The Training Page


LEA(R)N: Lead, Encourage, Apply, (Retain), Network

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is famous for highlighting the barriers that keep women from getting ahead. Sallie Rosen Kaplan, however, is not so famous. She may have been as ambitious as Sandberg, but her circumstances were different. Kaplan was accepted at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan), in the 1930s, but unable to attend because of family responsibilities. Still, she was committed to the education of women and helped support biomedical research at NIH.

After she died in 1998, her estate established a fellowship, named in her honor, to recruit postdoctoral women to biomedical research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Since the inception of the Sallie Rosen Kaplan (SRK) Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women Scientists in Cancer Research in 2000, all awardees have gone on to have successful scientific careers. In 2013, however, the SRK fellowship began to address a specific issue—how to retain women in the scientific pipeline.

Women outnumber men at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, receiving over half of the doctorates awarded in the life sciences. At the NIH this trend continues: Half of postdoctoral fellows are female. However, recent observational, longitudinal, and intervention studies show that women in science are significantly more likely to leave research careers earlier than men, especially as they try to transition from mentored scientists to independent investigators.

According to a 2007 report by the NIH and appearing in EMBO Reports, “women are more likely to quit at the post[doctoral]-to–principal investigator transition” and, according to the National Research Council, women are underrepresented in academic leadership roles and may feel isolated. In the NIH intramural program, only 20 percent of senior investigators are female.

What happens during the transition from trainee to independent investigator? According to these reports, one contributing factor is self-confidence. “Fear is the root of so many of the barriers women face,” Sandberg writes. “Fear of being judged and fear of failure.” Could having successful female scientists as role models—women who combine career and family, lead, and make decisions—encourage female postdoctoral fellows who might question their ability to succeed as principal investigators?

The SRK fellowship embraced the challenge of how to better retain and advance the careers of women in science. The year-long program pairs fellows with successful female scientists who serve as role models and mentors. It provides networking, seminars, and workshops to help NCI’s female postdocs strengthen their leadership skills, become better equipped to face the competitive job market, and remain in a research career as independent investigators.

Although the SRK fellowship is limited to NCI postdoctoral women, the lessons learned through the program are useful for everyone. Here are a few tips:

• Find a role model; a mentor can come from the unlikeliest of places.
• Dream big; you will never get ahead if you don’t try.
• Team spirit is great, but don’t undervalue your contributions. It’s all right to give yourself credit and speak in the “I.”
• Don’t be afraid to interrupt. Politely. You may have the next great idea or comment.
• Sit at the table so you appear as a potential contributor and not only as a participant.
• Build your confidence (and credibility) by taking on a more active leadership role in professional associations, committees, and other activities.
• Be honest with yourself. Daily work-life “balance” doesn’t really exist. Some days, one need outweighs the other. It’s what works now, and it’s always changing.

The SRK mentors all echoed their enthusiasm for the program. The SRK fellows have more confidence and a stronger sense of what they want and how to get there. “I am much more willing to jump in, take risks, [and] make connections,” said NCI postdoc and SRK alumna Kristin Litzelman. “That has helped me be more productive, happier, and more excited about my career.”

Additional Reading

• K. Kay and C. Shipman, “The confidence gap,” The Atlantic, May 2014 issue;

• E.D. Martinez, J. Botos, K.M. Dohoney, T.M. Geirman, S.S. Kolla, A. Olivera, et al., “Falling off the academic bandwagon,” EMBO Rep 8:977–981, 2007.

• National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director, “Long-Term Intramural Research Program (LT-IRP) Planning Working Group Report,” December 12, 2014;

• National Research Council, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2007).

• E. Reuben, P. Sapienza, and L. Zingales, “How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science,” PNAS USA 111:4403–4408, 2014.

• S. Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).