Finding and Providing Mentorship in Psychotherapy Research
Six Suggestions for Mentors and Mentees
Clinical Impact Statement: This manuscript provides six suggestions to support finding and developing mentorship relationships in the area of psychotherapy research. Suggestions are provided for both the mentee-to-be as well as the mentor towards the mutual goal of building a supportive, collaborative, and productive mentorship relationship.
“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
—Zora Neale Hurston (1996)
Just as psychotherapy is a fundamentally humanistic enterprise (Wampold, 2007), human interaction and social relationships are fundamental to learning the craft of psychotherapy research. Learning through guided apprenticeship (i.e., mentorship) is common whether one is training to become a physician, a plumber, a scientist, or simply learning to talk (Collins, 2006). The apprenticeship model has deep roots in the history of psychotherapy as well—the famous mentorship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung is one of countless examples (Humbert, 1988). At its best, mentorship is enjoyable, gratifying, and inspiring for both mentor and mentee (perhaps 1907 to 1911 for Freud and Jung). At its worst, mentorship can be frustrating, time consuming, inefficient, and induce feelings of discouragement and resentment for both the mentor and mentee (perhaps 1912 onward for Freud and Jung).
As a second-year assistant professor, I find myself in the liminal space between mentee and mentor. Both roles have become salient parts of my professional identity. I am grateful for my experiences as a mentee. These relationships have been and continue to be deeply supportive and instructive. I am only beginning to develop my skills in mentorship, but my current mentees and early missteps have jumpstarted my learning process (with gratitude for their patience as I am learning). I offer here some reflections empirically supported by only the evidence of my own experience—primarily as mentee and more recently as mentor. As these are all my opinions, I have opted to not tire the reader by continuing to restate this fact throughout.
1) Find a Shared Purpose
As Hurston (1996) points out, research requires a purpose. Of course, every scientific study should have a purpose that is clearly articulated (and if not, an attentive reviewer is likely to highlight this important limitation). However, the shared purpose that forms the basis of a successful mentorship relationship is likely broader than that captured by a single study. Ideally, the purpose bringing one to a particular research area should be something both mentor and mentee care about sincerely. While research being simply “me-search” is its own liability and can become a source of bias that inhibits the research process, there is no substitute for actually caring about the topic you study. A high degree of overlap in interests can go a long way in a mentorship relationship.
Mentees-to-be can benefit from asking themselves, “What aspect of psychotherapy truly interests me?” Is it the role of emotional expression, multicultural competence, the influence of client and therapist attachment, or the application of a specific cognitive behavioral technique to a specific disorder? Prospective mentees can greatly benefit from even a few hours spent reading abstracts of psychotherapy research journals, simply paying attention to which studies naturally grab their interest. I also encourage students seeking mentors to read their prospective mentors’ papers, asking themselves, “Would I have actually wanted to do the work to conduct this study? Would I have wanted to write this paper?”
At the end of the day, psychotherapy research is often dry and tedious. It commonly involves long hours of data analysis (not to mention study design, data collection, and learning data analytic methods), feeble attempts at making sense of confusing patterns of findings, and eventually, if we are lucky, opportunities to haggle (it can feel endlessly) with reviewers. It helps immensely to care about the topic over which you are laboring, and sharing that sincere interest with another makes the experience all that more enjoyable.
2) Get Your Hands Dirty
Students of psychotherapy research can (and should) take various methods classes. But, most of us need firsthand experience to really consolidate our learning. Collaborating on a specific project can be a great way to initiate and develop a mentorship relationship. Mentors can consider whether they have an available data set with which a mentee might be able to work. Or perhaps a portion of an upcoming paper that a mentee could draft? Ideally this takes place relatively early in graduate school (e.g., within the first year). In the best-case scenario, these early collaborations allow the mentee and mentor to start developing a symbiotic mentorship relationship, one in which both parties are able to benefit and neither party is being taken advantage of. In addition, early collaborations can help a mentee develop crucial skills necessary for pursuing their own independent work and building other collaborative relationships. These initial experiences can promote a sense of self-efficacy along with an accurate view of the joys and sorrows of the research process.
Early collaborations can be delicate and require patience and commitment from both parties. It can be particularly helpful to have clear expectations regarding the anticipated process and outcome of a particular project. Further, having both mentor and mentee follow through on their stated commitments is essential for building a foundation for collaboration.
3) Find Tasks Within the Mentee’s Zone of Proximal Development
I strongly encourage mentees to get their hands dirty with data analysis or manuscript preparation early in graduate training. The important caveat is that for these experiences to fulfil their educational potential and support a budding mentorship relationship, they must occur within the mentee’s zone of proximal development (and, ideally, the mentor’s area of expertise and interest). This, of course, takes a fair bit of finesse and honest self- and other-assessment on the part of the mentor and mentee. The methodological learning curve for conducting psychotherapy research can be quite steep (e.g., learning multilevel modeling). Throwing a mentee into the deep end of the pool too early can be counterproductive. Rather than a project that sends a student into the weeds of Markov chains and covariance structures, a mentee’s initial role can be running descriptive statistics or correlations to explore basic patterns in a data set, assisting with a literature review, or coding studies for inclusion in a meta-analysis.
4) Do Not Look Down on Volunteer Opportunities
This is a primarily mentee focused suggestion, but one I have found so thoroughly useful that I could not leave it out. I have had numerous experiences in which I was allowed to do something I was largely unqualified to do (e.g., analyze data for the first clinical trial in which I participated) simply because I was not being paid. Of course, the capacity to work for free is a luxury and indicative of my own privilege and institutional financial support during graduate training. Clearly, graduate students and other trainees should be paid a living wage and compensated for their work. Yet if one is able, collaborating on a volunteer basis can be indispensable for developing psychotherapy research skills and building mentorship relationships. These low-investment interactions can offer both the prospective mentor and the mentee-to-be an opportunity to “test drive” a potential mentorship relationship and gauge the degree of synergy.
There are two important caveats here. First, even though financial resources are not being exchanged, it is crucial that both the mentor and mentee are clear about their commitment (e.g., the specific tasks they are planning to complete, the mentorship they are planning to provide) and follow through. Second, it can be tempting to take on volunteer opportunities that may be a bit outside of your actual area of interest. This can be worthwhile (e.g., to learn a particular method or work with a particular mentor), but should be done sparingly. Volunteering may be especially worthwhile if it allows you engagement with a research area you sincerely care about.
5) Open the Lines of Communication
Even with the best of intentions, varying degrees of conflict are likely to arise within a mentorship relationship. Graduate training is difficult (e.g., 39% to 41% of graduate students report symptoms of depression and anxiety in the clinical range; Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, & Vanderford, 2018). Science is hard and unforgiving. Reviewer 2 will be Reviewer 2. The world often seems to be falling apart. For these reasons and more, it is vital that mentors and mentees are able to communicate with each other. Communication can be fraught, due to wide variety of factors (e.g., histories of oppression related to social identities held by the mentor and mentee). Perhaps the most notable consideration that can influence communication is the power differential that often exists between mentor and mentee. A graduate advisor functioning as a mentor may be invested in a mentee’s scientific development while simultaneously holding the keys to a mentee’s successful completion of their doctoral training. Given the power dynamic, the onus to invite and model transparent communication is primarily on the mentor. In addition, expectations about the frequency, responsiveness, and means of communication should be defined early and upheld. It can be especially helpful for the mentor to initiate conversations regarding the more delicate parts of the research process early and often (e.g., negotiating authorship order).
6) Have Fun
A final suggestion is that the mentor and mentee bear in mind that training in psychotherapy research can (and should) be fun. This echoes the first part of Hurston’s (1996) definition of research as formalized curiosity. Those who find themselves drawn to study psychotherapy are often compelled by a genuine curiosity about the human experience and the possibility of healing through interpersonal relationships (e.g., between therapist and client). To inhabit a moment in history where we can explore these questions professionally and scientifically is quite remarkable. Psychotherapy research offers a full-body work-out for the mind and heart, engaging at the intersection of rich theoretical traditions and cutting-edge quantitative and qualitative methods, set against the backdrop of a commitment to promoting human flourishing, reducing suffering, and working towards social justice and inclusivity. If that is not fun, I do not know what is.
Mentorship relationships are a primary way that we learn to become psychotherapy researchers (and pretty much anything else). Mentorship relationships can be one of the best parts of our work and training. Yet just like a psychotherapy relationship, smooth sailing is not guaranteed. It is important to recognize that not all mentorship relationships are the aspirational well-oiled machine outlined here. Indeed, evidence suggests that almost 50% of graduate school mentorship relationships are not (at least according to the graduate student; Evans et al., 2018). A final suggestion is that mentors and mentees choose each other wisely and recognize that there may be times when it is appropriate and most supportive to go separate ways. Not all mentorship relationships are a good match and it can be helpful to recognize this early and plan accordingly.
However, my hope is that by pursuing the factors outlined here, mentors and mentees can be better-equipped to spend their energies not on rupturing and repairing their mentorship relationship, but on addressing the important, timely, and fun questions we get to explore as psychotherapy researchers, like what makes psychotherapy work anyways?
Cite This Article
Goldberg, S. (2020). Finding and providing mentorship in psychotherapy research: Six suggestions for mentors and mentees. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 55(1), 45-48.
Collins, A. (2006). Cognitive apprenticeship. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 47-60). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282-284. doi: 10.1038/nbt.4089.
Humbert, E. (1988). C. G. Jung. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.
Hurston, Z. N. (1996). Dust tracks on a road: An autobiography. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Wampold, B. E. (2007). Psychotherapy: The humanistic (and effective) treatment. American Psychologist, 62(8), 857-873. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.8.857