By Jacquelyn J. CraggLeanne RamerJohn K. KramerSep. 28, 2016 , 11:00 AM

When one of us—John—started as an assistant professor, he was surprised at how much his day-to-day work differed from when he had been a trainee. He had known it would change, of course, but suddenly he found himself drawing on a totally different set of skills. He was no longer a researcher, but rather a project manager. Peering into a microscope, pipetting, and dissecting were replaced with grant writing, budgeting, and managing students.

This experience is common. Many who make that transition to principal investigator (PI) find themselves utterly unprepared for their new duties. Their training failed them in preparing for their real job! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trainees can seek out opportunities to expand their skills and render themselves better prepared to lead a research program down the line. It means taking a little time away from research to develop additional expertise, but it’s a trade-off that’s well worth it. Here are our tips for getting started down that path.

Apply for external funding. Junior PIs spend the vast majority of their time asking for research dollars. You can hone the skills you’ll need to succeed at this crucial task while you’re a trainee. Your first responsibility is securing and extending your own funding, so apply for as many awards—such as fellowships and travel awards—as humanly possible. These funding opportunities don’t just come to you; you have to seek them out. Regularly check websites of government agencies, private nonprofit organizations, and your institution. Actually read those newsletters you get from your department that fill up your inbox. Spend at least an hour each week actively searching for these funding opportunities; this is an ideal post-lunch slump activity. And be creative: Think of all the ways your work can apply to different areas. When Jacquelyn and Leanne studied cardiovascular complications of spinal cord injury, for example, they applied to any and every funding opportunity related to these topics—including ones focused on general health, neurology, neuroscience, spinal cord injury, disability, musculoskeletal health, heart and stroke, and multiple sclerosis. Together, these approaches will help you find opportunities that others typically overlook.

Participate in grant writing. Another way to hone your grant-writing skills is to ask your supervisor whether you can help with their funding applications. Frame your request as both a learning exercise for you and as an offer to help them by taking some of the work off their plate. Although it may feel intimidating to contribute to your PI’s very important grant application, remember that there’s lots you can do that would be helpful, and that you may actually be the best person for the job because you are closest to the results. For example, if your supervisor asks you to provide data to support a funding application, offer to write a figure legend and contribute to the literature review relevant to those results. Regardless of the size of your contribution, it can be mutually beneficial.

Learn how money works. Funding crucially dictates the direction of research, but some trainees work on a project for years without knowing how it is funded, or how much funding is planned or available for the work. Don’t let that be you. Ask to help with—or at least see—how your PI keeps track of grant dollars. Look at budgets for research grants. Create a budget for your own research project. The more you learn about keeping track of grant dollars and navigating the details of inventory, ordering, shipping, and payment, the better off you’ll be when you start running your own research program.

Publish throughout your training. Publishing regularly not only builds your CV, but also improves your writing skills (necessary for grantsmanship, among other things). What many don’t realize is that you can start building your publication record even if you aren’t ready to submit your big paper. Consider publishing systematic reviews, narrative reviews, letters to the editor, and other commentaries as a way to work on your writing chops and expand your expertise. Doing so will also familiarize you with the journal submission process, which can be complicated—formatting for a specific journal, writing a cover letter, suggesting reviewers, and navigating the journal’s online submission system—but the more you do it, the easier it will get.

Gain experience as a mentor and supervisor. Effective supervision is another crucial skill that you should start developing and fostering as early as possible. Helping other people do good work is different—and sometimes more difficult—than doing it yourself, so you’ll need to practice, just like anything else. Research groups have different organizational systems, but opportunities for mentorship exist in most places. Don’t dismiss the responsibility; embrace it as an opportunity to extend your mentorship skills. Even if you are early in your training, you can seek out mentorship opportunities. If you have a mini-project that would be suitable for undergraduate student involvement, for example, approach your supervisor with a short project description and ask if you can take on a student to start working with you.

When serving as a supervisor, extend your mentorship beyond the basics. In addition to teaching your trainee how to perform techniques in the lab, provide rationale and background reading for their project, help them manage their time in the lab, and edit their work. Look for opportunities for them to present at a departmental or institutional research day, or—even better—at a conference in the field. Acting as a good mentor will serve both of you: They will have an enriching training experience, and their achievements will provide a valuable example of your ability to help coach someone to success. 

Teach and serve on committees. For just about any junior faculty posting, teaching and other leadership experience is an absolute must. You cannot go through your Ph.D. without teaching. This doesn’t mean you need to be the primary lecturer for a course; Jacquelyn, for example, served as a teaching assistant, assisting with grading, giving guest lectures, and helping create course content. Leanne served on committees that steered curriculum development. You can also serve on student committees in outreach, ethics, and conference organization. Any experience you can refer to will strengthen your application down the line.

Gaining early experience in these important arenas will better prepare you for a career in academia, so if you are considering such a career, it’s important to take a little time away from research to develop these other skills as well. And as an added benefit, doing so can also provide a little variety to break up the monotony of doing lab work all day!

Chris Woolston

Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00262-2

Researchers who incorporate ideas and techniques from multiple mentors while still forging their own paths are the most likely to succeed in academia, according to a study of 18,865 biomedical researchers published in Nature Communications1.

The authors also suggest that mentoring received during postdoctoral training had a bigger impact than mentoring received during graduate school.

The study analysed data from the Academic Family Tree, an online database of academic relationships that launched in January 2005. The authors identified ‘triplets’ — trios comprised of a scientist, their graduate mentor and their postdoctoral mentor — dating back to 1970.

Professional success was gauged in part by the number of trainees a researcher mentored per decade, and an analysis of terms used in abstracts made it possible to track similarity of scientific approaches.

The results give empirical evidence to support some popular career strategies, says study co-author Stephen David, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. For example, the most successful scientists transferred concepts they learnt in graduate school to their postdoctoral work, suggesting that prospective postdocs should try to join labs that lack their particular skill set.

“You want to be able to offer something new,” David says. That requires stepping beyond the shadow of a graduate mentor without becoming a facsimile of a postdoctoral mentor. “You have to stake out some unique territory, which is always a challenge for postdocs,” he says.

The study found that joining the lab of a prolific mentor — one who has trained many researchers over the years — also increases a scientist’s chance of success. This held true for both graduate and postdoctoral mentors, but a closer look at the data revealed that the qualities of a postdoctoral mentor were especially predictive of success. “You can get a graduate education just about anywhere,” David says. “Postdoc labs are where you establish professional relationships and develop collaborations.”

Researchers should be especially discerning when accepting postdoctoral positions, David says. “You can take a data-driven approach to choosing your mentor.”

Nature 565, 667 (2019)doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00262-2

By Tessa Venell

Aug. 23, 2019

Taken from https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2019/august/asking-better-questions.html

In 2012, a couple years before he established the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis, Professor Dan Perlman remembers seeing an ad for a technique that he thought might encourage student learning in his classroom.

The ad was for the first public workshop on a technique used in K-12 classroom settings called the Question Formulation Technique, which had been created by the Right Question Institute. He attended the workshop and saw tremendous potential for the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in college classrooms, but no one was using it in higher education – yet. Perlman soon adopted the method in his undergraduate courses at Brandeis and he became active with the Right Question Institute.

Five years later, the institute was approached by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to apply for a grant to fund a project that the NSF hoped could result in more impactful questions from researchers seeking funding. Working with his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, Perlman is now principal investigator on a project to systematically introduce the QFT to graduate education – “The Question Improvement Model: A Simple and Scalable Model for Improving the Question Formulation Skills of PhD Students.”

BrandeisNOW asked Perlman, founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of biology and environmental studies about this approach to teaching and the reaction of his students.

What is the Question Formulation Technique?

In the QFT, instead of the teacher asking a question, the teacher gives the students a prompt and they then brainstorm questions in response to the prompt in small groups. They don’t stop to discuss the questions; they’re just trying to generate questions. The next step is to think about which questions seemed the most interesting, and work with those to improve the questions.

I use the QFT at the beginning of the semester to shift the focus from me, the professor, to the students, and in so doing I signal that I want to hear from them. This is very beneficial because while they’re developing their question-asking skills, they feel that they are helping to shape the curriculum, rather than having it coming from a teacher who is dumping it onto them.

How does the QFT work?

The QFT uses four rules for producing questions. The Right Question folks spent years honing them, to get these in exactly the form they’re in.

1. Ask as many questions as you can.

2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.

3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated, and

4. Change any statement into a question. 

A key part of the QFT is choosing the prompt, such as a phrase or a book title. For my Animal Behavior class, we used a visit to the Franklin Park Zoo as our prompt. We came back to the classroom and students broke into small groups and started asking questions about things they’d observed.

We took all of their questions and sorted them. In the first round of the QFT, students asked questions like, “How do animals know how to behave?” And then the next week, they used the most interesting of their questions as a prompt to generate further questions. In the second week students generated more targeted questions, “Were the animals making noises, and if so, what do these noises mean and how do they differ from noises made in the wild?” Out of this second round came almost all their term paper projects; they came up with really good ideas for studies. For example, after the second round of going through the QFT, one student’s term paper was about the effects of the zoo environment on lemurs, “Vocalizations of Ringtailed Lemurs: Are they affected by captivity?” So we started with the trip to the zoo, went through two rounds of the QFT, and we got term paper projects.

What’s the impact on students?

Students come to the Question Formulation Technique from a variety of backgrounds, and the QFT helps all of them. Students learn to ask broader ranging and deeper questions. And I think even the sharpest students, who are already asking really good questions, get to take it a step further. Students who are only asking very concrete, straightforward, simple questions, learn how to ask better questions through working with a group of their peers. 

The QFT is being used in hundreds of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and with undergrads at other universities. Is Brandeis the only place where this new method is being used with graduate students?

As far as I know, our work with PhD students in the Life Sciences at Brandeis was the first such use. Since then we’ve worked with Engineering and Science PhD students at both UMass Lowell and Northeastern University – and well over 100 students have gone through the NSF-funded program.

Do you think it’s been a success?

As educators, we don’t typically teach the skill of asking questions, but I think you can argue that it’s one of the three or four most important skills that a college student, or any student, can learn. The QFT is one very good way to help students develop their question asking skills. We’re encouraged by the early results from the study and we are developing ways to objectively assess students’ progress in question formulation.

Do students get frustrated because the focus is on asking questions and not getting answers?

This came up when I gave a workshop at UMass Lowell, as many of the professors there asked, “Don’t the students want answers?” I told them that you can use the QFT in different ways, some of which put the onus for finding answers on the students. In the case of my Animal Behavior course, the Franklin Park Zoo trip and two rounds of the QFT helped the students create research questions that they were going to attempt to answer through semester-long research papers. So that was perfect. And the better questions they were asking were not something that they could answer right away. It took months and 25 pages to answer them. For PhD students, this is a great way to jump-start their thinking about research questions. As one noted after a training session, “It was remarkable how very unique and unexpected questions can be generated with this process.” In fact, a senior professor who sat in on a training was surprised that the QFT led to a new research question.