How institutions can make a difference: rethinking careers, job applications, and promotions/tenure


The tremendous impacts and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changes brought on by a long-needed awareness of societal inequities, have created both the need and the opportunity to rethink how our institutions can adapt and strengthen their processes to support science and scientists. Recently, leaders with diverse perspectives and expertise in research evaluation and career development discussed these challenges as part of an ASCB/WICB-sponsored panel. This column integrates their shared insights (names at the end of the article). 

What institutions can do: Supporting diverse career paths

The pandemic has created multiple challenges regarding physical and mental health, lost productivity, and beyond. It is crucial to recognize that these situations have differentially impacted individuals, including people from marginalized backgrounds who are at critical points in their careers, such as trainees and junior faculty, or based on someone’s circumstances, such as the need to care for younger children. These substantial challenges have caused many individuals to reconsider their priorities and career paths. Indeed, across our society, the past two years have seen “The Great Resignation”—a wave of individuals resigning from their current positions to seek new opportunities—and scientific careers are no exception. 

In some cases, these large-scale changes in career choices reflect deep frustrations and disappointments regarding the existing systems, as well as an individual’s experiences of harassment or micro-aggressions. Recent radical shifts in the workplace have caused workers to rethink their own situation to realize that “I don’t need to deal with this,” causing some people to wake up and say, “I can do better.” However, the large-scale changes in scientific career choices also reflect some positive changes that we should consider a strength. For example, it has provided clarity for some trainees to choose career opportunities better aligned with their values where they can make a positive impact. In both cases, enabling the potential for diverse career directions requires that each person can make an informed and proactive decision about what is right for themselves. Strong networking, career development, and mentorship tools are powerful for enabling this. Institutions have an important role in supporting trainees by providing career coaching, exposure to diverse career paths and opportunities, and advancing constructive mentorship (see below).

Importantly, these changes and attitudes are likely here to stay. The current situation is not just about the pandemic; rather, the pandemic accelerated what was already happening. Existing challenges include multiple issues that contribute to work, culture, and environment, including inequities, harassment, inequalities in child care responsibilities, and a lack of effective accommodation for disabilities that institutional decisions can further shape. Although these challenges are substantial, the evident attention brought to these issues by the pandemic also enables a broader open discussion about these important topics that will hopefully ensure positive changes. However, this requires that institutions similarly wake up and seek to do better.

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What institutions can do: Valuing and promoting effective mentorship

The challenges from the last several years have created a key role for institutions in helping to address these situations. So what can institutions do? Regardless of an individual’s situation and career choices, one critical component is to enable effective mentorship. Mentorship is critical for ensuring that each person can thrive and succeed. An excellent mentor can help shape someone’s future career directions and capabilities (in fact, a great mentor is what brought many of us to science in the first place), but pandemic-related limitations have created substantial challenges. For example, the cancellation of in-person summer research programs limited the potential to connect trainees with new mentors for a large cohort of students. This negatively impacted the opportunities for students who come from situations with limited research opportunities. A good mentor not only advances someone’s training and success but enables career development decisions and opportunities. Institutions have a critical role to play here: they have the responsibility to train potential mentors and to be aware of problematic mentoring relationships in order to be able to step in and reassign these if needed. Given the critical role of effective mentorship, it is essential that institutions recognize and value mentorship as part of institutional culture and also as part of a faculty member’s evaluation process. Credit must be given to people who mentor well, particularly as it can have a much longer term and sustained impact than many other contributions.

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What institutions can do: Reconsidering evaluations and the hiring process

Institutions can also make a positive difference through changes to their existing processes. To create favorable situations for scientists choosing academic careers, it is critical to design evaluations for both the hiring and promotion processes that consider the multiple contributions and capabilities of an individual, as well as recognize asymmetric challenges to productivity. One challenge is that human nature and academic tradition dictate that easily measurable things (e.g., how many points did someone “score”) tend to rise to the top. For science, this can often be a process of “weighing” someone’s published work, which does not capture a person’s diverse contributions. The result is that some institutions are effectively ceding hiring or promotion decisions to journals and grant review committees. It is the role of individuals and departments to judge the entire person and their contributions, including service, mentoring, efforts to enhance diversity, and collaborative work. These are challenging topics given existing biases for evaluating collaborative science, and as even defining what we mean by service, let alone how it is recognized or rewarded. Institutions must also recognize the substantial challenges to productivity given the COVID pandemic, including asymmetric effects based on when someone started their position, their career stage, and considerations such as family and child care responsibilities. 

So how can institutions alter their evaluation processes? One solution is to move to using a narrative CV format where someone can describe their contributions more completely. However, to use this, it is critical to define what an institution values and seeks. Another strategy is to consider how credit is distributed in a project, including recognizing everyone who contributed and what their contributions were, much like the credits at the end of a movie. A great example comes from a Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA) project called the SPACE rubric (Standards, Process, Accountability, Culture, Evaluative feedback; see The SPACE rubric includes a thoughtful set of guidelines and best practices that can provide a powerful framework for institutions.

Reconsidering institutional process is also a critical part of hiring and recruiting. It is important to consider the composition of search and hiring committees, and have an intentional conversation at the start of the search about the evaluation process including through the lens of equity and evaluating people holistically. For example, diversity statements are part of many searches, but it is essential to provide guidance and training on how to read these statements and assess individuals. Another example of how to refresh the faculty search process includes using anonymized searches to eliminate potential biases, a process used by institutions such as the University of Minnesota Duluth and Yale University. This includes anonymized teaching and diversity equity and inclusion statements and CVs lacking institution and journal names, together with a website to explain the process to applicants clearly.

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A silver lining?

Substantial challenges remain that we must address as individuals, institutions, and across society. However, as described above, there are effective strategies institutions can implement to help advance positive change. Work remains to be done, but there are also some silver linings. Significant disruptions such as the pandemic can bring new opportunities for rethinking how things work. We are scientists, but we are also individuals who must grapple with both our own specific situations and challenges and advocate more broadly for positive and constructive changes within our communities and beyond. We must advocate to our colleagues and institutions that these ideas and principles matter. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a momentous disruption; here’s hoping we can build on this to make a sustained difference for individuals, for how science works, and to lift all boats.

*This column summarizes the panel discussion during the webinar “Navigating science, life, and careers in a (post) COVID world” hosted by ASCB’s Women in Cell Biology (WICB) committee and  moderated by Iain Cheeseman, Whitehead Institute/MIT, and Diane Barber, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The panel brought together leaders with diverse perspectives and experiences in research evaluation and careers, including Beverly Wendland, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, Washington University; D’Anne Duncan, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Learner Success, UCSF; Ruth Schmidt, Associate Professor, Illinois Institute of Technology; and Joanne Kamens, Senior Consultant, The Impact Seat; Founder, Mass Association for Women in Science. Additional ideas reported here came from panel participants, including Inke Natke (University of Dundee) and Erin Sheets (University of Minnesota Duluth).

About the Author:

Iain M. Cheeseman is the Herman and Margaret Sokol Professor of Biology and Core Member of the Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.