Mentoring Early Career Scientists in Academic Psychiatry During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Along with seemingly every aspect of our lives, academic mentoring has been damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mentors and mentees are exhausted by the long period of uncertainty regarding health and wellbeing, worn out by Zoom meetings, and struggling to collaborate effectively. Declining productivity combined with increasing mental health issues have made it difficult to even get along with others at work. Starting a career as a scientist was difficult in the more stable times, but it’s become unusually grueling now.
As directors of the Career Development Institute for Psychiatry, which offers a teaching and mentorship program funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and designed to help scientists succeed in the tenuous period between the end of formation and the beginning of independent research, we have witnessed the struggle of early career scientists in academic psychiatry. At our April 2022 annual workshop, our fellows were discouraged, telling us that they felt neglected, undermined, and in some cases emotionally abused by mentors at their home institutions. Many cannot envision a way forward. Their pain was impossible to ignore. We both know the toll of COVID-19 from our own experiences: loss of loved ones; delayed research progress; the anguish and despair of the people around us; disjointed communication; and, more recently, nagging impatience at not having found our pre-COVID-19 rhythm.
While we’re optimistic about how our research community has adapted during COVID-19 – from the value (up to a point) of virtual settings to new transparency to acknowledging the ways in which our personal struggles influence our work – we cannot deny that psychiatric research is in a mentoring crisis. There is a risk of losing a generation of talented and promising scientists, which could hamper progress in understanding and treating psychiatric illnesses. The traditional elements of mentorship – guidance, advocacy, training and access to professional networks – must be provided, along with the essential qualities of empathy and commitment to the mentee’s success. The needs of mentors and mentees must be considered, as must contemporary challenges such as remote mentoring, appropriate behavior in the workplace, and applications of technology.
Because the usual challenges are magnified, mentoring in these volatile times requires both identical and dynamic adaptations in style and content.
Now that we’ve experienced the ever-present obstacles of the COVID-19 era, mentoring is different. If we accept that research is not returning to pre-pandemic ways, adapt our behavior to current realities, and strengthen our commitment to supporting and guiding others, early career scientists can once again thrive.
The Career Development Network that provided inspiration and experience for the opinions expressed by the authors was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (R25 MH090947). We thank co-director Alan Schatzberg and fellows and alumni of the Career Development Institute for Psychiatry. We declare no competing interests.
Two-Way Street: Discovering the Benefits of Mentoring.
Communications from the meadows,
Park City, UT2020
Published: September 2022
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