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Mentorship Matters for the Biomedical Workforce

Nature Medicine asked me to share my thoughts on the role of mentorship in the biomedical workforce, and I want to share this article with Rock Talk readers, as well.


Mentorship Matters for the Biomedical Workforce

The mentorship of early-career scientists is necessary to their individual career success and the future of the biomedical research enterprise as a whole. Recently launched NIH programs and tools aim to facilitate this important type of training.

As scientists, we have the opportunity to make new discoveries that contribute to fundamental knowledge and improve people’s health and quality of life through our research. But we also influence lives by fostering the careers of the less experienced investigators with whom we interact on a daily basis. We shape their professional development by mentoring them on how to be productive researchers who contribute to both science and the community.

Being a mentor goes beyond supervising lab projects and teaching sound experimental design. It includes training less experienced investigators how to conduct research ethically and with integrity. It includes advising on potential career paths, providing networking and collaboration opportunities and helping new researchers navigate the research funding process. Seasoned scientists can attest that breadth of knowledge is just as important as depth, and they can encourage mentees to develop a range of professional skill sets.

Biomedical research needs scientists who can effectively translate and communicate its intricacies and value to many stakeholders, such as journalists, advocates, members of industry, policy makers and the general public. Good mentors transfer these skills to their mentees. We can show young investigators how valuable they are to the future of science. They are the next generation of great ideas, further propelling us toward our goal of advancing the scientific enterprise and improving health.

In the last decade, more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are supported by research grants, not just career- or training-focused awards. In 2011, 65% of full-time graduate students supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) received funding from research assistantships, compared to 60% in 2001. This speaks to the evolving landscape of biomedical workforce support and the need to reaffirm the importance of both formal and informal mentorship, as students and postdocs on research grants may not receive the formal mentorship that is part of NIH-sponsored training programs.

The NIH’s extramural and intramural programs have long recognized the importance of mentorship in research training. The agency offers mentored career (‘K’) awards for research career development under the guidance of an experienced mentor or mentoring team. For these and most pre- and post-doctoral fellowship (‘F’) awards, mentors provide a statement of support in the application that describes their mentoring plans and provide progress report updates throughout the duration of the award. Similarly, the NIH’s institutional training (‘T’) review criteria ensure that reviewers will consider both the training records of the proposed mentors and historical trainee outcomes.

The NIH has a robust intramural research training program where trainees at all levels—from high school students through postdoctoral and clinical fellow—come to the NIH to pursue research and seek research mentors. The training resources, such as videos and panel discussion webcasts, are also available to those outside of the NIH. Among the diverse career-related topics they cover are mentorship and how to choose mentors.

In 2012, a working group of the NIH Advisory Council to the Director examined ways to support a sustainable and diverse biomedical workforce. The group discussed the need for strong mentorship and appreciation of the diversity of scientific career options that trainees may choose. In response to these recommendations, the NIH launched several new programs and policy changes to further enhance training of future scientists.

One of these is the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) award program started last year by the NIH to help institutions develop programs to expose trainees—both graduate students and postdocs—to the multitude of career paths utilizing PhD training. Programs such as this intend to create a culture change by enhancing appreciation for different scientific career options and diversifying the training experiences of graduate students and postdocs. Through the BEST program, trainees are connected to mentors in research-related fields and participate in much-needed opportunities for professional growth.

Another new program aims to enhance diversity within the biomedical workforce specifically through mentorship. The NIH-supported National Research Mentoring Network will engage individuals from many research disciplines to serve as mentors and link them to mentees who are at a wide array of career stages, ranging from undergrads to early-career faculty members. It will also provide training for mentors and networking and professional opportunities for mentees.

NIH-wide initiatives are complemented by programs developed by NIH institutes and centers. For example, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences recently announced Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training (IPERT) to encourage creative new educational activities for students, postdocs and early-career faculty. IPERT focuses on courses for skills development such as problem solving and leadership, structured mentoring activities to promote career planning, and outreach programs such as evidence-based science education.

The NIH is facilitating mentorship by promoting individual development plans, or IDPs, which it encourages institutions to begin reporting in progress reports submitted this October and going forward. An IDP is a living document that maps out approaches for developing skills that help an individual identify and achieve short- and long-term career goals. The IDP process can facilitate communication between faculty mentors and trainees. We have encouraged grantee organizations to develop an institutional policy requiring an IDP for graduate students and postdocs supported by any NIH grant, not just training grants and fellowships. Many academic institutions already use IDPs, and the NIH is cognizant of administrative burdens on scientists and research administrators, so it allows flexibility for grantee institutions to choose the IDP format that is the best fit for their community. IDPs will be meaningful only if mentors and mentees make full use of their potential as career development tools. I hope our grantees join as full partners in this effort.

The training of the biomedical workforce has always been an integral part of the NIH mission, and through its infrastructure of funding opportunities and other initiatives, the agency hopes to champion a culture of mentorship in the research community. It takes just one good mentor to influence the career of a new investigator; it takes a robust culture of mentorship across the research community to strengthen, sustain and diversify the entire biomedical research enterprise.

8 thoughts on “Mentorship Matters for the Biomedical Workforce

  1. While mentoring by a scientist is a tremendously good thing and every student should be grateful to their teacher, everyone needs to appreciate the limitations of any mentor. I dare say none is perfect. The student will also be mismatched with the mentor in many ways especially with the pursuit of diversity. Those differences can run deep, yet the student may take a long time to recognize them. Every student should recognize the limitations, know the differences, and deal with them professionally. Moreover, you’ll never better the master by being just like him/her. I suggest picking three role models who fit you, know about them, and when difficulties arise use your chosen role models as your example. They need not be your mentor, and proably won’t. A special place is reserved for your scientific mentor-he/she is the only one who can teach you the tools of the trade. With the broadening of career pursuits, this will be especially important.

  2. Professors are great at training people to (eventually) replace themselves and as role models. Most, however are not even aware of the career opportunities available to today’s PhD graduates. Worse yet, graduates who stay on the traditional academic path are seen as a success, while the others, now in the vast majority, are seen as failures. This attitude needs to change. Encouraging graduate students to develop a more fulsome skill set, to build their network, and to explore the myriad of careers will go a long way to enriching the student graduate experience and indeed enriching the workforce with deep thinkers, problem solvers, team-players and leaders.

  3. Thank you for this article. Training as a postdoc or graduate student does not automatically translate to being mentored correctly. Your article not only emphasizes the importance of mentorship beyond the bench, especially with regard to obtaining funding, but also highlights avenues that are open to new researchers to help develop their careers. The biomedical research enterprise should benefit greatly from effective mentorship that represents an investment into the future.

  4. All mentors are greedy and possessive. Remember, if the mentee comes up with a new idea, all credit goes to the mentor – not the mentee. I suggest you keep them for yourself and use them when you have your own lab. That’s how big names sustain their labs — by using fresh minds, students, that can exploit for work and new ideas. Students are too dumb to realize what’s good and bad… How sad is this academic world…

    • It sounds like you have had a bad experience with a mentor. Remember that if your ideas are good enough to ‘steal’ then you’ll come up with more of them later on. Keeping ideas to yourself is doing nothing for the greater good of contributing to progress in your field. It’s also not helping people in your micro-environment respect you. Being invaluable to a mentor, providing brainpower and learning new skills, is the way successful people operate. Being hung-up on credit is a waste of your time. Eventually, you will co-author papers with your supervisor and you will get the kudos of coming from his/her lab.

    • I dare say that every great scientist must overcome what “a mentee” describes by working hard in the relationship just as “a Mentor” alludes to. Sharing your ideas toward a mutual publication should not be a bad experience. The mentor-mentee are hopefully sharing equally for creating new knowledge and a new PhD/PI. Clearly, “a Mentor” knows this because he is a great scientist himself. Believe it, as hard as it may seem, scientists with correct ideas do continue to have correct ideas over their careers, at least until their mind fails them. It is what constitutes genius-a mind that accurately sees connectivity/patterns that are not apparent to a ‘normal’ mind. What “a Mentor” does not add is that great (and not so great) scientists often attempt ‘academic reach-through’ on their mentees long after the mentee paid their dues for academic mentorship – essentially taxing the mentee in the mentor’s less productive or wayward years. There are many examples of this, and here the mentee should confidently curtail the mentor’s attempted reach-through. The analogy would be teaching someone to fish (independently) and then taking their fish. In addition, ‘Kudos’ are hardly guaranteed or dependable. Failure here could indebt a mentor for taking from the mentee without properly returning the academic favor. Of course, there are many moral codes and interpretations of failure. I also add that with the current academic hiring prospects, many mentors and the system must be failing many PhD/PI mentees. God-forbid it be the geniuses.

  5. All nice concepts, but in practice NIH expects PIs to do more and more with less and less, and then rewards those who put the least time into mentoring with more R01s. More paperwork is not the best band-aid for a completely busted system.

  6. If a research career is the goal, mentorship must include thorough training in laboratory and business management. The existing system is fairly good at generating thoughtful and productive scientific researchers, but not at instilling capability or awareness of what actually runs the show – managing money and people. Many careers sputter or fail in spite of scientific brilliance because the scientific potential is drained away by administrative duties and personnel issues. I have begun advising those interested in an independent research career to see the whole of a lab, not just the actual science, and to strongly consider getting an MBA in addition to a research degree.

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