Dr Susie Candy, Director of Biomedical Grants and Policy, reflects on the early days of mentoring.
How did the Academy’s Mentoring programme first come about?
When the Academy of Medical Sciences was formed in 1998, the number of clinical academics was in decline.
An underlying problem was the lack of a clear training pathway for people who wanted to be both clinicians and researchers. The Academy prioritised this and our first report in 2000, chaired by Sir John Savill FRS FRSE FMedSci, was “The tenure-track clinician scientist: a new career pathway to promote recruitment into academic medicine”. This report recommended the implementation of a Clinician Scientist Fellowship (CSF) scheme for clinicians who wanted to pursue post-doctoral research. The report catalysed a number of funders to establish a scheme and grow a new generation of clinical academics. The scheme is now called different names, such as Intermediate Fellowships, by some funders.
Our report took a holistic approach and deduced that although funding was important, it wasn’t always the sole ingredient for success. Aspiring clinical researchers, treading the complex track of clinician, researcher and teacher, needed additional support and guidance to provide confidence and sustain them to follow their chosen direction. The Academy committed to supporting this new cadre of CSFs, by utilising our Fellowship to provide one-to-one mentorship.
The Academy’s Mentoring programme recognised that in order to forge an entirely new career path, there needs to be more than just money available – to be truly successful, there must be support and guidance available to the trailblazers embarking upon it.
At that time, offering this kind of support to trainees was a relatively new idea. Funders mostly offered grants, and expected the trainee’s supervisor to provide all necessary support. The Academy believed that as a researcher develops and transitions to independence, support and guidance should be provided by a mentor from outside their host organisation, to avoid vested interests, and provide an independent and fresh outlook.
This provided CSFs, as mentees, a safe space to explore and define their future direction. We are eternally grateful to the Department of Health who funded the dawn of the Academy’s Mentoring programme.
How has the programme evolved?
Around 2005, things began to change. This was thanks to two reports; one by Professor Dame Sally Davies DBE FRS FMedSci “Best research for best health”, which established the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), and a report by Sir Mark Walport FRS FMedSci “Medically- and dentally-qualified academic staff: Recommendations for training the researchers and educators of the future”. Sir Mark’s report set out a new comprehensive clinical academic training pipeline, which drew on existing schemes offered by funders and a new set of schemes to interlink with existing schemes and create a continuous, integrated and navigable track. The new money that accompanied the formation of NIHR enabled them to develop and implement the interlinking schemes, such as Academic Clinical Fellowships and Clinical Lectureships, at unbelievable speed.
The power of the funding and training communities coming together to establish a whole new training pathway enabled more budding clinical academics to come through the system. The Academy thought hard about how it could best support the growing number of clinical academic trainees. NIHR was now generously funding the Mentoring programme and, in liaison with colleagues, we agreed that:
- The Academy’s Mentoring programme is best targeted at those transitioning to independence, when the decisions they made were crucial and relied on the availability of a wise, unbiased sounding board.
- To support the wider group of emerging clinical academics we would now offer career development events, equipping trainees with both hard and soft skills. This included mentoring skills training, so that mentors and mentees understood the modern developmental approach that the Academy advocates. We launched this new element of the scheme in 2007, at an event in my home city of Newcastle. The second addition to the programme was that the Academy began supporting universities to develop their own mentoring schemes, starting with the University of Manchester and Imperial College London. These mentoring schemes targeted their support at more junior trainees, who would benefit more from internal support at that stage in their career. We now run ‘catalysis workshops’ to support other organisations to set up schemes.
We gradually began working with institutions across the UK, to deliver tailored events which met local needs, and now we have developed a suite of resources and films to support people to get the most out of their mentoring relationship. Travelling the length and breadth of the UK to deliver events and workshops and meet trainees is one of the best bits of my role.
The Academy’s Fellowship is spread across the UK. Allowing us to pick up on problems and respond quickly to changes in the training and research landscape. We were delighted when NIHR Senior Investigators and Research Professors were added to our mentor pool, broadening the options available to mentees. Our large network of mentees and grant awardees now alert us to issues as well, which is of real value.
What makes our Mentoring programme so unique?
In the past, I would say that the scheme was unique in that it gave independent, senior support to an emerging cohort of future clinical academic leaders, complemented by a package of wider support activities.
In the beginning the Academy did a lot of work around changing the perception of having a mentor. Some people perceived that such a programme was targeted at ‘doctors in difficulty’ and the Academy recognised that this misconception was a barrier to high-achieving people, brimming with potential, accessing the career development support that they needed. The Academy worked with our Fellowship to demonstrate the value of mentorship. We took our Fellows on the road, to tell their career stories and highlight how being mentored has helped their progression, and other aspects of life such as work/home balance.
In terms of the nature of our programme, it’s very light-touch. Some other mentoring schemes are more ‘heavy duty’ for a number of reasons. The Academy wanted to shape the mentoring programme around what worked for our cohort of mentees. Feedback and evaluation has informed us that the programme must be mentee driven, completely confidential, no requirements on frequency of meetings or contact, and there should be no requirement to report back on either side. The scheme is not mandatory, trainees and mentors can opt in and out.
In the years that have passed, mentoring has been widely accepted as a valuable tool and a number of new mentoring schemes have sprung up through a wide array of organisations. We would much rather catalyse new schemes and help build a support base for the next generation than have the Academy model stay unique! We are always delighted when we can support others to develop schemes both within the UK and internationally.
Our UK-wide Mentoring programme is now available to non-clinical biomedical and health researchers. It’s been a really positive experience to bring different cohorts together, to bridge any gaps between them and create a hub for researchers to network with peers. We also encourage clinicians to be mentored by non-clinical researchers and vice versa, when appropriate. Mentees often see the benefit of having a completely outside perspective to help them to see their situation in another light.
Finally, I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to thank all the funders, Fellows and past and current Academy staff members who have made this possible. Thank you to the researchers that engage with this programme and the Academy, who have helped shape and refine our activities. Mentees I met 12 years ago are now in leadership positions and are mentoring new cohorts of trainees - we’ve done more than set up and deliver a mentoring and support programme, we’ve started to germinate a more positive culture in research.