Life After NIH: Career Development and Mentorship Take on Renewed Importance at NIH

Seema Kumar

With more than 2,500 scientists in training, NIH is easily one of the largest postdoctoral training facilities in the country. More than 50,000 scientists, including 11 Nobel Prize winners, conducted their early work here; nevertheless, say the experts, this success has come in spite of, not because of, NIH's formal career development and mentoring programs. Virtually nonexistent until a few years ago, "formal mentoring programs could be neglected in the past, when young scientists came to NIH only to gain technical competence," says Griffin Rodgers of NIDDK. In today's competitive scientific climate, where winning grants, publishing papers, and establishing contacts are as important as technical acumen, "senior scientists at NIH will have to teach young trainees not just the trade, but the tricks of the trade" if NIH hopes to attract and retain top-quality trainees, says Rodgers. This, he adds, will require new ways of thinking about and restructuring mentoring and career development programs for young scientists.

Several groups on campus are now trying to do just that, according to Michael Fordis, Director of the four-year-old Office of Education. "NIH is going to see a tremendous change in the quality of training experience that is unduplicated in recent years and that will provide [successful] models for the country to copy." Fordis says that career development "is a tremendously high priority [for NIH]" and that the new leadership's support in this regard "has been invaluable in setting the stage for new career development programs for the future."

Kanak Iyer, an NIMH postdoc, can't wait for the future and says that new career development programs can't come soon enough. "Postdoctoral fellows are floundering here at NIH," says Iyer. "We need guidance not just on how to design a good experiment, but on how to get things done through the bureaucracies." Iyer is not alone in her feelings. In studies last year, two NIH task forces -- the Taskforce on the Status of Women Scientists at NIH and the Taskforce on the Status of Minority Scientists in the Intramural Program -- concluded that NIH has failed to provide career guidance to women and minority postdocs at NIH. But, says Rodgers, who headed the committee to implement the recommendations of the minority task force, the problem goes beyond women and minorities. When Rodgers and his team talked to nonminority postdocs as controls for the data they were gathering on minorities, they found that nonminority scientists echoed minority scientists' views on the inadequacy of mentoring at NIH.

"Career development and mentorship are really crucial issues that are coming into the fore at NIH," says Rodgers. He speculates that there may always have been a lack of structured career development guidance at NIH but that its absence is being felt keenly now because more and more, "young scientists are finding that learning science is not enough, they need somebody to show them the ropes."

The issue, says Rodgers, is not that NIH does not have good mentors -- "there are many good mentors at NIH" -- but that the quality of mentorship is not uniform throughout the institution. Further, say Fordis and Rodgers, until recently, NIH did not keep track of what happened to trainees once they left the NIH, and therefore had no definitive measure of the effectiveness of mentorship and training programs. Fordis adds that unless NIH addresses these issues, it cannot maintain its standing as an excellent postdoctoral training ground. "The point is that you cannot attract quality people unless you offer them the highest-quality training experience with a host of opportunities, for long-term career development," says Fordis.

Rodgers, who is now heading a task force to examine mentorship issues at NIH, outlines a few themes for discussion: first, says Rodgers, it is important to for people to understand the distinction between a supervisor and a mentor. "Supervisors oversee your work, whereas mentors are trusted counselors who take Fellows under their wings and teach them not just technical competence but also how things work, how to get things done, how to network, and who can help them grow professionally. Mentorship also means adapting your style to each trainee, says Rodgers. "'One size fits all' is not going to work with trainees," says Rodgers. "Some trainees are very independent and others require a lot more guidance," and scientists should change their mentorship styles to suit each individual. Mentors must also know how to read trainees' signals and learn to let go when it is time, says Rodgers.

Some administrators have suggested that mentorship at NIH can be improved by rewarding good mentorship and making it a part of scientists' performance evaluation. Rodgers is ambivalent about this suggestion. Some scientists are born mentors, says Rodgers, but those who are not can learn essential mentorship skills through formal training. He says NIH may want to develop a training program that teaches would-be mentors these skills. Another option, says Rodgers, is that if the trainee's preceptor is unable to be anything more than a supervisor, NIH may be able to establish other avenues that postdocs can turn to for the help that a mentor would provide.

Fordis says that the Office of Education already has several such programs in place. The OE's advisory and support services, available to postdocs on an individual basis, provides guidance on educational programs on campus and helps fellows locate employment opportunities, says Fordis, who has contacted biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies, and other institutions for possible position openings. Fordis is also urging NIH faculty to fax vacancy announcements that they receive by mail to his office. Fordis plans to post a compiled list of vacancies on the EMPLOY conference on NIH-EDNET (see box on page 22 for instructions on accessing this network). Also in the works at OE is a handbook for all postdoctoral fellows that covers, among 70 other topics, educational resources, counseling services, daycare facilities, intellectual property issues, parking, scientific equipment rental, and policies and procedures under the different funding mechanisms at NIH. The first edition of the handbook is expected to be out by the end of this year.

The OE has also helped postdocs organize a Fellows Committee. This year-old group tackles several issues that are relevant to postdocs, including the quality of their life on campus, the problems they face, and their sense of community. The committee also started the Fellows Seminar Series, put together by Fellows to cover topics they are interested in. The seminar series also functions as an advertisement for the committee and their representatives. Recently, the committee has focused on career development issues and held a seminar on "Pursuing a Career in Academia," featuring talks by former NIH postdocs who now have successful academic careers. Speakers recounted their experiences getting jobs, funding, and tenure and spoke of things they would do differently. In another pilot program, called the Ambassador Program, Fellows interested in recruitment went back to their home institutions to talk about NIH training. To provide incentives to NIH teachers, the committee offers an annual teaching award in clinical research and is planning to offer a similar one for basic research.

The OE is also compiling a list of all NIH Fellows and each institute's representative to make it easier for Fellows to get to know each other and provide a means to select future representatives. Fordis says that his office has also set up a new electronic conference called P-DOC TALK on NIH-EDNET (see box on page 22 for instructions on accessing this network) in which fellows can announce activities, suggest ideas, and discuss issues. In addition to working on issues of long-term career development, the committee is working on ways to make new Fellows feel welcome, Fordis says. In addition, the OE is also developing a tracking system to record how Fellows leaving NIH are faring in the outside world.

Fordis is hopeful that these programs and others in the future will improve the quality of life and training at NIH, but he adds that for these efforts to really succeed, it will take a recommitment from everybody on campus, including the postdocs, "who also have to be proactive." He adds that the renewed commitment is already coming from various groups on campus, where the buzzwords now seems to be "career development and mentorship."