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Addressing structural mentoring barriers in postdoctoral training: A qualitative study

W. Marcus Lambert, Nanda Nana, Suwaiba Afonja, Ahsan Saeed, Avelino C. Amado, Linnie M. Golightly

Posted on: 21 September 2022

Preprint posted on 23 August 2022

Article now published in Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education at http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/SGPE-04-2023-0033

It's the #NPAW2022! Time to celebrate the achievements of postdocs, but also discuss their struggles. We have therefore chosen to highlight this recent preprint that uncovers mentoring barriers in postdoctoral training, but also provides solutions!

Selected by Reinier Prosee, Jonny Coates, Laura Celotto

Background

This week, starting 19 September 2022, marks the annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW) within the United Kingdom. It’s a way to highlight the vital role that postdocs play in helping us all to move science forward – not just within the UK, but globally. Acknowledging the significant contributions of postdocs towards research and academic life is not just a nicety, it’s an absolute must. A large postdoc survey conducted by Nature in 2020 reveals discontent and disillusionment among postdocs and a general feeling of not being taken seriously and being undervalued [1,2]. This should be a wake-up call and lead to initiatives that aim to strengthen the feeling of appreciation among postdocs across the world.

Effective mentorship is an important element of postdoctoral training, which can ensure job satisfaction among postdocs and a general feeling of support and belonging. W. Marcus Lambert and colleagues have taken a closer look at the availability of such mentorship to postdoctoral researchers – in the biological and biomedical sciences – within the United States. In line with the survey conducted by Nature in 2020, they find that most postdocs report a general lack of effective mentorship and a lot of missed opportunities for this to be the case [1]. Interestingly, the authors of this preprint discern four levels at which structural barriers exist that all prevent effective mentorship: at the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic level. Even more importantly perhaps, they propose solutions to remove these barriers; important take-home messages that we’d like to highlight here.

Key findings

Structural mentorship barriers exist at an individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic level

Individual level

Personal beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and prior experiences all impact the mentoring relationships of postdocs. In this study, 15 postdocs were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (URG) (47%) – e.g. Black or African American, and/or Hispanic or Latino – and some of them reported that being an underrepresented scientist influenced their access to strong mentorship. This is something that was not expressed by their peers from well-represented groups. Interestingly, some underrepresented postdocs expressed a drive to actively seek mentorship from other underrepresented scientists. These would often be nurturing relationships that could inspire postdocs and grow their confidence.

Interpersonal level

The personal relationships between postdocs and their mentor greatly influence the effectiveness of mentorship. The responses of many of the postdocs included in this study reveal that there is often a clear misalignment of expectations and/or poor communication between the mentor and mentee. Though there are usually no bad intentions on either side, there are a lot of missed opportunities for good mentorship. Sometimes, differences in cultural backgrounds, or even age, can fuel miscommunication and lead to significant mentorship barriers.

Institutional level

The reported lack of mentorship could also be seen as a larger issue: insufficient institutional support. Many postdocs in this study did indeed report a lack of services, training programmes, and general support provided by their respective institutions. Furthermore, postdocs from underrepresented groups pointed out that there is a lack of diversity within leadership positions which, perhaps as a result, leads to insufficient support for these researchers widening the previously reported mentoring gap [3,4].

Systemic level

Barriers undermining effective mentorship are also put in place by our current research climate. Examples of such systemic barriers – brought up by the postdocs that were part of this study – include ‘academic politics’, scientific hierarchy, and overreliance on mentors (sometimes even just their names) for the academic success of postdocs. The exploration of non-academic careers is also something that the postdocs reported as missing, or not (fully) supported by either their mentors and/or institutions. It’s worth noting that there are some great resources, mostly created by postdocs themselves, that cater to this need – e.g. Alt-Ac Chats and science-latte.

Solutions

It is clear then that there are many barriers, at different levels, that impede successful and effective mentorship. What makes this preprint so interesting is that besides framing the problem, it also offers practical solutions. “Postdoc Appreciation Week” is all about celebrating the efforts of postdocs and making sure that they feel heard and supported. This makes the take-home messages from this preprint even more relevant and important.

For mentors:

  • Create a sense of belonging, something that is especially important for postdocs from underrepresented groups. Make them feel welcome.
  • Ensure that there is enough diversity among the available mentors, which will create more diverse role models for current and future postdocs.
  • Build up your mentee’s confidence, encourage them to think for themselves, and let them know that they are appreciated (not just this week, but throughout the entiree year).
  • Help mentees prepare for their future careers. Help them to write grant proposals, establish a network through collaborations, and prepare them for interviews regardless of whether these are for jobs within or outside science. Help them recognize the wider skills they possess that are relevant to non-academic jobs.
  • Participate in diversity and inclusion efforts and be mindful of the specific needs of your mentees.

For mentees (/postdocs):

  • Assemble a team of mentors, rather than just relying on one. Ideally at least one mentor should be completely independent from your current project and institution. It is worth mentioning that there are a small number of mentoring schemes that could help with this, e.g. the BSI mentoring scheme.
  • Develop skills that will enable you to get the most out of your available mentors.
  • Talk to your peers and look for possible ways to help each other: having a group of peer- or near-peer mentors could really make the difference.

Note: this preprint stresses the importance of feeling valued, having a sense of belonging and of being part of a larger community. Our hope is that with preLights we can at least help postdocs (as well as other members of the academic community) achieve this sense of community! Other great resources for postdocs looking for more (peer-)support are: UK/EU postdoc slack, futurePI slack, Alt-Ac Chats etc.

Postdocs need to know that they are appreciated (not just this week, but throughout the entire year).

Postdocs need to know that they are appreciated (not just this week, but throughout the entire year).

Thoughts and comments from our preLighters

  • It is important to raise awareness of the actual job of a postdoc, especially to ensure that policy makers are well informed when making decisions that affect research careers. So the question then becomes how we can better represent and communicate the role of a postdoc (and what it means) to the general public?
  • Improving mentee/mentor communication will require systemic changes that alter the duties and time management of lab leaders. This will involve re-thinking the way in research is funded and rewarded – so what could be the role that funding bodies could play in addressing some of the mentoring barriers mentioned in this preprint?
  • To ensure more effective institutional support for postdocs, relevant training and opportunities should already be present much earlier; already during (the first two years of) graduate school. PhD students are the postdocs of the future and institutional support need to be felt across the different layers of the scientific hierarchy.
  • Something that affects the sense of belonging among postdocs, but hasn’t been discussed in this preprint, are the postdoc contracts which are often very short. This makes it difficult for postdocs to put down their roots and build up a true sense of belonging. This can ultimately lead to feelings of frustration and loneliness. How can we make sure that funding bodies and universities think of these more human requirements for a successful postdoc when hiring new people and preparing new contracts?
  • Could the authors of this preprint perhaps expand on the different ways in which institutional and systemic mentoring barriers can be removed?
  • If postdoc positions are going to continue being viewed as “training” positions, then institutions and PIs must ensure that there is a structured training program that provides skills for non-academic and academic jobs. The current approach to mentorship in academia is based on the old medieval approach of the earliest European colleges that has yet to be brought into the 21st century.

References:

  1. Woolston, C. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers. Nature. 2020; 588(7836): 181-184. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-03381-3
  2. Woolston C. Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs. Nature. 2022 Aug 30. doi: 10.1038/d41586-022-02781-x. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36042305.
  3. Cross M, Lee S, Bridgman H, Thapa 953 DK, Cleary M, Kornhaber R. Benefits, barriers and enablers of mentoring female health academics: An integrative review. PloS one. 2019;14(4):e0215319. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215319.
  4. Pollard EM, Sharpe EE, Gali B, Moeschler SM. Closing the Mentorship Gap: Implementation of Speed Mentoring Events for Women Faculty and Trainees in Anesthesiology. Womens Health Rep (New Rochelle). 2021;2(1):32-6. doi:10.1089/whr.2020.0095. PubMed PMID: 33786528.

Tags: barriers, mentoring, postdocs, solutions, stem

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.32773

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