Investing in the Future: National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training 2011
Key Themes and Specific Actions
Theme II: Research Training Focuses on Student Development, Not Simply Selection of Talent
There's an elephant in the room ... at the end of the day, most graduate students are working in laboratories with PIs [who] are focused on one thing: productivity.
—PARTICIPANT, NIGMS RESEARCH TRAINING STRATEGIC PLAN STAKEHOLDER MEETING
Today’s biomedical and behavioral research environment doesn’t always put the needs of the trainee first. Indeed, as NIGMS gathered input from stakeholders across the country, the Institute identified a broadly articulated dissatisfaction with the attention trainees receive. One of the principal deficits was said to be in the mentoring associated with R01-supported training, both predoctoral and postdoctoral. NIGMS asserts that training is an intentional, not incidental, endeavor, and that the process of guidance and teaching need not diminish research productivity. In fact, many investigators believe that research training and laboratory productivity are synergistic.
Actions related to this theme address the notion that those who train— faculty and other mentors—must recognize and understand the strengths and limitations of trainees and tailor training strategies appropriately.
Action: Strongly encourage the use of individual development plans (IDPs) on all NIGMS-sponsored training and research awards. NIGMS believes that IDPs are an essential ingredient of all NIGMS-sponsored research that supports any training. The Institute envisions that these plans will also be very beneficial for designing, monitoring and measuring trainee progress and success. This action will promote a clear definition of the roles and expectations of students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty from the outset of any training experience.
Action: Establish guidelines for, and strongly encourage, training plans for all R01s and other research grant applications that request support for graduate students or postdoctoral trainees. Competencies in scholarship are the desired outcome of high-quality training in any of its various forms. NIGMS believes that all grantees supporting students and postdoctoral scholars on research grants should prepare training plans to assure quality mentoring and career guidance throughout the training period.
Action: Encourage institutions and faculty to identify and adopt evidence-based practices so that students receive the mentorship necessary to develop essential career skills. Mentors serve multiple roles throughout a scientist’s development, and their guidance and influence are critical to trainee success. As a consequence, it is paramount that all NIGMS-supported research trainees have access to high-quality mentoring. NIGMS strongly encourages institutions and their faculty to seek available resources and time to help foster effective mentoring skills. NIGMS also underscores the need for trainees to actively seek multiple mentors—within departments and institutions, across institutions and with nonacademic scientists and personnel.
Action: Encourage institutions and their faculty to accelerate time to scientific independence for all trainees. The rising time to independence is a concern that is well recognized by the entire biomedical and behavioral research community (Figure 2), and various steps have been taken to reverse the trend. NIGMS supports all efforts that aim to set trainees free to explore and individualize their careers as soon as possible after receiving their degrees, and the Institute encourages research institutions to revisit the traditional demands and expectations of research training that extend trainee time commitments.
Figure 2. Average age of first-time R01-equivalent Principal Investigators by degree.
Caption: The amount of time spent in training has risen substantially over the last few decades. Source: NIH Office of Extramural Research
For decades, trainees and advisors have monitored progress and productivity, and taken steps toward achieving career goals. Recently, however, some professional organizations—recognizing the value of planning and an increasing need for it in the complex world of modern science—have created templates18,19 that simplify this process. For example, the NIH intramural research program requires individual development plans (IDPs) for all of its trainees.20
In support of the use of IDPs, a 2003 Sigma Xi survey of postdoctoral trainees, “Doctors Without Orders,” observed that postdoctoral success—as measured by the number of publications and the absence of postdoctoral trainee/mentor conflict—correlated with only two factors: a structured postdoctoral program and taking advantage of career/professional development programming.21 IDPs are a tool for identifying and achieving professional development needs and career objectives during training as well as a vehicle to facilitate communication between trainees and their mentors.