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Mentoring Matters: Perspectives From Basic Science Hematology Investigators (Part 1)

Strong mentorship is essential for anyone seeking to become an independent scientist. For most aspiring scientists, their formal training starts in graduate school, where they embark on a thesis project under the supervision of a principal investigator, culminating in the successful defense of a dissertation. Following graduate studies, many students will pursue postdoctoral training to tailor their training needs to specific careers. This training prepares the student for an academic career or increasingly, many other diverse career paths. During every step of training, a healthy mentor-mentee relationship is absolutely critical for success.

We sent a survey to investigators who train scientists in the hematology field for their opinion on the current state of science mentoring. We received 24 responses from five junior faculty (Assistant Professors), five mid-career faculty (Associate Professors), and 14 senior faculty (Professors). Three investigators have had zero to five trainees, six have had six to 10 trainees, and fourteen have had less than 10 trainees. There was no response from one investigator regarding the number of trainees. Seventeen of the respondents have PhDs, five have MDs, and two have combined MD/PhDs. We also asked our respondents follow-up questions about training elements they wished they had known at the start of their independent careers.

Most respondents mentioned their previous mentors who “had set examples on how to behave as a mentor,” which had shaped their mentoring style. Moreover, multiple responders indicated a dynamically evolving approach to their mentoring styles based on the current needs of their trainees. Our respondents indicated the importance of uniquely tailored mentorship during scientific training and that a healthy mentor-mentee relationship is specific to the needs of the individual trainee.

Other substantive themes from respondents include:

  1. Mentors wished they were “more familiar with the administrative aspects of running a lab.” For example, the time required to complete biosafety protocols, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and/or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) protocols, and the timeline for internal approval (for grant submissions).
  2. Running a lab also requires management skills. In addition to managing your own time, you need to manage lab personnel and your research budgets. Some individuals felt inadequate training in their management skills at some point in the early stages of their careers, and that good management skills help set everyone up for success.
  3. Negotiation is another key aspect of the daily life of a PI. For example, you need to know how to negotiate your position, lab space, project, and even authorship, especially with collaborators.
  4. Grant writing takes a lot of time and effort. People said they wished there was more guidance on when and how to write grants and how to identify appropriate grant mechanisms during their graduate school training.
  5. Academic research is one of the most rewarding jobs, but academic science and mentoring can be very stressful. Current graduate schools do not implement mentorship classes for trainees who want to become mentors.
  6. Many people commented that balancing basic, translational, and clinical science was difficult.

Mentoring occurs at all levels (PI to trainee, PI to PI, trainee to trainee) and given the many challenges of running a lab as described above, everyone should elicit support from their mentors to be competent in these areas. Additionally, we recommend trainees and their PIs advocate for grant writing courses and mentoring learning opportunities in their program curricula.

Based on our survey results, we will present a series in subsequent issues where we will focus on specific topics and summarize responses to our survey. Our goal is that this series can help serve as career advice and a starting point for improving the mentoring quality and experience for American Society of Hematology (ASH) scientific and PhD trainee members.

The ASH Task Force on PhD Careers is sponsoring a monthly live recorded virtual series entitled “Strategies for Success in Academic Careers,'' which covers all points highlighted above. It is designed to inform trainees considering a career in academia and to inform early career investigators on how to establish an independent laboratory or research program. The series will start on March 15, 2023, and you can register through the Link. Live sessions will be archived on ASH Academy on Demand.

*The authors would like to thank all investigators who participated in our survey and provided thoughtful responses to guide PhD training.

**This article is one of the three articles on the topic of PhD mentoring: Part 2 will be focusing on the "key curriculums in Graduate school from mentors' point of view", and Part 3 will be "Dos and Don'ts in the academic track."

Dr. Han and Dr. Yang indicated no relevant conflicts of interest.