All renal fellows are required to perform some type of research during the course of their training. For some, this research will be a stepping stone to a career in academic nephrology. For others, the research years will be a brief sojourn into a different realm for a year or two, until private practice beckons. Out of the myriad options available, how does one choose a worthy research question?
Choosing a research mentor is intimately linked to choosing a research question. Except for the few brave souls who are already independently minded (and independently funded) coming into fellowship, nephrology fellows will need to find a mentor, someone who will not only help develop the research question into a full-fledged independent project, but also provide career advice and allow fellows to build upon previous discoveries and techniques developed by the lab.
Finding the right mentor and the right project can be a challenge, particularly when nephrology fellows are required to commit to a specific laboratory very early on, usually during the notoriously difficult clinical year during which free time can be hard to come by. Fellows are typically asked to commit to a given “track”—basic science, clinical research, and clinician-educator are common choices—that allows fellowship programs to plan for the future and ensure a healthy balance of research and clinical fellows.
“I think in general you need to choose the best combination of mentor and project that fits with your individual needs,” said Jonathan Bazeley, MD, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan nephrology fellowship program. “Something which really helped [in our nephrology fellowship program] was that renal fellows have a protected two-week block of time halfway through the clinical fellowship intended for fellows to go around and interview with the faculty of the nephrology division to discuss potential projects.”
Not all nephrology fellowship programs have such blocks, so most would agree that fellows will need to set aside some time to discuss possible experimental ideas with potential mentors in anticipation of the upcoming research years. Talking directly with current and former fellows about a given mentor can also be invaluable in identifying potential conflicts or mismatches before they occur.
Although some fellows may feel uncomfortable making such decisions so early on in their fellowship, a case can be made that it justly forces fellows to ask themselves essential questions about where they see their career evolving. The choice of mentor may be very different depending on whether or not an individual wants to stay within academics or begin their clinical practice career.
A large, 30-plus person laboratory studying mechanisms of transplant immunobiology may not be the best fit for an individual without much research experience who simply wants to develop a clinical practice after completing fellowship. Large labs tend to favor individuals with an ability to carry out a project independently. This is not to say that fellows who do not anticipate staying within research should automatically rule out the possibility of trying a basic science lab. In the right scenario with good one-on-one mentoring, a rewarding research experience can be achieved.
For individuals who think they want to have a career predominantly in research, the decision as to which mentor and research question to choose are even more critical. Should one choose the department head who has 258 publications to his name, access to exciting scientific reagents or databases, but will only be able to meet individually with fellows once every three months? Or should one choose the up-and-coming junior faculty member who is able to provide lots of individual attention and quality mentoring but may be unable to provide guaranteed funding for the duration of the project? Ultimately, the decision comes down to the individual, but most would agree that a good rapport with the mentor should exist prior to joining the lab.