Image by Lipofsky: Future of Research members at our first summit in Boston in 2014
Academia is reaching a critical turning point, where effective and positive mentoring is more necessary than ever before. A slew of recommendations, reports and surveys are showing that recognition for good mentoring and appropriate responses to poor mentoring (or even egregious behavior) are currently not up to par with the standards of excellence required to sustain the research enterprise. Most importantly, early career researchers are recognizing this deficit, and demanding change. Failure to effect this change will cause the research enterprise to lose or squander talent.
There are a number of striking problems that can be traced back to a lack of mentoring focus by departments, institutions and funding agencies:
- ⅓ of those who start biology PhDs in the U.S. do not complete them.
- Sexual harassment in U.S. academia is at a rate second only to the military.
- For foreign postdocs, precarious visa situations are being exploited to make them work more, for less.
- There are postdocs facing barriers to taking their own research projects with them when they leave a lab under someone else’s “mentorship”.
- Retention of underrepresented populations in research is hindered by a focus on diversity in numbers, rather than on generating more inclusive and welcoming environments with culturally-appropriate mentoring.
However, there is also increasing recognition of the need to center mentoring in the research enterprise:
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) are currently carrying out a study, with a report due next Fall, on The Science of Mentoring in STEMM;
- The NASEM sexual harassment report which came out recently points to the need for multiple mentors, rather than relying on a single mentor for your career;
- The NASEM report on Graduate Education in STEM in the 21st Century recommends:
- “Rewarding Effective Teaching and Mentoring: Advancement procedures for faculty, including promotion and tenure policies and practices, should be restructured to strengthen recognition of contributions to graduate mentoring and education.”
- The National Institute of General Medical Sciences recently asked for feedback on improving transitions of postdoctoral researchers into faculty positions, and the second-most mentioned barrier – and solution – was mentoring;
- The National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) has been working now for several years on studying, and providing support for, mentoring.
At Future of Research, we are making a big push to improve mentoring, not by reinventing the wheel and replicating what the groups mentioned above have done, but rather to figure out how to highlight and support the ideas and experiments currently underway to implement positive mentoring practices in academia. We plan to begin this work by convening stakeholders at a summit in Chicago in June 2019, in order to design a plan for how to shift academic culture towards a central focus on mentoring.
We also have a proposal as to how some of this change might be achieved: by making use of a third party to evaluate departmental and institutional mentoring. The idea is similar to the Athena SWAN program in the UK, which aims to increase the participation of women in sciences and engineering. In this case, a third party would receive survey results from mentees and compile results to then report back an anonymized summary to the department and institutions. They would then receive badges based on fulfilling certain criteria, to allow early career researchers to assess whether institutional commitment to mentoring fits their needs.
Numerous shifts in academic culture should be considered with the mentoring landscape, including different styles and methods of mentoring being supported, in order to support a diversity of mentoring needs. There is also the need for recognition of mentoring as part of tenure and promotion, and a shift away from the mentality that every Principal Investigator is, by default, “entitled” to mentees, regardless of whether they have been trained to mentor, or whether they have a track record of treating mentees well. This last attitude stems more from “trainees” being the cheapest labor to staff a lab, rather than the desire or need to train them, and obscures those who are truly good and conscientious mentors from those who may wish to work with them.
We are extremely invested in moving the needle on mentoring, and know how important this is to the next generation of researchers, and to ensuring a sustainable research system to foster the success of future generations. This is therefore why mentoring has become the focus of our major fundraising effort for 2018. On Giving Tuesday, we are hoping to raise $25,000 towards the Mentoring Summit, and by the close of 2018, we are aiming to raise $100,000 towards sustaining an effort, and pilot studies, to put mentoring at the heart of academia.
If you would like to support this effort, or also know of others who would be willing to support it, please check out our GoFundMe page and the #FoRmentors hashtag on social media for more information!