Theme 1: Program and Mentoring Structure
In comparison to their other mentoring experiences, fellows remarked on the value of MT-DIRC’s deliberate and concentrated mentoring approach. Fellows reported mentoring was more focused and targeted around the D&I research they were working on compared to previous mentoring experiences. Fellows also remarked about the value of having structured in-person time for mentoring and devoting time specifically for their D&I research needs and skill building.
“the ability to have the kind of structured time in person was really critical to being able to really develop skills and develop kind of relationships. So just having in person time. I think the way that the in person time was structured was really well done to have kind of a mixture of the didactic kind of training with more of an in the fishbowl kind of session where you're bouncing ideas and kind of developing ideas with feedback from your mentor and group. Having the time to be able to actually meet and with the other faculty at MT-DIRC.”
Fellows mentioned the two-year commitment from mentors or longitudinal mentorship as valuable to build and maintain relationships. In addition, fellows saw the value in attending more than one Summer Institute as they had the added opportunity to discuss lecture material and program readings both with other fellows at the institute and those fellows and mentors in their mentoring group. The opportunity to work one on one with the mentors in person on a specific project was seen as critical to the training. This allowed for feedback in practical application of skills versus “just doing a general training.”
“the mentoring helped me to gain the skills. The mentoring provided me with role modeling. That includes from [assigned mentor] and the other mentees, so being able to see what other people were doing and learn from their experiences, it also provided me with feedback as I applied the information that we learned from the training and also by providing me with new information as well, so suggestions and specific directions I could follow.”
The quote above highlights the structure of the multi-layered mentoring network that MT-DIRC designed (primary mentor, near peer mentors, peer mentors, home institutions mentors). Fellows mentioned explicit conversations with their mentors regarding the scope of mentorship and expectations for both mentors and mentees. Mentors and fellows were strongly encouraged to create mentoring plans or contracts. This was generally perceived as useful for fellows, especially initially, to understand what to expect in the next two years of the program following the first Summer Institute. For some, expectations were carefully articulated and goals for what the fellow and or group wanted to be accomplish helped in giving structure to what each was working on and how they were going to move forward.
“setting the expectations at the beginning was really helpful, because, [assigned mentor] was like an unknown person to me. We were unknown to her. We were just kind of put in her group, and we were assigned to her…having explicit conversations about expectations makes a lot of sense almost all the time, but especially in a situation like this.”
Regularly scheduled mentoring meetings and “homework” given by mentors helped to keep fellows on task with research projects. Setting deadlines, defining deliverables, the “expectation to send progress along” and feelings of being accountable to their assigned mentor was seen as helpful in accelerating work. Having regular meetings on the calendar were instrumental for one fellow in just reminding them of their overall research goals and overall career goals. Some fellows created their own agenda or update document where their progress and updates were shared regularly with the group.
“It held me accountable to have something to share with the group on a regular basis. It kept me moving. I always had to have a product.”
Structure of regular meetings to include other peers was also seen as valuable. Fellows learned from other fellows who were in different phases of research or in different academic environments.
“When someone was really trying to identify what was innovative about their project, in terms of implementation science, I felt that it also applied to me, that I could learn about that, about how to sell my project to an implementation science audience”
Fellows also remarked on insights gained from other fellows’ processes in finding funding success in terms of K-awards, R01s and other larger grants.
“I feel like the team approach was helpful because I was learning a lot from the other two mentees. Well, both mentees had significant funding before. One of them had had a previous R01. And so it was really helpful to hear their processes as well. So I learned a lot, not only from [assigned mentor], but also the other mentees as well.”
Theme 2: Importance of Mentor Attributes
In addition to structure, fellows commonly noted the contribution of their assigned mentor a key to an overall positive program experience.
“I think the faculty are key….having excellent faculty who are incredibly knowledgeable is key but then faculty who really care about the fellows and really care about the program. I think that's basically, that's probably the secret sauce.”
Fellows had positive experiences with mentors who were accessible, confident and open to alternatives, open to listening and providing feedback, vested in the fellow as an implementation scientist, and focused on career trajectory and not the nitty gritty of the day to day. In addition, fellows appreciated when mentors came with a wide range of career experience. Fellows mentioned having someone outside their institution as a benefit to keep mentoring more focused on D&I research in general (versus day to day work at the institutional level) and also to get an external perspective or neutral angle.
“…having a mentor who is really just there to support me and kind of take my lead on where I need development and they don't have as much riding on my success, it's just that they want to see me do well, I think that distinction is a little bit different then what I'm used to.”
Diversity of the mentors’ disciplines and academic background was also mentioned by fellows as helpful in learning.
“I also appreciated the diversity of faculty. People were from different disciplines, different geographic areas. They had different levels of focus in terms of public health research and cancer research specifically…that was really helpful…I've been able to look at ideas from other areas and get inspired by those.”
Having a mentor that reviewed materials in a timely manner was also important to fellows. Having mentors who “have the time and are able to set aside some time to do it” was mentioned by one fellow as the key for a program like MT-DIRC. One fellow specifically mentioned a time when they needed feedback within a short timeframe, and were pleasantly surprised that their assigned mentor prioritized this need, further demonstrating the mentor’s commitment to the fellow. Fellows expressed gratification with mentors who made an effort to review information fellows sent ahead of meetings and were “prepared” with “appropriately critical” feedback for fellows. Having experts in the field that were “available” when needed and accessible also aided in receiving help along the process. Fellows noted the “welcoming” environment that the mentors of the program helped to create where it was safe to have questions and challenges.
“They really respected the fellows. They treated our ideas with respect and were really generous with their time. So the presentations were really good. The mentoring itself was really good, and then the atmosphere, the culture was very collegial and welcoming and respectful.”
Theme 3: Enhanced Capacity: Credentials, Confidence, Credibility and Connections
Fellows expressed the mentored training experience as essential for a variety of self-defined successes, or enhancing their capacity or D&I research. Fellows reported participating in the program helped to give them credibility in the field of D&I for cancer research, and demonstrated their expertise gained. With a newer field like D&I research, one fellow stated the benefit of participating was to provide “credentials”, something with which to introduce oneself. Another fellow stated that “there’s no way I would’ve even felt like I could speak up at this conference last week without that behind me.” According to one fellow, the training was the antidote to imposter syndrome that they experienced in certain settings. One fellow made the point that senior people in D&I did not have this opportunity or structured learning in D&I, and so, being able to tell others of their membership in a formal training program was a “huge way” to open doors.
Another piece of this credibility was the fellows’ own perceptions of their competence in D&I research skills or as one fellow put it, “starting to see myself as an implementation scientist and feeling confident to have enough of a sense of the field and what I do.” Some fellows mentioned becoming the go-to D&I research expert at their institution, reviewing and giving advice on other’s D&I grants.
“I was able to use this education when I gave back to my institution and I joined our internal pilot grants that we have here. Some are in implementation science, so I was invited to join the review panel for those grants. That helped give me some additional recognition within my institution.”
Fellows mentioned the program being instrumental in grant writing, especially for D&I research audiences, and obtaining subsequent funding. One fellow stated that they were “inspired to write a grant in a way that [they] probably otherwise wouldn’t have written it.” Another fellow stated the time to work on and the resources available through the program around their project in the program contributed to their project ultimately being funded.
“Well, honestly, I would say that I don't know that I would be where I am in terms of working on an R01 application focused on dissemination and implementation science if it wasn't for the mentoring program because I was able to gain knowledge that I need to work on this proposal. But then I also got feedback and mentoring. And I have a sense of confidence that I'm going in the right direction.”
Fellows reported the program helped to define research goals and overall transformed or shaped fellows’ careers, writing grants and manuscripts that focused more on implementation science topics for the first time.
One fellows’ success was the establishment of a new D&I research class at their institution which they co-teach with another fellow, which the fellow attributed to participation in the MT-DIRC program. Another fellow mentioned being able to teach others what they had learned was the “best outcome” from participating in the program. In particular, this fellow began a one-day workshop in D&I research prior to a society conference and described it as a “really nice opportunity for us to spread horizons” since the group in attendance included various countries. For one fellow, having a symposium proposal accepted for presentation at the biennial Society for Implementation Research Collaboration meeting was an exciting success attributed to participation in the fellowship. Two fellows collaborated on a session accepted for the Annual Science of D&I conference in DC, which was seen as beneficial from the small group mentoring structure.
The program’s network of fellows and mentors, and the collaboration within it, was commonly mentioned by fellows as resulting in considerable professional impact. This collaborative energy was cited as impetus for writing papers together and for four fellows, recently submitting a pilot grant together. Another fellow reported having their assigned mentor connect them with another MT-DIRC mentor with an implementation-ready intervention, ultimately leading to awarded grant funding. Fellows also reported the program’s network increased their professional reach.
“It gave me a personal connection with people from all over the country and all over the world in many cases. And we are still in communication on a somewhat regular basis. Once you find these nodes, these MT-DIRC fellows, they have their own network that they can then refer me to.”
This reach provided a group of people with whom fellows could always touch base. Especially at the annual meeting, fellows looked forward to seeing other cohorts of fellows and other mentors. One fellow mentioned networking at conferences was particularly important because of the earlier stage in their career.
Another fellow saw networking as a benefit from the program that will last beyond the two years in the fellowship.
“I can see it being more of a help in the future to be able to cold email somebody and say, ‘Hey, we were in the MT-DIRC program together.’ Or ‘You were [part of my MT-DIRC cohort] faculty. Do you mind, I would love your advice on this.’ Or ‘Here's a potential thought I had for a collaboration.’”
Fellows mentioned challenges during their participation in the MT-DIRC program. In general, challenges were often the reverse of counter to the major themes detailed previously.
A fellow spoke about the challenge of switching assigned mentors a year into the program (or interrupted longitudinal mentoring). Even so, the fellow described the in-person session as the additional layer to the program which made up for the sub-par mentoring received in the first year of the program.
“I would have been very happy to have monthly meetings as a group hear what people are working on learn about D&I concepts. That just wasn't what [the mentoring relationship] was…I think that [1st assigned mentor] did very little for me…anything would have been more…the face-to-face sessions for the MT-DIRC program, where we were there for a week in St. Louis were amazing and I took away so much from that, and I met a ton of really important people who likely I'll reach out to and collaborate with. And so my experience for MT-DIRC was absolutely transformative, but the mentoring part I think was not what I had hoped for. I would say I still got an amazing amount of stuff out of the MT-DIRC program, but the mentoring part I did not.”
In addition, fellows’ expectations for engagement beyond their assigned mentor (or the mentoring network) were not always met.
“I talked to a different person who wasn't my assigned mentor, but one of the faculty, and I brought him an idea I had for a paper. It kind of got off the ground, but then I was never really able to get on his radar screen again, once [the Summer Institute] was over. So that one kind of petered out, and I wish it hadn't.”
Finding time to devote to the weeklong training in St. Louis was likely a challenge for many fellows and was mentioned specifically by one fellow with young children.
“It's a bit of a tough time of the year to be able to go away for a week. That was always a challenge. We have young kids and I think a lot of the fellows also do. It's just hard to tear away during graduation and recital season.”
For a few fellows, the differences in research area for their mentor was seen as a barrier in the mentoring process in their particular research focus.
“the hard part for me was that [assigned mentor] and I are in very different areas, and I'm kind of in different areas from a lot of the other folks. So I kind of got generic mentoring, not specific to some of my work typically. But given that, it was still useful.”
Similarly, fellows mentioned having been matched with mentors who operated in different funding systems was challenging in terms of understanding the various requirements of each system.
A few external challenges were mentioned in terms of making progress on research during the program. One fellow mentioned their institute had a fairly well-founded D&I research capacity core, and the challenge was more in terms of getting in with an already formed infrastructure. Conversely, not having formal institutional capacity for conducting and building capacity for D&I research was a barrier for one fellow in terms of developing partnerships.
“I'm in a very odd kind of situation here at [institution C]. I am the only faculty member in my particular context…I'm not part of an academic departments…I am the only faculty member where I am. I don't have colleagues who are partnering with me on a regular basis.”
In a different example, one fellow remarked about the unique challenge of providing D&I research consult to others in newer field because “not everybody knows what it is”, which was clear to the fellow because “a lot of the consult requests would not actually be implementation science.”