, hire assistants, purchase key equipment and attend international conferences.
Studies have shown that junior faculty members who have the benefit of a mentor are more likely to receive research grants, publish more papers, have improved career opportunities and enjoy greater career satisfaction. There’s also a role for “reverse mentoring” where mentees provide their mentors with advice, for example with the use of social media.
As highlighted by Bredella, the benefits of mentorship go both ways: “Mentors receive intellectual and professional stimulation, personal enrichment, and a sense of giving back to their institutions.” I would go one step further and argue that it behooves all senior academics to make a positive contribution to their profession by taking seriously their responsibility to mentor younger colleagues.