UCSF Offers Programs to Guide Career Success, Satisfaction

Valerie Yerger, left, talks with her longtime mentor Ruth Malone at UCSF.

By Andrew Schwartz

In 1999, UCSF professor Ruth Malone was in the early stages of what was to become a productive and important research program focused on tobacco control policy and use prevention.

In need of a research assistant, she hired Valerie Yerger, a naturopathic doctor who had recently returned to the Bay Area and taken a staff position at UCSF to better support herself and her four children.

In the following decade, the two women moved from an informal mentor-mentee relationship to a more formal one when Yerger secured a health policy fellowship. Today, the two are colleagues and friends at the UCSF School of Nursing. Yerger, ND, LM, an assistant research scientist, is building her own successful academic career – and acting as a mentor to her own research assistants.

“I was extremely fortunate,” says Yerger. “I not only began a relationship with someone I absolutely adore and have respect for, but I was given the freedom to think and explore.”

The relationship was mutually beneficial.

“I learned a great deal from Valerie and love her dearly,” says Malone, RN, PhD, FAAN, professor and vice chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the UCSF School of Nursing.

In its outlines, their relationship is the full realization of a belief that has taken hold at UCSF and many other academic institutions: that mentoring – a concept rooted in nurturing and generosity – is crucial to thriving in the hypercompetitive world of academia and to producing the best possible academic work.

Yet even Yerger and Malone would confess that the mentor-mentee relationship is not always an easy one. Mentees enter into it at a time when they’re vulnerable – in need of help that they are often hesitant to ask for. Mentors, even the most well intentioned and generous among them, must balance their own career demands with the time requirements and intellectual and emotional needs of their mentees.

Egos and personalities can clash. Issues of race or culture can emerge. There are practical concerns, like deciding who will be lead author on a paper. And as the relationship evolves, both mentor and mentee must navigate the inevitable transitions.

To address such challenges, programs have sprung up throughout UCSF, including the School of Nursing. Many are a response to the UCSF Strategic Plan, unveiled in June 2007, which called on the University to develop effective mentoring programs for faculty, staff, students and trainees as part of promoting a supportive work environment.

The purpose, as the UCSF Faculty Mentoring website states, is to ensure that mentoring meets its goals of “supporting the recruitment and retention of the highest-quality faculty, increasing faculty diversity through improved mentoring of underrepresented faculty and improving faculty career satisfaction and success.”

Multipronged Approach

“The School of Nursing recognized early on the importance of mentoring for career development, research and teaching,” says Geraldine Padilla, PhD, associate dean for research at the School of Nursing. When Padilla was hired in 2002, one of the first things she did was establish a series of grant writing workshops to mentor junior faculty through the research process.

“Originally, we focused on junior faculty, but we quickly found that midlevel faculty also wanted to improve their ability to secure research funding at the levels they aspired to,” says Padilla.

Research was an understandable place to start, both because of the central role it plays in advancing an academic career and because securing funding is difficult. Padilla says that even experienced researchers can struggle to focus their projects and programs, convey their work in clear and convincing language, understand which funding agencies are the best matches for their work, and navigate the administrative hurdles.

“We wanted to foster a culture that allows the science, the writing and the administrative aspects to unfold in a thoughtful manner and keeps stress under control,” says Padilla.

They have achieved this not just through the workshops, but also through a number of other processes. To begin with, the School of Nursing assigns each junior faculty member a mentor from within the school.

“Department chairs are responsible for career development, while individual mentors guide junior faculty in their research program, help them create a vision for the long term, and help them connect with grants, collaborators and experts in their field,” says Padilla.

In addition, each department in the nursing school has instituted its own timelines for preparing a proposal, creating a budget, and getting the appropriate sign-offs from the School of Nursing Office of Research and the University’s Contracts and Grants Division. Faculty at all stages of their careers can also join working groups to discuss grant proposals and manuscripts for publication.

“Very few of us can do this all by ourselves,” says Padilla. “And in this day and age, it’s all about collaborating, so we carefully critique and learn from each other.”

“The groups are an opportunity to share with colleagues, and have a regular process for growth and development,” says Nancy Stotts, a member of one of the original faculty groups and still a participant, despite an established research career. “Without the group, you can fall off the wagon. With it, you get really good feedback that can markedly change the direction and sophistication of your proposals.”

Yet both Padilla and Stotts acknowledge that it can be daunting and time-consuming to present early drafts to peers. “We all have to overcome our initial reluctance, but once in a group, people learn to trust each other,” says Padilla.

Stotts agrees: “It’s a safe group, and you want to be in a safe environment when you put out ideas.”

By at least one quantitative measure, the programs and processes have been a success. In the 2002-2003 academic year, the School of Nursing secured $33,516,749 from a combination of government, public and private funding. By 2007-2008, that amount had jumped about 25 percent to $42,045,808.

Padilla, however, says there are some equally important qualitative measures. “Mentorship requires generosity because it takes a lot of time,” she says. “Our school does a spectacular job with that.”

Source of Support

The School of Nursing may have been the first to formalize its mentoring process, but the other three schools at UCSF quickly followed suit. In 2006, in response to a faculty climate survey, the University appointed Mitchell D. Feldman, MD, MPhil, professor of medicine, to direct a newly created Faculty Mentoring Program. The program runs across all four schools at UCSF and pairs new and junior faculty with senior faculty responsible for providing career guidance and support.

Yet because senior faculty often need help understanding how best to play the mentor’s role, Feldman and others at UCSF also have sought ways to support the mentors themselves. One program that has emerged is the Comprehensive Mentoring Program (CMP) at the UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

This program recently instituted monthly, case-based seminars that help train midcareer and senior research faculty to become strong clinical and translational mentors. Potential mentors from all four schools at UCSF can apply for participation, and the first group – which included Roberta Oka and Meg Wallhagen from the School of Nursing – began in January 2008. The current group includes Janice Humphreys and Roberta Rehm.

Kathy Lee, who has long been recognized as an outstanding and generous mentor at the School of Nursing, is an assistant director of the CMP and teaches one of the seminars, titled Rewards and Challenges of Mentorship. (Other topics in the series include defining mentorship; balancing work and life; communicating effectively with mentees; understanding diversity among mentees; understanding UCSF academic advancement policy; understanding economic and fiscal realities; leadership skills and opportunities; and grants.)

“In a sense, we’re creating a toolbox for mentors,” says Lee, who believes it is especially important to recognize that if mentors are given the right tools, mentoring has substantial rewards. These include attracting good colleagues, getting better research grants, staying on top of one’s field and the satisfaction of seeing mentees succeed.

“But the rewards don’t happen overnight and they require a lot of good work,” says Lee. That good work, of course, is where the challenges lie.

Dealing with Tensions

Lee’s list of challenges includes motivating mentees to improve their work, allocating time, setting realistic goals, building confidence, fostering independence and helping people find resources. All of these can have subcategories or variations. For example, building a mentee’s confidence can sometimes demand that the mentor relinquish some control over a project that is important to his or her own career. Malone’s willingness to do that, even early in her research career, was one of the reasons Yerger believes their relationship worked so well.

“I was always allowed an opportunity to contribute. Ruth involved me early in the grant proposals, and even when I was fairly new, she allowed me to be lead author on some very critical papers,” says Yerger, who has parlayed those experiences into successfully garnering her own grants.

Malone says that her approach was one she learned from her own mentors. “They taught me it was a wise thing to be a generous scholar,” says Malone. “That doesn’t mean you don’t take credit for your work, but it does mean that as you get to be more senior, you let other people be lead authors and follow the ethical standards for authorship.”

The approach can help avert some of the ego and personality clashes. Unfortunately, as Malone and Yerger found, it doesn’t necessarily help deal with some of the thorny issues that can emerge around race and culture.

“We do community-based research, where the issue of race comes up all the time,” says Yerger, who is African American. “When I started working with Ruth [who is white], there was quite a bit of tension around how we perceived things in the community. Behind closed doors, there was even some anger, but our relationship allowed us to have discussions that a lot of people aren’t comfortable having. And when we were done, we were done.”

“I remember those discussions vividly,” says Malone. “I think I was able to engage in them because I work from the belief that every mentee comes in with significant experience and perspectives, and I always learn something from them. And sometimes that involves navigating sensitive territories together.”

“Dealing with things head-on is a necessity if you’re going to work together because if it’s not race, it’s gender, geography or something else,” says Yerger. “And maybe this is especially important for researchers of color, because we need to know these types of things can be worked through.”

Navigating Transitions

Another key challenge of mentoring is that – as with any relationship – things may change. For example, one of Malone’s doctoral students recently decided to switch advisers because she found someone who was a better fit with the direction in which her work was developing. “And you can’t personalize that,” says Malone. “You have to stay true to the idea that your goal is the success of this person and think through what’s going to be best for them. It’s not about your ego.”

Often, the biggest transition occurs when mentees feel ready to apply for their own grants and tenured faculty positions. “It’s important to remember it’s your job to get them to the point where they are happily successful without you,” says Lee.

But the mentor and mentee don’t always see eye to eye about when this transition should occur, which can make for some difficult conversations. “You have to have a good sense of when the time is right for the mentee to hear something. Is a postdoctoral fellow really ready yet to apply for that tenure-track job, or should you encourage them to wait a year? And how and when is the best time to say that?” asks Malone.

And while it is always thrilling to see someone establish independence, as Yerger has, Malone worries that the pressure to become independent may not be the best solution for everyone.

“In my own group, we’ve come up with some wonderful ideas as a team, and some former mentees are still part of my research group,” she says. “They’re people who don’t want to leave the Bay Area [for an independent position], but they are talented scholars doing excellent work. And I think it would be great if we could start thinking more in terms of collaboration, rather than only the model of the single PI.”

Institutionalizing Mentoring

The creation of formal mentoring programs emerged precisely to address these tensions and transitions – and in many ways, such programs have already proven their worth. In addition to the uptick in successful funding at the School of Nursing, today both mentors and mentees benefit from carefully constructed training and support that can not only ease the process, but also facilitate stronger work throughout the institution.

One example is the requiring of an individual development plan. “A written plan that speaks to long-term goals and potential limitations can be very helpful in keeping both the mentor and mentee on track,” says Lee.

The institutionalization of a once informal process, though, does contain risks. “For one, I think it becomes important to assign people carefully because a mentoring relationship is more than what appear to be common interests on paper,” says Lee. “People need a connection.”

Malone is concerned as well about a requirement that faculty mentoring activities be documented on one’s CV and that documenting the current positions of past mentees has become part of the review process for potential promotions.

“I know it’s the universities’ efforts to value the process – and I’m glad that they do – but I’m not sure it is really more meaningful or a better indicator of successful mentoring if your mentee is at Harvard versus teaching at a state school or even working outside academia,” says Malone. “To me, success in mentoring is based on encouraging each mentee to achieve his or her own goals – and the mentor can’t take all the credit for that anyway.”

That said, everyone interviewed for this story believes the formal programs are important components for sustaining and improving a process that is such a central part of enjoying a rich, academic life. “As a mentor, you might have to wait 15 years to see the payoff,” says Lee. “But it’s worth putting in the time up front, taking this personally and feeling the power of helping people.”

“It’s critical because there are so many unwritten rules to academia that people just entering into it have to learn in order to succeed,” says Malone.

“In the same way I know how to be an auntie because I’ve had a wonderful aunt, I’ve learned from Ruth how to be with others as a mentor,” says Yerger, who has taken a number of assistants under her wing – passing on vital information, helping them get to conferences and even helping them get positions at the University.

It is this collective experience of generations of mentors that advocates of mentoring programs hope to catalog and pass down – and that they believe is far too valuable to both the institution and the individuals to leave to chance.

Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Source: Science of Caring, Spring 2009

Related Links:

Faculty Mentoring Program

Developing UCSF’s Next Generation of Faculty Mentors
UCSF Today, Feb. 6, 2008

UCSF Unveils Faculty Mentoring Program
UCSF Today, Aug. 25, 2006