Supporting trainees is critical for scientific success

When it comes to training the next generation of scientists, there are a number of approaches. But which best sets up graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for future success?

Earlier this year, Professional Development Hub (pd|hub) published a new report that outlined challenges in Ph.D. career and professional development and highlighted actionable steps that organizations can take to create change. Some of the major takeaways included devising ways to share evidence-based best practices, incentivizing change at organizations, and improving communication. [1]

We checked in with Dr. Erica Gobrogge, Director of VAI’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, and Dr. John Vasquez, Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s Director of Assessment and Professional Development, who both participated in the report’s development, to chat about the latest trends in postdoctoral and graduate training.

What is pd|hub? How did it come about?

EG: pd|hub arose from a summit on sustaining the research enterprise that was hosted by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in 2016. One focal point of the summit was the need to better support trainees across the full spectrum of scientific career paths. Not every Ph.D.-trained scientist plans to lead an academic lab — some pursue careers in industry or government, some pursue careers in teaching, and some pursue careers in other fields. Collectively, as the scientific community, we need to ensure our training supports the many career paths that contribute to the research enterprise.

JV: At the time that I participated in the workshop, I was a pursuing my Ph.D. and, in this capacity, was there to represent the graduate student view. The workshop brought together a wide range of stakeholders; ensuring trainees’ voices were represented was critical. The workshop really helped hammer out what the landscape of approaches looks like while augmenting it with actionable steps. As part of the workshop, we all were asked to make concrete action plans, which we could then take back to our home institutions.

In your view, what is currently missing or under-represented in scientific training?

EG: In some ways, traditional training approaches center on the belief that most trainees seek to become principal investigators and run their own academic labs. Nowadays, there are so many different routes that a Ph.D. may take in STEM fields, and they need the skill sets to be successful. In addition, as science changes — such as with increased team science and global collaborations — we recognize that those who want to become principal investigators also benefit from professional development beyond research training in the lab.

What are the biggest challenges that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows face in terms of training?

JV: One of the biggest challenges for Ph.D. students is that there simply are not enough faculty-level jobs for the number of Ph.D. graduates. That said, not every person with a Ph.D. wants to be a faculty member. We need to help trainees be proactive in terms of exploring different career paths and in pursuing complementary training to broaden their skill sets — for example, getting training in science policy or communication. At Van Andel Institute Graduate School, we’re constantly evaluating what types of professional development opportunities we offer with the goal of supporting our students and their career paths.

EG: I agree with John; professional development in areas that complement training in the lab is critical for today’s trainees. At VAI, for example, there’s a deep commitment to support postdocs and their professional development through its dedicated Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. Both the Graduate School and the OPA are working hard to offer exceptional opportunities to set our trainees up for successful careers supporting the research enterprise. However, not all institutions have this type of support for their trainees, and the pd|hub report highlights this challenge.

Where does mentorship fit into the equation?

JV: We know mentorship is incredibly important, and we want to ensure that both our mentors and trainees get the most out of their time together. One cool thing we’re doing at VAI is working with our faculty, who serve as mentors for graduate students and postdocs. VAI has really invested in specialized “mentoring the mentors” training designed to help people define what mentorship looks like and to identify methods they can leverage for holistic, impactful mentoring.

How has trainee professional development changed in recent years?

EG: I finished grad school in 2014 and, at the time, you might have the opportunity to go to a workshop or two throughout the year, and that was it. I ended up doing a lot of career exploration on my own with little guidance. Since then, many organizations have come a long way in what they offer to grad students and postdocs. One thing that I’m excited about is that the field is moving in a research-oriented direction.  We’re actively researching interventions and programs that objectively work and are peer-reviewed versus a workshop where the outcomes weren’t necessarily defined and measurable. We want people to learn from professional development and take away strategies that will positively impact their careers.

JV: There is a good deal of research that falls in line with sociology and psychology in terms of how to conduct successful professional development. A big part of it is helping trainees and mentors understand exactly what good programs look like. It isn’t always just science — sometimes it’s communications workshops or other skills that they will need regardless of where they land in their careers. We now have a much broader understanding of professional development, career development and lifelong learning —offering training in these three areas will help people be successful wherever they go.

To read the full report, please visit pd|hub here. Learn more about pd|hub here.

[1] Bixenmann R, Natalizio B, Hussain Y, Fuhrmann CN. 2020. Enhancing Dissemination of Evidence-Based Models for STEM PhD Career Development; a Stakeholder Workshop Report. Worcester, MA: Professional Development Hub, University of Massachusetts Medical School.