The DDIR Implementation Plan in Response to the FelCom Subcommittee Report on Mentoring
The mentoring report was presented to the SDs on April 6, 2011, and revised in June, 2011. The Deputy Director for Intramural Research directed that recommendations of the report be implemented. Although there are improvements in mentoring at the NIH, some remaining shortcomings and merits of mentoring are addressed in the report and its implementation. The specific recommendations formulated by the FelCom Subcommittee are based on the findings from the survey and are summarized in italics below. They are followed by the DDIR response.
The Trans-NIH Mentoring Committee develop a workshop to train PIs in mentoring. All PIs who take on trainees should be required to complete the workshop. In addition to this one-time workshop, continued refresher courses on mentoring (perhaps an abbreviated online version of the workshop) should be taken every one to two years.
Opportunities must be created for PIs to gain greater appreciation regarding the importance of high-quality mentoring. PIs should be held accountable for the quality of their mentoring. PIs should mentor trainees and other employees, including staff scientists and staff clinicians. NIH should implement a combination of steps, including:
- Provide prospective fellows with the names and contact information of the former NIH fellows from that PI’s laboratory, so that incoming fellows can make informed decisions when selecting a laboratory in which to work.
- The ICs should provide recognition to good mentors, in addition to the high level awards that are currently given in some Institutes and Centers, and should consider nominating good mentors for NIH Merit Awards.
- Raise the profile of mentoring through a communications plan that could include posters, table-top materials, NIH Catalyst articles, and video presentations.
- Enhance existing training opportunities for mentors, including the mandatory tenure-track course offered by OIR, and develop additional courses and workshops.
- Identify poor mentors so that the Scientific Director can take remedial action. This response could include negative performance evaluations, reducing or eliminating the number of fellows allowed for that PI, or requiring the PI to take additional training followed by a period of monitoring.
- Examine whether BSC reviews and tenure reviews adequately capture, evaluate, and promote mentoring, with necessary changes to be incorporated into the guidelines that cover these processes.
- The NIH Guide for Training and Mentoring has from its inception been a guide for PIs and trainees. The Guide should be revised to capture the elements of this report that call for improvement. It should be used broadly at the NIH for all scientists.
Ensure that annual evaluations of trainees are being done appropriately. In the 2001 Mentoring Report we recommended that mentors provide mentees with an annual assessment of the trainee’s progress, strengths, and areas requiring improvements. These evaluations should include an in-person discussion between the trainee and mentor. Interestingly, in the current survey approximately 14% of fellows report never receiving a performance evaluation or progress review and an additional 6% report receiving an evaluation less than once per year. Therefore, [the committee] suggests that Scientific Directors ensure that all evaluations involve a meeting between mentor and trainee, and that this meeting and written documentation of it be required for renewal of the fellowship.
It is the SD’s responsibility to ensure that annual evaluations of fellows are carried out with a checklist of issues to be discussed. This should be captured as an SD’s responsibility in the annual NIH Management Controls Questionnaire. The committee noted that some PIs have their fellows sign the evaluation as a formality, without discussion, and this practice is unacceptable. We must ensure that this essential review process for fellows is not circumvented. Every review form should include a statement that the meeting occurred in person on date/time and require that both parties sign it. A summary of the review should be included with the renewal paperwork for the fellow. The credibility of the NIH IRP as a scientific training ground is jeopardized by failing to follow this practice and will lead to diminished excellence of our trainees and the NIH IRP. This meeting is also important to avoid misunderstandings regarding employment and the renewals of fellowships.
A review of the data by type of degree suggests that fellows with an MD (whether clinical or postdoctoral fellows) appeared to feel the least prepared and indicated the least commitment to a career in research relative to their PhD or MD/PhD peers. More information is required to properly address this issue; therefore [the committee] recommended that Clinical FelCom, the FelCom Mentoring Subcommittee, and representatives from the CC Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education have a roundtable discussion of the origin of these findings, to address the seemingly unique needs of this population of fellows.
Our reading of the data in the survey is not consistent with the interpretation that M.D. clinical researchers are encouraged less than Ph.D.s and M.D.-Ph.D.s to conduct research. The NIH recognizes that mentoring needs of Clinical Fellows may differ from those of laboratory scientists, and more information is needed about this group. The OIR should work with the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education and other interested groups to organize focus groups, to assess if the mentoring needs of Clinical Fellows are being met.
Visiting Fellows are the largest group of fellows at NIH and make up 45% of the survey respondents. Only 18% of this group responded that their training goals were being fully met. It would be interesting to determine if these results reflect cultural differences in expectations between mentors and trainees. [The committee] recommended that a follow-up survey aimed specifically at Visiting Fellows be carried out to ascertain and address specific issues in this population. In addition, we recommend that all PIs take the OITE course on cultural diversity, or alternatively that a section on cultural diversity be included in the mentor-training workshop mentioned in recommendation one.
The IRP recognizes the diversity of our fellows, including the diversity of Visiting Fellows from many countries around the world. We have a responsibility to follow-up on the concerns raised in the FelCom surveys with focus groups to identify the appropriate questions and areas of concern, including specific and perceived unmet needs. Once we have the information, we can develop specific implementation plans to address the concerns of the Visiting Fellows. The cultural diversity course has limited capacity, but we will continue to encourage interested fellows and staff to attend.
In [the committee’s] assessment of fellows by gender, [it] found that female fellows were more likely than males to report a lack of mentor availability, evaluation, and promotion of networking opportunities and were less likely to respond that their training and career goals are being fully or mostly met. One possible reason for these results is that female fellows may be less assertive than their male counterparts and therefore do not seek out their mentors or demand their time as frequently. In order to address this concern [the committee] recommended that a training workshop designed to specifically address how to make one’s needs known should be implemented and available to fellows at least once per year. [The committee notes it has since learned that OITE offers such a workshop, called Speaking up.] [The committee] also recommended that PIs regularly assess if their availability and scientific direction is sufficient for the trainees in their labs. In addition, working groups for fellows (particularly females) that address how to navigate career and family are recommended and may help retain some of the fellows who had been considering careers outside of bench or population-based research.
Mentoring is a shared responsibility. Fellows should take an active role in their mentoring experience, and develop a mentoring plan or approach that they can revise and refine over time. The IRP has a responsibility to assure that educational tools, workshops, and resources are readily available to support the mentoring needs of the fellows. OITE offers several resources including a course in assertiveness that is valuable to any individual who would benefit from such training as well as the opportunity to work with a coach to develop and practice these skills. The annual evaluation checklist is a great tool that can help fellows understand the expectations of a good mentoring relationship and also opens the door to discussion with supervisor-mentors into important areas. Fellows are encouraged to seek out one or more additional mentors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Identification of these individuals can be done independently, with the help of the supervisor, other PIs in the program, or staff at OITE. These relationships can be formal or informal. The Guide for Training and Mentoring is one vehicle that could be used to emphasize this area of concern and that could incorporate a list of explicit topics for discussion.
Recommendations for improving mentoring with regards to race and ethnicity begin with trying to understand why 22% of Hispanic fellows report that no one mentors them. [The committee] proposed a discussion with appropriate senior Hispanic PIs at NIH about creating a “support” group for Hispanic scientists similar to the Black Scientist Association headed by Roland Owens. This group would also give Hispanic fellows a chance to network with one another and discuss other important issues affecting this population. [The committee notes that OITE has just established a chapter of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) at the NIH, which could begin to address these issues]. The Mentoring Subcommittee would like to work with both groups (BSA and SACNAS chapter) to enhance the services they provide for postdoctoral fellows. Interestingly, Hispanics were more likely to report that when they are evaluated this process is not useful, while approximately 15% of black fellows report never being evaluated. Again, [the committee] recommended annual formal evaluations as well as less formal (and more frequent) progress assessments, which should benefit all fellows but may be especially useful to those that report never being evaluated.
As this recommendation was being formulated, a local chapter of SACNAS was established. NIH must now monitor whether this chapter is meeting the needs of the Hispanic fellow community or if new support groups or processes would be useful. We suggest that focus groups be held with self-identified Hispanic and African-American fellows to identify their specific issues and concerns relative to the survey results.
Despite the progress in mentoring, shortcomings remain. NIH should conduct more regular mentoring surveys to track progress, e.g., every 5 years, and report both progress and deficits to the DDIR and the SDs.
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