Academic Project - Research


Developing research skills through mentorship


David B. Thordarson, MD
Foot and Ankle International


Trying to develop research projects or skills without mentorship is extremely challenging and a much less efficient process. A mentor is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as “a trusted counselor or guide”. Wikipedia in its definition states that a mentor is more experienced or knowledgeable than the mentee. Age is not an issue with a mentor but the level of expertise and experience is very important. It is important to note that mentoring is different than being a good role model. A good role model provides a good example but it can be an entirely passive process requiring no conscious effort. In contrast, mentoring is an active process with both the mentor and mentee playing an active role.

A good mentor can play a few similar but different roles as a teacher, advisor and coach. It is important for it to be a positive relationship as the mentor needs to provide support, guidance and hopefully encouragement. Good mentors must not only be ethical and honest (good role models), but they must freely share their knowledge without feeling threatened, ie. they must be comfortable with their own success, and be able to acknowledge their own uncertainties. When choosing a potential mentor, a high level of expertise is essential but one should hopefully have the above traits. It should be noted that skill or mentoring in the operating room does not automatically translate into being a good research mentor.

There are potential benefits to both the mentor and mentee. In general, the mentee gets more direct benefit but most mentors feel it is a very worthwhile experience, also. Mentors can feel satisfaction from giving back to their specialty and advancing the science of medicine. They can get a vicarious pleasure from watching their mentee grow academically and succeed. Ultimately, they can collaborate with their mentees on projects which increases their own personal academic accomplishments. Mentees have a much higher chance of succeeding academically with good mentorship. They have a higher job satisfaction, higher rate of job promotion, more publications and more rapid acknowledgement of their abilities and scientific contributions both locally and nationally.

Successful mentoring requires a commitment by both the mentor and mentee. The biggest barrier to success is typically time. It should be remembered by mentees that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. If a mentee chooses a mentor and feels it is not a good choice, either due to lack of commitment, a lack of expertise, a hypercritical personality or other perceived barriers to success, then a new one should be found.

The previous discussion has focused on what to look for and what to avoid in general terms. The actual process is more specific. If your goal is to do foot and ankle research, then ideally you should have a foot and ankle research expert serve as your mentor. Remember, though, that the individual you select must have adequate time to be a proper mentor. If no foot and ankle research mentor is available, go with the next best overall researcher who is available to you. Remember, a major barrier to many projects, especially basic science ones, is a lack of funding so get someone who has previously had success getting projects funded to help with this process.

Having a successful research program can be a very rewarding experience. It can be very gratifying to present at meetings and publish your work in peer-reviewed journals while being recognized by your colleagues for your good work. Having a good mentor can greatly facilitate this process. Being a good mentor can be a very gratifying role which can eventually make you a better researcher. Good mentorship requires active participation by both partners to be successful.



Mulcahey MK; Waterman BR, Hart R, Daniels AH. Role of Mentoring in the Development of Successful Orthopedic Surgeons. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2018;26(13):463-471.