January 2013

A wake-up call on mentoring

In a recent American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology survey of biochemists and molecular biologists in the early stages of their careers, nearly 40 percent reported that they were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the career mentoring they had received. In contrast, a strong majority were satisfied or very satisfied with their scientific mentoring.

Survey results about mentoring

There are many resources available for individuals and institutions interested in obtaining or providing career advice. A good starting point is the Career Resources link in the ASBMB web site: http://www.asbmb.org/Page.aspx?id=264. Another good source is http://myidp.sciencecareers.org, which was developed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of California–San Francisco, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Science Careers with support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

It is essential that we address this problem if we are going to attract the best students into biomedical sciences in the future. We need to do much better than the current level of career counseling.

The survey was conducted by the society’s Task Force on Women in Academia, and it was aimed mainly at gathering information about how trainees and people in early stages of their careers make decisions. A report of the results of the survey, including the enthusiastic commitment of young biochemists and molecular biologists to science, can be found here. Mentoring was not a major focus of the survey, but many of the task force members, including me, were struck by the negative review of career mentoring by so many trainees (both male and female).

In addition to the quantitative assessments, the survey asked for comments on some questions. (A few examples of positive and negative comments about sources of career mentoring are shown in an accompanying box.)

Comments from survey respondents, edited for clarity and style.

One of our faculty members regularly holds seminars on career choices for Ph.D. graduates, inviting successful Ph.D.s who took alternative careers.

Seminars on industry and potential occupations for Ph.D. scientists were highly influential. Peers, friends and colleagues (though not necessarily mentors) were highly influential.

We don’t have anyone helping us to figure out what to pursue once we get our degrees.

I feel that, for nonresearch-based academia or industry positions, I have received no career mentorship. Anything besides R01 research is a dirty word.

I feel like I was left floundering to figure everything out on my own. The academic assumption is that you’ll follow the standard path for tenure-track professorship, even though this is incredibly impractical for most people these days. Other options are barely discussed and, if discussed, looked down on.

The comments provide some insight into why many trainees are disappointed in the quality of career mentoring. The career expectations for young biochemists and molecular biologists are inevitably affected by the current economic and funding climate. Many of today’s mentors were trained at a time when the federal science budget was expanding. Medical schools, universities and research institutes were growing, and there was a strong demand for newly trained scientists. In addition, large pharmaceutical companies were expanding their internal research programs, and biotech startup companies were hiring large numbers of young scientists. In such an environment, trainees with good scientific track records had excellent chances of obtaining reasonable jobs. Mentoring was mainly training in how to do science. Mentors and their institutions did not have a strong incentive to provide career counseling, because many people were finding good jobs. I think that very few of my peers at academic medical centers or research universities would say that they ever received much career counseling. What we did receive was guidance in how to conduct science, and apparently today’s trainees feel that on average we are still doing a fairly good job of passing on that knowledge. However, in today’s world that is not enough.

There are not nearly enough high-quality academic and purely scientific job openings to accommodate the people who are finishing Ph.D.s and postdoctoral training. Mentors and their institutions need to develop ways to provide alternate career counseling. Academic mentors themselves may have limited capabilities, because many of us have worked only in academia or other research laboratories. Nevertheless, we can sit down with our trainees and listen carefully to their thoughts about career options. We also owe it to them to provide honest evaluations of their prospects for various types of jobs. In my own experience, this means that sometimes I may need to

Upcoming ASBMB career symposia

Each symposium provides a unique opportunity to network with fellow scientists, to learn about traditional and nontraditional career options and to discuss related topics.

March 19
Stony Brook University
Organizers: Krithika Venkataraman, Peter Chahales and Nadine Dalrymple
Click here to see the program
Click here to register

March 19
University of Cincinnati
Organizer: Sandra Degan
Click here to see the program
Click here to register  

be a cheerleader for someone who has extraordinary skills but may lack the self-confidence to push for the top research positions. On the other hand, I have sometimes had discussions in which I suggested that individuals seek alternative career tracks. I have seen some of these people years later and found that they were pleased with their careers as entrepreneurs, administrators, consultants or patent lawyers. Those are all good career options.

Given that mentors cannot be experts in providing good advice about all possible careers, trainees need other sources of advice. Research institutions need to do a better job addressing these issues. In the survey of trainees, only one-third of respondents were aware of career-training programs at their institutions. Some positive examples of how to provide training were included in the comments.

Photo of Fred MaxfieldFred Maxfield (frmaxfie@med.cornell.edu) is a professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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