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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 (https://diversity.nih.gov). 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 (https://nrmnet.net). 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.

Acknowledgments

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.

References

European University Institute. Academic careers by country (Online). https://www.eui.eu/ProgrammesAndFellowships/AcademicCareersObservatory/AcademicCareersbyCountry

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). https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_316.80.asp

Reichman H. Important legal victory for faculty rights (Online). https://academeblog.org/2016/12/20/important-legal-victory-for-faculty-rights/

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.

You Beyond the PhD: Do You Have the Right Tools in Your Toolbox?

Maria L. Urso
BTG International

This contribution to the Mentoring Forum covers topics that I presented during a “Mentoring for Diverse Careers” symposium at Experimental Biology in 2015. The goal of my talk was to highlight pivotal actions that were made as my nontraditional career unfolded. I opened my talk with the statement, “this is not a story of adversity, but rather a story of opportunity and finding a ‘good fit.'” I opted to be particularly candid in my talk, since, although I always touted that every stage of my career was the best phase of my career, each was not without internal and external conflicts. I felt that the best way to inspire and educate others on these difficult career decisions was to be transparent, since then one would be empowered with the appropriate tools to take on the adversity associated with the path less traveled.

In a nutshell, I had an extremely successful PhD with a fantastic team of mentors, most notably my advisor and friend, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson. One thing that I will never forget about my mentor was that she took a chance on me. I showed up in her lab lacking a lot of the basic skills that one would hope their graduate students would have, which prevented any immediate contribution to the productivity of the laboratory. Dr. Clarkson noticed one thing about me, and that was all it took. Rather than deny me entry into her lab because I had not yet published as a master’s student or because I was not well-versed in the muscle-damage literature, she asked me what I wanted to do and how I thought I would go about doing it. Although I did not have a past pedigree, I had a vision that was tethered to a realistic plan and enough passion to guarantee that complacency would never be an issue during my tenure. Accordingly, I left Dr. Clarkson’s laboratory with a toolbox full of skills that would guarantee a prosperous career if I continued to develop and refine them as I matured. In addition to my full toolbox, I had several publications in notable journals, successful grant applications, molecular biology laboratory skills (that were self-taught following an initiative by Dr. Clarkson to bring our laboratory up to speed), and a direct commission from the U.S. Army.

As any mentor or mentee could imagine, the final aspect of my departure from my PhD created a few waves and hushed discussions among my colleagues and mentors (not to mention my mother, but that’s a different column). However, this was not a rash decision by any means. I had spent my entire research career up until that point doing research in humans related to skeletal muscle breakdown, whether it was a consequence of exercise-induced muscle damage, injury, immobilization, or aging. As I interviewed for postdoctoral positions in notable laboratories across the country, I just could not see myself transitioning away from the line of research that I had established. Additionally, although I had academic mentors providing advice, I was fortunate to have a mentor since the day I was born in my father. He was a physician and spent many years providing medical support in the U.S. Army Reserves. Since I was young, a career in medicine was always something I wanted to pursue. So, I joined the military to follow some life dreams and personal motivations, and to continue to do skeletal muscle research in humans, particularly military-relevant research. I entered the military as a commissioned officer with a military operational specialty (MOS) of 71B, or Research Biochemist. In this role, I would not only serve my country as a scientist, but my research would provide answers to military-relevant problems such as blast injury, rhabdomyolysis, inflammation, and spinal cord injury.

After 7 successful years as a military-scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), I decided to use the skills that I had developed to transition to a clinical research and medical science team in industry. Remarkably, despite the notion that you can only be hired in industry if you have industry experience, the transitions were not only seamless, but I was able to make significant contributions within a relatively short time of being hired. I can only attribute this steady trajectory to the tools that were placed in my toolbox throughout my career: tools that were collected from my mentors, peers, adversaries, and experiences.

Although my nontraditional career decisions tended to be cautioned against rather than lauded, I have continued to grow as a scientist, and each day I am more fulfilled by the opportunities that have presented themselves. I am convinced that the only way to produce fantastic work is to have the right tools for the battle and to love what you do. I want to use this column as an opportunity to highlight the essential tools for the battle that I emphasized in my talk.

Essential Tool #1: Knowing What Drives You
The best mentor in the world cannot give you this tool; this one must be acquired on your own. In an effort to achieve favor while working on our doctorates, the vision of the laboratory becomes your own. As important as it is to contribute to the overall success and productivity of your laboratory, it is absolutely critical that you do not lose sight of who you were before you began this adventure. Many of you are also athletes, musicians, bakers, artists, etc. As best as you can with the responsibilities that you must juggle, do not let your side passions go. To remain creative and productive, you will need something that is yours. The benefit of maintaining something that you are passionate about outside of the laboratory is that it will always give you a chance to do an inventory and examine your current engagements from an outside perspective. When you look from the outside in, ask yourself: Are you still excited? Are you making decisions because they feel good and motivate you, or because you feel pressured to? Have you been pressured to do something that might seem unethical when you look at it from the outside? Are you truly managing your time properly, or are you getting lost in busy-work? Asking yourself these questions is important for not forgetting who you are and sticking to your convictions when making difficult decisions.

Essential Tool #2: Having a Blueprint
A blueprint is essential to your career because it will consistently remind you of your vision, particularly when your plate is so full you cannot look beyond the next 4 months of tasks. Write down where you want to be in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, and 5 years. Revise your plan as necessary. Do your homework. Learn about other career opportunities outside your laboratory and read career descriptions of the job that you want. Modify what you are doing to obtain the skills and experience required. If others try to persuade you to think differently, you will have a solid plan in place that may help you to navigate difficult discussions.

As a start to some nontraditional career opportunities, here are some links:

Put your plan on paper, do your research, and follow through, despite persuasion.

Essential Tool #3: Honing Your Fundamental Skills
Make sure you practice your writing daily. Clear writing is a skill that should be easy, but oftentimes we are determined to make our writing sound as impressive as our research. This tool is critical in grant applications and manuscript preparation. Your goal should not be to impress the reviewer with your vernacular. Your goal is to clearly explain what you plan to do (grants) or did do (manuscripts) concisely. In scientific writing, you will be amazed at the elegance that comes with simplicity. You should also be able to write or speak persuasively. Although we are scientists and not salespeople, we are always selling something. It may be an idea, a research finding, a proposal, or a hypothesis. Become the best scientific salesperson you can be. When making a transition away from the benchtop, the ability to express yourself and your work clearly is of utmost importance. You will no longer be speaking to like-minded scientists but to clinicians, businesspeople, policy-makers, sales teams, patients, etc.

Essential Tool #4: Your Elevator Speech
Many of you are working on niche projects in a laboratory. You have spent months immersed in the literature and running experiments. It is important to remember that you are now an “expert” in this domain and that others may only have a cursory knowledge of your research area. You will lose their interest if you begin to go into the intricate details of your work. It is always a good idea to prepare a two- to three-sentence overview of what you do. This is not an easy task. You need to make two to three impactful sentences that explain the following: the tissue/organism you work with, the research question you are answering, how you are going about answering it, and why it matters. These sentences should be understood by everyone from your mentor (for accuracy) to the officer at passport control who asks what you do as a scientist. This elevator speech is going to be your first impression as you navigate nontraditional career opportunities, and it needs to be perfect.

Essential Tool #5: Managing Projects and People
We are all going to manage projects and people differently. The key point here is that you devise a formula that is reliable. Having a reliable formula to produce quality work ensures that, when you are part of a team that is in an up-tempo production mode, you will deliver. This is how you become an asset to any team and sought after by employers. Whether your project is big or small, your formula should apply (albeit with a few tweaks). Oftentimes, when you are in a leadership positon and managing people, you will not have the luxury of first devising a plan to manage a task.

As an example, when I was writing the literature review for my dissertation, I accomplished very little the first 2 weeks. The enormity of the task was so daunting, I avoided it. One day I realized that if I wrote two pages per day, I would have a literature review completed in advance of my deadline at the end of the semester. The rule was that I could not get caught up in small details; I just had to put pen to paper for two pages per day, and I would go back and edit when I was done. Each day I started by writing two pages of text—it was so easy! I found that once I started I did not want to stop after just two pages of writing. I ended up finishing a month in advance of my deadline. My formula is to take a large task with a far-away deadline and break it up into smaller tasks with daily deadlines. I have relied on this formula for everything, from work to house projects.

Essential Tool #6: Accept Challenges and Live Outside Your Comfort Zone
Once you know what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it, start accepting new challenges. I recall thinking my plate was full during my first year of my PhD program. By the second year, I was handling twice as many tasks, and I still had time to do things that I enjoyed. If I accepted the first “full plate,” I never would have taken on new challenges. Allow yourself to fill the plate with more than you planned. You may surprise yourself with what you can accomplish when you take new risks and live outside your comfort zone (n.b., see section below on expecting to fail). Despite the expectations around you, design your own constantly evolving expectations. Say yes and get involved. Ask questions at conferences. When it is your turn to be front and center, give the best front and center that you can give.

Essential Tool #7: Conference Attendance and Interactions
When I attended my first national conference, I did not know a single person there except for my master’s advisor. He had friends and colleagues that he needed to meet with, so I was on my own. I went to symposia, met people at the poster sessions, and exchanged e-mail addresses with people whom I still collaborate with today. When I went to my second national conference, I was with my peers, and we spent the entire conference together. I went home without meeting a single new person. After that, I began to avoid the “conference pod.” Break away from your home team at conferences. Go to the sessions that pertain to your work, but also to those that excite you. Attend the career seminars. Start discussions at the poster sessions. You are much more approachable on your own, and you will not feel pressured to step away from a conversation prematurely. Do not be afraid to step away from the crowd on the small things, it will make stepping away for the bigger things easier.

Essential Tool #8: Get Involved in Professional Organizations
Aside from the “village” that raised me during my years in school, the single greatest contributor to my growth was my involvement in professional organizations. I began by volunteering for small things at regional conferences (e.g., manning registration booths), then national conferences (introducing speakers), then serving on committees. These opportunities allowed me to work on projects with scientists whom I had previously idolized from afar. All of a sudden, I not only had a seat at the table, but we were exchanging ideas on how to bring a new concept to life. These professional relationships will give you a platform for everything from research advice to visibility.

Essential Tool #9: Expect to Fail
Human nature: we all want to earn an A. Nobody takes on a research project or activity with the intention of earning an F. However, it is when we earn those Fs that we learn more. Most of us will attempt the project again in an attempt to turn that F into an A. Others will use that experience as a learning experience for the next project, perhaps refining the experimental design and approach. Take big risks and expect to fail. This will prevent complacency or an inability to start something new in fear of receiving an F. Get the F, learn how to make it an A. In the long run, the failures will shape you more than the successes. Become an expert at uncertainty and build resiliency. One of my favorite quotes is from Arianna Huffington (co-founder of the Huffington Post): “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes—understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”

Essential Tool #10: Find a Niche
People will tell you to follow your passion. How many of you have just one passion? Following your one passion may be a dead end. It is better to identify which skills you have that may be valuable to others. Once you do this, hone those skills until you have career capital. Constantly determine whether and how you are distinguishing yourself from the thousands of individuals with the same major or degree.

Essential Tool #11: Have a Hobby That Overlaps With Your Career
Once my mentor taught me how to write, it became one of my favorite things to do. I was also an athlete, so I was continually exposed to trends and fads in the fitness world. As a side project, I started writing columns and blogs for different periodicals incorporating scientific evidence and human performance and nutrition. While doing this, I established connections and relationships from industry to private organizations. As my skillset improved, I was invited to serve as a scientific consultant, speaker, and writer for these different organizations. Suddenly, I was getting paid to do something that I considered a hobby. At the same time, I was refining the skills that I used every day in my professional life.

Final Thoughts
As you traverse your career, you will find many more tools to add to your toolbox that you find are essential. The key focus is to never stop adding tools to your toolbox. Build bridges instead of burning them, never pass up an opportunity to be assessed, and listen to what goes on around you. Take chances constantly, but be prepared to accept that not every decision will be the right one. Only you can choose the career that is right for you, and, with the proper planning, you beyond the PhD will be exactly the right fit.

Maria Urso is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) for BTG Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharmaceutical company that offers therapies for patients with COPD, vascular disease, and cancer. She received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Prior to BTG, Maria was the Director of Clinical Research at Arteriocyte, and a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). While at USARIEM, Maria served on active duty as an Army Major.

Maria is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a member of the MSL Society, and previously served on APS’s Women in Physiology Committee. In 2012, she was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama.