Why Peer Mentoring Works

By Kimberly S. Johnson, MD, Susan N. Hastings, MD, and Heather E. Whitson, MD

Origins of the Duke Aging Center’s Junior Faculty Laboratory (JFL)

In April 2006, two of us, junior investigators affiliated with Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, carpooled to a conference in Bethesda, Maryland. We didn’t really know one another well when the trip began, but the conversation never lagged. We shared early faculty success and horror stories, pearls from various mentors, tips on databases and software packages, and research ideas. Although we all had outstanding senior mentors, the car ride highlighted a different career development need: peer mentorship.  We left Durham as working acquaintances and returned to Duke as colleagues. The significance of that transformation was obvious to all of us.

To capitalize on the energy from that trip, we set up a lunch meeting that included two other junior faculty researchers. The group was diverse – men and women, MDs and PhDs, with different research focuses. After the first meeting, it was clear that the group served a common need: regular contact with colleagues at similar professional stages who were facing or had successfully navigated challenges common to junior faculty attempting to build academic careers. Over the next couple of months, we created a peer mentoring group that we dubbed the Junior Faculty Laboratory (JFL). 

Unique Qualities of the JFL

One of our first tasks was to develop what we fondly refer to as the “JFL manifesto,” a document detailing the group’s aims and activities, including meeting times, speakers, and projects. After unsuccessfully trying out more traditional peer mentoring models with pre-specified meeting times and a standardized curriculum, we recognized the potential benefit of a more dynamic, flexible model. The group evolved to focus on two main areas: personal and/or professional challenges facing group members, and specific research projects (either collaborative or individual).

Organizing activities around these main themes has served us well over the years. JFL members have provided one another with practical peer advice (What do you talk about when you meet with your mentor? What audio equipment should I use to record telephone interviews? Is it worthwhile to attend this conference?); a supportive environment for venting frustrations and celebrating small successes; endless possibilities for collaborative research ideas; support for members’ individual research projects (Which dataset or statistical method will address my research question? How should I respond to these comments from the reviewer?); shared resources to complete research (transcription resources, data management, equipment); and advice on work/life balance (How do you carve out time for yourself when you have children and a very busy job?).

Making the Environment Richer

How does a group like JFL add value to the already mentor-rich environment at Duke? Duke has an institutional history of mentoring excellence; and the Aging Center is well known for its attentiveness to the needs of junior faculty and the strength of its senior leadership. However, the JFL differs from other junior faculty development initiatives in that it is entirely self-driven and maximally responsive to the needs of the members. The structure is dynamic and flexible, and it has evolved as members’ career stages have progressed.
The group meets frequently at times, but has gone long stretches between meetings based on the group’s activities and individual needs of its members. The focus shifts from completion of individual or collaborative research projects to support and advice; often circling back to projects, as the needs of individual members dictate. There is no regular senior faculty involvement. Membership in JFL ranges from three to five members and is determined entirely by current JFL members. In maintaining an entirely peer environment and a relatively small group, we created an environment where JFL members feel comfortable sharing personal and professional concerns and where we maximize the potential for functional collaborations.

Where Are We Now?

At the time that the article about the JFL was published in Academic Medicine in December, the group had completed three collaborative projects, resulting in three published manuscripts and three presentations at national meetings. In aggregate, members had successfully competed for five grants (three career development awards) and published more than 20 articles during their JFL tenure. This work was often completed with informal critiques by and feedback from JFL members.

JFL members continue to meet, usually off-campus over lunch. At the last JFL lunch, the current three members celebrated a funded R01 and a submitted VA merit award application that is currently under review, discussed the specific aims of an R01 in progress, and reviewed results of a collaborative research project that will be presented at an upcoming national meeting. There were periods of silence, serious discourse about study sections and grant reviewers, discussions of interpretation and conclusions of a recently completed analysis, and laughter as we exchanged ideas about names for patient groups which reflected their healthcare utilization patterns (e.g. Wellderly, Acute Carederly, Sick as Hellderly). We all have progressed to new points in our careers from the group’s start in April 2006, but we continue to benefit from the personal and professional support of our peers through the JFL.

Our experience suggests that peer mentoring groups similar to JFL, which are uniquely structured to be maximally responsive to the needs of its members, can facilitate research collaboration, skill development, and increased productivity while fostering collegial relationships among junior faculty.  Earlier this month, supported by funding from the Brookdale Foundation, we hosted our first Visiting Scholar. The purpose of her two-day visit was to experience the JFL model firsthand, in hopes of forming a similar group among junior and mid-career faculty in her home institution.

—Kimberly S. Johnson, MD, is an assistant professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC. She can be reached at kimberly.s.johnson@duke.edu.


—Susan N. Hastings, MD, is an assistant professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Duke University Medical Center and Geriatrics Research Education and Clinical Center, Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care, Durham VA Medical Center, Durham, NC.


—Heather E. Whitson, MD, is an assistant professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC.

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