Category Archives: Mentoring

Thoughts on Mentoring: The Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen Award, 2019

As I put “pen” to “paper” (I still really do that, although I don’t use IBM punched cards any longer), I begin in fear and trepidation. Not so much because as you read this you might disagree with it, but more because what follows may come across as patronizing (“Father knows best”) and will be tossed aside for that reason alone.  What father has not endured the eye-rolling dismissal of their children when lecturing them on the foolishness of using their phones while driving? What authority out there gives me the much lesser right to lecture to you on what is important in mentoring? None, but common sense has never stopped me before, and will not now, because I have not learned to say no (see below!).

First the good news: In spite of ever-increasing demands – for ever-more coursework, of increasing automation, of Ever-Increasing Rules and Regulations (EIRR), and of greater and greater pressure to career-advance, training in scientific research remains very much an old-fashioned, slow, apprenticeship experience, and thank goodness for that. I cannot think of another profession where “Do as I do” trumps “Do as I say” quite so much. This is so important because while an apprentice car mechanic has absolute proof of having fixed the car (the brakes now work, they did not before), the apprentice researcher does not usually have absolute proof that their work output is correct because it will take time and replication to establish that to an acceptable probability. That is the “bad news”.

I began in research as a trainee back in the 1970’s well before EIRR. Training (and being trained) was an implicit, not explicit, part of academic life. We never talked about it, never broke it down into “skills and knowledge, attitudes and behaviors”. We just did research working together, we trainees and our trainers, setting up and fixing the equipment as needed, playing with the data using pen and paper, and learning the process as we went along without realizing it. 

Looking back, one can however pull some structure out of our apparently random learning process: It was about achieving the goals necessary to move from academic dependence to independence. My trainers would, without my realizing it, push me in directions needed to accomplish those goals, even when the goals were never actually written down via pen on paper or discussed in a meeting. I think it fair to say that I therefore inherited a training philosophy that is best characterized as first thinking of the goals to be met and only then worrying about how to achieve them when it seemed that a trainee was going off the rails.

So what I will do in the remainder of this “Father knows best” dissertation is lay out what I see as the main goals of training for someone who aspires to a career in scientific research, especially within an academic institution. Importantly, the following goals (7 are shown below) are likely very much the same for all academic trainees. In a given laboratory, it is the trainee’s time course towards, and aptitude for, reaching each goal that is the big source of variance. This is why I reason as follows:

Goal  =  X . Mentor + (1 – X) . Trainee

Hopefully this is clear: For a given trainee to reach any of the following “universal” goals will require work by both Mentor and Trainee. However, for some goals and trainees, the Mentor will need to put in a lot of effort (X near 1) while for others not so much (X near 0). What the Mentor needs to figure out is the solution to this equation for X for each trainee and for each goal.

The goals may be partially different, at least in relative importance, for those going into industry. I have never worked in industry, and thus what follows may need adjustment for that domain. Although I was instructed to provide five “mentoring tips” for this essay, I am providing 40% more than that at no extra charge.  I know they say you get what you pay for, but hopefully this will be an exception.

Goal 1: OCD about data integrity, first & last

By far the most time I spend in training is instilling the 100% – not 99.9% – need to assure data integrity. This effort takes place before a study, during the study and after the study. I do not mean avoiding scientific misconduct – that is a given. I mean being sufficiently obsessive and compulsive that you don’t sleep at night until the data set is beyond question. Calibration twice as often as you think you need; not relying on the equipment or reagent supplier’s specifications but taking the time to verify them yourself; real-time spot checks during a study; constantly moving from close-up (raw data) to 30,000ft and back again in viewing a data set for consistency, for variance, for outliers, for physiological reasonableness; having an unbiased plan for handling outliers before they pop up. Especially important is looking closely at the findings after the first experiment in a new study – i.e., before the second experiment.

What has always worked best for me as a trainer has been to start by DOING these things myself (X close to 1), yet of course side by side with the trainee – not just TELLING my trainee to do them (X close to zero) – until they “get it” and can be relied upon to follow suit. Many think I am too obsessive with data (wasted time and unnecessary hard work), but that’s OK. I welcome that criticism, it is a badge of honor. That is what time is for. Taking a hands-on approach not only shows the trainee how data integrity can be maximized, it shows the trainee how much time and thought I am willing to put into data quality control, and that leaves a lasting impression of how important it is.

Goal 2: Creative thinking ability & discipline

Duh, you say. Of course one needs to be creative and disciplined to succeed. But why, you ask, am I linking creative thinking to discipline as one goal? At first glance, creativity means brilliant, ethereal stuff that comes suddenly out of nowhere; discipline conjures up an image of the very converse – the willingness to stay chained to a deliberate, possibly even boring, process, often in the face of more appealing distractions.

The marriage between creativity and discipline is the key here. What I have come to realize, after reflecting back on my own experiences, is that creative thinking rarely ends up anywhere without a heavy dose of discipline. An idea may come out of nowhere, but without the subsequent discipline to think it through, take it apart, rebuild it another way, look at the logical strengths and weaknesses, do reality checks and so forth, it is not likely that the creative spark will actually lead to anything.

Goal 3: Communication skills

Here is another obvious one….obviously. I do not care for scientists who shamelessly push their agenda, conflating science with ego. I much prefer to let the findings speak for themselves. While I am still turned off by those who claim more from their data than the data really allow, I have come to realize that a bigger problem is scientists who have not learned to communicate their findings clearly. They usually understand their own work pretty well, but have a hard time explaining it to others. The most common mistake is thinking the audience is all at their level of knowledge and understanding. Too often I hear and see a seminar speaker spend far too little time on a slide that contains far too much material, and I am lost. Once you lose a listener they are “gone” for the remaining 20 slides, and so may be your research impact. It is critical to learn the art of: a) knowing your audience and speaking slowly and to their level of knowledge; b) not over-filling your power point slides or having too many; c) mentioning everything on each slide; d) minimizing and defining abbreviations; e) using fonts and symbols big enough to read from the back of the room; f) giving the bottom line of each slide before moving on to the next one. The same research may well have to be presented differently to different audiences, (depending on their expertise), the time you have to speak, and how your talk fits into those before and after yours. The holy grail here is to achieve audience understanding of your message. Duh.

But communication is not just about powerpoints. It is also about grants and papers you write. As a continuing study section member, I will simply say: please think of the reviewer as you write your grant. Density (bad), clarity (good), brevity (good), trees (good) then leaves (as few as you need for rigor). Reviewers are instructed not to read between your lines.

A more insidious communication concern is the all-too-frequent occurrence of burying a great data set in a drawer (metaphor for sequestering it in a database) and deferring writing it up for publication – because it is understandably more fun to get on with the next experiment. You all know that research that goes unpublished may as well never have been done. Not only will this practice damage your own career, it disrespects the subjects you studied and the funding agencies who supported it (often the American people).

Goal 4: Ability to play serendipity vs intent

This is a fun goal. Not that rarely, you will discover something in your data that could take you in an unexpected direction, or maybe you will come across information at a conference or in a journal that starts you thinking in a new way. This can be exciting and fruitful, but it competes with “business as usual” where you may (and likely should) have an existing, considered pathway for a series of studies based on a larger research plan.

When this happens, it will be necessary to sit down, close the door (metaphor for turning off the phone and email and social media) and analyze what you have – both planned and unexpected – and make forward pathway decisions. This can be complex, time-consuming, and anxiety-provoking. No magic formula here, but the usual way is to engage colleagues you trust, especially your mentor, in a disciplined discussion. You cannot follow every lead, but you do not want to let an important opportunity escape.

Goal 5: Care in choosing those around you

You cannot choose your parents, but you can and must choose those you work with at every stage of your career. To me, nothing is more important to success than surrounding yourself with a critical mass of folks with whom to engage in hallway conversations (metaphor for turning off the phone and email and social media). These must be people who: a) are actually interested in your work; b) have your best interests at heart (not thinking about what you can do for them); c) are somewhat knowledgeable about your work; d) are still apart enough scientifically to have fresh thoughts and be relatively unbiased; e) have the time and interest to help you; and most importantly, f) are more intelligent than you.

Goal 6: Knowing when to say no

Pretty easy problem to identify, pretty hard problem to solve. Researchers are seemingly endowed with a family of genes, one of which is the “Don’t know how to say no” gene. Invitations are ego-stroking, career-advancing and often fun, especially when travel is involved. Often a source of new research ideas and collaborations, too. But the downside is clear – hours in the day. What is worse, the most recent invitation is always the most appealing, and often will be distracting from your “day job”. It is always tempting to knee-jerk a “yes” response, but a better approach is to sit down and close the door (metaphor for turning off the phone and email and social media) and thinking through the effects of what you might be agreeing to against your actual job description and long-term career goals and needs. Heaven forbid, bring your mentor in on this.

Goal 7: Ability to get things done

All of the above funnel down to this attribute – the ability to start and finish a task. This usually takes integrating your (see above) scientific thinking skills, discipline skills, communication/people skills, decision-making skills, organizational skills, yes/no skills, technical skills – all, dare I say it, – before you even put “pen” to “paper”.  But even if you don’t own a pen and don’t use paper these 7 goals will never go out of date, and you will be a better scientist once you have reached them all.

Dr. Wagner completed his medical degrees from Sydney University in 1968 and subsequently sought research opportunities as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego.  He then promoted to faculty in the Department of Medicine and remains there today as an Emeritus Professor.  Throughout his impactful career, Dr. Wagner pioneered studies that advanced the understanding of pulmonary gas exchange and contributed to the understanding of human responses to hypoxia.  This includes, but is by no means limited to, his development of the Multiple Inert Gas Elimination technique (MIGET) and novel findings based on experiments he conducted as part of the Operation Everest II research team.  His research continues to integrate across disciplines of mathematics, cellular and molecular biology, animal models and human studies to address unanswered questions regarding oxygen transport and limitations in health and disease.  The impact of Dr. Wagner’s work is reflected in hundreds of invited chapters and more than a few hundred manuscripts as well as several hundred publications that have applied the principles of his work.

Peter Wagner Biography

Dr. Wagner is uniquely equipped with an extensive skill set that he has shared for many years with colleagues and trainees in the School of Medicine at UC San Diego and abroad.  He has provided numerous international, national, and local lectures on his research and was recognized with the Faculty Distinguished Lecturer in 1994, the European Respiratory Society Teaching Certificate in 1996, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the UC San Diego Academic Senate in 2002. These are in addition to various lectureships and visiting professorships.  He has established collaborations and training opportunities in more than a dozen countries, received an Honorary Doctorate from University of Barcelona where he continues to participate in training programs, and recently taught undergraduate physiology courses in Australia for which he was granted the Sandford L. Skinner Oration award. He has made a lasting contribution in many lives and the field of Physiology, as exemplified by many achievements during his tenures as President of the American Thoracic Society, President of the American Physiological Society, Associate Editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation and Editor of the Journal of Applied Physiology, and Division Chief of both Physiology and Pulmonary Critical Care in the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

In addition to these contributions to research and teaching, Dr. Wagner is a tour-de-force in every aspect of mentorship.  His unique ability to fine-tune his comprehensive skill set to meet individual trainee needs is remarkable and has ensured success in others that will continue to ripple for generations to come.  He provides a true model for success: explains complex concepts with impeccable clarity, holds the bar high and expects others to do the same, and will invest however long it takes to help a trainee achieve their goal or answer the question at hand.  Colleagues and trainees alike have greatly benefitted from his leadership, direction, and example.  Dr. Wagner also teaches through experience, providing opportunities trainees likely never dreamed possible.  Many of his trainees apply techniques he pioneered decades ago, and he continues to promote their research objectives, working beside them and well beyond the call of duty, ensuring full involvement and an unwavering commitment to research.

More than 110 trainees’ professional and personal development has thrived under Dr. Wagner’s mentorship for the nearly five decades of his extraordinary career.  Being a mentee of Dr. Wagner in many ways is like being part of an orchestra where he, as the conductor, never misses a supportive cue, where everyone is instilled with a sense of pride for their contribution, and each trainee is motivated to achieve their own level of mastery.  Dr. Wagner’s immeasurable contribution to training — his legacy — will continue to propel the field of physiology forward for years to come.

Taking the Road Most Traveled: Finding Faculty Positions in Academia and Knowing What to Expect

Karen Sweazea, PhD, FAHA, Arizona State University, Tempe

While many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows aspire to become university professors, it may be surprising to learn how challenging that road may be. According to a monthly labor review from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released in 2015, more individuals are training in STEM fields in the United States than there are jobs available ( What this means, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure jobs, especially in academia. If you do land a position, however, the rewards of conducting your own research and teaching aspiring young professionals can be great. The goal of this forum is to prepare you for the road that lies ahead and discuss some strategies and tools to improve your chance of success.  

First stop, a postdoctoral fellowship. Getting your foot in the door for an interview in academia almost certainly requires time spent in a postdoctoral fellowship. If you are currently in one, or are looking for one, give yourself a pat on the back for taking the first big step towards an academic position after obtaining your PhD. Take advantage of your time spent in a postdoctoral fellowship to further develop your research skills as well as other professional skills you will need to succeed. Remember, there is more to an academic career than research. So, it is often important to gain teaching, mentoring and management experiences before applying as these skills are greatly beneficial to an academic career. If your time for this kind of training is limited, have no fear. Many scientific conferences have short workshops that cover these topics and many universities also provide this kind of training for their faculty and postdocs in the form of seminars or mini workshops. Your time as a postdoc is important as you will begin to set yourself apart from faculty who have mentored you and develop an independent research trajectory. Keep a notebook to jot down ideas for research projects that you think of during this time as it will give you a head start on projects you may want to work on when you secure a faculty position. This is also an important time for beginning to develop, or foster existing, professional connections. The goal is to build your brand, so to speak, by increasing your recognition in the field. This could be done by giving seminars at national or international conferences, collaborating with faculty at other institutions, as well as getting involved in professional societies. Through these means, faculty at other institutions will become familiar with you and your research so when jobs become available, your name will be recognized.  

Know what you want, or at least what you think you want. Now that you have been exposed to research and perhaps teaching during your training to this point, it will be important to consider what type of college or university position you are interested in pursuing. Are you seeking a tenure track position or adjunct faculty (not tenure eligible)? Some faculty start off as adjunct and transition to tenure eligible positions. Also consider how much of your time you are willing to spend teaching, doing research and providing service to the university and professional organizations. These considerations will help you decide what type of university or college you would be interested in applying to. If teaching is a major priority and you just can’t fathom a lifetime at the lab bench, you may want to consider applying to institutions with higher teaching loads such as liberal arts colleges, community colleges or primarily undergraduate institutions. If research is a top priority, then a graduate degree granting institution or medical school may be more suitable.

Next stop, beginning the job search. Perhaps the easiest place to start is searching through the several of academic and research career websites such as:

Most universities, colleges and specific departments also list available jobs on their websites. Be sure to check those out as well. Of course, the adage ‘it is not what you know but who you know’, also applies to a career in academia where networking can lead to the discovery of new job positions before they are even advertised. During your search, be sure to pay attention to whether your research interests will fit into the department and check out other faculty within and outside the department you are applying to for potential collaborators. Having collaborations is critical to help start your research program and ensure your long-term success as a tenure-track faculty member. During the interview process you may even want to mention (or may be asked) which faculty members you see yourself collaborating with. So be sure to do your homework. 

Speaking of applications, most positions will require you to submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae (CV), research and teaching statements as well as letters of recommendation. Be sure to tailor each application for the specific job you are applying for and include clear statements of how your research will fit into the department and how your teaching style will improve student learning. This is the time to break out that notebook you have been keeping. Your research statement will explain where you have been and where you plan to go with your research. What research questions will you pursue immediately after hire? Five years after hire? Similarly, your teaching statement will describe your philosophy on teaching. Be sure to describe prior experiences with teaching you may have had. You will likely be asked during the interview process what existing classes in the department you would feel most comfortable teaching as well as what classes you would be interested in developing. Be sure to check out the existing classes offered at the institution so you can be prepared to include this information in your statement or during the interview process.

Next stop, the interview. First off, congratulations! During the interview process, you will have the opportunity to meet faculty and students in the department and to learn about the department’s culture and expectations. You will also have an opportunity to tour the facilities and get an idea of the resources and space available your research needs. Be sure to think about whether your research can be conducted in shared spaces as many universities are moving towards collaborative research space. Also take note of whether you will have the resources to successfully conduct your research there. Does your research require animal or clinical facilities, core lab equipment or expertise (usually for expensive equipment like HPLC, mass spec, etc), statisticians, field locations nearby, computer capabilities, library access to articles from journals in your field, etc?

Research seminars are almost always part of the interview process as well. This is where you will explain your research accomplishments thus far, your expertise that you can bring to the university as well as what research you plan to pursue if they hire you. You may also mention faculty that you see yourself collaborating with. Some schools may additionally require you to provide a seminar on your teaching philosophy or to give a guest lecture. This allows them to observe how you interact with students as well as your teaching style. During the interview process it is important to gauge whether your research will be valued by the department or if they are simply trying to hire someone to teach a class and expect your research to be modified to fit with other research going on in the department. Also be sure to make note of what the department is offering new faculty such as reduced teaching loads, new faculty mentoring systems, technicians, or even professional development funds to attend scientific conferences, pay for publication page charges, professional membership fees, etc. Some universities will also offer reduced tuition for family members of staff and/or faculty.

Despite the long road to obtain tenure, and the many challenges you may face along the way, being a Physiologist in academia can be a very rewarding career. I wish you success in your journey and hope this forum has given you some of the tools and directions you may need to find your way.

Karen Sweazea Biography

Karen Sweazea is an Associate Professor in the College of Heath Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research specializes in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She received her PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2005 where her research focused on understanding glucose homeostasis and natural insulin resistance in birds. Her postdoctoral research was designed to explore how poor dietary habits promote the development of cardiovascular diseases. 

Dr. Sweazea has over 40 publication and has chaired sessions and spoken on topics related to mentoring at a variety of national and local meetings. She has additionally given over 10 guest lectures and has developed 4 graduate courses on topics related to mentoring and professional development. She has mentored or served on the committees for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students and earned an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Faculty Women’s Association at Arizona State University for her dedication towards mentoring.   

Five Ways to be an Effective Mentor and Mentee

Rachel C. Drew, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Boston

As a relatively new assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston, there were innumerable things that I needed to learn to smooth the transition into my tenure-track position. One of the most notable, and significant areas not covered in my doctoral and postdoctoral training was how to be a successful mentor to trainees and students working in my research lab. Having earned my bachelor’s degree in sport and exercise science and my PhD in exercise physiology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, followed by completion of my postdoctoral training and a short time as a research associate at Penn State Hershey in Pennsylvania, I learned a great number of things about conducting research. However, I received little training about mentoring. It was not until I was thrust into the position of running my own independent research lab as an assistant professor that I was suddenly very aware that I felt ill-prepared to successfully mentor others. I had only just been a mentee myself, and now I was expected to help shape fully formed trainees who work with me in my lab with no obvious training? “Fake it until you make it” certainly sprang to mind.

After attending many professional development sessions and workshops, and reading numerous articles on mentoring, I learned there are many things that go into being not just a mentor but a good mentor. This article shares what I have learned about how to be a successful mentor in the two years that I have had this seemingly huge responsibility placed on my shoulders. I do not profess to be the best mentor—since it takes years of mentoring experience to achieve that status, but I have learned several nuggets of wisdom. I hope these lessons will benefit other researchers also undergoing this transition.

On the surface, mentoring may seem like a fairly straightforward process of a person with experience or expertise in their respective field providing advice to another person in the same or similar field to help them succeed. However, successful mentoring involves a combination of factors that culminate in a mutually beneficial relationship between the mentor and the mentee, one in which they both gain something positive from their partnership.

These mutually beneficial relationships can take the form of formal or informal mentor-mentee relationships. Formal partnerships can be formed through targeted programs created by professional societies that match interested mentees with willing mentors, which also provide great networking opportunities. Formal partnerships can also be structured partnerships within academic institutions or industrial companies that pair a junior person with a more senior person within the same department, college, campus, university, or company. These relationships can provide helpful inside knowledge relevant to the respective institution or company. However, the expertise of the senior person may not fully align with the specific field in which the junior person is working, because it is the institution or company that brings the mentor and mentee together rather than the same research or teaching interests.

Informal partnerships can be formed through meeting people at conferences and meetings, often through introductions made by colleagues with an existing relationship with the other person. You may also meet potential mentors at workshops and other networking events. I have been introduced by colleagues to numerous people at conferences, and some of those introductions have grown into current research collaborations, an invaluable asset to my research program. I also met a graduate student at a conference poster session who is now a PhD student working in my lab! I now introduce him to people at conferences and other events, so he may benefit from those introductions at some point, thus continuing the networking cycle.

In a mentor-mentee relationship, knowing what will be necessary for the mentee to succeed requires a conversation about what the mentee wants to achieve. This conversation should happen at the beginning of the relationship. The mentor can then draw on their experiences in their specific field to help guide the mentee in appropriate ways. Typically in a successful mentor-mentee relationship, the mentee provides the energy, and the mentor can help steer the mentee in the right direction, much like a human equivalent of a car engine and steering wheel. This effective mentor-mentee partnership results in a “win-win” for both people. The mentee can learn from the advice and support provided by the mentor as an experienced person in their field to help them succeed, and the mentor can help newer people in their field grow and become successful, serving their professional community as well as gaining personal satisfaction. Both of these successes contribute to the advancement of the respective field, highlighting the importance of successful mentoring.

The relationship between mentor and mentee is dependent on many factors, such as the academic level of both individuals, the nature of the institution or company in which they work, and their respective personalities. It can also be influenced by both individuals’ cultural backgrounds, gender, age, race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Knowingly or unknowingly, any of these factors can affect this relationship, so it is important to understand that individuals’ implicit biases against certain groups of people exist (as well as explicit biases, in some cases) and that we recognize these biases rather than ignoring them or pretending they do not exist. There is a growing awareness of the need for diversification of the scientific workforce that is leading to the creation of initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining people in traditionally underrepresented groups in science, such as the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Scientific Workforce Diversity Office ( According to NIH, traditionally underrepresented groups include women, certain racial groups including black people or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, people with disabilities, people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Scientific progress is at its best when viewpoints from multiple different backgrounds and experiences are voiced and heard. Mentoring is a crucial area of science in which individuals from all backgrounds and experiences can be included and starting early in their careers. Mentor-mentee relationships do not always come without their challenges. There can be differences in personalities that make it more difficult for the partnership to be a fruitful one. There can be time constraints, particularly for the mentor, who is typically more established in their field than the mentee and often has other commitments that require more of their time or more immediate attention. The mentee may be seeking advice on a particular topic that a specific mentor cannot provide. Some of these obstacles can be avoided or at least managed by having a conversation at the beginning of the relationship about what the mentee wants to achieve and how they envisage the mentor helping them. If the mentor does not have the necessary experience or expertise, or time realistically to offer support, they should try to redirect the mentee to someone who may be able to help. Time constraints brought about by commitments at different times of the academic or calendar year can lead to fluctuations in mentors’—and mentees’—availability. Communicating known periods of limited or no availability from both sides helps mitigate or alleviate situations in which one side of the partnership does not feel like the other is responding in a timely manner. A quick email can go a long way to keeping things afloat!

As mentees rise through the ranks of training, it can be typical for them to look for one mentor who will satisfy all their academic needs, but it is not usually that straightforward! There may be the occasional superhero-mentor who provides mentees with exactly the advice they are seeking at the precise time they are seeking it. If this is the case for you, congratulations! These encyclopedic mentors are likely few and far between, however, given the vast array of academic needs that mentees have. No two mentors or mentees are the same, and therefore neither are any mentor-mentee relationships. Mentees should therefore seek multiple mentors for their different needs, whether academic, technical, or another area. Having a smorgasbord of mentors will enable mentees to seek advice on a specific topic at a certain time from someone who will be able to help them with it at that time. Making and maintaining these relationships with others in their field also increases mentees’ professional network, which can provide greater visibility of their work and open doors to receive invitations to review manuscripts for specific journals and present at professional meetings and workshops. For some people who are in the early stages of their career, simply the thought of contacting an established person in their field to ask for something is so intimidating that it can cause them to break out in a cold sweat. However, most people are often flattered to be asked and willing to share their experience or expertise if they are able, since they have been in the shoes of the junior person at one time or another. Therefore, a well-crafted email clearly stating your position, experience, and what you are seeking advice on could lead to a new prosperous connection, as well as other potential beneficial opportunities down the road. As Geordies from the Newcastle area in the north-east of England close to where I grew up would say, “Shy bairns get nowt,” or, for those who need a translation, “Shy kids get nothing!”

There are numerous professional development opportunities available for both mentors and mentees that provide information and useful resources to help maximize efforts for successful mentoring. A great example is the National Research Mentoring Network, an NIH initiative aimed at enhancing the diversity of the NIH-funded research workforce ( I regularly attend the monthly sessions, which are run by the Office for Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They have offered great insight into various issues faced by both mentors and mentees, and effective strategies to overcome potential barriers to improve the success of mentor-mentee relationships. Because the University of Massachusetts Boston has such a diverse student body—with a population of 33 percent underrepresented minorities and 56 percent first-generation students—resources such as this are fantastic for increasing the effectiveness of mentor-mentee partnerships.

Drawing on my personal experiences and insights gleaned from various professional development sessions, workshops, and mentoring articles, I’ve compiled the following nuggets of wisdom to be an effective mentor and mentee.

Five Ways to be an Effective Mentor

  • Start with a conversation. Talk with your mentees to find out what their goals are and do so at the beginning of your relationship. Gaining a clear picture of what your mentees aspire to achieve and why will allow you to shape your advice and support to best meet their needs or suggest someone else who may be better able to do so.
  • Meet your mentees where they are (figuratively speaking). Have an awareness of where your mentees are as far as academic level and experience to date, so you can provide more tailored advice to support them to achieve their goals in ways that will be achievable for them. In other words, be the wheel that steers the car as each particular mentee provides the work of the engine!
  • Use your experience to provide advice for your mentees on an individual basis. No two mentees are the same; each will bring their own set of interests, expectations, motivations, and personal characteristics. Mentors should be open to responding in ways that provide mentees with the tools they can use to flourish.
  • Create a “safe space” for your mentees. Promote a culture of openness and dialogue by providing a “safe space” for your mentees in which they can feel comfortable discussing challenges—academic or personal—that they are facing and that may be affecting their academic performance. Although mentors are not expected to help with mentees’ personal issues, you may be able to point them in the direction of appropriate support services on campus or elsewhere that may benefit them and improve their academic performance. The power dynamic that can exist between a person in a position of more authority and a trainee can be felt quite profoundly by mentees, which can be a barrier to open dialogue. The onus is on you to diffuse any potential power inequalities by conversing with your experience rather than your power. As the person in a position of more authority, you may feel comfortable and not appreciate this power inequality, but given this greater “power,” you have the opportunity to minimize this inequality to bridge any potential barriers between yourself and your mentees.
  • Tell your mentees what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. It is in your position as a mentor to give your mentees realistic advice about their progress, which at times they may not want to hear. However, this feedback will help them on their academic journey by turning challenges into opportunities from which they can grow and develop their various academic skills, such as time management, scientific writing ability, communication, motivation, and attention to detail.

Five Ways to be an Effective Mentee

  • Communication is key. Set up preferred communication methods with your mentors early in your relationship to maximize effective communication from the beginning. Your mentors will likely have a preference on how best to communicate with them, based on their time commitments and availability, so ask them what their preference is and use this type of communication if they do not mention it themselves. When mentors receive communications in a way that is agreeable to them, they are more likely to respond in a positive way!
  • Be the engine of the relationship. Approach your mentors when you need to, bearing in mind the type of communication that you have set up between the two of you. Mentors are often busy with tasks that require more of their attention at certain times, but if you want something from your mentor, the emphasis is on you to ask. This does not necessarily mean to pester your mentors with questions for which you should be expected to search for the answers elsewhere, but more that it is up to you to speak up if you need something that only a specific mentor can provide.
  • Be open to constructive feedback. One of the most important aspects of a junior person’s training is learning how to improve, which often means learning from their mistakes. When feedback is provided with the intention of being helpful to you, receive the feedback graciously and openly so you can use it to improve on the specific task at hand. Remember that no-one is perfect, and everyone has traversed through similar formative experiences in their training, including your mentors. Effective mentors want you to succeed and will use their academic and personal experiences to guide you toward that success through this constructive process.
  • Become comfortable having conversations with your mentors. Your mentors are likely to be in positions of more authority than you, which can be intimidating to mentees, but your relationship will be most effective if you communicate your needs clearly. Effective mentors should support you in an open and constructive way and allow you to express your needs, rather than unfairly exerting their power over you.
  • Seek multiple mentors for different, specific needs. Most often, mentors can provide advice in one, sometimes two, areas, whereas you will likely have several areas in which you would like to receive support. Although occasionally a mentor may be able to provide advice on all the topics you need, typically having numerous mentors will provide you with a greater level of support. Your needs will also likely change as you progress through your training and up the professional ranks, so it is particularly important to have many people to whom you can turn to answer those burning questions that will arise at various stages of your career. Having this larger support system will better enable you to overcome potential obstacles and ultimately be more successful.

Mentoring may seem to be about the expertise that can be passed down from an experienced mentor to a mentee who is looking to grow and succeed, but successful mentoring is contingent on the two individuals being able to meet in the middle to create a “win-win” situation. Meeting people where they are, both as mentees and mentors, benefits those involved, as well as science as a whole. Although I have found several approaches that have worked for me as a mentor in my early career stage, I know it is important to continue to learn, grow, and adapt to new situations. Lifelong learners make the best mentors, because their best is constantly getting better.

Rachel Drew Biography

Rachel Drew is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The focus of her research program is the nervous system control of the cardiovascular system during exercise. Specifically, her neurovascular exercise physiology research involves examination of the effects of healthy aging, race, and exercise training on blood pressure control and blood flow to the kidneys during exercise. Rachel earned her BSc in Sport and Exercise Science and PhD in Exercise Physiology under the supervision of Dr. Mike White, PhD at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. She then completed her postdoctoral training under the mentorship of Dr. Larry Sinoway, MD, followed by three years as a Research Associate, at Penn State Hershey in Pennsylvania, USA. Rachel is a member of the American Physiological Society and received a Postdoctoral and Early Career Research Recognition Award from the Neural Control and Autonomic Regulation section of the American Physiological Society in 2014. She is also a member of the Physiological Society in the United Kingdom, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Heart Association.

Questions to Ask Before Playing on the Tracks: Job Security and Salary Considerations for Tenured and Non-Tenured Faculty Positions

Erika I. Boesen, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE

Tenure: a six-letter word for security, which simultaneously strikes fear into the hearts of new and prospective assistant professors. But should it? The concept of tenure was originally proposed in part as a means to ensuring academic freedom while guaranteeing secure employment. Along with keeping your job for as long as you want it, this has generally been taken to mean employment at full pay. But does tenure still mean job security and full salary coverage, forever? Aren’t universities increasingly doing away with tenure? Does having tenure or the opportunity to get it really matter to your career? Rather than trying to distill the secrets to securing tenure, this article will discuss what kinds of models are currently offered in terms of tenure status and salary, and some questions to consider if you are newly on the job hunt for a faculty position.

First, some basics, and a disclaimer: The information and commentary below focuses on full-time faculty positions at academic institutions in the United States. Academic ranks, career structures, and whether tenure or something equivalent even exists varies considerably between countries. Interested readers are encouraged to explore the European University Institute’s website for an excellent and growing summary of such information for Europe and beyond (1).

What is Tenure?

Tenure, as most people think of it, is essentially a guaranteed ongoing employment contract at an academic institution, continuing in perpetuity. Unless, of course, your contract is terminated for cause (yes, you can still be fired!), or if an extraordinary circumstance arises such as a fiscal crisis for the university. The criteria and expectations to be met to secure tenure differ between institutions and between types of positions (e.g., research-focused vs. educator tracks). There may even be nuances in expectations between different schools or colleges within an institution. Whether and how frequently your institution has an opportunity to reevaluate its commitment to you once you are tenured, in the form of post-tenure review, varies between institutions. Detailed information regarding tenure and post-tenure review can usually be found on the individual college or school’s webpage, or in the institution’s faculty handbook. Whether tenure also guarantees 100% of your full salary is a different matter. More will be said below on implications for salary, regardless of tenure status.

The Tenure Track and the Dreaded “Tenure Clock”

The terms “tenure-track,” “tenure-eligible,” and “tenure-leading” all indicate that someone employed in such a position could one day apply for tenure. And the default expectation is that they will indeed apply. If tenure-track faculty do not apply for and are not granted tenure in a timely fashion (i.e., before the clock runs out), usually their contract will be terminated, and they will need to find another job.

Typically, tenure-track faculty are expected to have amassed the appropriate research/scholarship, teaching, and “service” experiences, and to have achieved a level of productivity to warrant being tenured within approximately 5–7 years of their initial faculty appointment. This 5–7 years to prove why your institution should want to keep you around forever represents the time on your “tenure clock.” Often, people submit their application for tenure at the same time as their application for promotion to associate professor, although not always. At my institution, for example, you may apply for promotion and tenure at separate times; the two have overlapping but slightly different criteria. Some institutions reserve tenure for full professors only. If you are an assistant professor who is recruited by another institution as an associate professor, tenure might form part of the recruitment package but more likely won’t be granted straight away. In that case, you may be both eligible and expected to apply for tenure in a shorter period of time than if you had started there as an assistant professor (e.g., 3 years). At other institutions, tenure is not offered at all, regardless of rank.

At institutions with an “up or out” promotion and tenure policy, if you do not successfully apply for and are not granted promotion and tenure by the end of the allotted period on your clock, your contract is not renewed. People hired at the associate professor level who don’t make tenure in their abbreviated time frame may also be let go. Such all-or-nothing scenarios can make that clock tick very loudly. But before you break into a cold sweat at the thought, ask your prospective employer some questions. Is there a hard-and-fast timeline, and, if so, in what year do you need to apply and succeed? Is there flexibility on this deadline at the discretion of your department chair? Does your institution use the classical 5- to 7-year clock or has it been extended to 10 years under the more challenging funding conditions of modern times? Will you even be hired on a tenure-track basis in the first place, or does this designation occur later? If you join the tenure track later, how does that affect how long you have before you must secure tenure?

Career progress isn’t always smooth, and life can throw unexpected challenges your way. Ask whether your institution has a policy that allows you to “stop the clock” and be granted more time, if, for example, your career progress is interrupted by having a family, major illness, or other unexpected life events. A variation of this idea is to allow faculty to switch from tenure track to nontenure track, with the option of returning to the tenure track if the situation improves. Anecdotally, such offers tend to be made if funding is the main concern. If you ever find yourself considering this track-switching option, make sure you ask a lot of questions first. Just because it is theoretically possible to get back on the tenure track doesn’t mean that it is likely, and it could be easier to cut your salary and/or terminate your employment in the interim. Are there other consequences, such as loss of eligibility for intramural pilot grants or certain extramural awards if you go off the tenure track? Where would your salary coverage come from? How would your independence and general job duties be affected? What are the new expectations and what requirements must be met to restore your tenure eligibility?

Okay, So What’s the Deal With Non-Tenure Track Positions?

The defining characteristic of non-tenure-track faculty positions is that they explicitly do not come with the potential for a lifetime appointment. That isn’t to say that job security is necessarily poorer than for tenure-track positions. Indeed, non-tenure-track faculty may well enjoy more longevity in their positions than tenure-track faculty who don’t make tenure! Contracts may be for fixed terms or renewable indefinitely, provided that the need for the position and funds to support it remain available. This can mean very stable employment at institutions with consistent levels of student enrollment, healthy finances, and the like. Faculty positions at institutions that do not offer tenure are all non-tenure track by default, but different types of contracts may still exist within the same institution. Sometimes the opportunity for presumptive annual contract renewals or multi-year contracts follows a probationary period (e.g., 3 years). Advancement in rank can also be possible, provided you meet the relevant criteria set forth by your institution, although not all institutions allow this. Consult the faculty handbook, the fine print in your contract, and your department chair for details on expectations for contract renewal, procedures regarding non-renewal, and what level of due process you can expect. Frankly, this is prudent for faculty in tenure-track appointments too!

At institutions employing both tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty, expectations and job duties assigned to the two tracks are often different. For example, non-tenure-track research faculty typically aren’t regarded as fully independent, won’t be offered a startup package or their own dedicated lab space, and may not be expected to teach. Rather, they often work with an established investigator, who usually provides at least some salary support. In contrast, tenure-track research faculty are expected to develop an independent, extramurally funded research program, as well as teach (the amount varies widely), as well as provide service to the university, peers, and the public. Whether non-tenure-track faculty are afforded the same level of autonomy and respect, and the same privileges as tenure-track faculty, or included to the same degree in department-level decision-making depends on concrete factors such as institutional policies and potentially more flexible factors such as departmental culture and management philosophy.

As a faculty member rather than merely a staff member, some amount of service is typically expected, regardless of track. The amount may be minimal if you are research faculty exclusively paid for by a senior colleague’s grants. That being said, my service activities as a non-tenure-track research faculty member were not all that different in nature and scope to my current commitments as a tenure-track faculty member. Service opportunities abound, and where there is a willingness, someone will find a way to make use of you!

How Common Is It to Have Tenure?

Not as common as it used to be. Based on National Center for Education Statistics (3), of all degree-granting post-secondary institutions with a tenure system in the United States, there has been a gradual decline in the percentage of full-time faculty with tenure, from 56.2% in 1993–1994 to 47.3% in 2015–2016. According to the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 Survey Results (2), of a total number of 945 faculty, 64% were tenured, a further 17.5% were tenure-eligible, with an almost identical percentage who were not tenure-eligible. This hefty proportion of tenured or tenure-eligible faculty may reflect the top-heavy nature of the academic ranks represented: 74% were associate or full professors (or chairs). Although these numbers are relatively high, the picture will undoubtedly change as institutions reconsider their approach to tenure, and as current tenured faculty retire. Some institutions are doing away with tenure altogether for new faculty hires; it’s not just private or for-profit institutions that are doing this but state-funded institutions too.

What is the Advantage of Having Tenure?

In this brave new world of the gig economy, tenure may seem like a dusty relic of a distant past to many people. But it has its benefits. Tenure bestows a far higher level of security in your ongoing employment than what is offered in most other professions. For many in academia, there will always be a sense of achievement and prestige associated with being tenured. Once you have tenure, it can serve as a bargaining chip of sorts if you explore an employment offer at another institution. For teaching faculty, tenure allows you to try out new approaches without fear that negative student evaluations will impact your contract renewal. For most research-focused faculty, tenure isn’t prized so much for its implied freedom to express controversial ideas or to speak truth to power. Rather, the key advantage is that it buys you time to turn your funding fortunes around if your grants run out. This has undoubtedly been a boon to many mid-career and more senior scientists, but while your job might stay safe, your full salary might not.

So, Tell Me More About Salary

Many institutions have a system to reward faculty for covering part or all of their salary with grant dollars, although such rewards may only be offered to tenure-track faculty. Rather than focusing on possible bonuses, let’s focus on your regular salary level. Here are four factors to think about, regardless of tenure status or eligibility:

What proportion of the year does your contract cover? Is it 12 months, or does the institution guarantee somewhere in the 9- to 11-month range? If less than 12 months of salary is guaranteed, are you expected to provide the balance through extramural grant funding, if research is part of what you do? For educators on 9-month contracts, is there an option for you to participate in teaching over the summer to make up the difference, should you want to?

Is 100% of your full salary guaranteed, or just some portion? If it is just a portion, is that a percentage or a fixed dollar amount? If it is a fixed dollar amount, is it the same for everyone or is it tiered by academic rank? Given your personal financial situation and the local cost of living, how comfortable would you feel about taking home only that fixed amount or only that percentage of your total salary? Seriously consider this question. Finances are tough in most academic environments, so dropping to that base at some point of your career is a very real possibility. One argument I have heard in favor of guaranteeing a fixed base amount and adding a flexible amount determined by extramural funding is that the total amount of money you are eligible to earn might be higher than if your salary was guaranteed but fixed. I should point out that the person putting this argument to me was a financial administrator rather than a scientist. Although a compensation plan including both fixed and variable components could be advantageous for very successful, often well-established investigators, would it be a good deal for you? And even if it is a good deal right now, will it still be a good deal if a current grant ended and it took a while to get the next one?

If you are in a research-oriented position, what percentage of your salary are you expected to cover through extramural funding? Is that expectation put in writing in your contract, or is it more of a friendly guide to keeping the dean happy? In medical schools and tier 1 research universities, expectations of upwards of 50% salary coverage are common. That being said, you might be interested to learn that the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 Survey Results also indicated that, for reporting departments, on average only 34% of total faculty salary was derived from research grants (excluding fringe benefits cost) (2). Ask what the expectation is at your prospective institution and find out how rigorously it is enforced. Has this been a major factor in cases where faculty contracts were not renewed or people were not granted tenure? Be realistic about your chances for success in measuring up to the standard, whatever that might be. Less drastic consequences of not meeting extramural salary support targets could be an increase in teaching or clinical duties, or a pay cut, which brings me to our next point.

Can the institution decrease your salary? There used to be a presumption that tenure meant you kept 100% of your salary no matter what. Rules are being written or rewritten to change this. Indeed, lawsuits have been brought over whether a tenured faculty member’s salary can be involuntarily reduced for not meeting external funding requirements (4). Institutions of several faculty I spoke to already have procedures in place to reduce salary if targets for salary coverage are not met, for both tenured and non-tenured faculty. Do ask prospective employers whether salary reductions could occur, and if so, how rapidly and by how much.

How Secure is a Tenured Position, Really?

Most tenured faculty I have spoken to actually don’t view their positions as fully secure, especially if there is a loss of grant funding. The thinking goes, you might be tenured, but your work situation may become untenable. Incentives for faculty to investigate employment opportunities elsewhere include salary cuts, taking away lab space, being moved into a smaller office, and increasing unenjoyable administrative assignments or teaching duties. Under-performing “deadwood” is an often-cited downside to allowing tenure at all, with the larger salaries of senior faculty gobbling up funds that could be used to support other initiatives or younger, hungrier (and cheaper) faculty. Many institutions do have a process of reevaluating tenured faculty, called post-tenure review. How frequently or rigorously post-tenure review is applied varies. It might be on the books, but seldom used. At least until now. This is an area that university administrators are increasingly looking to as a means to provide more flexibility in how they handle tenured faculty who do not meet expectations, whatever those expectations are. Dissolving a department or program can also allow your institution to divest itself of tenured faculty assigned to that department. Tenure might not really be forever.

What About Losing Your Position if You Aren’t Tenured Yet, or Aren’t in a Tenure-Track Position?
As much as no one wants to think about being let go, do educate yourself on the circumstances under which this might occur and find out what the timeline and process would be. Untenured tenure-track faculty may be on a fixed contract or yearly renewal that would allow for 12-months’ notice prior to termination. Employment contracts of faculty who are not tenure track may allow for a much more rapid severance process, especially if the funding supporting the position runs out (90 days’ notice at my institution). Other faculty might be on 9- or 12-month contracts that their institution may decline to renew without explanation, and with much less notice.

Coming back to the “nicest” of these termination scenarios, having 12 months to find a new job is extraordinarily generous compared with most industries. However, if you are trying to find a new faculty position, this can be a slow process with limited openings and fierce competition. Depending on what time of year it is, there could be a long delay before a start date timed to coincide with the new academic year, or you might have missed the window to apply for positions commencing in the coming year. Community colleges running on quarter systems might offer shorter lead times on start dates. Of course, you could well use non-renewal of your academic contract as an opportunity to explore the world of possibilities outside the ivory tower!

If Tenure Isn’t on the Table, What Should You be Thinking About?

Several faculty indicated that factors such as how supportive the environment is are more important than tenure per se. If research is your primary focus, the ability to maintain funding for your lab is a far more practical concern than tenure in any case. Other practical concerns are the length of contract, expectations to be met for having it continued, and how much notice you will be given if the institution decides not to renew. If you are comparing similar offers from one institution that does offer tenure and another that doesn’t, are there any financial or other perks available to offset the lack of a possible lifetime appointment?

With the demise of tenure at some institutions, and implementation of stricter post-tenure review policies at others, institutions will need to consider the challenges that these pose to recruitment and retention of faculty, at least for as long as tenure remains on the table elsewhere and is perceived as valuable. Best of luck to all faculty who are navigating this shifting landscape, now and into the future.


I thank the many friends and colleagues out there in facultyland for sharing their insights and experiences with me during the writing of this article.


European University Institute. Academic careers by country (Online).

Mangiarua EI, Lowy ME, Urban JH. Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 survey results. The Physiologist 61: 175–185, 2018.

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics: 2016 (Online).

Reichman H. Important legal victory for faculty rights (Online).

Erika Boesen Biography

Erika Boesen received her BS (Hons.) and PhD in physiology from Monash University, Australia, before moving to the then Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, GA in 2005 to continue her research career in renal physiology and pathophysiology. After completing her postdoctoral training and serving as a research faculty member for 4 years, Erika was recruited to the University of Nebraska Medical Center as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2012. Currently an associate professor, Erika enjoys the juggling act of research, teaching graduate and health professions students, and providing service within and outside her institution. A past member of the American Physiological Society’s Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee, Erika is the current Renal Section representative on the Committee on Committees.

New Post-Doc: Relocating with Children

Ida T. Fonkoue, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University

“Take a deep breath! It won’t be easy but you will make it.” This might sound like a cliché, but I wish I had told myself this when I moved across the country a year ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship with two young children. When my academic journey began 6 years ago, I knew that moving—possibly multiple times—was going to be a part of my career. What I did not know was that my journey as a wife and a mother would not fit into the typical scientist pathway that I had read about. I did not know that finding a good school for my children was going to weigh more in my decision-making process than a great program or a great research environment. I was far from imagining that before considering a postdoctoral offer, I needed to first research “niche” or “great schools” before looking at the future lab’s webpage. I was lucky to hit the jackpot, because I got both a great school for my children and a great research environment. Although a postdoctoral position is supposed to be temporary, a stepping-stone for your academic/non-academic career, the issues that arise when relocating with a family often do not differ.

How May Your Move Affect Your Finances?

Moving is ridiculously expensive, and doing so with a family adds to the financial burden. Going from the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the southern state of Georgia was costly. It was not the first time my family had relocated for a job, but it was the first time none of the expenses were covered or reimbursed. Moving a family that includes children across the U.S. can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000 or more (4). As a post-doc, you will have to keep in mind that there is likely no moving allowance, start-up funds, or hiring bonuses included in your contract to help offset your moving expenses. Given that you may not be able to afford private schools for your children, you will need to find housing in a district with good public/charter schools. As you can imagine, this does not necessarily come cheap. Furthermore, a post-doc job requires 40+ hours of work per week; this means that you also need to think about childcare (after school or summer camp programs) for your children while you are at work. A post-doc relocating alone could probably live on rice and beans until the first salary comes, but as a scientist and a parent, you know that feeding your children a well-balanced meal and keeping them healthy is a requirement! To avoid going in the red before your first salary—which you will get probably after being on the job for a month—you will have to think strategically, plan accordingly and accept all the help you can get from your family and friends (3). I was fortunate to have my husband’s support throughout the moving process, financially and physically. We cut down on moving costs by packing our house ourselves with the help of great friends. Most importantly, my husband took a sabbatical for a year and worked from home to take care of the kids; this gave them a better transition into their new lives, allowed us to save money on childcare, and gave me more time to spend at work. Fellow post-docs, your situation might be different from mine, but I can tell you that it gets better, and, in the end, it’s all worth it.

How May Your Move Affect You?

When you move, you leave your social support network—friends and family—behind. When I started my PhD program with two children under the age of 4, I needed a lot of extra help and support in addition to what my husband provided, and fortunately for me, my friends and church community stepped in. Without them, I don’t think I could have completed my dissertation. Moving away for my post-doc severed those connections that I had relied on for years, which opened the door to anxiety. Moving and changing jobs are major life stressors (1, 2), and without a network of support, they can result in depression or health issues. My advice is that, despite the demands of a new job and a new environment, you should stay connected to your family and friends via mail, phone, and new technologies. In the meantime, it is important to make connections with other post-docs in your department or university—old and new—and learn how they cope with the stress of the job. Talk to parents you meet at the park and if your children are in school, make time to attend parents’ meetings, and connect with other working parents. You might be surprised to find out that you are not the only post-doc or parent who recently moved far from everybody they knew and depended on. Be patient and get to know the people you meet. Be open to making new friends and embrace your new environment. One year later, I have been able to build some good friendships, and you will too!

How May Your Move Affect Your Family?

As hard as the move could be for you, it cannot compare to the feeling of “rupture” your family will feel. You moved for the job while they moved for you. My children felt ripped from their friends and the only community they knew, and they reminded me of this for months following our move. But you shouldn’t worry too much about this. Children tend to adapt faster and better. Mine have since made new friends and best friends. Whether your partner is in academia or not, moving is logistically difficult for families that depend on two incomes. Finding a job for your spouse can be difficult to impossible, thereby putting a strain on your relationship and finances. I had a different situation because my husband was still receiving a salary while on leave, but I am aware that this is more of an exception than the rule. Although a post-doc position does not come with help for spousal accommodation, your new principal investigator (PI) might be able to connect you with people who can help. Just remember to express your needs and ask for help as soon as you start considering the offer. Your partner might also join you on your campus visit to explore the area for opportunities. Don’t forget to check the weather! If you are a family that enjoys outdoor activities and the weather in your new town is drastically different from that of the previous location, as in my case, you will have to learn as a family to adapt to the change and find new hobbies. Just remember that every change is an opportunity for discovery, and this one is not different. My family and I have been enjoying all the great attractions our new community has to offer. We feel lucky to have moved to a place with great diversity, vibrant cultural life, great food, and great scenery. The challenges and frustration your nuclear family will face, if they are not addressed, could be an added stress that will affect your productivity at work.

How May Your Move Affect Your Position/Job?

It is not a secret that your state of mind dictates the state of your work. I spent a lot of time at work wondering whether I had made the right decision for my family. I had found a great school district for my children, but would that be enough? How would they adjust to their new school and their new environment? Would they make friends? Would their teachers be a good match? Thinking about those challenges, at times, took my focus away from my new job. Furthermore, the anxiety caused by uncertainty and lack of social support network threatened to cost me the job I had left everything for. I later found out that, while I was worrying, my family was having fun exploring the parks and trails, swimming, biking, and going on walks. As I said in the beginning, remember to take a deep breath and tell yourself that everything will be fine. You have been through challenging moments before (birth of your children, early parenthood, graduate school, dissertation, etc.), and you made it. This family relocation for your post-doc will soon be another challenge you conquered in your quest for the advancement of your career. Express your needs and obstacles early on to your partner, your PI, or the mentors you have. They all want you to succeed!

What Did I Learn?

Start with the end in mind before accepting the position. Once you do, dive in and do not worry too much.

Do not get too excited, and do not make any promises. We all know the “what am I going to do when I graduate?” feeling, and because of that, we get very excited if we are lucky to meet a PI interested in us before our graduation. Be excited, but hold off on making promises you might not be able to keep if you don’t want to burn some bridges. Remember that even though the post-doc position is about you, your family’s needs and priorities are an important part of the decision-making process. If you are lucky enough to have more than one offer, pick the right one for your family, because if they are happy, chances are you will be happy too, and your productivity at work will really show it.

Talk to your family and make sure your partner and children are on-board. No matter how prestigious a PI, lab, or university is, your success there will depend in part on the support of your family. You will have to learn how to work in a new environment, with new people, and on new projects. It might come with a lot of frustration and uncertainty. Thus home needs to be a safe and happy place, because when you move, your nuclear family initially will be the only social network you will have for a while. Be supportive of each other! Relocating is difficult in many ways, especially for someone leaving everything for a partner’s new job.

Consult your advisor and mentors and listen carefully. It is true that not all graduate students have a great relationship with their advisors. If this is the case for you, my hope is that, during your PhD training, you met a great mentor who can guide you through this process. I was very fortunate to have an advisor who has been a role model for me as a scientist. His advice and gift to me was “work hard and dream big.” The training and work ethic he instilled in me have made this journey less difficult and a very rewarding one so far. Knowing that he is always one text or phone call away relieved some of my earliest anxiety. Through the American Physiological Society (APS) and Michigan Physiological Society, I also bonded with amazing female scientists who have become mentors and role models to me. One of them helped me figure out the type of questions I could ask before accepting an offer. She will remain a lifelong mentor.

Finally, choose a flexible PI. Regardless of her/his family situation, your post-doc mentor should be one who understands the complexities of who you are—parent first and scientist second. An amazing assistant professor I met recently told me something that described so well the physiologist I want to be. She said that she doesn’t want to be just a woman with children, but she wants to be a mother! There is a saying that “if you want to know somebody, ask the people they hang out with.” If you want to know a prospective boss, ask the people they work(ed) with (research coordinators, graduate students, and previous post-docs) and listen. The impression and feedback I got about my now post-doc mentor when I did the job interview and site visit remain the same 1 year later. We have a great working relationship and friendship. My PI understands that sometimes I can be late or absent for personal or family reasons. However, there is always an understanding that work needs to be done, papers have to be written, and grants submitted. After all, your own career depends on it.

In conclusion, I wish you, my fellow post-docs, the best of luck on your new and exciting academic journey. May you think about your family well-being, plan well, listen well, and carefully choose your new location, program, lab, and future mentor!

Ida T. Fonkoue Biography

Dr. Fonkoue is currently a second-year post-doctoral fellow at Emory University in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanie Park. She completed her medical degree in 2006 in Cameroon. She later moved to the U.S. and trained under Dr. Jason Carter at Michigan Technological University, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in December 2016. Her long-term research goal is to understand how the sympathetic nervous system, vasculature and inflammation interplay to contribute to the high cardiovascular disease risk of patients living with chronic stress, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.


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The Flight Safety Briefing for Your Career

Merry L. Lindsey,  University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi; and G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi

One benefit of a physiology research career is that you travel: to conferences to learn new science, to universities to present seminars, and to other laboratories to learn new approaches. As a result, it is fair to say that I hear the flight safety briefing on an airplane more than the average person. It was during one of the briefings that I started to think how similar what the flight attendants were telling me was with what I tell my trainees. It occurred to me that the flight safety briefing could be used to help prepare for a successful research career. Below are the seven main instructions, with discussion on how they can apply to your career:

  • Know the rules
  • Choose the right institution and program
  • Know what you want
  • Your mentor shows you the way
  • Use all resources available
  • Know when you need to help yourself first
  • Prepare to be successful

Read the Safety Card: Know the Rules

Knowing the rules will help you to design a plan to accomplish your goals. For example, knowing the promotion and tenure guidelines will benefit you in developing a time line for advancement. Communication is important, not only in disseminating your science but also in discussing with your mentors what you want to accomplish and in discussing with your lab what you want them to accomplish. Your mentors can also help by telling you the unwritten rules or tips that they have acquired along the way. Not having to re-invent the wheel should save you a lot of time and effort. Networking is important for building a support group that can advance your career, and knowing the ethics involved will help you maintain the reputation you want. Another rule to follow is to keep a great lab notebook as a way to stay safe against any questions that may arise regarding your research. The best defense is a good offense, and being prepared by doing everything right from the start will strengthen your reputation. Knowing and following the rules for your university and granting agency will keep you safe from issues that could derail your career.

Seat Belts: Choose the Right Institution and Program

Being a good fit helps you to be secure. To choose the right fit, you need to know what you need, since every place and mentor has strengths and weaknesses. For example, a large medical school where you are expected to have two large grants and support all of your salary may not be a good fit for a one-grant principal investigator. You do not need to be a perfect fit, but your views and standards, as well as your abilities, should align sufficiently enough that you can be productive and progress in both your research and your career. In some cases where the fit is not right, you will find roadblocks put up that slow down your progress.

Emergency Exits: Know What You Want

Defining what success means to you will show you where to focus your attention. This is an individual endeavor, and the sooner you take the time to define success for yourself, the sooner you will see progress toward your goals. The trick here is to be honest with yourself and not make decisions based on what you think others think you should do. Another safety reminder is to keep in mind that the closest exit may be behind you. Always have back-up plans B and C in case things do not work out as originally planned (and this is often the case). Explore all of the options available to you, since the most obvious ones may not be the best for you. Frequent discussions with your mentor, including brutally honest conversations, are needed early and often. If your mentor is not bringing up the topic, take initiative to start the conversation. You should also take advantage of resources that allow you to gauge strengths and weaknesses. For example, the National Postdoctoral Association has developed a list of six core competencies, and you can use this list to assess your competitiveness for a research faculty position or gauge where you need to spend more effort ( The core competencies include being an expert in concepts specific to your field; having research skills, communication skills, professionalism, leadership and management skills; and taking formal training in the responsible conduct of research. Take time during your training years to acquire these skills.

Floor Path Lighting: Your Mentor Shows You the Way

You mentor models the way, helps you develop your guide, tailors advice to your stage, stretches you, and serves as a life-long advocate. An effective mentor shows you how to accomplish the difficult, or what you think is impossible, on the way to helping you accomplish your goals. You can use physics formulas to develop and maintain a career plan (Lindsey ML, de Castro Bras LE. The physics of an academic career. Adv Physiol Educ 41: 493–497, 2017. doi:10.1152/advan.00105.2017). For example, distance is velocity × time, and any of those three variables can be adjusted as needed. A good mentor will be a good listener, will challenge you, and will develop a two-way street with you. I have a number of graduate students and pre-faculty fellows who trained with me that I now consider colleagues and ask them for advice; it is great to see them develop in their own careers. A major phenotype of a good mentor is that he or she helps you to expand your comfort zone by continually stepping outside of it. Trainees, junior faculty, and experienced investigators should avoid complacency, since this is the easiest way to become out of date.

Life Vest: Use All Resources Available

Knowing how to find what you need to know, before you need to know it, is a trick that successful physiologists have learned. Voracious reading is common in the profiles of successful scientists, and reading includes journal articles but also the vast amount of advice and information provided on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. No matter your stage, your lab is your life vest; rely on them. Communication is important for this component, and using all resources available to you, including peer mentoring, will help you be productive. Having a peer mentor to spring board ideas across is an understated but highly effective resource. When I was starting out, two other assistant professors met with me weekly, and the three of us would discuss ongoing research as well as manuscripts and grants that we were writing. We all collaborated with each other, and by combining our research became stronger. I still rely on peer mentors today.

Oxygen Mask: Know When You Need to Help Yourself First

If the oxygen mask comes down, you need to put your mask on first before assisting others. There will be times when writing that manuscript and submitting that grant takes precedence over other activities. Focusing and saying yes only to what matters most will help you to triage activities that are not primary to your success. I must admit, I am not the best to give advice on this rule, since I find myself reviewing manuscripts and grants on many weekends when I should be recharging or working on my own submissions. A good rule of thumb is that you should give back to the scientific community the same that you request from it. That means for every manuscript or grant you submit, you should review six manuscripts or grants (assuming three reviewers for a submission and one revision).

Seats Back and Tray Tables Up: Prepare to be Successful

As you have progressed, you have hopefully received the best training possible, including primary research skills (ethics, experimental design, data analysis, presentation, and manuscript writing) and secondary skills necessary for success (lab and budget management). Use your mentors, particularly your peer mentors, to get advice along the way. This will prepare you for a successful career. In conclusion, following the flight safety briefing will help you to plan and develop a successful career.


Dr. Lindsey acknowledges funding from the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers GM-104357, GM-114833, GM-115428, HL-051971, HL-075360, and HL-129823; and from the Biomedical Laboratory Research and Development Service of the Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development under Award Number 5I01BX000505.

The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Veterans Administration.

Merry L. Lindsey Biography

Merry L. Lindsey is professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and Director of the Mississippi Center for Heart Research (MCHR). MCHR is dedicated to performing cardiovascular research that involves developing multidimensional approaches to examine the mechanisms whereby the left ventricle responds to injury; applying the knowledge gained to develop therapeutic strategies to prevent, slow, or reverse the progression to heart failure; disseminating their results to the general, scientific, and medical communities; and educating the next generation of scientists. Her research is focused on extracellular matrix responses to cardiac injury and aging.

Lindsey’s research has led to more than 180 publications, and she has received grant support from the American Heart Association (AHA), the Voelcker Foundation, Novartis, the Veterans Administration, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Lindsey serves on the editorial boards for the American Journal of Physiology—Heart and Circulatory Physiology, Comprehensive Physiology, Circulation Research, and Basic Research in Cardiology and is actively involved in the APS, AHA, and the American Society of Matrix Biology. She has reviewed grants for the AHA, NIH, and numerous international funding agencies, and has presented her research at over 100 national and international venues. Her trainees routinely publish high-impact articles, win research awards for excellence, and successfully transition to independent faculty positions.

Trust and Open Communication: Successful mentoring strategies that transcend differences in language, culture or style

Caroline B. Appleyard, PhD, Ponce School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Puerto Rico

What is a mentor?

According to Webster’s dictionary being a mentor is defined as ‘a wise and trusted counselor or teacher’ (1), more recently ‘a trusted counselor or guide’ (2), or on google ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’. The common theme here appears to be trust which holds up to my own perception and experience that as a mentor you are privileged by the fact that someone has chosen to place their trust in you and believes that you have their best interests at heart in your efforts to guide them. When I was asked to write an article based on my experiences and insights on mentorship for underrepresented minorities I really had to think about what mentoring means to me and try to articulate how I mentor. For the last 20 years I have been on faculty at a Hispanic-serving institution located in the south of Puerto Rico and have been fortunate to mentor over 100 underrepresented minority students (undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral) either within my laboratory or through our graduate training program. Each of these experiences has been unique, and often both rewarding and challenging.

My introduction to mentoring

My own awareness of having a ‘mentor’ versus a Laboratory Principal Investigator during my scientific training didn’t really become apparent until I started my postdoctoral training in the early 1990s and heard of mentoring programs under various professional societies. Although the word’s origins date back to the mid-18th century the popularity of the concept of mentoring appears to have blossomed during the last 20 years perhaps in part by an increased understanding of the importance of role models to achieving equity in science for both, women and underrepresented populations (3). Although I am not considered an underrepresented minority (by ethnicity) it is notable that throughout my undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate education in Britain, Canada and the United States there was one common denominator – a lack of female role models. I have never been taught by a woman. Further, it was very obvious that the vast majority of the professors, and later colleagues, were both male and white. Although slowly changing, it is unfortunate that the numbers of underrepresented groups in academia and the sciences still remain low (4).

During my post-doctoral studies in Canada and South Dakota I first became aware of the hardships faced by Native Americans in science.  One of my prior mentees that I remember the best was a young girl pursuing summer research in the lab at the University of South Dakota.  She told me that it was completely expected for her to get pregnant and leave high school like the rest of her family, and that the summer program opened her eyes to a whole range of other possibilities. It was at that time that I became aware of the potential impact of STEM outreach. Dr. Barb Goodman (long time American Physiological Society (APS) member and Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week advocate) was already very involved in going into the local schools in Vermillion, South Dakota, to expose the kids to science. She told us about her experiences and this was illuminating for me since I had received very little information during my schooling as to what a career in science might entail, aside from the pharmaceutical industry. I began to appreciate that for many students, the path towards a successful career in science should depend on things other than luck, such as guidance towards opportunities and how to make the most of these. This has become readily apparent as we appreciate the difference that successful targeted research mentoring can make in an effort to overcome inequities in retention of minorities in the sciences (5). When I was asked to become the Graduate Student Association Advisor I became aware that the students within our graduate program were asking for additional training and had an interest in improving their competitiveness for life after graduate school. I also noticed that there were issues which were hindering the students’ progress so that many times they were underperforming not due to lack of ability, but rather a lack of mentoring.

Mentoring Styles – How does mine fit?

As I started my own lab I ‘mentored’ my own students how I would have liked to be mentored, trying to set guidelines, expectations, milestones and deadlines.  I learnt that what worked for some (strict deadlines and constant follow up) would not work for others. We are all individuals and respond to stress and obligations in different ways. It has always been very important to me to stress to my trainees that what they want to achieve in life is a very personal decision and I see success in all forms. I have had to adapt my own way of ‘balancing’ things as someone who completed graduate school and had a family later in life, to help provide advice to students in my laboratory who have been through all stages of family life while completing their studies (single, engaged, married, pregnant, children, divorce). I have tried to provide an open space encouraging my mentees to identify their own passions and what interests them. It is important for them to realize that there is ‘no right way’ and that our depth and amalgamation of background experiences help to shape our research and our contributions to our scientific endeavors.  However, I strongly believe that it is also extremely important that when one enters a mentoring situation there is a realization that a commitment is being made on both sides which must be upheld for the outcomes to be successful. Each side of the equation is trusting the other to follow through on their promises. Although this does not always need to be formalized with written documents, in my own experience, written expectations and timelines have always proven very useful for helping to ensure that mentoring relationships stay on track.

The single biggest failing I see which causes a multitude of problems in different laboratories and mentoring relationships is simply poor communication.  This inevitably leads to not clearly outlining and understanding expectations from both the mentor and trainee. The risk for this can be even higher when mentoring an underrepresented minority where there can be great differences in language, culture and accepted social norms on top of differences in communication style and personality, and even implicit bias.

Working in a predominantly Spanish speaking U.S. territory I very quickly realized that all sorts of miscommunications can occur when rapidly giving instructions with an apparently ‘strong’ Scottish accent. In person, a nodded head often did NOT equal understanding. It is important to realize your mentees might be hesitant to ask you to explain what you mean, or to slow down.  A helpful solution is to ask the trainee to reiterate what you agreed upon, and this can also be followed up by emailing a summary of the decided plans after the meeting with follow up deadlines (also a good way of tracking for both mentees and mentors). Likewise, my ‘to the point’ requests have sometimes been misconstrued as being ‘brusque’ in a culture where there are commonly many more niceties first. This can be especially true when communicating by email where you lose the ability to interpret facial expressions.  Ask trusted colleagues and staff, or more senior students, for feedback. It was a revelation to learn that when trainees sometimes didn’t do something as quickly as I was expecting this was in large part due to my tendency to preface requests with ‘when you have time’ when really, I wanted it as soon as possible (and apparently when I say ‘as soon as possible’ it means I wanted it yesterday!).

How I implemented vision across the graduate program from my own lab

There are many levels of mentoring ranging from those relationships that take place both formally and informally within the single research lab (undergraduates, graduates, postdocs), through to mentoring those students at a programmatic level, and then to junior faculty who are colleagues. In general, I have found very useful a ‘team mentoring’ approach and setting realistic milestones within a supportive but accountable environment. This has been one of the cornerstones for the success of students in our NIH-NIGMS funded Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) RISE Graduate Training Program (6) which has helped increase the competitiveness and retention of underrepresented Hispanic students participating in biomedical research in our interdisciplinary PhD Program. Novel initiatives we put in place to help our students succeed better include team mentoring programs and ‘pairing’ of trainees with peer mentors chosen to help provide advice and direction matched according to the student’s family and personal circumstances. We have a unique situation in Puerto Rico in terms of language and also culturally with many first-generation graduate students. Taking into consideration the individual as a whole, not just their research or career goals aims to provide a more solid support system.  We have also implemented various workshops targeted specifically towards handling stressful situations and focusing on building our trainees self-esteem and confidence by working on their oral and written communication skills, goal setting and time management.

Mentoring models

There are many different formalized mentoring models which are outside the scope of this column however those which I have encountered and found to be useful include:

Peer Mentoring – in this scenario a mentee is paired with another trainee or professional who is in a similar situation or stage of their career in order to share experiences.  This can be very valuable both within a research laboratory where the common situation is most likely the research topic and PI but can also take place between labs. In many ways this is the type of mentoring I have most utilized for my own personal needs, alternately using colleagues as a sounding board for gathering insights and information to deal with every-day situations (akin to a ‘buddy’ support system) to asking for advice and guidance from those just a little ahead of me. This latter situation we have found extremely beneficial for our PHSU RISE Graduate Training Program where we pair trainees with a ‘successful’ student a couple of years ahead of them, the idea being that they can share their insights and give tips and pointers as to how best navigate the graduate school process.

Team Mentoring matches a trainee with multiple mentors. These can be selected by the mentee or by the institution. The team has a common goal directed towards helping the trainee succeed. In my own institution, under our PHSU RISE Graduate Training Program, we have used this approach very successfully to provide a variety of input and guidance to the mentee. The ‘team’ comprises the mentee, their research mentor, a faculty advisor from the program’s internal advisory committee and their peer mentor.

Network Mentoring recognizes that it is hard for one mentor to provide all the support that a trainee needs, especially as the requirements change over time. A network of mentors each provides their own unique expertise and experience on different aspects of the mentee’s career and research.

E-Mentoring allows trainees to access a mentor online without any geographical limitations. This can be particularly useful for those who are training in a smaller institution where they might not have such a broad range of expertise readily available on campus.  I have mentored students as an APS member through MentorNet and am now part of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) which we actively encourage all our students and faculty to join. My experience with this type of mentoring has generally been positive but I think depends largely on what the trainee’s expectations are and what kind of resources/help they are looking for. An extension of this kind of mentoring model are the more formalized hybrid versions whereby there is an in-person ‘kick-off’ followed by a year-long follow up with several formal meetings.  Examples of these which our own underrepresented doctoral students have participated in include the Yale Ciencia Academy (7) and the Academy for Future Science Faculty (8). Both aim to provide graduate students with opportunities for mentoring, peer support and networking to help develop important skills for their career. The latter, a randomized controlled trial developed, and is testing, a coaching-based model to complement more traditional mentoring scenarios.

Nuances to mentoring underrepresented groups

Although I strongly believe in treating everyone fairly, this does not equate to treating everyone the same, particularly when it comes to mentoring underrepresented groups. It is crucial to remember the old saying ‘one size does not fit all’. Language, culture and personality differences all play a role. Having lived in several countries with different languages, accents and cultures I have often been the outsider in the room and can perhaps understand to some extent the feeling of ‘being the only one’ that underrepresented minorities can experience in science. For many students at our institution their primary language is not English and also for many they are the first in their family to attend graduate school. In addition to facing the regular academic challenges they are often balancing conflicting family demands and expectations. In my opinion it is important to help the trainee identify their weaknesses and strengths in order to set realistic expectations and timelines.  In our program one of the more useful tools are having all students assemble and constantly update a professional portfolio (9). This highlights their professional and community service activities and provides documentation of their achievement of goals. Not only does this provide a great way for the students to visually organize all their materials and provide them with evidence of their accomplishments but also helps the mentor to be aware of which areas need strengthening and what skills the trainee has that even they might not be aware of.

Related to the point above it is important to take time to celebrate successes. I think Mentors need to promote their mentees so they can believe in themselves and help to overcome the well-recognized ‘imposter syndrome’.  The feeling that one does not belong, cannot succeed or continually doubts one’s capability is common at all levels of higher education (and even as we advance further in our careers) but has been identified as a particularly relevant issue affecting participation in STEM by underrepresented minorities (10,11).

Recognizing that a common weakness in our students is their English communication skills it is important to appreciate that more time is needed for review and refinement of written assignments. As a mentor, I try to focus on the point that the trainee is trying to get across and provide as many opportunities as possible for the trainee to develop their communication skills. This has been combined with encouraging our students to become involved in outreach activities within our local elementary and high schools, such as the APS PhUn week, where they become more proficient at speaking in public. This also helps them to explain better to their families what graduate school involves and communicate their science to their family and friends.

It is vital to be open to new ideas and honest feedback. Over the years my own mentoring style and activities under our graduate training program have evolved through input from colleagues, but more importantly my mentees. It is important to get to know your mentees outside the lab so you can build trust and encourage further open communication. They are the ones who often come up with requests, ideas and suggestions for addressing their needs.  A phenomenal example of this are our annual RISE program Philosophy of Science Retreats. These offsite two-day activities enhance team building and increase interactions between faculty and trainees in a less formal atmosphere, enabling the students to recognize how the program staff can be of help to them, and how their interactions with other people in the program are a valuable source of research, academic, and personal support. This activity was implemented in response to specific requests by trainees. Themes are varied, ranging from ethics and scientific philosophy to science policy and more general aspects of scientific life. Most recently we focused on ‘Science and Wellness’ encouraging trainees to self-reflect about their current practices for self-care and stress management with an aim to provide trainees with healthier life tools to help them succeed in their academic, personal and professional life.

Final closing thoughts

To be a successful mentor takes time (a lot!) and patience. There has to be follow through on both parts, and for many successful academics who are juggling already busy schedules with grant writing, research and teaching, the time required can be hard to prioritize. However, passing along our knowledge and helping the next generation of scientists to succeed can be immensely rewarding and are vital if we are to address the ongoing disparities in science. Some relationships may end as soon as the formal agreement or training is complete but others continue for years. In addition to the many requests for recommendation letters (where warranted), or advice, I continue to send announcements for opportunities that I feel a former mentee could benefit from and try to track their progress. The sense of pride felt when a former mentee wins an award, gains a faculty promotion or even finds their own path in an unexpected direction is enormously rewarding. Lastly, one cannot underestimate the fact that from each mentee we also learn something. They can push our research and thoughts in new directions and sometimes force us outside our comfort zone.

Author Bio

Caroline B. Appleyard is Program Director for the RISE Graduate Training program at Ponce Health Sciences University. She is a Professor in the Department of Basic Sciences – Physiology Division with an active research program directed towards elucidating the neuro-immune mechanisms and consequences of inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract with a view to developing complementary therapies.  She has personally mentored over 100 underrepresented students at all levels in her laboratory. The RISE program is supported by NIH-NIGMS (GM082406) and provides professional development and career skills training for graduate students pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Sciences in order to strengthen their future competitiveness. Caroline has served on the APS Women in Physiology Committee and the Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee. In 2017 she was the inaugural recipient of the APS A. Clifford Barger Underrepresented Minority Mentorship Award.



1. Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the English language. New rev Ed 1994 Published by Random House
2. Marriam-Webster Online dictionary
Accessed April 3rd, 2018
4. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at
5. Haeger H, Frsquez C. Mentoring for inclusion: the impact of mentoring on undergraduate researchers in the sciences. CBE-Life Sciences Education 15:ar36, 1–9, Fall 2016
6. Ponce Health Sciences University RISE graduate training program (NIH-NIGMS R25GM082406)
7. Yale Ciencia Academy for Career Development
8. Thakore BK, Naffziger-Hirsch ME, Richardson JL, Williams SN, McGee R. The Academy for Future Science Faculty: randomized controlled trial of theory-driven coaching to shape development and diversity of early-career scientists. BMC Medical Education 2014 14:160
9. Baez A, Pacheco W, Appleyard CB (2012) The Graduate Student Portfolio: Organize and Energize Your Career Development.  The Physiologist, Vol. 55, No. 5, 177-178 PMID:23155926
10. Barragan, 2009,“Overcoming Barriers to Higher Education: The Experience of Latina/os Graduate Students at the University of Washington,” The McNair Scholars Journal of the University of Washington, Vol. VIII: 53-64
11. Parkman A (2016) The Imposter Phenomenon in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice Vol. 16(1) 2016, 51-60
Tips for the Aspiring Physician-Scientist

Jeanie Park, MD, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA

For most physicians, the pathway to a career in science often appears ambiguous and uncertain. Although the trajectory to becoming a practicing clinician is clearly defined, with well-demarcated milestones such as passing the USMLE step exams and completing residency training, the path to becoming a physician-scientist is not clear-cut. In fact, most physicians are unaware of the steps involved in fashioning a career in scientific research or the rewards and challenges involved in such a pursuit. In addition, unless one has dual MD and PhD degrees, a physician without PhD training may feel like a “late bloomer” when pursuing a career in science and not adequately trained or prepared. We may feel that our PhD counterparts have been preparing for years throughout graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships for a research career, while we have been training for an entirely different type of career in clinical medicine and patient care. These and other obstacles have led to a relative dearth in the number of young physicians pursuing academic research careers. However, physicians may evolve into successful scientists with some planning and foresight, and enjoy fulfilling careers that combine scientific research with patient care and teaching.

What is a Physician-Scientist?

A physician-scientist is a practicing clinician who spends the bulk of his or her time doing research. Like their PhD counterparts, physician scientists conduct all types of biomedical research, including basic, translational, clinical, and population studies. Physician-scientists also engage in clinical activities, teaching, service, and administration. Unlike clinician-educators that usually spend a minority of their time pursuing scholarly activities, physician-scientists typically devote at least 50% or more of their time in research activities as a principal investigator funded by federal and foundation grants. Research activities include a variety of specific endeavors, with some variation depending on the type of research program. These include writing grants and papers, performing experiments, training students and research fellows, collaborating with other investigators, serving on study sections, and presenting at national meetings. Although physicians may have relatively less experience in these areas, such skills can be developed during fellowship and as a junior faculty member. In addition, physicians have unique perspectives and backgrounds, which include scientific and clinical expertise, both of which can be leveraged when competing for grants and establishing a research program. Physician-scientists identify clinically relevant questions at the bedside, study these questions in the laboratory, and then apply that knowledge back at the bedside.

Do You Have the Desire for an Academic Research Career?

Given our relatively late start as MDs, you may wonder whether you have what it takes to become a physician-scientist. Several resources list various qualities that are necessary to becoming a physician-scientist, including being hard-working, self-motivated with perseverance, capable of problem-solving and multi-tasking with the focus and ability to see things through to the end. I believe that, for the most part, physicians possess these intrinsic traits, since these are also the qualities necessary for surviving the rigors of medical school and clinical training. In my opinion, the essential ingredient necessary for success as a physician-scientist is the desire to pursue this career path, and the commitment to make it your goal. This commitment is crucial because it will ensure that you apply your skills and talents to establishing a scientific career with the same fervor that has made you successful thus far. This level of commitment is akin to the commitment made when completing medical school and residency; if one’s mindset was open to giving up and opting for an alternative career if things got rough, then many of us may have given up medicine during our internship when working long hours on call under sleep-deprived and stressful conditions. However, giving up was not an option. When this same level of commitment is applied to pursuing an academic research career, then you have an excellent chance of successfully establishing a fulfilling and rewarding career as a physician-scientist.

There are many advantages of a physician-scientist career that make it a very attractive career choice. I particularly value the variety of the work. On any given day, I may be treating outpatients in the clinic, conducting experiments in the lab, rounding on hospital patients with residents, discussing grant ideas with my postdoctoral fellow, attending a scientific meeting, etc. This type of variety allows me to use my creativity and exercise different parts of my brain in interesting and stimulating ways, as well as eliminate any threat of a mundane work life. Many physician-scientists also appreciate the constant learning and opportunity for advancement. After completing training and becoming an attending physician, some physicians are left with a sense of “what next,” which can lead to long-term job dissatisfaction. In academic medicine, there are constantly new goals to be met, and endless ways to grow and evolve. Flexibility and autonomy are also important factors that enhance job satisfaction. Not only are the work hours more flexible in general than in private practice, but the type of work, including the types of clinical activities and research endeavors, is also more flexible and under my control. These advantages lead to a deeply satisfying sense that I am contributing on multiple levels: directly to patients through clinical work, broadly to scientific knowledge through research, and to the education of future physicians and scientists through teaching.

There are also a number of disadvantages that should be considered when pursuing this pathway. The salary of a physician-scientist is lower than that of physicians in private practice, which can be worrisome for those with large amounts of student loans. However, programs such as the NIH loan repayment program help to decrease the burden by paying a substantial portion of medical school debt for physicians engaged in research. Second, a career as a physician-scientist requires a great deal of troubleshooting. Unlike the clinical training years, your career as a physician-scientist may not follow the trajectory and timetable that you have set in your mind. Technical problems will arise, experiments may not go as planned, grants may take multiple attempts to get funded, and papers will be rejected. This kind of uncertainty and rejection may be difficult to deal with given that physicians are accustomed to achieving each expected outcome within an expected timeframe. However, science does not tend to work this way. Troubleshooting and adaptability are part of the scientific process. In short, failure is an essential part of the journey toward success in this line of work.

Tips for Preparing for a Physician-Scientist Career

1) Choose Your Scientific Niche

For physicians, research training often begins late in the game during residency or clinical fellowship. Therefore, it is crucial to think long-term when choosing a research area. Choose an area that you are passionate about, while leveraging the resources and expertise at your given institution, as well as your own strengths and talents. Given our late start in scientific training, you want to avoid switching fields during or after fellowship, and establish a foundation for a continuous line of research. For example, I became interested in autonomic regulation and its role in the pathogenesis of high blood pressure and kidney disease during my Nephrology fellowship. I became passionate about human physiology research and felt that there was a critical gap in our understanding and approach to treatment in this area to which I could devote my career long-term while continuing to treat patients.

2) Seek Mentorship

There is a consensus that good mentorship is a critical component of research training that can determine success or failure. However, mentorship is not a passive process on the part of the mentee. The mentee is not a receptacle into which a mentor pours his or her wisdom and guides each step of the way. Rather, the mentee will gain more by being an active player in the mentor-mentee relationship. It is best to understand your training needs and then actively seek out mentors who can fulfill those deficits. To that end, it is difficult to find a single person who can fulfill all of your training needs; therefore, you may have separate mentors for your science, career development, work-life balance, etc. Therefore, your mentors may be outside of your division, department, or even institution. However, one common characteristic of your mentors should be an interest in seeing you succeed, and the ability to offer honest advice with your best interests at the forefront.

3) Write a Fellowship Grant

Having the experience of writing a grant during your fellowship training will be an invaluable asset during your first faculty position. Even if you are fortunate enough to be supported on an institutional training grant or have other guaranteed sources of funding, I would still highly recommend writing a fellowship grant. Why? The process of writing a grant allows you to formulate your short-term as well as your long-term objectives, and will serve as a useful springboard for your career development award application as a junior faculty member. Writing a fellowship grant will provide experience with formulating research aims and approach, grantsmanship and scientific writing, organization and submission process as the principal investigator, and responses to a summary statement. Submitting the first grant application is an arduous process with a steep learning curve; therefore, you do not want your first grant-writing experience to occur as a faculty member. Writing a fellowship grant will set you up for writing a much stronger career development award application as a faculty member.

4) Practice Independence

Practicing self-reliance during your training period will increase your likelihood of success when you are indeed independent. Although it may be easiest to go to your mentor with each problem or unexpected result, try your best to solve the issue initially as much as possible on your own. Doing so will improve your technical proficiency and troubleshooting abilities. Understand the nuts and bolts of every aspect of performing research, including IACUC or IRB process, data management, and safety monitoring. If possible, set up a lab or a new experimental protocol on your own. This experience will be invaluable when you start your first faculty job and need to set up your own lab. And importantly, don’t rush it. This training period is a golden opportunity to gain as much proficiency as possible before embarking on your own. As such, it is in your best interest to continue training until you feel sufficiently prepared to develop your own program.

5) Find the Right First Faculty Position

The criteria for determining the right first faculty position will depend on many factors, both professional and personal. For instance, you may be restricted to a certain city or state due to family reasons, or institutions with a specific patient population that you need for enrollment into your studies. There is not one single type of institution that will guarantee success, but rather many different institutions at which one has the potential to start a successful research career. What these institutions have in common is that the goals of the department align with your long-term career goals. For example, if the department’s goal is to recruit a clinician-educator but your goal is to establish an independent research career, then this is likely not a good fit, even if the institution is a top-tier research institution or promises you some degree of protected research time. If the department’s goal is to see you succeed in research, then it will be more open to providing resources and, importantly, protected time to develop your research program. At the same time, be sure to have a clear understanding of what you will need to be successful (lab space, clinical coordinator support, protected time, start-up funds, etc), and communicate those needs before you start the job. It is much more difficult to ask for these things after you have been hired.

Navigating the first faculty job and all of the new responsibilities will take time. Early on, invest your time into establishing your research career. You can always increase your clinical time later, but it is difficult to do the reverse. If possible, relate your clinical work and teaching to your research endeavors. In this way, your clinical work will inform your research, and your research will inform your clinical work. Moreover, you will further develop your scientific niche and your reputation as a leader (both clinically and scientifically) in your field. Be flexible and don’t give up. Remember that troubleshooting is part of the process. And lastly, don’t forget to enjoy your successes. They are well-deserved.


Author Bio

Jeanie Park received her BA in English from Rice University, and MD from University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She then completed internal medicine residency at Washington University in St. Louis, and a nephrology fellowship at the University of Southern California, where she also received an MS in Biomedical and Clinical Investigations. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Renal Division at Emory University School of Medicine. She divides her time between caring for patients with kidney disease and conducting human physiology research in sympathetic nervous system regulation. She is a member of the Women in Physiology Committee for the American Physiological Society.

Further Recommended Reading

1. Cheung V. Vitalizing physician-scientists: it’s time to overcome our imagination fatigue. J Clin Invest 127: 3568–3570, 2017. doi:10.1172/JCI96939.
2. Eisenberg MJ. The Physician Scientist’s Career Guide. New York: Springer, 2011.
3. Feliu-Dominguez R, Medero-Rodriguez P, Cruz-Correa M. Women gastroenterologists in academic medicine: tradition versus transition. Dig Dis Sci 62: 13–15, 2017. doi:10.1007/s10620-016-4369-x.
4. Kalloo SD, Mathew RO, Asif A. Is nephrology specialty at risk? Kidney Int 90: 31–33, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.kint.2016.01.032
5. Kwan JM, Daye D, Schmidt ML, Conlon CM, Kim H, Gaonkar B, Payne AS, Riddle M, Madera S, Adami AJ, Winter KQ. Exploring intentions of physician-scientist trainees: factors influencing MD and MD/PhD interest in research careers. BMC Med Educ 17: 115, 2017. doi:10.1186/s12909-017-0954-8.
6. Martin K. Tips for Young Scientists on the Junior Faculty/Independent Investigator Job Search. Neuron 93: 731–736, 2017. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.012.
7. Mehta SJ, Forde KA. How to make a successful transition from fellowship to faculty in an academic medical center. Gastroenterology 145: 703–707, 2013. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2013.08.040.
8. Melnick A. Transitioning from fellowship to a physician-scientist career track. Hematology 2008: 16–22, 2008. doi:10.1182/asheducation-2008.1.16.
9. Milewicz DM, Lorenz RG, Dermody TS, Brass LF; National Association of MD-PhD Programs Executive Committee. Rescuing the physician-scientist workforce: the time for action is now. J Clin Invest 125: 3742–3747, 2015. doi:10.1172/JCI84170.
Recruiting Students to Your New Unknown Lab

Natalie C. Tronson, University of Michigan, Department of Psychology, Ann Arbor, MI

With all the excitement and energy of starting a new lab, one of the Big Things is recruiting graduate students to work with you. It seems easy enough; I mean, you are younger and less jaded than many of your colleagues, you have the cutting-edge new techniques at your fingertips, or you will once you have the brand-new shiny equipment1 in the lab and running, you have start-up money to burn through, and you have that very recent memory of all the good—and bad—mentoring from your graduate school and postdoctoral experiences. Surely everyone will want to work with you!

But there are a couple of problems that come up: the big one is that people don’t know your lab exists yet. Another that comes up is that belief that good mentoring comes from people with well-established labs. Both of these impact who will apply to your lab, and the latter will also impact who will accept an offer to join.

There are a few strategies for finding and increasing applicants. Some are obvious, and some seem obvious in retrospect, after seeing other people successfully use them.

Getting Applications

1) Your department’s/program’s applicant pool. The easiest strategy is to rely on your program’s applicant pool, and hope that enough applicants are interested in your general field of research. Although you might not be on the list of an applicant’s possible mentors, if there are individuals whose research interests fit with your lab, reach out to them. This is great when it works, but it isn’t usually enough.

2) Word of mouth. Tell friends, mentors, and other people in your field that you are looking to recruit graduate students, and ask them to pass that information on to undergraduates/masters students looking to apply to grad school. If they have students looking to apply to graduate school, or inquiries from potential applicants, they will know to suggest you as someone to contact.

3) Make sure colleagues in your department/program know you are looking. Make sure everyone knows, but particularly those people who have some overlap in research area. More established PIs get more e-mails of interest, and they will be able to suggest students contact you instead/as well as them. Be sure to ask your colleagues to do this.

4) Advertise. This one sounds obvious, but it wasn’t something I ever thought about until I saw someone do it. I’m not talking about a sign at a poster at a major meeting (but do that too!), I’m talking about ads in society journals/job posting sites. Colleagues who have done this have had a much larger pool of applicants to choose from and have the opportunity to ask students to contact them before applying, helping with the application process and allowing some to apply for fellowships (e.g., NSF GFRP) before starting graduate school. Advertising is especially useful if you do interdisciplinary work, and students from one field might not see your lab listed in a totally different kind of department.

5) Reply to e-mails expressing interest. As soon as your lab website or faculty profile is live, you will probably receive at least a few e-mails from interested students asking whether you are planning to take on a student the following fall. Reply, Yes! You are definitely recruiting2 But go further. In your reply, e-mail-introduce them to graduate students in the program or graduate students/undergrads who were in the lab you came from (get their permission first, of course) and encourage the applicants to get in contact with them. Offer to talk on the phone or via Skype. Provide additional details about the program and application process, and take it as an opportunity to show your enthusiasm and willingness to help.

6) Departmental recruiting events. Just say Yes! This is essentially free advertising for your lab, geared toward students already interested in your program/department. Be a part of your program’s table at graduate fairs. If you are in a rotation program, this also applies to student-run events, and invitations to speak at the weekly seminar, department/program retreat, or other events. Increasing your visibility to current graduate students means you will be someone who “springs to mind” when students are talking about labs, and word of mouth is extremely helpful for new students looking for labs to join or rotate in.

7) Describe the advantages of being in the lab of a new PI to students interested in your lab. Enthusiasm! Time to be hands-on! Students will learn techniques from you rather than from the person who learned it from the post-doc who learned it from the person who…learned it from you! A smaller lab means more small-group interactions. These are just some of the real advantages of being in a smaller lab.

8)…and have strategies for dealing with disadvantages. Sure, you don’t have the experience mentoring graduate students, but your institution has training and support for mentors? Talk about your commitment to taking part in that. Yes, training grants often need more senior mentors. Have people in mind who could serve as co-mentors for your students (as both a fellowship-writing strategy and a standard benefit for students).

From Applications to Successful Recruiting

So you’ve done all this and you have a lot of applications, or at least a few. For programs that accept students directly into labs, you will have to decide on who to select. Now “How to select the perfect graduate student” could be a lot of long posts all of its own (preferably written by someone else so that I can learn from them), but there are a couple of additional things that are useful to do or keep in mind as a new PI.

1) Serve on the graduate student application committee. I know, I know, you’ve been given the (excellent) advice to not do service in your first year or so of your job. In this case, the service is very beneficial. You get to see all of the applications, so even if one doesn’t mention your lab or research as a possible match, you can flag them (see Getting Applications #1), you get to fight harder for the motivated and promising students whom you’ve talked with already, and you get an insider view into how the process works, which can help advise students the following year.

2) Think about strategy. If you are recruiting students to start directly in your lab, then the easiest strategy for getting at least one student would be to go ahead and make offers to everyone who looks good. But there are two problems: first, you might end up with too many students, and second, chances are good that your program has limits on how many students they can accept, and so won’t allow you to use that strategy anyway. Obviously, you should take the best applicant (or applicants), but what does “best” actually mean? Highest GPA? Research experience? Motivation? Absolute dedication to academia? (Probably not GRE3). Part of your calculation of “best” should include likelihood of joining the lab—because recruiting someone is (usually) better than not recruiting someone.4 So get as much information about their interests and goals and so on even before interviews. Talk to everyone you would consider taking. Talk to them before applications are due, talk to them before you decide on whom to invite for interviews, call their letter writers, talk to them at interviews and again after offers go out. Ask them questions about science and research experience and future goals, but also ask about where they are applying, where they are excited to live/visit, what their ideal location would be. Yes, some are going to say “your school” and “your research” and “your town,” but it can be easier to read through the lines than you expect, and many are more honest than you’d think. Ask colleagues to interview them and get their opinions on whether this student is likely to join the program/your lab.

Will Students Join My Lab?

Maybe! According to some of my colleagues, which students will accept an offer remains something of a mystery. But here is what we know: people make decisions about graduate school (and pretty much everything else) based on a huge number of factors, including geographic location, institution and program reputation, the students (both current and interviewing) they meet at interview/recruitment weekends, stipend levels, family, advice from others, and somewhere on that list is also the type of research and potential mentors. That is to say, rejection is often not about you, but sometimes your research, energy, genius5 enthusiasm, and very convincing description of “why new PIs are the best” might just be what tips the balance to a yes.

Natalie C. Tronson earned her PhD from Yale University in 2006 and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and, along with several amazing graduate students, is working on molecular mechanisms of memory.


1. Including the machine that goes ping.

2. Yes, Captain Obvious. But make it a priority so those e-mails don’t get lost in your inbox. Also, there is recent data showing that there are racial disparities for whose e-mails get responses, so have a strategy (an enthusiastic form e-mail, for example) to ensure you can easily respond to everyone.

3. Moneta-Koehler L, Brown AM, Petrie KA, Chalkley R. The limitations of the GRE in predicting success in biomedical graduate school. PLoS One 12: e0166742, 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166742.; Miller C, Stassun K. A test that fails. Nature 510: 303-304, 2014. doi:10.1038/nj7504-303a.; Sternberg RJ, Williams WM. Does the Graduate Record Examination predict meaningful success in the graduate training of psychology? A case study. Am Psychologist 52: 630.641, 2014

4. The exception here is taking on someone you have concerns about just to have a graduate student.

5. Obviously!

Where Academics Go to Die: Mentorship and “Alternative” Careers in Life Science

Emily J. Johnson
Providence Medical Research Center, Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, Spokane, Washington

Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments. – Plato, Republic

In 2002, mathematician and biologist Dr. Irakli Loladze argued that elemental changes in the earth’s atmosphere could alter the nutrient composition of plants at the base of the food chain (15). The idea was not incredible: reports of altered growth, yield, and micronutrient-to-carbohydrate ratios in rice and cereal crops grown in high-CO2 field conditions had been surfacing since the 1990s (5, 7, 8, 22). A rapid uptick in the pace of these reports has since removed any doubt that base food crops are susceptible to negative effects from excessive exposure to CO2, a prerequisite for photosynthesis (9, 12, 16, 20). It is, literally, an example of total ecological shift resulting from too much of a good thing.

In many ways, this story of excess and its repercussions parallels the recent history of the science job market. It is a story of evolution, market pressure, and adaptation, which all mentors and students must know in order to navigate the new landscape of science jobs.

The Science Bubble

It is no secret that the familiar economy of academia – a vortex that sucks in students and keeps them forever as professors – is struggling to keep up with the sheer numbers of scientists emerging from institutes of higher education. Due, allegedly, to the ever-swelling ranks of their peers, young would-be scientists and professors are increasingly failing to find and keep long-term employment.

Of course, arguing that this is due to the change in our numbers would require accurate tracking of the number of scientists over time, which is nearly impossible. (For what it’s worth, a hand-waving headcount of The School of Athens suggests that the original Akademia housed between four and five dozen scientists, not including Raphael, angels, and cherubs.) Regardless of how one might arrive at a serious baseline estimate, modern academia now has orders of magnitude more scientists. In 2015, U.S. institutions awarded 55,006 graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, topping the previous record of 54,070 in 2014 (1, 2). Meanwhile, the number of academic positions has plateaued. By one calculation, the reproductive rate or R0 of academic jobs tells us that this sector can employ just 12.8% of scientists (14). Put another way, 87.2% of scientists will have to find another home.

The public response to these numbers has been, at best, a little bit glum, and at worst, a dumpster fire of fear and indignation. Why You Shouldn’t Go To Grad School and similar articles reflect deep anxiety rumbling in the ranks of current and future researchers (3, 17, 21). Voices from within the scientific community have tried to counter the angst by arguing that the problem is overstated, inaccurately presented, or even imaginary (18). However, telling students that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself does not seem to be working. The admonition that science is on a kind of employment precipice continues to appear. The New York Times stated the situation bluntly, telling readers, “The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle” (13). Even the National Public Radio Science Squeeze program admitted that “most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don’t actually exist” (11).

These data cast a long shadow, and it is not pessimistic to ask questions about the future of science. Are there really too many of us? Will science be smothered by its own success?

As you might have guessed, I doubt it. There are indeed lots and lots of us, but I think the number of scientists itself is a red herring. No matter how you slice it, having too many scientists is not a problem. How could it be? An unprecedented number of scientists is a solution begging to be implemented.

There is another set of data, which receives less attention, and which very clearly points to a different problem. According to these figures, every Tom, Dick, and Harry scientist should have a job. From 2009 to 2015, the same period of time during which the U.S. awarded a record number of STEM graduate degrees, net domestic STEM-related employment grew twice as fast as non-STEM-related employment (10.5% vs. 5.2%), producing 817,260 new STEM jobs (10). Yet, in 2014, the proportion of PhD-trained individuals with “definite commitments for employment or postdoc study” declined, as it had for 4 of the 6 previous years (1). The same trend held for those who received doctoral degrees in the year 2014.

These data show that the problem with the academic job market is not just the number of scientists. The real problem, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has précised – not without expressing some puzzlement – is that the U.S. has too much of three things at the same time: science jobs, scientists, and unemployment in science (24).

Figuring out how these problems can exist at the same time ought perhaps to be left to economists, who have been conducting naval-gazing evaluations of supply and demand in their own corner for quite some time, asking questions such as, Does the Academic Labor Market Initially Allocate New Graduates Efficiently? (the answer is no) (23). One hypothesis, which uses the analogy of taxi queuing, says that the fundamental problem is timing. That is, the asynchronous appearance of scientists compared to science employers creates bottlenecks that result in apparent oscillations in employment (24).

Regardless of the mechanism, the bottom line is that we are facing a problem that should not exist. Are there too many scientists for the traditional ecosystem of grants and professorships? Yes. Are tenure and grant funding withering? Maybe. But is the number of scientists the root of the science employment problem? No. The root of the problem is that new scientists are not, apparently, very good at getting those 817,260 new jobs.

To me, the solution to this problem starts and ends with mentorship – realistic, career-oriented mentorship. In my opinion, the biggest barrier that mentors have to overcome is embodied in three little words that make every non-academically employed scientist I know say, “Goosfraba.”

The “Alternative” Career

In February of 2017, I left my postdoc for a position in clinical research at a community hospital. I love my new role, which is challenging, exciting, busy, and uses my education. But when I accepted it, many colleagues in academia thought I was making a bad choice by choosing an “alternative” career. “Once you leave, you can’t come back,” the apocryphal mantra went.

To this day, I am still not sure why this prodigal son narrative exists in academia. Calling every non-academic job “alternative” is so simplistic, it is almost meaningless. Imagine if the science of physiology recognized two types of species: zebra fish and non-zebra fish. The distinction is true, but useless for approximately 8,699,999 of the 8.7 million species of organisms on earth. Nevertheless, the idea of “normal” academic and “alternative” non-academic careers persists, and the future of life science may literally depend on how long we insist on approaching careers this way.

My argument is that good career-orientated mentorship is the answer to this problem. Certainly, it is the best chance we have to inspire the 87.2% of scientists who will not get academic jobs to break the industry ceiling.

First, the idea that the private sector is some kind of prison colony for people who are bad at Western blots must go. Obviously, the private sector is chock full of high-caliber scientists, but ex-academics still feel the need to defend against this prejudice.

“Regardless of not having an official faculty appointment, I consider myself a scholar, especially considering my training, my way of thinking, and how I approach and solve problems,” says Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez-Perez, Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences at Princeton University. In her role at Princeton, to which she transitioned from a faculty appointment in 2016, Gonzalez-Perez focuses on student access and retention across 13 natural science departments, especially among historically underrepresented and first-generation students. Far from wasting her science education, Gonzalez-Perez feels that she is living her mission as a scientist every day. “I may not be in the lab designing experiments, but I am a still a scientist, and I definitely get to think of the problems we need to solve, design strategies, test them, and analyze the outcomes. I definitely have to use my critical thinking.” And she is adamant in combating prejudice about leaving science. “People think administrators are frustrated people who just ended up in these positions. I had a choice to stay in science or do this, and I chose to do this, and its highly rewarding!”

Ryan Schindler, a Manufacturing Technical Specialist with Genentech whose work spans biology and engineering, agrees that the scientific method does not belong only to academia. Ryan was trained as a biologist and obtained a degree in biotechnology from Washington State University. “My friends in engineering used to tell me, you’re basically an engineer.” But it’s all science, he says, and the application of scientific principles is more important than the specific facts he learned in his biology education. “My education helped me get the job, for sure,” Schindler allows, “but the scientific mentality – the hypothesis testing – is something I apply a lot more often than my knowledge of PI3K signaling.”

Some scientists actually leave academia to find inspiration. Dan Rodgers, founder and Chief Science Officer of AAVogen, Inc., ran a well-funded lab focusing on muscle-wasting diseases, but he left academia for an entrepreneurial venture inspired by his family. “My father died recently from cancer cachexia, and my nephew has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, two disease states directly related to my field of expertise,” says Rodgers. “I personally love the academic mission,” he explains, but eventually he felt that the private sector was a better fit for his mission. “I in no way regret my decision. Academia just wasn’t rewarding anymore – it wasn’t fun. Starting my own business? Now that’s fun!”

Heidi Medford, a technology licensing associate at Washington State University, also left science to pursue a career with bigger impact. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging to successfully fund an academic research laboratory,” says Medford, a previous American Physiological Society Minority Fellow. For a scientist who wants to make an impact on her field, Medford believes, this is discouraging. “It has been my experience that very few scientists make a large impact on their chosen field.” During her postdoc, Medford took a chance internship with her university’s Office of Commercialization, which eventually offered her a permanent position. Far from leaving science, she feels that she has finally found a niche within science where she can make an impact. Besides publishing, she says, “many scientists have a hard time delivering their research to the greater good.” But in her new job, she draws on her education to help scientists “bridge these gaps and deliver their discoveries to benefit mankind.”

Gonzalez-Perez echoed these sentiments. “I am a scientist, but my motivation in life is to serve others,” she said. Whether she does that by developing new therapies, pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge, or helping students get access to higher education, she is living her goals. In fact, she sees unity between her science education and her current role. As a first-generation college student and a Latina woman, she sees her job as an exciting platform from which she can lift the next generation of scientists.

The private sector also pays well, although this can be an awkward conversation for academia, where a good salary is still something that should be killed with fire. Private sector careers offer a real and viable way for scientists to work in science and also, for example, pay off the average $18–36,000 in student loans that college-educated individuals acquire, depending on their state, by their senior year of college (4).

Failing to communicate this to STEM students is, in my opinion, an ethical issue. In the millennial workforce, a little guilt goes a long way: despite their debt, one of the distinguishing features of the millennial generation’s job search is choosing meaningful causes and inspiration over paycheck size (19). In such a workforce, representing science as a bastion of (unpaid) holy stoicism might do more harm than good.

Even for successful professors, there is a pay gap between academia and industry. “I was a tenured full professor in an undergraduate department,” says Rodgers. “I had a respectable salary and established responsibilities. My job was as stable as one can get in academia. Although I now have much less job security, the prospect for financial success in particular is far greater.”

Although industry definitely has the edge financially, working in private industry comes with less freedom compared with most faculty jobs. Compared with her previous faculty position, Gonzalez-Perez notes that her current job has “a lot of structure, and end goals are less flexible, but there is also room for being creative, innovative, and resourceful.” A high level of individual freedom is one of the unique factors that makes academic jobs different from all other jobs. Scientists can expect a lower level of freedom when they join the industry workforce, where priorities are company-driven, compared with what they can do in faculty positions, she says.

Employees of a company like Schindler’s are expected to function within the larger company mission. There is, however, comparative freedom for an individual like Rodgers, who runs his own company, although such freedom tends to come with risk. As the founder of his company, all decisions rest with him, as does “all of the good and bad credit” for every decision he makes.

Breaking the Industry Ceiling

Whether academia itself is an industry is a touchy subject. “Education is by definition an investment, with short-term costs and long-term gains. It is not, nor will it ever be, a business. Treating it as one debases the academic mission,” says Rodgers. However, he acknowledges that the parallels between modern education and industry cannot be ignored, and the thin green line separating academia from industry is increasingly blurry.

“Both are driven by a bottom line,” said Gonzalez-Perez, “but maybe they shouldn’t be.” Medford is unequivocal about it – when asked if she considers academia an industry, she says, “Absolutely.”

Whether or not one considers academia an industry, since a transition out of academia is the likely career path for most scientists (14), breaking down barriers between academia and the private sector is essential for easing their way.

Mentors are uniquely poised to lead this change. Teaching students practical job-seeking skills, such as writing resumes rather than CVs, or even telling students that other careers exist, are good places to start. “I didn’t know that the industry I’m working in existed,” confessed Schindler.

Aimee Sutliff, a current graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences, expresses similar bewilderment. “During my time in graduate school, very little information has been provided about the variety of opportunities for a career outside of academia,” says Sutliff. “I don’t even know where to start looking for opportunities that are outside of strictly bench work in industry or faculty jobs in academia.”

Discussing private sector jobs with students as a primary option rather than some back-alley alternative, and explaining the incredible variety of these jobs, will also help the next generation of scientists find employment. Encouraging students to seek internships and do activities outside of the curriculum is fundamental for their future success, although this is admittedly hard to do in laboratory cultures where 60-hour work weeks are the norm. In this area, life science could benefit from taking a page out of the playbooks of computer science and engineering, which have always partnered heavily with industry. University-hosted job fairs for life science companies, for example, would connect students with potential employers and smooth the path for private- sector collaborations.

Additionally, although technical skills and publications are the currency of academia, it is critical for students to know that soft skills are just as important as technical skills in the private sector. In this arena, mentors can promote their students’ professional development by encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills in their lab groups. Above all else, networking may be the number one soft skill that academic programs can help students develop. “Knowing someone can help your resume get to the top of the stack,” Schindler advised. “Networking can be critical to getting a job.”

Networking also helps students stay abreast of market trends and current developments in their fields outside of the university environment, which can help these young scientists break into the private sector.

For students who are dedicated to their bench work, learning how to network can be an uphill battle. Sutliff says she is aware that some “invisible” jobs exist but is unsure how to find them. “I have been told that most people find postdoctoral fellowships through unconventional means—for example, being offered a post that was never even advertised,” she says. This gives the frightening impression that missed opportunities in grad school could ruin one’s chances of obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship.

Including some non-traditional classes in graduate curriculums can also give students a leg-up in the private sector. Indeed, “diversifying a graduate education” is essential in modern science, according to Rodgers. “Running a biotech company requires formal training in a relevant life science as well as business management. Very few universities offer such training (for example, a combined PhD/MBA degree program), although this is exactly what’s needed in the field.” He also argues that students should be trained in practical aspects of non-academic science. “Students interested in a scientific career in industry should include business development and management courses in their formal course of study. Actually, I think this is critical. All other students should be encouraged to do this as well, because one can never predict the future.”

The landscape of science jobs continues to change, but as physiologists, we can be prepared to adapt. By changing our vocabulary about “alternative” careers, reducing barriers in the academia-industry transition, and engaging in partnerships between academic institutions and life science industries, we can ensure that physiology survives and thrives. The stakes have never been higher: if we fail, the antiquated stigma about “alternative” jobs will be remembered as the meteor that killed the physiologists.

Emily Johnson is a scientific writer and project manager for Providence Medical Research Center at Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA. During her PhD training in pharmaceutical sciences, Emily was a Graduate Fellow of the National Science Foundation, President of the Washington State University Spokane Graduate Research Student Association, and a trainee member of the American Physiological Society Communications Committee. Emily studied pharmacokinetic natural product-drug interactions during her postdoctoral training from 2016 to 2017. In her spare time, Emily is a freelance writer and illustrator.


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