A Continuous Cycle of Learning and Mentorship

Mentorship can help scientists thrive in a tough research landscape. Photo by MTSOfan

Mentorship can help scientists thrive in a tough research landscape. Photo by MTSOfan

As my friend Rachel recently put it, the prevailing attitude when it comes to mentorship in science is along the lines of “no one trained me, so my trainees can figure it out by themselves,” with the implication that otherwise they are “not good enough to cut it.” It’s a real problem at every level of academic science, whether you’re a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or even faculty, specifically a new PI starting a lab after years of toiling as a postdoc. That trend is ever-present, with an overwhelming number of trainees (referred to as “developing scientists”) being left to fend for themselves, learn techniques, acquire time management skills, think critically and ask the right questions, as well as develop the skills necessary for career “survival” and progression during the first 5-10 years (or until tenure) of the start of a new lab. And yes, I will be the first to admit that some skills such as critical thinking are best developed by oneself through reading articles, attending seminars, going to conferences, and asking the questions necessary to understand and push a topic further. But developing scientists need a support system, an advisory network that will help direct their steps and shape their development in order to succeed, especially in light of the difficult hiring and funding situation.

In contrast to critical thinking, which depends a lot on your own actions, learning other skills needed to succeed in science does require a helping hand. This has been tackled well at the graduate student level, where one of the first events after choosing a lab involves choosing an advisory committee with whom the student can meet regularly. The purpose of this committee is to supervise the progression of students in their project and make sure that they are not straying off a central theme so that they can complete their thesis in a timely manner. The committee, depending on the school or your specific members, also serves to protect students, providing an authority beyond the direct PI where students can discuss issues and seek guidance regarding experiments and also non-scientific issues that may arise. This is a great system that in most cases (there are always exceptions) guides students toward successful completion and defense of their thesis.

While the committee system is in place and largely successful at the graduate school level, it has not been translated to a similar system to guide postdocs and beginning faculty. As a postdoc, the new-found sense of independence is very pleasant and welcome after the generally more guided, supervised, and “protected” graduate school research career. However, there is no framework in place to ensure postdocs actually achieve any level of “training and development.” Many PIs are very happy to have their postdocs work non-stop and produce a high quality and quantity of data, without any regard to whether they are developing new skills, learning how to write grants, taking courses that will help them further, or even going to the right conferences. Many institutes have organized postdoctoral courses/curricula so that postdocs can learn and progress in their careers, but most times PIs are unwilling to have postdocs decrease their time in lab in order to pursue an interest such as teaching, outreach, or developing skills for non-academic or non-research careers. There needs to be a similar supervisory committee for postdocs as there is for graduate students, to make sure that they are developing and expanding their horizons in preparation for a career transition. Requirements for regular Individual Development Plans (IDPs) can help direct this supervision and guidance. However, this requirement needs to be taken more seriously by most institutions, as it is mostly considered a nuisance and is often filled out nonchalantly, with little care or emphasis on the actual development or progress. Postdocs need protection and support in order to achieve the goals of their training and progress into whatever career they choose.

A similar situation to what postdocs face is multiplied in postdocs transitioning to faculty positions. There is the “curse of the startup funds” where new faculty are handed a lump sum of money and practically abandoned for the next few years with the understanding that they have to equip a lab, develop their research, and successfully obtain funding in the harsh environment that we are currently facing. The end product in a lot of cases is excessive, and potentially wasteful, spending at the outset, followed by a rush to achieve what is required to survive and obtain precious grant funds before startup funds run out. While a lot of beginning faculty do survive this last “culling” step, there are casualties who don’t make it due to lack of guidance. New PIs, as much as postdocs, need a faculty supervisory committee for at least the duration of their startup funds, to ensure they receive help and advice on hiring decisions, lab development, and grant writing as well as project buildup, to ensure grant funding and long-term success as a PI.

In academia, there is a need for continuous mentorship to maintain learning and development of trainees. At no point is someone, be it grad student, postdoc, beginning faculty, or even senior faculty, beyond the need for guidance and support. These are tough times for anyone in an academic position, and faculty, as well as universities in general, need to have systems in place to supervise the career progression and training at different levels of education and ensure fulfillment of everyone’s research potential and career goals. In turn, trainees should one day instill those lessons and promote the development of future scientists, rather than witness the slow erosion of skilled students away from academia to various fields that provide greater support such as any corporation with an existing developmental framework and room for growth.

Doing Your Job Better, Faculty, Grad School, Help Underrepresented in Science, IDP, Postdoc, Teaching & Mentoring

About the Author:

Hashem is a Postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Melanie H. Cobb, studying regulation and interactions of WNK protein family members. Email: Hashem.Dbouk@UTSouthwestern.edu