Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Pluck, planning, and the right connections are required.

Years before running her own lab, Susanna F. Greer, Ph.D., thought it would be fun spending a summer doing biomedical research. An undergraduate chemistry major, she enjoyed math and science but was unsure what career path she wanted, except that she didn’t want to go to medical school.

Her summer program more than lived up to expectation, and Dr. Greer was fascinated by the research on signal transduction conducted by her instructor, Louis B. Justement, Ph.D., then of The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. After expressing to him an interest in grad school, he invited her to join his lab. With her new husband, she packed up and moved from Georgia to Texas, to pursue a Ph.D. with her new mentor.

“It was an awesome decision. Lou definitely changed my life,” Dr. Greer told GEN. “He just made science a lot of fun. I learned a lot, but what I learned the most that summer—and it’s something I still teach my own graduate students—is that if you can enjoy doing hypothesis-driven research, you enjoy asking questions, you enjoy being inquisitive, then you can really enjoy being a scientist.”

Dr. Greer received her Ph.D. in 2001, and today is an associate professor of biology at Georgia State University, specializing in transcriptional and epigenetic regulation of immune response and cancer immunology. Dr. Justement, now associate director of the Medical Scientist Training Program (M.D./Ph.D.) and a microbiology professor at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, remembers her as among his most enjoyable students.

“You could see her looking to the future, and knowing where she wanted to get,” said Dr. Justement, who also chairs the Training and Career Opportunities Subcommittee of the Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology. “It makes it really easy for me as a mentor to work with that person, and help them get where they want to go. And that’s what I’ve done.”

Supply and Demand

Finding a mentor has never been easy, but grad students and postdocs can be forgiven for thinking it’s as tough as ever. The issue reflects supply and demand. About 8,000 students graduate each year with biological science Ph.D.’s. The number of biomedical Ph.D.’s doubled between 1979 and 2009—from 30,000 to 56,800—according to figures published by NIH in its Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (2012).

More students to shepherd, and years of yo-yo NIH budgets have shrunk the time that mentors can spend guiding promising Ph.D. candidates and postdocs as they double down on chasing grants and carrying out research. The two trends have also reduced the chances of grad students and postdocs succeeding through the traditional route of grad student-postdoc-academic scientist. The proportion of Ph.D.s advancing to tenured or tenure-track faculty positions has declined from 34% in 1993 to about 26% in 2012, the NIH report noted, with percentages of biomedical Ph.D.s in industry and government remaining relatively constant.

“Mentees have to realize that the statistics are against them in terms of being a faculty member. As a result, mentees need to re-think the default path,” Nathan L. Vanderford, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky, told GEN. At UK, his positions include assistant dean for academic development at the College of Medicine.

“Mentees must instead plan for the possibility of pursuing other career paths,” added Dr. Vanderford, who is also UK’s assistant director for research at the Markey Cancer Center, and assistant professor at the Graduate Center for Toxicology. Those paths can include industry, as well as jobs drawing on science knowledge, such as science policy analysis, science writing, or consulting.

Given multiple career paths, graduate students and postdocs should look beyond their direct advisor and seek multiple mentors who can help guide them in various areas of interest.

“You envision different mentors for research direction—somebody who knows your field, who can help you think about your questions and your research—and making career decisions,” Jodi B. Yellin, Ph.D., director of science policy for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told GEN. “Then, you want someone who can help you address, What’s my next step? What are my interests? Where do I want to go? What are my strengths and weaknesses? And, what are the things that I should improve upon?”

“You want someone that you’re comfortable talking to, that is willing to give you candid advice and constructive criticism—and for different careers, maybe someone who can point you to other people and build your network,” Dr. Yellin added.

Building Bridges

Wherever they land, grad students must navigate their own education and training experience. Numerous universities require students to develop individual development plans with their mentors with agreed-upon goals, periodic review of progress and challenges, and if needed, revision of student goals.

“You have to know in my lab why you are there, what is it that you want to do with this Ph.D.?” said Dr. Greer. “You need to be a very independent thinker. And you have to be able to set goals. I’m not there to hold your hand, but I’m certainly there to be supportive of you. But you have to know what you want out of that relationship.”

That relationship, she added, changes over time: “In the beginning, you’re going to be bossed around a lot. Then, after you’ve been in somebody’s lab for a while, you should be ready to steer your own ship.”

“You really should be bossing the advisor around, in a way, because in the end it’s your project, and it’s your ship, and it’s your life,” Dr. Greer added.

Dr. Yellin is program leader of AAMC’s Group on Graduate Research Education And Training (GREAT), which has developed separate agreement guidelines or “compacts” for grad students and postdocs, each spelling out core tenets of training, and mutual responsibilities of mentees and their mentors.

“The goal is really to have that conversation with their mentors, and to have the trainee thinking about where they want to go early on,” Dr. Yellin said. “I think the earlier, the better to start thinking about what your next steps are, and what your interests are: If this is where I want to go, what do I need to get there? And who might help me to get there?”

As for training, Dr. Vanderford said, that may mean internships or work experiences beyond their academic programs: “They have to be willing and able to build bridges on their own. Not everybody’s willing to do that. Some people are just, either shy or overwhelmed by the concept of networking.”

Anecdotally, many successful mentees are skillful users of social media, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn—albeit more for tapping into groups or shared articles on careers in and outside academia, than by poking or liking or retweeting a prospective mentor.

“It is people who connect to people on Twitter and LinkedIn, and that are doing informational interviews who are successful. People who are putting their neck out there, to try to contact people and interact with people,” Dr. Vanderford said. “The people that aren’t willing to network are the ones who are really struggling.”

Mentees are less likely to be successful using social media to contact mentors directly. While that may lessen over time, Dr. Justement said, three tried-and-true methods remain for reaching prospective mentors: “They should use email, telephone, or simply in-person. I think in-person works if you have made an initial contact through email or by phone, and then you say, ‘Can we meet?’”

Help with career development and networking is one thing mentees should expect from mentors, Dr. Justement said, as is support for building skills such as grant-writing. Mentees should also contact peers working for their prospective mentor—and should not overlook directors of academic programs for advice.

“I guarantee you that when trainees come to me and ask me about faculty, if I know that we have had trainees in a laboratory where there have been problems with the mentor, I am not going to recommend that they go to that lab,” Dr. Justement added.

Watch for the second half of this two-part series: A mentor discusses why professors mentor, and what is expected from mentees. Do students need coaches as well as mentors?

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