By Donna L. Vogel 71
One day last year, I was meeting
with a delegation from a foreign research agency.
They had recently achieved their goal of funding
a target number of postdoctoral fellowships, but
were just beginning to face the issues of quality
in research training. English was not their first
language, and one of them asked me, "What
is the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?"
Needing to give a concise and instantly comprehensible
answer, I replied, "A mentor provides the
trainee every opportunity to develop into an independent
In my first year at the helm
of a new office dedicated to fellows at the National
Cancer Institute, I have been devoting a lot of
thought to those opportunities: what the gaps
are, how to raise awareness and how to fill the
In conversations with postdocs
as well as investigators, I am learning that there
is a wide spectrum of mentoring attitudes and
styles. Many sponsors clearly recognize and act
upon their responsibility to grow the next generation
of scientists. Some, however, still view trainees
largely as a source of labor. And yet others believe
that if postdocs are capable, they can make it
on their own without any coddling.
The unfortunate result of
these latter views is that many talented young
people do not meet their full potential
and their ability is lost to science and society.
To avoid this outcome, cultural change is needed
to make the mentoring mentality part of every
supervisors mindset. Virtually all research
supervisors understand their obligation to impart
facts and techniques; our task is
to help supervisors understand it is also their
obligation to teach and provide the tools
that trainees need to thrive in science careers.
The primary focus of a mentor-trainee
dyad is the project itself. The mentor has the
breadth of experience to suggest a project and
offer judgment as to the projects importance
and feasibility. The trainees responsibility
is to carry out the work to her or his best ability,
and in accord with ethical and legal standards.
With time, the trainee gains ownership of the
work, progressing to independence. Ideally, the
mentor-trainee relationship grows into one of
collegiality, not competition.
Beyond the project itself,
I see the expectations between trainees and mentors
falling into four categories: visibility, communication,
employability and evaluation. Although they overlap
to some degree, each category can be framed as
an area in which the mentor provides opportunities,
constructive criticism and encouragement; and
the trainee has the responsibility to seek out
and take advantage of those opportunities.
Categories of Expectations
Visibility is frequently
undervalued by both trainees and mentors, and
it is most easily accomplished stepwise, beginning
in lab meetings or retreats. Progressing from
these generally nonthreatening settings and surrounded
by familiar faces, the trainee should begin to
submit abstracts to regional and national meetings
and request oral presentation when it suits the
material. There is no substitute for an audience
of ones peers, mentors and potential employers,
and professional society meetings are opportunities
not to be squandered. These venues also can open
doors to collaboration with colleagues who would
otherwise be unaware of the work being presented.
The mentor should be aware
of opportunities for the trainee to win awards
and should support applications from or on behalf
of students and fellows. When a site visit is
pending from a funding agency, for example, the
trainee should be brought into the process of
preparation and participation, when appropriate.
As the project goes forward, the trainees
growing role will yield increasing recognition,
from being acknowledged in the mentors talk
to co-authorship and, eventually, first authorship.
many forms. Training in oral presentation skills
is recommended, and it can start early with presentations
to the trainees immediate group. The ability
to create effective slides and posters cannot
be taken for granted any more than the ability
to give a talk, and visual communication should
also be addressed by the mentor-trainee dyad.
Writing for publication, teaching and reviewing
manuscripts all provide practice in communication
and in acquiring the skills needed for an academic
In many careers, the trainee
also needs to learn how to apply for grants and
the whole grant "culture" beyond simply
sending in an application. If the mentor lacks
experience, a colleague who has had success in
funding should join in the mentoring process.
some of the same territory as visibility and communication,
but with a specific focus on the job market. When
they come into their learning settings, trainees
are relatively naive about career options and
pathways. They need to find out what the possibilities
are, whether through their own advisers, collaborators,
student or fellow associations, and professional
societies. While an adviser can and should provide
introductions and networking opportunities, the
trainee must follow up. Other tools for career
building include résumé writing,
job searching and interviewing, and supervision
and management skills.
Evaluation is essential
for closing the loop. There is little point to
setting expectations without monitoring how well
the players are meeting them. Unfortunately, "evaluation"
has an image problem: too many of us dread that
annual performance review, but the fact is that
we cannot get awards, promotions or other types
of recognition without documentation of our accomplishments.
In addition to regular formal assessment, trainees
need and deserve frequent and open informal feedback.
An insightful mentor can prevent problems and
deal with those that do develop before they reach
the point of doing damage.
Finally, mentoring ability
and ultimately mentoring success
should be part of the evaluation of the adviser.
This will require a broader view of how we measure
"productivity," but I believe we are
moving in that direction and research training
will be the better for it.
About the Author
Donna L. Vogel, director of
the Fellowship Office at the National Cancer Institute,
works to enhance postdoctoral training experiences
in basic, clinical and epidemiological research
at NCI. The Fellowship Office provides outreach
to recruit new fellows, and supports current fellows
with information services, research resources,
referrals, career counseling and grant advice.
A chemistry major at Bryn
Mawr, Vogel earned an M.D. and Ph.D. in developmental
biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine,
Bronx, N.Y. She has conducted and administered
clinical and basic research on infertility and
reproductive medicine at the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development. Vogel has
been active for many years in womens health