The need for well-trained clinical researchers has spurred multiple federally funded research training initiatives, including F, T, and K series grants and the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence (PI) Award (K99/R00; PA-07–297). Although such initiatives are likely to increase the pool of potential NIH grantees, it is unclear whether these investments will yield sustained funding and programmatic research careers in the next generation of health scientists. Projected shortages in medicine and nursing portend a paucity of clinically prepared researchers, while factors such as funding freezes, leveling of faculty salaries (1), and loss of faculty candidates to industry threaten the overall supply of academic researchers (2, 3). If junior faculty members are to achieve success in a research-intensive academic environment, multiple levels of support are needed. This article describes the development of a peer-mentoring initiative to foster the professional development of junior-level clinical researchers and an exemplar approach to peer mentoring that can be easily implemented among junior-level research scientists in an academic psychiatry department.
Mentoring has been broadly defined as a voluntary alliance between an experienced senior professional and a less advanced one, for the dual purposes of career development and enhancement of the profession (4). The practice and importance of formal mentorship—the pairing of junior faculty with established mentors—is widely recognized in academic research (5, 6). However, traditional mentoring relationships may be threatened by a multitude of factors, including the demanding nature of mentors’ schedules (7) and a lack of interpersonal chemistry (8). Peer-mentoring represents a means of augmenting junior-senior mentoring activities.
Although there is anecdotal evidence that peers serve a critical role in the maintenance of career productivity (9, 10), few empirical studies examine the efficacy of peer mentoring. A handful of qualitative and quantitative studies document the success of peer mentoring (11–13). Pololi et al. (13) report on an 80-hour, structured Collaborative Mentoring Program and describe outcomes such as values identification, career planning, development of collaborative relationships, and skills necessary for research productivity (scholarly writing and negotiation). In another report (12), faculty facilitators describe increased productivity among participants as measured by new projects and submissions of abstracts and journal manuscripts. In neither case, however, was peer mentoring designed or implemented by junior faculty, as was done in our peer-mentoring approach. To our knowledge, no studies have addressed both the process and outcomes of a peer-mentoring group focusing on research development of junior faculty.
Recognizing the need to ensure successful transition into their roles as junior faculty researchers, we developed and implemented a novel approach to enhancing junior investigator productivity in a competitive research environment, with specific relevance to those engaged in psychiatry research. The Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting (PRDM) is a weekly research development group dedicated to increasing the research and writing productivity of five junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows in the health sciences, the majority of whom were associated with the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Here we describe the process and data from the first 24 months of the initiative.
We propose an example of peer mentoring for research development that can be readily implemented by graduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty at research-intensive medical institutions, as a complement to traditional senior mentoring relationships. This particular model includes active participation in weekly meetings, oral and written feedback of materials presented by group peers, and systematic tracking of all projects initiated by group members. Objective data related to productivity are reported; these data were recorded at several time points since the inception of the group. We also discuss emergent properties of the group process.
The initial participants were three postdoctoral fellows and one junior faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh. Within 6 months, another junior faculty member joined. All participants held doctoral degrees in philosophy (Ph.D.). Members represented a range of basic and applied research interests within the health sciences.
Formation of the Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting
Discussions about scholarly writing and the need for peer review and mentoring in this area led to a call for participants among the postdoctoral trainees and junior faculty in the department of psychiatry, via a flyer and a notice to an e-mail listing of postdoctoral trainees and junior faculty. Criteria for recruitment included postdoctoral or junior faculty status, adherence to the peer mentoring model, and willingness to participate weekly. No restrictions for group inclusion were made based on gender, ethnicity, research area of interest, or type of advanced degree (Ph.D., M.D., or M.D./Ph.D.). The group was held to five members because preliminary stages of the group process indicated that this size worked well to strike a balance for presenting material for review and the volume of feedback received. For example, incorporating more than four or five reviews in a manuscript at one time is difficult, but if the group were limited to three members, the writer would receive only two additional perspectives on his or her work. Procedures and weekly scheduling of the group were devised to allow frequent opportunities for peer meetings, mentoring, and review of manuscripts and grants. Members felt that weekly meetings would best develop intensive peer mentoring relationships and allow each member to present his or her material every 5 weeks.
The Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting (PRDM) Model
PRDM Research Development Topics
Topics discussed in the initial 2 years of the meeting included research project design (e.g., generating specific aims and hypotheses, brainstorming research designs, procedures); writing (e.g., review of drafts of grant proposals, manuscripts, conference abstracts); and strategy (e.g., opportunities for traditional mentoring, specific research challenges).
Structure of Weekly Meetings
The setting changed weekly because meetings were held in conference rooms in the immediate vicinity of each member’s office. The member whose work was reviewed that week hosted the meeting. Attendance was typically four or five members per meeting during the study period, although attendance was not usually recorded. The hosting member distributed materials (e.g., manuscript, description of research challenge) at least a day in advance of the meeting. This relatively brief review time was judged to be sufficient for most members to provide feedback. Only work generated by members was reviewed; PRDM does not serve as a journal club or seminar series. Other members prepared written feedback on the materials.
Meetings were centered on exchange of feedback and ideas for next steps in the given project. Members treated the product as if they were the primary reviewer and provided written and oral feedback. The host for the group began by briefly introducing the materials. Goals for the meeting and specific issues to resolve were identified. Manuscripts in progress were commonly reviewed at meetings; these varied from rough drafts to revised manuscripts for resubmission. Program members who had “big issue” comments initiated the feedback.
Feedback and discussion concluded with PRDM member consensus and an action plan for moving the product forward. Solutions and action plans for the product occurred at multiple levels, from editorial to conceptual. Because this was a group of peers, the format allowed for debate among the members and did not result in any one member taking the lead. Comments were generally titrated to the level of the product presented. For example, editorial comments were often not discussed in products with major conceptual problems.
Productivity Data Collection
Program members recorded data on the progress of projects, using the following variables: type of project (grant, journal article, conference abstract or presentation, book chapter, book, or other); authorship (first or other author of the project); progress (in preparation, final draft, submitted, in revision for resubmission, awarded, in press or presented, or discontinued). Program members were interested in tracking both successful projects and discontinued efforts; when a project was ended with anything other than a publication, presentation, or awarded grant, it was recorded in the “discontinued” category.
Once a project was conceptualized, the member added the project to the group list, assigned a sequential number to the project, and indicated the type of project and authorship. On subsequent progress meetings, the member updated the project with the new progress status.
This article reports on the first 24 months of research activity among PRDM members. Data on the members’ progress were collected on average every 4 months, for a total of six time points. The statistics described were from the period after the fifth member had joined. The majority of projects were manuscripts (61%, n=55). Other projects included grants (24%, n=22), presentations (13%, n=12), and other (e.g., books and job talks; 2%, n=2). This analysis includes 91 projects. The number of individual projects ranged from 15 to 19. Prior to PRDM, 41 had been initiated (40.5%), while the remaining 50 were initiated during the data collection period (59.5%).
Three unique outcome variables were developed for tracking individual and group data:
Research productivity was defined as the number of projects (including grant applications, journal article manuscripts, book chapters, and conference abstracts) reaching the status of submitted, awarded, in press, or presented in a given period of time and the evaluated productivity of members in a traditional and academic sense.
Research efficiency was defined as the ratio of submitted projects to total projects that had been initiated and evaluated and the proportion of projects reaching a completion point.
Research focus was defined as the ratio of active projects to total projects initiated and as the ratio of discontinued projects to total projects that had been initiated, both expressed as a percentage, and evaluated the process of discontinuing some projects to focus on potentially more fruitful ones.
shows research productivity. The total number of projects submitted or finished increased steadily over the 2 years. At the initial data collection, six projects were classified as “recently submitted” or “finished.” At the final data collection, 27 projects were classified as “recently submitted” or “finished.” A mean of 4.5 projects per member reached submission or completion during the entire period of data collection (range=1–10).
shows research efficiency over time. The efficiency ratio increased steadily over the first year of PRDM, after which it remained stable. At the initial data collection, 14.6% of the total projects initiated were classified as “submitted” or “finished” (n=6). This proportion increased to 33.3% by the fourth data collection (n=21). This finding reflected an initial burst of relative speed and efficiency with which projects were being completed during the initial year.
also shows research focus. The ratio of active projects to total initiated decreased, while the ratio of discontinued projects to total initiated increased over time. At the initial data collection, 93.8% of the total projects initiated were classified as active (n=85), while none had been discontinued. At the fourth data collection, these ratios reached asymptotes, with the proportion of active projects leveling out at approximately 45% (n=46) and the proportion of discontinued projects reaching approximately 20% (n=20). At the final data collection, 48.3% of total projects initiated were classified as active (n=49), and 19.0% had been discontinued (n=19). This combination reflected members’ increasing focus on the most potentially rewarding and useful projects.
Several features distinguish the Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting (PRDM) model from other peer-focused models in the extant mentoring literature. Specifically, the PRDM model was designed to supplement traditional mentoring activities and to establish a formal system for tracking the progress of research-related activities among members.
Complementing Existing Mentoring
Members explicitly structured the group membership, meeting frequency, scope of research development activities, and tracking system to complement already-existing and ongoing senior mentoring relationships. Each member maintained existing junior-senior mentoring relationships throughout the evaluation period. All five members had a one-on-one relationship with a primary senior mentor and at least weekly contact with their senior mentors throughout the evaluation period. The PRDM experience shows that regular contact (once a week) is particularly useful to junior faculty who work with a preeminent investigator who cannot provide frequent feedback. In our experience the incidental size of four (later, five) members provided an ideal size beyond which the burden of research review would have exceeded the benefits of work reviewed.
Systematic Tracking of Research Productivity, Efficiency, and Focus
In traditional mentoring models, participants typically define and track their activities on their own and provide reports of completed activities to their supervisors and advisers. We recognized the need for a broad definition of research activity that includes both completed and incomplete, or even discontinued, projects. The concept of research success was refined by considering the distinct dimensions of research productivity, efficiency, and focus. Over time, members maintained both steady productivity and steady research efficiency (Figure 1
), defined as the proportion of completed to total projects initiated. This illustrates a marked narrowing of focus in the group’s work. There are several benefits to this richer definition of research activity. First, through peer discussion, members were able to select projects on which to concentrate their efforts. This is especially important for junior scientists in the early stages of establishing a program of research. Further, because deciding to discontinue a line of research may be a new task for a junior researcher, peer support in this process can be beneficial to a junior scientist in allowing the examination of less productive lines of inquiry after effort has been expended.
It is important to note that exclusive use of the Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting (PRDM) model in the absence of traditional mentoring is limiting, because peer mentors have fewer professional experiences. Participation in PRDM complements traditional mentoring; it cannot replace sound advice and guidance from experienced senior investigators, who play critical roles in the future success of trainees (14).
As with any case study, the present report lacks a control group. Thus, the active ingredients of the model cannot be determined. Possible active ingredients could include support, accountability, observation effect, and natural progression. Studies employing stronger designs may be of further benefit in examination of mentoring. Future studies should also evaluate the extent to which pragmatic factors (e.g., institutional support and release time for mentoring activities) and group composition (e.g., membership size, gender, ethnicity, research area) influence the success of peer-mentoring interventions.
Peer-mentoring groups such as PRDM can be easily implemented and serve as a means for a researcher to track productivity, requiring only a commitment to the group model and an adherence to regular meetings. Although peer mentoring should not supplant traditional mentoring, we propose that it may serve an important complementary role in the development of a junior faculty member’s research career. To our knowledge, this is the first report on implementation and systematic tracking of a peer-mentoring model. We propose that this model can be readily executed by junior faculty and provide a means for increased research productivity among junior faculty members.
FIGURE 1. PRDM Projects Submitted Over Time
PRDM=Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting
FIGURE 2. PRDM Research Efficiency and Focus Over Time
PRDM=Peer-Mentored Research Development Meeting
We would like to thank senior members of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh for traditional mentoring opportunities. Our research activities were supported during the period of the study by the following NIH grants: 5 K01 MH067976 (PI: Karen L. Schmidt), 5 T32 MH016804 Clinical Research Training in Adult Psychiatry (PI: Charles F. Reynolds, III), 5 T32 AA007453 Alcohol Research Training Grant (PI: Marie Cornelius), 5 T32 MH19986 Clinical Research Training in Geriatric Psychiatry (PI: Charles F. Reynolds III).