Investing in the Future: National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training 2011
What is Success?
In the current knowledge-based economy, assuring the existence of a well-trained scientific workforce is more vital than ever to the future of our nation’s health and global competitiveness. But how do we achieve this goal? How can we know if we are taking the appropriate actions toward growing a capable biomedical and behavioral research workforce?
More fundamentally, do we know success when we see it?
- For society, success is having a strong and diverse cadre of creative thinkers and innovative problem solvers.
- For a research institution, success is advancing knowledge through teaching and the conduct of research.
- For an individual, success is acquiring the skills and knowledge to obtain and enjoy a successful and rewarding scientific career.
We all know that being a professional scientist is more than simply doing experiments
—PARTICIPANT, NIGMS RESEARCH TRAINING STRATEGIC PLAN STAKEHOLDER MEETING
Beyond the abstract, though, a successful career means different things to different people.
For example, many researchers cherish the excitement and novelty that life as a bench scientist brings. Indeed, an academic research career has many pluses, including freedom to explore the unknown, flexibility and variability in daily routine, travel and exposure to diverse cultures, and the opportunity to make an impact on health that could affect many people. Moreover, researchers generally enjoy a good reputation: A 2009 report revealed that 70 percent of Americans surveyed believe that scientists contribute “a lot” to society’s wellbeing.11
However, a multitude of factors affect the supply and demand for sciencerelated jobs, especially those in academia. Several decades ago, for example, trainees completed their doctorates and—entering a wellmatched labor market—had their choice of a range of tenuretrack academic research positions. Today, only a small proportion of students who earn an American science doctorate will obtain the type of faculty position that enables them to apply for the highly competitive grants that support academic research.
Thus, not all trainees choose an academic path today, nor should they. In an increasingly technical world, a variety of professions benefit from well-trained scientists who address critical societal needs. Many trainees possess the skills and passion to contribute their scientific expertise to the worlds of business, policy, teaching or writing. A mid-1990s survey from the Council of Graduate Schools—the “Ph.D.s–Ten Years Later”study— found that 10 to 13 years after degree completion, more than half of those with science and engineering doctorates in biochemistry, computer science and electrical engineering were employed in academia. The remainder worked in industry, government or a range of other settings.12
Supply and demand will continue to shift, both from predictable events and from unforeseen circumstances. Regardless, NIGMS considers it vital that research training adopt a modern view of the multiplicity of meanings of success. Thus, the Institute believes that success is best defined through basic competencies acquired throughout a trainee’s graduate and postgraduate period. Success means that a well-trained scientist:
- is conversant in a common set of biological/biomedical principles;
- can identify an important problem and knows how to address it;
- has a range of career options and the ability to choose among them; and
- is competitive in his or her chosen field, interest area, specialty or discipline.
While NIGMS recognizes that defining success is best achieved through recognizing the above competencies that serve an array of employment outcomes, the Institute does not believe that “anything goes.” Rather, NIGMS is committed to research training as a directed, intentional activity that fosters individual creativity through quality mentoring, as well as one that encourages trainees to take responsibility in pursuit of finding rewarding careers that fit their personal skill sets.
NIGMS is fully aware that many of the actions required for achieving this goal fall outside the Institute’s purview, as well as that of NIH. Yet that does not diminish the need for NIGMS to recognize and expect quality research training that strikes an adequate balance between breadth and depth. Doing so will enable the greatest degrees of freedom for the scientists of tomorrow.
The Postdoc Experience: Finding a Good Fit
Choosing a postdoctoral position that is a good fit is one of the most important decisions in a trainee’s career path. While seeking interesting and meaningful science is one component of this decision, other factors include a potential advisor’s training track record (where do trainees end up?); the training environment (is collaboration encouraged?); career options (will the experience provide exposure to various paths to success?); and, of course, personal chemistry with the faculty advisor.
The National Postdoctoral Association worked with NIH and NSF to establish a standard definition of a postdoctoral scholar13 as:
“An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.”
The expansive range of career options available to scientists today calls for a wide array of skills, including the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively; good management skills; effective business development and operational abilities; and a careful eye to the role of ethical, social and legal parameters that impact the conduct and results of science. An effective postdoctoral training experience goes beyond doing advanced research and increasing knowledge in a given area and nurtures the abovementioned skills.