A recent investigation finds that an alarming number of “academic” journals offered a completely fake scientist a position on their editorial boards. Read the article, published in Nature, in which the authors describe their sting and give further information on avoiding predatory journals.
Finding time to write can be difficult. As a young scientist, one can be constantly bombarded with experiments, classes, meetings… The list goes on and on. It can seem as if writing gets pushed further and further back in the “To Do List”. Developing a strategy early in one’s career to stay on top of writing projects can be extremely important. One thought is to try “the 1-hour workday”:
We all have a unique story of how we got to where we are now – the path is rarely straight and narrow. A recent article in Science by Wei Ji Ma highlights the often hidden struggles we all face. In the article, he discusses his co-founding of an event series that focuses on discussing common challenges while working in science.
Choosing a lab of the right size is crucial for early-career development.
Group discussions are one aspect of postdoc life that can be very different between large and small labs.
While looking for a postdoctoral position, Michael Mitchell could have joined any number of small, intimate labs with a couple of colleagues and an ever-present lab leader. Instead, he decided to go big. In 2014, after earning a PhD in biomedical engineering, he accepted an offer from Robert Langer, also a biomedical engineer, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Mitchell shares the lab with some 40 other postdocs, a host of graduate students and a rotating cast of visiting researchers. The sheer scale of the enterprise becomes clear every summer, when the lab gathers for an annual party at Langer’s beach house. “Bob has to rent three to four buses to get us down to the house,” Mitchell says. “He gets an entire ice-cream truck for dessert.”
Of all the factors that potential postdocs must consider when choosing a position, lab size should be near the top of their list: it can shape a junior researcher’s career. Scientists say that small labs may be isolating, but that members tend to have great access to the lab leader. Conversely, whereas trainees in larger labs may have less time face-to-face with their mentor, some data suggest that they have more chances to collaborate and publish.
Those considering a postdoc position should think carefully about what would suit them. “It’s quite a personal choice,” says Kerstin Kinkelin, the training and career-development project manager at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “There’s no general rule about which is better or worse, but people need to think about which lab size works for them personally.”
A large lab was the right choice for Mitchell. “I knew Bob’s lab would have the resources to allow me to pursue the range of research ideas that I’m interested in,” he says. “But I was also looking for an excellent mentor. I would have worked for Bob even if I was the only one there.”
The size of a lab may affect the quantity and types of paper a postdoc publishes. Mitchell notes that postdocs on a large team might have a chance to make small contributions to the many projects run by other members of the lab. This could lead to a slew of undesirable middle-author papers. “In a large lab, you want to be very focused on your own research project,” Mitchell says. “It’s more important to get first-author publications that you can take ownership for. Ultimately you’re going to be judged on your independent work.”
Lab size can also affect the likelihood of a postdoc publishing high-profile papers, says Christopher Liu, a former biochemist who studies strategic management at the University of Toronto in Canada. In an unpublished study of 91 biology labs at MIT, Liu found that larger labs tend to publish more articles in top-tier journals. Specifically, adding one person to an average-sized lab of 11 members increases the impact score of publications by 1.5%. In other words, Liu says, postdocs could increase their chances of getting published in journals such as Nature, Science or Cell by joining a large lab.
“Large labs hit more home runs, but they also get fewer at-bats.”
The data also suggest an important caveat: adding a postdoc to an average-sized lab reduces the number of publications per person. That means that postdocs who join a large lab could risk slightly decreasing the quantity, although not necessarily the quality, of papers published by lab members — themselves included. “Large labs hit more home runs,” says Liu, “but they also get fewer at-bats.” In a similar vein, a 2015 study of UK biology labs found that publications per person decrease as lab size increases (e989; 2015). et al. PeerJ 3,
Liu sees an obvious explanation for the relative lack of efficiency in large labs. Every postdoc who decides to join the team automatically dilutes the amount of time that the principal investigator (PI) can spend with each lab member. He adds that even though postdocs tend to be more independent than graduate students, time with a PI is still a valuable commodity.
Even the best postdocs need at least occasional guidance from their lab leader, agrees Ann Miller, a molecular biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “In a smaller lab, you’re going to get more attention from your PI,” she says. “And that PI is going to have a more vested interest in your success.”
Miller runs a lab with just one postdoc and a couple of graduate students. Even with such a small group, she takes mentorship seriously — she won the 2017 Exceptional Mentor of the Year award from the university’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Because she doesn’t have a large team, she ensures that each new member will fit. She’s particularly selective about postdocs and hired her first in 2013, two years after she started her lab. “In a small lab, each postdoc is chosen very carefully to fit with the science and the lab culture,” she says. “I interviewed several other people but I was looking for just the right person.”
That first postdoc, Tomohito Higashi, accepted a faculty job at the Fukushima Medical University in Japan this year. He says that more time with Miller significantly helped his career. “I had research discussions and casual conversations with her almost every day.”
David Smith, a molecular evolutionary biologist who shares a single postdoc with another lab at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, would caution any prospective postdoc about the possible downsides of joining a large group. “I know faculty members who did their postdocs in labs that were so large that the PI wouldn’t even write reference letters,” he says. Such labs can sometimes breed a culture in which postdocs battle one another for resources, for the attention of the PI and for authorship on papers. “A lot of people don’t thrive in that environment. It depends how well they can handle the competition, the drive and the tempo.”
Survive and thrive
Many postdocs rise above the challenge of life in a large lab. Mitchell is one example. Early next year, he will move to a new job as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has also earned recognition for his work, winning a 2016 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, a US$500,000 prize given to researchers combining biology and engineering.
Mitchell says that he owes much of his success to the size of the Langer team. “If I read about an exciting technique and want to do it but don’t know how, I can knock on a door down the hall and find someone who does,” he says. “We can have coffee, talk about an idea — and we’re doing an experiment that night in the lab.” He adds that one high-profile paper on which he was first author — about using polymer nanoparticles to enhance the effects of immunotherapeutics on tumour cells (14179; 2017) — was sparked by a conversation over coffee with a colleague. et al. Nature Commun. 8,
Mitchell says that the lab doesn’t breed cut-throat competition, partly because Langer emphasizes teamwork and carefully evaluates applicants to make sure they can fit with the rest of the lab. “It’s like a faculty interview,” Mitchell says. “The potential postdoc comes in for two days, meets with other scientists and postdocs, and gives an hour-long seminar. Bob gets a lot of feedback from people throughout the lab.” And unlike some leaders of large labs, Langer makes himself available to his students and staff. “Bob is notorious for responding to questions from postdocs or graduate students over e-mail within minutes,” Mitchell says.
Suzanne Tainter/MCDB/Univ. Michigan
Ann Miller (centre) carefully selects postdocs to ensure that they are a good fit in her small lab.
Alessandra Breschi, a geneticist and bioinformatician who just completed a postdoc in the large lab of Roderic Guigó Serra at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, says that working in a lab with some 30 other people forced her to be more independent. “You have to learn to find information on your own,” she says. Breschi spoke to Nature shortly before starting her new postdoctoral position in the lab of Michael Snyder at Stanford University in California, where there are already around 40 postdocs. She hopes that her large-lab experience will serve her well.
Likewise, Amelie Baud, a neurobehavioural postdoc at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, has found success in the rapidly growing lab of Oliver Stegle. When she first joined the lab in 2013, she shared it with just two other people: a PhD student and a master’s student. “Joining a tiny group is potentially risky,” she says. “I like the idea of an average-sized group that has a critical mass at lab meetings. You can get feedback on presentations and organize journal clubs.”
The Stegle lab now includes eight postdocs, along with several graduate students and visiting scientists. “It’s a large lab even for this area of study,” Baud says. “As the lab grew, I never noticed a change in atmosphere. The lab is dynamic, and there’s a lot going on, but I haven’t heard about competition in the group, and I don’t think it exists.” As the lab expanded, Baud thrived. In 2014, she won a £250,000 (US$332,000) four-year Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowship.
Liu’s analysis of MIT labs suggests that top-tier postdocs tend to excel no matter the lab size. In that sample, postdocs who had won fellowships — a marker for excellence — didn’t hamper efficiency when they joined a lab. The data, according to Liu, suggest that outstanding postdocs don’t necessarily need to worry about staying productive in a large lab. But for postdocs who aren’t superstars, large labs have clear dangers. “If you feel that you would benefit from more attention from the PI, maybe you should consider a smaller lab,” he says.
In addition to more interaction with the PI, smaller labs might also provide realistic training for a career in academia, Miller says. “Some of my friends who come out of large, highly funded labs were used to having a lot of technical support and money for anything,” she says. “When you start your own lab, it can be a bit of a shocker.”
Smith has seen similar consequences in Canada. “Students and scientists who have been in big labs their whole careers can have a skewed view of academics,” he says. “Reality isn’t massive research teams and Nature papers and million-dollar grants.”
Miller completed her postdoc in a small lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Without a technician or other postdocs, she had to learn every detail about managing a lab, from writing animal-care protocols to mixing reagents. Because of this, she didn’t stumble when it was time to start her own lab. “I was ready to go,” she says. She also didn’t have to compete with other postdocs to give talks at meetings, review papers or join key projects. “All of these things are good for your career development and visibility in the field,” she says.
Looking ahead, Miller says that she would eventually like to have two or three postdocs and several graduate students — a lab that falls between the extremes of size. “That’s kind of reaching my capacity for being fully invested,” she says.
Postdocs can find success in labs of any size, says Kinkelin. They need only to decide if they want to stand out in a small group or find their own space in a larger one. Either way can work — especially if postdocs are aware of the potential trade-offs ahead of time. “People have to think about what they want to get out of it.”
First, a confession: I never meant to be a science communicator.
I’m an aerospace engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, the physics of how liquids and gases (and granular materials and pretty much anything that’s not a solid) moves. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the subject in part because of the incredible photos my professors used to help us see and understand how fluids behave. As a PhD student, I was frustrated by how little information there was online for the public to learn about this subject that impacts our daily lives.
From that frustration, my website FYFD was born as a place where I could share the beauty of my subject with the world at large.
Like many scientists, I began communicating science for selfless and altruistic reasons. But along the way, I learned there’s a lot to be gained for the communicator as well. So I’d like to share a few of the selfish reasons to communicate science.
The first one may seem a bit obvious, but engaging in science communication is a great way to hone your communication skills. Whatever path your career leads you down, those skills are key. Communicating science to the public, whether online or through local means, is generally a low-risk operation, but it’s an opportunity to practice and improve your skills so that when it really matters you can nail that job interview or research proposal.
Participating in science communication regularly is also a great way to develop expertise in your subject area. When I started writing FYFD, it seemed like spending part of every day reading journal articles that had nothing to do with my research might be a waste of time. After all, learning the latest on how droplets splash was not going to help my work on high-speed aerodynamics. But toward the end of my PhD—after a few years of writing FYFD—I noticed that when professors and other students had questions that reached beyond our own area, the first resource they turned to was not Google Scholar—it was me.
The first time a professor asked me if I knew anything about the unexpected behavior they were seeing in an experiment, it was a revelation for me. I had unwittingly turned myself into an expert, not simply on the subject of my own research but on fluid dynamics in general. That broad familiarity with the field continues to be valuable today. It allows me to see connections between disparate studies and subjects, a skill that’s key to discovering new avenues for research.
If you choose to use science communication to raise awareness of your own work, it can help you gain exposure. A recent study showed that social media use can help increase a scholar’s scientific impact. It can also help you gain the notice of journalists, and there is evidence that media coverageof papers leads to more citations. Personally, my science communication efforts have almost exclusively highlighted the work of other researchers, but I have nevertheless benefited in terms of networking and new opportunities within my field.
Of course, setting up a Twitter account or a blog is no guarantee that you’ll start seeing your papers in The New York Times. Fortunately, that kind of audience isn’t necessary to see some personal benefits. One of my favorite aspects of science communication—especially in-person—is witnessing a positive-feedback loop of enthusiasm. When you’re genuinely excited about a subject, whether it’s fluid dynamics or unionid bivalves, that enthusiasm impacts your audience and can get them excited. Seeing that excitement in others simply reinforces your own enthusiasm.
Maintaining that reserve of enthusiasm for your subject is vital for motivating yourself when things are going poorly. As an experimentalist in graduate school, I faced a series of setbacks in my research, including spending half of the last year of my PhD rebuilding lab infrastructure instead of gathering data. We all periodically face moments when we ask ourselves: why the heck am I doing this? For me, spending a part of every day searching for a piece of my subject to share with the world was a chance to remind myself of what I love about fluid dynamics. Communicating science is an opportunity to see your field anew and renew your motivation to carry on in spite of the daily frustrations.
As you can see, there’s a lot to be gained, both personally and professionally, from engaging in science communication. If you’d like some resources or guidance on how to begin, UCS is a great place to start. AAAS also offers resources for scientists and your professional society may as well. For guidance to better online science communication, I recommend Science Blogging.
Good luck and remember to have fun!
Nicole Sharp is the creator and editor of FYFD, a fluid dynamics blog with a quarter of a million followers that has been featured by Wired magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Science, and others. Nicole earned her M.S. in aerospace engineering from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University with experiments on the effects of surface roughness on airflow near a surface moving at Mach 6. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, cycling, and skiing. You can find her online at @fyfluiddynamics or nicolesharp.com.
Nature 548, 489–490 (24 August 2017) doi:10.1038/nj7668-489a
When set up properly, individual development plans can be powerful tools for shaping a career.
Lia Rae Edmunds was annoyed when her department asked for an individual development plan (IDP) after she started her postdoc in developmental biology. “I thought it was an unnecessary hoop to jump through,” she says.
But despite her misgivings, Edmunds’s IDP has helped her to establish, review and update her goals and achievements with her supervisor. “As postdocs we have very loose guidelines on what we’re supposed to do, day in and day out,” says Edmunds, who works at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
She used her IDP to set a weekly plan for activities in and outside the lab that would help her to complete her year’s goals, including writing a first-author paper (which she has now started) and mastering specific in vivo metabolic techniques. It has essentially become an informal contract between her and her supervisor. “We’re on the same page,” says Edmunds.
Not every university, study programme or lab head requires PhD students and postdocs to prepare or maintain an IDP, but many junior researchers say that it helps them to identify their skills and skill gaps, set professional goals and objectives with specific timelines and build a positive relationship with their supervisor, particularly around shared aims.
Those who have used IDPs say that to be most effective, the plan should be reviewed and updated at least once a year, with input and guidance from the principal investigator or mentor.
IDPs and similar tools, including career- and personal-development plans, have long been used in government and industry, particularly in Western nations, as a way to help employees to achieve short- and long-term career goals and to improve their performance on the job. Data are sparse on the number of researchers who use them, but science-career experts who advocate such tools say that it is crucial that the a plan has specific, detailed objectives.
Some junior researchers agree that IDPs are most useful when they are highly detailed and have multiple sections. Uschi Symmons, a molecular-biology postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, created a customized version by merging the university’s graduate-student IDP template with one for postdocs from Stanford University in California. She used her university’s section on self-reflection, skills analysis and goal setting, and Stanford’s progress-review section. The personalized plan helps her to consider and identify her skills and objectives in a clear way, she says. She knows that she wants to stay in academia and her plan has helped her to tick off important steps towards that goal, including publishing a paper and learning to do peer review. “It was useful to write down goals that I could measure, that I could influence,” she says. “If I hadn’t had that, achieving those goals would have been tougher.”
An IDP should include four components, says Philip Clifford, an associate dean for research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been developing templates for and advocating IDPs since 2001. Those include sections for self-assessment and reflection; career choices and pathways; short- and long-term goals; and ways to achieve and implement those goals. All goals need to be specific, with timelines and action plans for each, says Cynthia Fuhrmann, an assistant dean of career and professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester (see ‘Goal setting’).
Box 1: Goal setting
Research suggests that people who use professional-development plans such as the individual development plan (IDP) rank themselves higher on indices of success and achieve greater success within science and other fields according to some metrics (T. W. H. Ng et al. Pers. Psychol. 58, 367–408; 2005).
Cynthia Fuhrmann, an assistant dean of career and professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, recommends that researchers apply the SMART principle — specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time bound — to their goals. “It will transform planning from vague goals to specific ones, with timelines and action plans,” says Fuhrmann. Here are some of her tips for using the principle.
- Create specific, clear goals that are based around these questions: What do I want to accomplish? Why is this goal important? Who is involved? Where do I need to be? Which resources or limits are involved? If, for example, you want to improve your writing skills, you might consider what you will do, who can help you, when you can do what’s required and what improved writing skills would look like.
- Establish concrete criteria for measuring your progress. Write down each step you will need to take and how you will know when you have reached that goal. When you can measure your progress, you are more likely to stay on track and reach your target dates.
- Make sure your goals are action-oriented. Ask for the resources you need and mark check-in dates for the goals in your diary. Each goal should have a series of smaller sub-goals that you can tick off as you complete them.
- Create realistic goals that fit into your research schedule (and study programme if you are a student). Your goals are realistic if you truly believe that you can accomplish them.
- Give each goal a time frame. Without a deadline, there is no sense of urgency.
Gary McDowell can attest to the power of self-assessment. Now in his main role as head of Future of Research, a scientist-advocacy group in San Francisco, California, McDowell had initially aimed for an academic research career. But candidly reflecting on his life’s goals as part of his IDP helped him to realize that advocacy was his true interest. “I was looking at what I actually valued,” he says. “And had I done it earlier, this would have been a more obvious route.”
Reflection, together with considering career choices, also proved invaluable to Sarah Saminadin-Peter, who advises clients on food-contact regulations at Intertek, a quality-assurance company based in Brussels. While doing a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, she found that her IDP helped her to determine that she has superior organizational and project-management skills, and led her to mull alternatives to academia. “From there, I started to explore career paths that could match my competencies,” she says. She also wrote in her plan that she wanted to meet people from industry through conferences organized by her postdoc association. Soon afterwards, she connected with the consulting company Dr Knoell Consult in Mannheim, Germany, where she worked as a project manager for two years before moving to her current position.
Some researchers use other techniques. Rachel Yoho, a research associate studying science education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, uses job advertisements to identify gaps in her competencies. “If an ad says that I need a specific skill, I can see I need to go out and get it,” she says. She learnt through scanning ads that employers in her speciality sought candidates with strong teaching and leadership skills, so she bolstered hers through short courses. Yoho has since landed a faculty teaching position that she starts this month.
Some universities place little value on IDPs. Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, doesn’t advocate them for its graduate students and postdocs, says vice-provost for graduate education Zlatko Skrbis. Instead, Monash offers activities that are led by alumni and external trainers on career planning, project management, networking, negotiation, leadership and entrepreneurship, along with other topics relevant to professional development. The university encourages students to collaborate with their supervisors in coming up with a customized scheme. Research students can attend all activities for free and, depending on their doctoral programme, may be required to complete at least 120 hours of such training modules during their studies.
Those who are working on a written IDP, however, should ensure they discuss it with others to stay on track, says Furhrmann, who recommends that researchers share it with their principal investigator. “Discussing elements of your plan with your supervisor or mentor means that he or she is aware of the goals,” Fuhrmann says. Some universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, are experimenting with formal mentoring committees that connect a researcher with two or more academic staff members. These mentors can also help the junior researcher to stay accountable to their development plan and review their progress. “If you do have a disagreement over a project, technique or goal with one mentor,” says Edmunds, “there are two other people who signed off on the IDP”.
Occasionally a supervisor or principal investigator is not the best choice to confer with. Some graduate students and postdocs report that their principal investigator objected to non-academic career goals they had set out in the plan and tried to steer them into an academic-research trajectory. McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for example, will tell junior researchers not to automatically involve their supervisors when it launches a mandatory IDP initiative next year. “The idea is to not presume that the supervisor is the person with whom they should have that conversation,” says Lorna MacEachern, McGill’s graduate career-development counsellor. “A lot of students report anxiety around discussing their professional-development plans with their supervisors.”
Although Edmunds was initially sceptical about the value of an IDP, she is now a believer. In addition to helping her to articulate and achieve her goals, it has provided leverage. “You can use the IDP to advocate for yourself,” she says. “And that puts you in a stronger position in your current job — as well as for your future career development.”
A psychology professor at the U.S. Naval Academy on why professional guidance doesn’t always work out as planned
B.R.J. O’DONNELL JUL 28, 2017, The Atlantic
For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy. Johnson talked about how his career came to focus on understanding mentorship, how these relationships can unravel, and what can be done to salvage them if they do. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
B.R.J. O’Donnell: What do you see as the most critical element to get right when it comes to mentorship?
W. Brad Johnson: Intentionality on both sides really matters. If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it’s frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.
O’Donnell: Some would say that the mentee should just be persistent in a situation like that. When faced with a distant mentor, should they just keep pushing for a response?
Johnson: Sometimes mentees view their mentors as being so accomplished that they have trepidation about approaching them, and they are hesitant to reach out. So if both of those elements are present, what you actually have is two people who just never interact, and that isn’t mentorship.
O’Donnell: In your experience, what is the biggest source of conflict in these relationships?
Johnson: I think if expectations are not aligned, you will often get conflict. If the two parties work to align their expectations around what the relationship is going to be about, and what functions a mentor is going to provide—how they will work together, what the mentor’s role will be in the life of the mentee, and how often they meet—then this is a pitfall that can be sidestepped.
O’Donnell: When mentorship isn’t going as planned, what can improve the situation?
Johnson: Too often, in any relationship where there is dysfunction, the two people don’t talk about it transparently. I would say that basic communication is essential. A mentor can avoid an awful lot of that simply by bringing up their concerns. It can be as straightforward as saying, “I’ve noticed that you don’t drop by anymore. Am I contributing to something that’s problematic? Help me understand.”
Also, self-awareness is key. If I’m a busy mentor, and I travel too much, and I don’t follow through with mentees, and that leads to hard feelings, then I have to solicit that feedback. And then I have to reflect. Perhaps the way I say things or the way I communicate is tricky and off-putting. If my own personal life is not going well—maybe my primary relationship is on the rocks, and I’m getting needs met, subtly, by mentees, and that’s uncomfortable for them—I’ve got to have self-awareness about that. I think the mentor has got to take responsibility.
O’Donnell: You’ve found romantic attraction to be a problem in some of these relationships. If someone does find themselves attracted to the person on the other side of the desk, what would you say to them?
Johnson: Occasionally, mentors have trouble with ethics and boundaries, and I know that is an issue in academia. It’s certainly an issue in corporate contexts. You will find people crossing boundaries, being intrusive, folks initiating romantic relationships. And those things that take away from the focus on the mentee’s career trajectory and personal development are toxic, and they can definitely lead to conflict.
I think mentors also need to come to terms with the idea that all of the things that lead to better mentoring may also lead to some attraction at times: self-disclosure, an increasingly bonded, trusting relationship, some measure of increase in warmth. Good boundaries are essential. Just like a mental-health professional might recognize that they have feelings of attraction towards a client, that doesn’t give them the green light to act on those feelings. In fact, in the field, there are very clear ethical guidelines prohibiting that, and for very good reason. In my view, it’s never going to be in the best interest of the mentee to sexualize or romanticize that relationship. So I put that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the mentor, to accept but not act on attraction.
O’Donnell: What is the most effective way to approach building these relationships, especially with people who are different from you?
Johnson: I really encourage and counsel humility, and this often comes up in the case of mentorship across differences in gender, differences in race, culture, sexual orientation. You need to be really careful about approaching someone with a different set of experiences from your own, with a sense of humility and a learning orientation. And for me, that goes beyond situations where there is conflict or dysfunction. I would say that humility is one of the hallmarks of really good mentorship in general.
Reading scientific papers can be a difficult and frustrating task – even after years of practice. A recent post by Science has highlighted some tips from a dozen scientists. Feel free to share your personal tips and tricks with us!
By Maggie Kuo Jul. 18, 2017
The rich have been getting richer in the biomedical research enterprise, and the system favors those who are already doing pretty well, according to a new analysis of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant recipients.
The top 10% of NIH grant winners (by total award) received about 37% of NIH funding in 2015—up from the 32% the top group got in 1985, but down a bit from a peak of 40% of total funding in 2010, according to an analysis published last week by researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
In contrast, the bottom 40% of principal investigators (PIs) won approximately 12% of the pot in 2015, down from 16% in 1985 and not a dramatic change from 11% in 2010.
The analysis also found that the amount of grant money PIs in the top and bottom echelons had varied dramatically. In 2010, the median funding of PIs in the top 10% was $1.45 million per PI, whereas the median funding of PIs in the bottom 40% was $140,000 per investigator.
The results were similar when viewed by university. In 2015, the top 10% of grant-winning universities received 75% of the NIH total, whereas the bottom 40% won only 0.6%. That’s only a slight shift from 1985, when the top 10% of universities won 70% of NIH funds, whereas the bottom 40% won 1%.
To produce the numbers, researchers tracked the amount of money NIH awarded to grant recipients between 1985 and 2015, as well as publications and patents related to the awards. Lead author Yarden Katz, a fellow at the center and in the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says they were interested in examining the relationship between NIH funding and metrics widely used to indicate scientific quality and determine career advancement, such as publication, citation, and patent counts.
The skew in NIH funding that the researchers found is not surprising—NIH has noted the inequality in its own analyses. But the new study serves as a reminder that the inequality has persisted for decades, says Chris Pickett, executive director of Rescuing Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C. The data show “why you can have people at universities where the university ranks 30th or 40th in total NIH funding coming in, and they feel like they’re barely scraping by,” Pickett says. “It’s because there’s a lot of money concentrated in the top institutions.”
Strong funding corresponds to other metrics as well. For instance, PIs in the top 20% of NIH funding had more publications and more citations than those lower on the funding tally. But there were noticeable differences even at the top of the pile: PIs in the top 90th percentile had nearly 1.4 times more publications than PIs one step down in the 80th percentile.
PIs publishing in high-profile journals tended to have more funding, too, the study found. For example, the median funding level of PIs publishing in the biomedical publishing world’s big three—Nature, Science, and Cell—was in the 80th percentile, with many clustering around the top 90th funding percentile. The median funding level for PIs publishing in journals with lower impact factors—such as PLOS ONE and the Journal of Biological Chemistry—was not much lower, about the 70th percentile, but the distribution of funding brackets was more diverse.
For new PIs, those who started strong in winning grants tended to stay on top. Within the first 8 years of their career, PIs whose first grant landed them in the top 10% of NIH funding stayed in that top rung for an average of 5 years. In contrast, PIs starting in the bottom 40% stayed in that rung for 4 to 6 years, on average, before transitioning out, which could include moving up or dropping out. That stagnancy suggests that where early career researchers start on the funding ladder “may have an important effect on their career,” Pickett says.
Patents—a favored metric for scientific innovation and another source of income for institutions—were also concentrated in the hands of a few: Ten percent of institutions hold 80% of the NIH-funded patents. That might be because many universities don’t have the financial and legal resources necessary to pursue a lot of patents, Katz notes. But “if we’re saying patents are required to show that you are an innovative scientist or to get funding, then again this will … privilege this small minority of institutes,” he says.
The study comes in the wake of an NIH decision to drop a controversial plan to cap how much grant funding an individual investigator can win from the agency, in part to free up funding for more early- and midcareer researchers. Katz, for one, was disappointed by the decision, which he sees as the result of strong resistance from biomedicine’s better-off elite. But he says he’s committed to staying out of the metrics race. For example, since 2014, he says he has published only in open-access journals. The fixation on prestige publications and citation numbers for career advancement takes away from the creativity and diversity in science, Katz believes, and he says “I’m not going to ruin my time in science trying to optimize these things.”
By Phyllis Kahn | 06/08/17
The combination of science and public policy seems to have greater relevance today. We saw the increased interest of the public as evinced by the recent March for Science events in D.C. and in many localities, including St. Paul. Also important is the creation of a new political group, 314 ACTION, designed to encourage scientists to seek political office.
We are also seeing increased political polarization of scientific issues such as global warming, emphasized now by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord.
Scientific and technological advances have been an important part of human development ever since the first Neolithic farmer started to analyze conditions necessary to improve her agricultural practices for increased crop production leading to better nutrition and survival. As human interactions have increased in complexity and become dependent on more political interaction, science and technology have become increasingly important to each part of our political system; legislative, executive and judicial and at each level of government, federal, state and local.
What is it like to try to do science in the political scene? In my first election, rather than emphasizing the women’s issues that had sparked my interest in politics, I concentrated on the importance of having someone with an understanding of science in office. (My credentials include a B.A. in physics and a Ph.D. in biophysics and some years of research in molecular genetics.) In the past election, both Ph.D.-credentialed scientists in the Minnesota Legislature were defeated.
A noted authority on science policy once wrote, “State and local governments employ science and technological knowledge in much the same way as the American populace employs the English language — on a daily basis, unquestioningly, and at less than technically attainable standards of performance.”
The tendency toward a short-term view
A traditional politician often takes a rather short-term view of most public policy issues. It becomes difficult for that politician to consider issues which may not be significant in 10 or 20 years or perhaps a millennium, when the next election is in six months. In addition, the immediate consequences of actions are always awarded a higher perceived importance than any possible long-range problem.
It is not surprising that the general public feels uncomfortable in areas requiring scientific knowledge and that the politician reflects this discomfort to an even greater degree. The pressure of making a wrong decision on a subject he or she knows little about and understands even less appears to be an avoidable risk.
Folks on each side point out the inability of anyone without years of training in complex sciences to comprehend the full ramifications of any such decision. It is argued that it is far better and safer to political bodies to do nothing and to let the experts — i.e., the regulatory agencies on one side or tobacco companies, chemical companies or drug manufacturers — decide.
A part of the problem is that the hopes of society have been raised, and scientists have appeared to promise more than they can deliver. We are all familiar with the “man on the moon” speech, some variation of the plea that the same talent that put a man on the moon could get him to work on time, keep him out of jail, end pollution on earth and so on ad infinitum.
Local, regional, state issues
The additional complication is that these problems are often the province not of the federal government but of some murky intermediate stage of city, county, regional or state government. Local levels of government face an increasing number of problems with heavy scientific and technological content in the areas of health care, land management, pollution, nuclear power and other energy problems, waste management, transportation and even social issues in either rural or urban settings.
The scientists, in the public view, take on conflicting roles. One is that of the neutral technician who produces the knowledge and lets others use it. Tom Lehrer expresses this in one of his songs:
Once the rockets are up
Who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department
Says Wernher von Braun.
At the opposite pole are the scientists who think of all knowledge residing with themselves. The solution then appears to be to find a broker and translator to the public policy makers and relieve the decision-makers of the responsibility of evaluating technical competence. In this simplistic model, the best minds are assembled; they ask thoughtful questions; they reach solid conclusions and resolve the conflicts between any conflicting technical views. The public decision-maker then adopts as policy the wisdom so delivered. These are models for the implementation of scientific decisions mainly conceived by scientists and so far unused in the real world as a replacement for the traditional political process.
Government uses and needs science, and even appreciates its need for science, but the basic principles of running government have been derived by people trained in law with little understanding of the scientific method and thought processes.
The political-legal mind must make a decision even with inadequate data — and in the absence of reason, will settle for ideology, a comparison of alternatives, political acumen or even “gut reaction.” However, the scientist without data will most often remain silent or feel that she has forfeited her credentials to speak as a scientist. This fundamental difference in the decision-making process is perhaps the most difficult for either the scientist or the politician to understand.
The situation becomes even more complicated for the politician when confronted with conflicting scientific advice. Disagreement can occur from basic scientific evidence or from the implications imputed to this evidence, or even the political orientation of the scientists producing the data.
With the issue of climate change, we see even the small minority of climate deniers given scientific credence because it fits into someone’s personal agenda.
Only part of the puzzle
How can we integrate sound science and public policy decisions?
Even if we become expert at distinguishing cases of sound science from cases of junk science, in the public policy arena, scientific evidence is only part of the policy puzzle. Public officials will also want to factor in social, economic, financial, logistical and political information into the decision-making process. Most frustrating to many scientists is the situation that just because the scientific evidence is sound doesn’t mean it will be the sole determinant of the direction of public policy.
Part of the problem is diverse public policy opinions on the appropriate responses to science and technology policy issues, concerning the best strategies of balancing health, safety and environmental concerns against economic considerations, or the cause of productivity decline and the most effective means of stimulating innovation.
The necessary creative dialogue requires better education for its participants at all levels. There is a strong arguments for judges to understand the subject matter of any dispute they are to resolve. The courts should understand the technical issues well enough to convey the implications of their decisions to the professionals in the agencies. This is also true of the responsibility of legislators for their statutory enactments. Since executive agencies are usually the repository for informed experts, the current administration’s attack on the science-based executive agencies all the more alarming.
The scientific and industrial establishments have delivered the message that American scientific and technological advances have built the American way of life. Yet there is also the realization that we face serious problems in maintaining this way of life — including the need to establish new safe energy supplies, with attention to the problems of climate change; to dispose of solid or hazardous waste; to protect endangered species; and to enhance economic development while maintaining international competitiveness.
Public retains faith in science and tech
Despite some disillusionment, indications are that the public still retains great faith in science and technology and even still naïvely believes that technological fixes can be found for almost all the ills of the world. Our citizens, believing in participatory democracy, want to control the important forces serving their lives — thus the desire to control science and technology.
The imposition of public controls on science and technology must be done within a democratic social ethic. This means by lawyers, scientists, engineers, farmers, government officials and academics. We have an enormous job in both mutual education and translation on our hands.
Phyllis Kahn represented Minneapolis District 60B in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 22 terms. She has a B.A. in physics from Cornell, a Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale and an M.P.A. from the J.F.K. School of Government at Harvard.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)
For minority students, finding mentors can be a challenge. Here’s how they can overcome barriers.
By Tori DeAngelis
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Jeanett Castellanos, PhD, was just glad she’d made it to college. Neither of her parents—both Cuban refugees—had graduated from high school, and they were exuberant about their daughter’s success. “I thought I would just get a BA. I didn’t think there was anything further,” Castellanos says.
But that changed when a friend sought to introduce her to a professor who, she told Castellanos, “is going to change your life,” Castellanos recalls. He was Joseph L. White, PhD, now professor emeritus at the university and renowned for his life-changing mentoring of many students. As soon as Castellanos walked into his office, she was greeted by “this charismatic, personable man” who helped her sketch out her educational trajectory on his wall-to-wall chalkboard.
Castellanos fulfilled the vision they outlined that day, which included a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in higher education. She went on to become director of UCI’s Social Science Academic Resource Center, where she helped numerous undergraduate students secure the tools they needed to be ready for grad school. Today, she’s a tenured faculty member with her own research mentoring program, and she and White are co-authoring a book on mentoring.
Castellanos’s story speaks to the power of this vital academic relationship—how connecting with the right people at the right time can vastly influence a student’s school and career trajectory. Yet for first-generation students and many minority students, finding good mentors and getting the most out of these connections can be daunting. That’s because in many cases they’re not versed in the culture of academe, says White.
“These students are entering a new way of life, and they have to understand that it’s more than just the academic side of college or grad school that’s important,” he says. “They need to get connected to the decision-makers in the field.”
The obstacles to finding mentors and otherwise gaining a strong foothold in academe can be psychological as well, says Kevin Cokley, PhD, professor of counseling psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research shows that graduate students of color are more likely than white students to experience the “impostor phenomenon”—the belief held by some high-achieving people that they’re frauds and will be seen as such. This phenomenon takes on added significance for students of color because they may internalize stereotypes that they’re in school simply because of affirmative action, says Cokley, whose results are in press at the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
“So when you combine that with what most grad students feel about imposterism,” he says, “it becomes racialized.”
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome such challenges and find great mentors who can help students achieve their highest potential. Here’s advice from students and psychologists versed in this valuable relationship:
Know that you need them. Mentors aren’t a luxury—they’re a necessity, says Andy Choi, a fourth-year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and member of the APAGS Science Committee. “A lot of the training and socialization that happens in our field is very interpersonal, and those elements aren’t necessarily structured into your coursework,” he says. So students should recognize that they need others who are more advanced in the field to guide them, he says.
Seek many mentors. The complexity of grad school and crafting a career trajectory means that one mentor is not enough. To succeed, students need mentors to help them gain skills in a range of relevant areas, whether it’s in academia, research, networking or other.
University of Missouri psychology professor Lisa Flores, PhD, for instance, recommends that students have one mentor for their research development, one for networking and finding service opportunities, and another for navigating the world of practice. She also encourages students to seek mentors at different career stages—not just full-fledged faculty or professionals, but peer mentors as well. “Each person has something different that they can contribute to your career,” she says. Students should also ask others to recommend people who can guide them, such as advisors, faculty members and fellow students.
Students in research-oriented programs are particularly likely to need more than one mentor—faculty who can address different aspects of the science they are studying, whether in content or methodology, says Choi.
Choose thoughtfully… Students should think about the types of mentors who can best round out their experiences, says Jasmín Llamas, PhD, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University. When she entered grad school, she spent her first year figuring out the kinds of training she was already getting and what she needed to fill in. By her second year, she was prepared to chat with her advisor about her direction and possible mentors who could help get her there. “It’s really smart to get a feeling for what you need before you dive in,” she says.
For many minority students, it can also help to find at least one mentor with whom they have a strong interpersonal connection. Llamas felt fortunate to have had an undergraduate professor who took strong interest in her academic success and helped guide her into the world of research. It was also a plus that she was, like Llamas, Latina. “We are both quite petite, but the way she carried herself really modeled for me that, ‘OK, you can have something to say,'” Llamas says.
…and speak carefully. In a related vein, consider what you want to learn before meeting with your mentor, recommends Joelle Taknint, chair of the APAGS Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity, which works to promote a psychology pipeline that represents the nation’s ethnic diversity. “Be clear from the beginning about what you’re hoping to get out of the experience, and find out what they’re willing to give,” she says. When mentoring relationships don’t work, it’s often because there’s a mismatch in expectations concerning the scope of the mentoring relationship, she says. “Clear expectations upfront can help both mentor and mentee figure out what is most important for the mentee to get out of the relationship, whether it’s networking, research mentoring, preparation for clinical work or other,” Taknint says.
Leave your comfort zone. Students shouldn’t limit themselves to mentors within their own departments. Going outside the psychology department can provide a more neutral sounding board for students’ academic concerns, goals and desires. And for students pursuing interdisciplinary research, going outside the department is, for obvious reasons, a necessity.
In Choi’s case, a positive experience with a research mentor from his university’s department of education blossomed into a decision to gain an extra master’s degree in quantitative methods—an expertise he knows will be valuable in his future research and when he’s seeking an academic position. “The takeaway for me is to be open and flexible about finding mentorship outside your immediate field,” he says.
Transcend your own stereotypes. While it might make sense initially for students to seek out mentors who share their ethnic or racial background, doing so isn’t necessary for success, says Flores. In fact, a 2011 study in the Journal of Social Issues by Stacy Blake-Beard, PhD, of Simmons College, and colleagues found that while minority students may prefer mentors with similar backgrounds, students with different-group mentors have the same academic outcomes as peers with same-group mentors. What’s more, it can be hard to find faculty mentors of color because they are few in number and often swamped with mentorship duties.
In Flores’s case, most of her mentors have been white, and all have been essential in guiding her career trajectory, she says. Many have been white women who themselves have experienced discrimination in academe. Some also come from low-income backgrounds, a further impediment to academic success.
“These relationships challenged some of my own stereotypes about mentoring”—including that white faculty tend to come from privileged backgrounds and hence might be difficult to relate to. When that proved untrue, it was a valuable lesson, and it’s a good one for psychology students in general, Flores says.
Get out there. Students can also connect with new mentors by volunteering or applying for teaching or research positions, Taknint suggests. When she was considering graduate school but wasn’t sure whether her application was competitive enough, she took off a year after college and volunteered in the Marquette University lab of Lucas Torres, PhD, who studies Latino health disparities. One day Torres asked her to stick around after a meeting, and he spent the next hour encouraging her to apply to grad school. “He told me he thought I had what it takes, and that he wanted to do whatever he could to help make that happen,” Taknint remembers. “That was huge for me, and it gave me the little kick I needed to give grad school a shot.”
Students should also get involved with APA, APAGS, their state psychological associations and relevant ethnic-minority psychological associations—great places to find professional and other kinds of mentors, Taknint advises. “Any way to get involved in professional communities is a plus,” she says.
Give back. Mentoring is often seen as a one-way relationship, with mentors giving and mentees receiving. Instead, students should think of it as reciprocal, and consider ways of giving back, Flores recommends. A particularly valuable way is simply sharing your achievements, both personal and professional. “Don’t be shy. Mentors have invested in you as a person and a professional, and they want to be able to celebrate your successes,” she says.
Another important way to give back: Become a mentor yourself, including by mentoring peers in earlier stages of graduate study within your program or lab. When Castellanos told White that she wanted to repay him for everything he’d done for her, his answer was always the same: “Pass it on.”