by Richard Asofsky, NIAID
and Joan P. Schwartz, NINDS

Many U.S. scientific institutions, including NIH, are reexamining the purposes and conduct of their postdoctoral training programs. Although successful completion of postdoctoral training is now considered a prerequisite to success in science, it is no longer a guarantee of success, given the current job market. Today's postdoctoral fellows are demanding better mentorship, while their supervisors clearly feel they are offering the best possible experience [see November - December 1995 issue]. We believe that successful postdoctoral training involves a set of reciprocal responsibilities - responsibilities not only for the supervisor but also for the trainee.

The term "mentorship" has been used loosely to describe the duties and responsibilities of supervisors. Dictionaries define "mentor" as a wise, trusted, and influential counselor. The word has its roots in the Greek myth in which the goddess of wisdom assumed the form of a human counselor, named Mentor, to guide the son of Odysseus. Such a role is an ideal to which all supervisors may aspire, but few will have the ability, stature, and wisdom to attain. Nevertheless, all supervisors have an obligation to fulfill certain fundamental responsibilities in training their postdoctoral fellows.

Senior researchers must select their fellows with care to ensure that the fellows have - or can learn - the skills needed to perform the lab's work and have the ability to grow intellectually. Challenging goals should be set for each fellow, and resources should be provided to achieve these goals. Constructive guidance is needed for the conduct of research, the development of testable ideas, the interpretation of results, the preparation of talks and publications, and the selection of new areas for further investigation. Supervisors should allow fellows time to participate in NIH-sponsored educational activities.

Richard Asofsky

Richard Asofsky

Joan P. Scwartz

Joan P. Schwartz

Supervisors must tend to the intellectual development of each fellow, as well as to his or her practical accomplishments in the lab. The best supervisors adapt their guidance to a fellow's increasing skill, responsibility, and knowledge. They recognize when independence is warranted and know how to encourage its development. They enhance the visibility of their fellows by sponsoring presentations at local or national scientific meetings or allowing them to co-author invited reviews. Finally, one of the most important aspects of being a good mentor is the assessment and frank communication to the fellow of his or her prospects for a future career in research or elsewhere.

But postdoctoral fellows cannot be passive participants in their training. This not only means carrying out the research project, but also reading the appropriate literature and attending relevant courses and seminars. Fellows should learn to make their satisfactions, dissatisfactions, and needs known clearly and often. Assertiveness is needed for success in research; the postdoctoral training period is a good time to learn to use and temper this trait.

Postdoctoral fellows should also take the initiative in mining NIH for opportunities for professional development, including the NIH Research Festival, the Interinstitute Interest Groups, lectures on a wide variety of topics, and courses sponsored by the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES) [see January - February 1996 issue, page 13].

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Beyond these obligations of supervisors and trainees, NIH has important institutional obligations to ensure that training programs are as effective and productive as possible. In response to concerns raised by fellows about the quality of the training and supervision they are receiving, NIMH has proposed the establishment of an Office of Fellowship Training [see November-December 1995 issue, pages 10 - 11]. The director of this office would, among other things, provide career counseling and organize training opportunities on such topics as grant-writing skills. In addition, the director would help mediate disputes between fellows and their supervisors. The NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics is currently working on a proposal to establish comparable offices at NIH institutes, centers, and divisions.

NIH should also be more active in helping fellows find employment opportunities in research, industry, teaching, and government. One initial effort, now in the planning stages, would be an annual job fair sponsored by FAES. Another effort, which began in February, is a seminar series entitled "New Careers for Young Scientists," organized by the NIH Fellows Committee.

An obvious goal for the future must be to establish methods for evaluating training at NIH. This evaluation could focus on the career trajectories of fellows after they leave NIH, as well as other aspects of the effectiveness of supervisors as mentors. However, standards to use in measuring success - either in the fellow or the mentor - have not been defined and will be difficult to establish because of the wide range in ability, ambition, and career plans of trainees as well as the rapid changes in employment possibilities. 

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