By Haifa Ghandour, PhD -- In most universities and research institutions nationwide, a range of initiatives have been established to enhance the quality of the postdoctoral training experience and to provide career development guidance to postdoctoral scholars. The National Postdoctoral Association, (an organization whose mission is to enhance the quality of the postdoctoral experience), is providing a leadership agenda by addressing many subjects and concerns confronting the postdoctoral community. Universities are holding workshops, career panels and lectures for writing, networking, and alternative careers to guide young scientists in paving their scientific professional path. New standards and policies about postdoc status, such as pay scale and benefits, are being considered and adopted by federal agencies and academic institutions throughout the nation. These changes are very promising for the lives of hard working postdocs and may signal a new tide in the way science is taught and carried forward from one generation to another. Yet, in spite of these new developments in postdoctoral status, thousands of postdocs are left confused, worried and wondering what went wrong by not achieving the goals they had planned to accomplish at their postdoc training.
One of the most important elements of postdoctoral training is mentoring. Postdoctoral mentoring begins with the supervisor, who oversees the exciting and challenging experience of being a postdoc. By mentoring, I don’t mean telling a postdoc what experiment to do next, or how to analyze data or write a paper. Mentoring is a structured and trusting relationship that brings young scientists together with thoughtful supervisors who offer professional guidance, support and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of the mentee. A mentor is a supervisor who truly understands what type of responsibilities are included when accepting a postdoctoral trainee at his laboratory, for the next three or four years. A mentor is a supervisor that can discuss and talk with a postdoc about his scientific passion, career and professional advancement, provide him advice from his own experience, set constructive examples and guide him to a successful scientific career path. Unfortunately, it’s more often a matter of luck to find a supervisor who can also be a good mentor. A typical supervisor faces a wide range of responsibilities other than mentoring a postdoc. Often, supervisors are very busy and cannot find the time for career development talks with each postdoc they train. Yet, it seems that the same supervisor can find the time for each grant or paper that postdoc is writing or publishing.
This highlights a systematic problem that our academic and research institutions face with mentoring issues. Universities and their institutional structures in the past have not been focused on promoting matters for mentoring among their supervisors. Consequently, most supervisors are often not trained or given incentives to be effective mentors, although some have the intellectual wisdom and predilection to make the effort to establish a mutual trust and understanding of the goals and interests of their postdoctoral trainee.
Workshops and seminars on how to be a good mentor, how to listen and observe, build, manage and tackle a mentor-mentee relationship are urgently required for our supervisors. The target="_blank">National Science Foundation has provided guidelines for principle investigators about mentoring and professional development for the postdoctoral trainees. However, awareness for the lack of mentoring should largely emerge from the supervisors themselves. Policies have to be changed by top academic officers, to bring experienced and great supervisors to attend seminars and workshops to learn and practice how to be good mentors aside of being good supervisors. Mandatory mentoring training may be worth considering to all faculty and principle investigators as part of their appointment orientation. Offices for mentoring and professional relationships should provide great resources for faculties and supervisors to how undertake emerging issues for mentoring such as diversities, interests, conflicts and ethics. In addition, institutional policies should accommodate the idea of evaluating the quality of supervising and mentoring; Surveys and feedbacks should be established to track the outcomes of each postdoc activities and experience.
Obviously, professional pressures, competition and conflict of interests could bring about problems and somehow harm a mentoring relationship. However, a successful formula for good and professional mentoring with certain approaches and activities based on a common goal to advance personals growth could bring enormous benefits for both the mentor and his or her mentee. And here we close the circle. In fact, if we reach such an ideal state of enriching the advising and mentoring processes, the system by and large could fundamentally benefit from such a success
The concern for the lack of mentoring needs immediate national attention. After all, today’s young scientists are the future of science and technology, they are the potential supervisors that will educate, advise and mentor the next generation of leader scientists. It is certainly a generation that should be well rounded in order to foster science. If we miss the aim, and we continue generating these “unhappy” postdocs lacking an effective guidance and genuine mentoring, the overall system would not be gaining a maximum benefit from these trainings. These expensive trainings cost funds and human power that should be substantially beneficial and contribute largely to the organizational growth and leadership. The cycles of good training and mentoring to generate a thriving generation of scientists will simply return great advantages to lead and succeed. After all it is a very simple principle: be a supervisor to discover the great science, and be a mentor to create the great scientists.