The Training Page: From the Fellows Committee

Better Mentoring

We can probably think of personal stories that demonstrate how the quality of mentor-mentee relationships have a profound impact on trainees’ career trajectories. Several studies support this notion. One study, which surveyed 7,603 postdocs in 351 U.S. academic and nonacademic institutions (hospital, industry, and government labs) in 2016, found that the perceived quality of postdoctoral mentor support had a significant effect on the perception of both the preparedness of the postdoc for their desired career and their outlook on the job market (eLife 7:e40189, 2018; DOI:10.7554/eLife.40189). The study also reported that postdocs who received training in mentorship were more satisfied with the mentoring they received than postdocs who did not. Nevertheless, only about 25% of postdocs actually received such training.

Postdocs are particularly well-suited for mentorship training because they are concurrently trainees (primarily mentored by their PIs) and mentors themselves (for postbaccalaureate fellows, graduate students, and high-school-age summer students). As such, postdocs can immediately adopt mutually beneficial mentoring practices, pass on those skills to their mentees, and learn how to improve relationships with their own mentors.

“Whatever career postdocs enter, they will have opportunities to mentor junior colleagues,” said Stephen Heishman, who is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Office of Education and Career Development and leads an “Approaches to Mentoring” course each year. “Developing good communication skills as a postdoc and practicing those skills with postbacs and summer students is an invaluable experience for future success as a PI, team leader, or administrator.”

Although trainees learn from their mentors—especially the good ones—not all mentors are great, he pointed out. “Good mentoring behavior is a learned skill and anyone can adopt these behaviors if they are willing to explore their own mentoring style and … to change what’s not working. I also encourage postdocs to have multiple mentors.” The advantage is that, compared with just one mentor per trainee, several mentors ”can offer sound, experiential advice across the many aspects of research and career training.”

In addition to the mentor-training workshops organized by individual institutes and centers, there are other opportunities for intramural fellows to learn and improve mentoring skills. For example, the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) routinely holds “Improving Mentoring Relationships” workshops that offer strategies for enhancing communication and interpersonal interactions between mentors and mentees. For postdocs who are expecting to work with summer students, OITE also offers many sessions each spring that are tailored for preparing mentors for eight weeks of intensive mentoring. Be sure to check on future offerings in the “Upcoming Events” section on the OITE website at https://www.training.nih.gov/events/upcoming.

Heishman encourages all postdocs to attend some of the formal mentoring training at NIH. “The key to good mentoring is communication,” he said. Mentoring is a two-way relationship, and there must be clear, continual communication between mentee and mentor. The expectations of both mentee and mentor should be fully discussed and agreed upon at the start of the relationship. As time goes on, those expectations should be revisited and tweaked if necessary.”