T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H  –   A P R I L   1999


by Joan P. Schwartz, Ph.D., NINDS
Assistant Director, OIR
Joan P. Schwartz

Mentoring has become a hot topic in the academic world—and it has had its fair share of attention in the NIH intramural research program. Three years ago NIAID’s Richard Asofsky and I coauthored a column in The NIH Catalyst entitled "Training of Postdoctoral Fellows: A Shared Responsibility" (March–April 1996). In 1997, Michael Gottesman, DDIR, expounded on the subject in a talk to NIH fellows and then developed that talk into a Catalyst column (November-December 1997) that outlined his picks for the key elements of postdoctoral training at NIH (see below). And now, at the DDIR’s request, hot off the presses comes A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH, written by the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics. The Guide is especially timely because the Fellows Committee has also conducted a mentoring survey of NIH postdoctoral fellows. A preliminary scan of responses suggests that the fellows do not find NIH investigators to be uniformly excellent at mentoring (see "Mixed Reactions").

Guide-lines for Mentoring

There are three sides to the mentoring story or, rather, three sets of responsibilities—those of the mentor, those of the trainee, and those of the institution. All are addressed in A Guide to Training and Mentoring. Not only will fellows appreciate the Guide’s roundup of reasonable expectations of an NIH training program, but its review of mentoring responsibilities should prove useful for supervisors as well. The Guide defines a mentor as a "person who has achieved career success and counsels and guides another for the purpose of helping him or her to achieve like success."

All investigators at NIH should be mentors to their fellows, although many fellows will identify additional mentors both at NIH and elsewhere. That 25 percent of fellows responding to the mentoring survey reported that they had no mentor should give us pause.

In what areas should mentoring be provided? First and foremost is scientific investigation, because all scientists come here to carry out research of some type.

What Every Trainee Should Learn At NIH


Doing Science

Reading the Literature


Conducting Ethical Science

Forming Collaborations


Choosing a Career Path


Respecting Resources





—Michael Gottesman, DDIR
"Training Scientists at NIH"

The NIH Catalyst, November–December, 1997

Thus, teaching a fellow how to choose a project, to ask important scientific questions, and to design experiments and carry them out is essential—and that’s one area where most fellows report they are receiving adequate to outstanding advice and support.

Regular lab meetings and talks with supervisors are also key to postdoctoral fellows’ development as scientists; yet 20 percent of fellows reported interacting less than once a month with their supervisor, either individually or in a lab meeting.

Other elements of an effective training experience include opportunities to attend seminars and meetings and to review the relevant scientific literature; opportunities to present one’s work informally at lab seminars, and more formally at NIH or at meetings, in order to develop those oral skills that are essential regardless of the type of job ultimately chosen; and opportunities to prepare the first draft of manuscripts detailing one’s research and to master the art of writing scientific papers—which may take longer than a supervisor might like, but which is an absolutely essential skill for every fellow on campus to acquire.

Give and Take

Less obvious skills fellows need to learn—but are seldom taught—include the ability to negotiate and hone their diplomatic capabilities, a topic covered in a previous Catalyst column (March-April 1998). Indeed, such skills are so useful and so overlooked that our new NIH Ombudsman, Howard Gadlin, might do well to put together some NIH-wide seminars on the subject.

Integral to all such interactions is the ability to communicate with others, and not only about the science in the lab. A major theme in the fellows’ responses to the mentoring survey was the need for evaluation, of both the mentor and the fellow. Many respondents suggested that it would be wise to have to sit down once a year with one’s supervisor and evaluate how each is doing in the relationship; most fellows expressed an interest in getting a yearly "progress report" on their research. This is perhaps the toughest type of communication we as scientists have to do, but it is also essential. The Guide suggests yearly evaluations of each fellow, including assessments of both research progress and career plans.

Beyond NIH

Career planning is a major concern of fellows and one where many feel that support from supervisors is minimal. As the possibilities for different types of careers expand, and careers involving more collaborative work rather than independent positions become more prominent, the supervisor or mentor often requires as much education as the fellow.

Those of us who grew up in a system where it was assumed that everyone would end up in academia need to recognize the diversity of career options now available and encourage our fellows to do likewise. NIH, and in particular the NIH Fellows Committee, offers an array of talks and workshops on new career opportunities for the 21st century; investigators should be aware of these and actively encourage their fellows to participate. Investigators should also network on behalf of their fellows by learning from colleagues about career opportunities and consciously promoting the visibility of their fellows’ research—and they should enable their fellows to meet their colleagues so they can start establishing their own networks.

The final area of training essential to all scientists involves the responsible conduct of science. Here the role of supervisor-mentor is critical because much of this training comes directly from the examples of ethical, and unethical, actions fellows observe in their labs. Discussion of the standards contained in the Guidelines for the Conduct of Research in the Intramural Research Program at NIH in the laboratory setting can ensure that everyone agrees on what these standards are. Supervisors should also foster a sense of responsibility in their fellows for the appropriate use of public resources and direct them to the necessary courses on human subjects research, care and use of animals, and laboratory safety issues.

Train the Trainers?

The bottom line is that NIH investigators need to be mentors to their fellows–in many areas–and NIH fellows, according to the mentoring survey, are not completely satisfied with the mentoring they are receiving. Research from the University of California at Irvine suggests that "training is . . . important to the success of mentoring." Will reading A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH be sufficient? Should each lab group discuss the ideas in the Guide as a group and agree on how to implement some of them? Should PIs be offered courses that might improve mentoring skills? As NIHers throughout our campuses read the Guide over the next few months, we hope they will tackle these questions.

Postdoctoral fellows are not only a valuable resource for the labs right now; they are the scientific leaders of the future. The skills NIH postdocs develop during their time here are the foundation for their success in the future and a measure of the success of NIH and its scientist-mentors.


In the summer of 1998, the NIH Fellows Committee conducted a web-based survey of postdoctoral fellows at NIH to assess the mentoring experiences of NIH fellows. The survey questionnaire, developed in consultation with outside experts, covered demographic characteristics, supervisor-fellow interactions, and promotion of professional development. Several strategies were used to inform the more than 2,300 postdoctoral fellows about the survey, including mailed and e-mailed flyers and notices posted on the Fellows’ web site. Twenty percent of the postdoctoral population—465 fellows—responded anonymously to the survey. Some preliminary findings are presented here.

IRTAs accounted for 45 percent of respondents, and visiting fellows for 31 percent; the remainder were research or clinical fellows or on other fellowships. Half of the survey respondents had been at NIH for one to two years and 9 percent for less than one year. Slightly more than half of the respondents were men. A comparison of respondents to the broader NIH fellows population suggested that women were more likely to respond than men and that fellows who had been at NIH longer were more likely to respond.

More than two-thirds of respondents reported that they had a mentor and that that individual was their supervisor, but one-quarter reported that they had no mentor. More than half of responding fellows reported meeting individually with their supervisors at least weekly, but 20 percent reported meeting with them less than once a month. Access to their supervisor was reported to be adequate by more than three-quarters of the survey participants. Advice from a supervisor was more likely to be described as adequate when the project was going well than when it was stalled (78 percent v. 59 percent). About half of respondents said they were accomplishing their goals for their fellowship training, but 29 percent said they were not. Most of the fellows (81 percent) felt that their supervisor’s expectations of them were reasonable.

The Fellows Committee anticipates that the full survey results will aid the NIH community in its continuing efforts to provide the best possible postdoctoral training for future scientific leaders. A final report will be forthcoming.




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