Read our COVID-19 research and news.

scientists working in a lab
Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Mentoring beyond borders

Richard McGee wanted to create a different type of mentor-mentee relationship. The associate dean for professional development at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, felt that the relationships between graduate students and their research advisers often focus primarily on lab work, and mentoring is highly variable, leaving some students without much guidance about their future prospects. In addition, mentoring across differences in race, ethnicity, gender, or other identities can be very challenging. He and his colleagues thought pairing students with mentors unrelated to their thesis work and promoting group meetings might help. The results from a randomized control trial of their yearlong coaching intervention testing this approach, published online Tuesday in the journal Academic Medicine, suggest that this new type of relationship with mentors can, in fact, brighten a student’s outlook on academic careers. McGee and his colleagues hope the intervention might help the effort to promote faculty diversity and serve to level the playing field for trainees seeking academic careers, regardless of gender or background.

Although there is much discussion about the scarcity of tenure-track faculty jobs and many are encouraging trainees to consider careers outside academia, McGee and his colleagues chose to monitor students’ feelings about academic careers because of a larger goal to understand why faculty diversification has been so difficult to achieve—and if there is anything that can be done to facilitate these efforts. They found that students who received additional mentorship through the coaching program reported that, at the end of the year, obtaining an academic position seemed more possible than it had at the beginning. (On a 10-point scale, the average achievability rating increased by more than half a point, from 5.75 to 6.39.) Among students who didn’t participate in the coaching program, on the other hand, the average achievability rating decreased, supporting previous research showing that perceptions of the achievability of obtaining a faculty position drop over the course of graduate school. The desirability of staying in academia decreased for both groups, but less in the intervention group. (The average desirability rating dropped by slightly more than half a point in the intervention group, from 7.00 to 6.36, but by nearly two points in the control group.)

[T]he concept of supplementing traditional mentoring with career coaching is a really important development as we think about the overall career development of graduate students.

–Christine Pfund

“The study is very exciting,” says Christine Pfund, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the work. The primary research mentor has many roles to fill, including supervisor, evaluator, and finance manager, which “can come into conflict to make it really difficult for the primary research mentor to also be able to implement effective coaching skills.” In light of that limitation, “the concept of supplementing traditional mentoring with career coaching is a really important development as we think about the overall career development of graduate students,” she says.

For the program, called the Academy for Future Science Faculty, McGee and his colleagues paired mentors, called coaches, with 60 biomedical graduate students from different universities from across the country who anticipated getting their Ph.D. within a year and a half. The coaches were professors and other faculty members, also spread across different institutions, chosen in part based on previous leadership roles on diversity issues. Prior to working with the students, the coaches were also trained on theories from social science that address the social and cultural factors impacting young researchers, such as how individuals see themselves as scientists, how they develop confidence in their careers, and how they fit in their field and scientific community.

Coaches and their mentee groups met in person twice over the course of the year and had multiple electronic check-ins via Skype and social media, in addition to more typical one-on-one interactions, such as emails and phone calls. Coaches served no role in the research or evaluation of the program’s students; rather, they acted as neutral confidantes who could provide guidance. During the meetings, the coaches also emphasized the principles they had learned about in their own training, giving the students a safe space to discuss things like impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. Students in the control group, on the other hand, received no such intervention or additional mentoring beyond what they had been receiving prior to the intervention.

Simon Williams, a research assistant professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern and the paper’s first author, credits some of the increase in perceptions of achievability to the chance to speak with “successful academics and people who have … leadership roles. That might make an academic career potentially seem more desirable, relative to students in the control group.”

Many of the intervention students’ comments mentioned feeling more positive about their future in general, not just in academia, McGee writes in an email to Science Careers. The fact that the coaches weren’t connected to the students’ work also appeared to work well, he adds. “By having the coaches away from the home institutions … that gives more autonomy, a little bit more freedom,” for both the coaches and the students, he says. In the paper, one of the coaches is quoted as saying, “I feel very free with them because they are not directly linked to my work. … I am very free to just be a support.” Williams notes that some students appreciated receiving encouraging pep talks, while others appreciated a listening ear.

Getting together as a group was also valuable. With the popularity of social media these days, McGee had anticipated that the virtual meetings would be well liked, but when he asked which types of meetings they preferred, “the students said, ‘Nah, it’s getting together. It’s having the time and space to really be together.’ That’s what they really related to,” McGee says.

This group environment may be particularly impactful for students from underrepresented backgrounds, who constituted about half of those in the intervention group, Williams suggests. “Actually being in a diverse environment where students were engaging with other minorities and nonminorities” was both a new opportunity for many and uniquely beneficial, he says. In a small case study of one of the groups, described in the paper, several of the minority students reported that the “safe space” of the group meetings and the discussion of social science theories helped ease their anxieties about identifying as scientists. The researchers plan to study the effect of the intervention on minority students in greater detail in future studies.

The Academy for Future Science Faculty team also plans to follow all of the first-year participants as their careers progress to measure the potential lasting impact of the program. At the same time, based on the success of the program, McGee and colleagues are hoping to expand the intervention’s reach. Pfund agrees that growing the program could be broadly beneficial. “This paper is one of the first to … show some compelling evidence that this might be something worth pursuing on a larger scale,” she says.

In the meantime, McGee recommends students seek out multiple mentors to get different perspectives. “Given the complexities of the research world and life in general, it has become much less feasible to find that one person who can provide all of the guidance each individual can benefit from,” he writes.