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US academic-science mentoring falls short of best practices, say National Academies

Report calls for universities to create tenure and promotion incentives.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Two female bio-chemists run tests in a state of the art laboratory

An effective mentor provides invaluable guidance for early-career researchers.Credit: SolStock/Getty

Scientists should take a more intentional, evidence-based approach to mentoring, according to an upcoming report of almost 300 pages from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington DC.

Currently available as an uncorrected proof, the report offers recommendations to make mentoring in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) more effective, accountable, and aligned with the best available evidence. The report calls on institutions to both reward effective mentorship and respond appropriately when mentoring goes wrong.

“There truly is a science to mentoring,” says Christiane Spitzmueller, an industrial psychologist at the University of Houston in Texas and a member of the committee that spearheaded the report. “The body of research is underutilized. At a lot of institutions, mentorship relationships are left to chance.”

The report urges institutions to promote “intentional, inclusive and effective” mentorship that works for all trainees, including those from underrepresented groups. To accomplish that, hiring committees must unmistakably signal that mentorship matters, Spitzmueller says. Special mentorship awards help to motivate some researchers, particularly those who win, but the report argues that mentorship improves when it is directly tied to the career advancement of senior scientists.

“Mentorship should be set into tenure and promotion systems and should be as much a part of the fabric as research metrics and teaching metrics,” Spitzmueller says. “Everybody pays attention to promotion and tenure.” Mentorship efficacy isn’t always as easy to measure as impact scores or teaching hours, but the report presents assessment tools — such as a 26-item Mentoring Competency Assessment — to reliably identify mentors who go above and beyond.

With the right incentives, scientists who aren’t already gifted mentors can learn the fundamentals, Spitzmueller says. “Mentorship is a learnable skill,” she says. “It’s something that can be developed over time.” She says that she’s a much more effective mentor now than she was at the beginning of her career. “I’m glad I wasn’t my first grad student,” she adds.

The current system in the US scientific community does little to incentivize superior mentorship, says Juan Pablo Ruiz Villalobos, a STEMM-education researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and president of Future of Research, an organization in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that advocates on behalf of early-career researchers. “Many postdocs and graduate students are being trained on R01 [US National Institutes of Health] grants that have no mechanism for mentoring,” he says. “It’s not taken into account.”

The report also says that institutions should do more to support students and trainees when mentoring relationships deteriorate or break down. Every early-career researcher should have access to an ombudsperson or other neutral third party who can mediate conflict, Spitzmueller says. As an extra layer of protection, students should try to find more than one adviser who can help them to navigate their research and career development. “The less dependence there is on a single mentor, the greater the likelihood that someone will be able to help if something goes wrong,” she says.

Ruiz Villalobos says that any policy to hold mentors accountable must make the important distinction between scientists who are simply ineffective at guiding others and those who are actively harming trainees through mistreatment and abuse. “When a professor has abused power, that person needs to be removed from office,” he says. “Systematic change is hard, but it starts with mentors looking long and hard at their responsibilities for students.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03598-x

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