are critical to NIH. They have a hand in most NIH intramural researchand
are our largest group of trainees. And critical to postdocs is mentoring.
A previous column on the expectations that a postdoc should have about
training at NIH led to the "Guide
to Mentoring and Training in the Intramural Program."
This booklet, which I hope you have all read carefully, provides an
outline of the responsibilities of both mentor and trainee at NIH. This
column targets what I consider to be the most basic first step in mentoring:
Whether you are a supervisor or mentoror bothI encourage
you early on, to approach your fellows and begin a dialogue that opens
with a simple invitation:
after a postdoc arrives at a lab, and then continuing on a regular basis,
the point of discussions between mentor and fellow should be to set
goals and assess progress toward them, provide a framework for the training
experience at NIH, clarify expectations on both sides, and provide career
advice for the fellow.
should be frank and fair, or they will be of little value. If necessary,
discussions can be initiated by the fellow; but, in any case, they should
occur. Where it is helpful, meeting details could be put in writing.
When a fellow
enters a lab, his or her supervisor should spend some time discussing
the research project or projects currently underway in the lab; the
role of the fellow in each project; expectations about independence,
authorship (including the likelihood of there being publishable work
from a project), and collaborations; any prior agreements that could
affect the fellows work; and any rules that govern conduct in
A first meeting
is also a time to provide and discuss the "Guidelines
for the Conduct of Science in the NIH Intramural Program"
and the "Guide to Mentoring and Training." There should be
explicit mention of the duration of the appointment, the experience
of previous fellows in finding jobs, and what the expectations of fellow
and mentor are with respect to careers in biomedical research. In a
recent survey conducted by the NIH Fellows Committee, about one-quarter
of the fellows who responded were unable to identify their mentors.
MarchApril 1999.) The first meeting is an excellent time for
the supervisor to offer to be a mentor and to suggest other scientists
who could also offer useful advice to the fellow.
Beyond this first
talk, there should be regular meetings to discuss science, conduct of
science, and career-related issues. Data sessions should be held frequentlyperhaps
weeklyespecially early in the training of a postdoc. The same
Fellows survey suggested that about 20 percent of the fellows
who responded meet less than once a month with their supervisors.
There should also
be an annual meeting specifically to evaluate the work of the fellow
and indicate whether he or she is on track to achieve research and career
goals. This is an important opportunity to begin a discussion about
jobs after the postdoctoral experience, to indicate that some goals
are impractical, and to help a fellow choose a reasonable course of
In the year before
a fellow leaves, more specific career planning has to take place. Is
another postdoc a reasonable option? To what jobs should a fellow apply?
What scientific work can be taken from the lab and what should stay?
It is very helpful to fellows to have someone critique their cover letters,
their CVs, and their applications to specific jobs. Will the mentor
be willing to make some telephone calls on behalf of the fellow?
Finally, the fellow
should have an exit interview with the mentor to outline what went well,
what could use improvement, and what should be avoided in the future.
These kinds of discussion are difficult, but very important if we want
to fulfill our duties as mentors and improve the postdoctoral experience