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Helping Early-Career Minority Scientists Navigate Research Career Paths
So you're a rising young scientist who recently landed a competitive junior faculty position at a major research university. They've given you a high-tech laboratory and told you to quickly hire a stable of graduate students and post doctoral fellows.
Adding to the pressure: Your colleagues keep reminding you that your tenure offer, probably six years down the road, is largely contingent on your ability to get grant money and publish research in top-tier peer-reviewed journals. "It's publish or perish," they warn.
To help young scientists navigate the career path from where they are to where they want to be, AAAS and the American Society for Cell Biology (ACSB) Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) recently invited 25 young minority faculty members and postdoctoral fellows to a career development workshop at AAAS headquarters.
The workshop featured seminars on grant writing, professional conduct, time management, and mentoring, along with several opportunities for participants to have their research manuscripts and grant proposals reviewed by senior scientists working in the field.
Anthony DePass, a workshop co-organizer and associate dean for research and associate professor of biology at Long Island University-Brooklyn, said that while the Third Annual Junior Faculty and Postdoctoral Fellows Workshop sought to prepare the participants for success at the professional level, the two-day program is part of a larger Minority Affairs Committee mission to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in the biomedical sciences.
"This type of training is critical for those individuals navigating professional advancement in the academic ranks," said DePass. "Unfortunately, the training regimen accorded to most at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels provide less than optimal preparation in areas outside of direct bench research."
He added that career development programs help all young researchers—not just those from underrepresented minority groups—survive in the highly competitive environment that determines who gets faculty appointments and funding that assure advancement of their research programs and professional growth.
The two-day workshop, held 31 July and 1 August, was funded by a National Institute of General Medical Sciences' Minority Access to Research Careers grant, which supports training in fields of study that directly prepare individuals for careers in biomedical research.
Co-organizer Daryl Chubin, who directs the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, said that the assumption that young Ph.D. scientists are learning vital career skills in their graduate programs is misguided.
"Far too many faculty advisors consider scholarship to be only research, with networking, outreach, lab management, and mentoring representing mere add-ons," said Chubin. "To the contrary, professional conduct in science demands a command of a range of non-academic skills to succeed to leadership."
The workshop sought to give young faculty members a framework for understanding and managing those issues. Among the practical skills that were discussed:
Grant Writing: While many research institutions provide laboratory space and some funds for equipment and staff, many scientists spend as much time writing grant proposals as they do conducting experiments. When writing a grant, DePass said, young scientists should seek a mentor who can guide them through the grant proposal process—including which organizations to solicit, how to formulate and target a grant proposal, and how to revise and resubmit a proposal for reconsideration. Beyond funding research, DePass said grant writing encourages scientists to think critically about the steps and outcomes of their experiments.
Responsible Research Conduct: Research can be as competitive as professional sports, said Richard McGee, a professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine. With millions of dollars in research grants and professional recognition on the line, it's important for scientists to make sure that they, and those working in their laboratories, are not committing academic misconduct. This includes avoiding the obvious acts of misconduct such as falsification of research, plagiarism of ideas for experiments or grants, and hiding financial or personal conflicts of interest. It also includes more subtle influences on judgment when career advancement can be on the line.
Renato Aguilera (right) talking with attendee Franklin Carrero-Martinez
Laboratory Management: Running a laboratory is like running a small business or professional sports team, said Renato Aguilera, director of the graduate program in biology and a professor of immunology at the University of Texas at El Paso. When managing laboratory staff, Aguilera said, it is important to act as a coach who calls the plays, not a cheerleader who watches the action from the sidelines. "You need to distance yourself from those that work in your lab to retain their respect, but not so far that you become an impenetrable fortress," he said.
Science Policy: Chubin, along with Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress, urged the participants to be an active voice for science by contacting their elected officials on Capitol Hill. Carney added that since most federal funding for science is discretionary, it's imperative that that Congress understand the importance of the federal science budget as a driver for the nation's innovation.
Some speakers offered a different sort of advice, focusing on how young faculty members can best negotiate the competitive and political faculty environment at many schools. A research institution takes a risk and makes an investment when hiring a young scientist, said Deborah-Harmon Hines, vice provost for school services and professor of cell biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. That means that job applicants and new hires need to quickly recognize what is appropriate for the work place and what is not appropriate.
Beyond practicing top-notch science, Hines said, young faculty members need to reflect the culture of their new institution. Good manners, a professional appearance, and articulate and informed conversation go a long way in professional settings, she said. Young faculty members have to demonstrate that they can work well with colleagues, administrators and support staff, even those who are most difficult.
"You will work with a whole assortment of people," she said, joking that some workplaces have a cast of colorful characters to rival those described in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. "You can't control who you work with or how they act, but you can control your responses and actions."
She also urged the young minority faculty members to keep a diverse portfolio of professional engagements and committee assignments. An example: Because of the small number of minority faculty members at most institutions and the institutions' desire to promote the diversity within their teaching ranks, minority junior faculty members are frequently placed on minority-affairs committees.
While these committees are important, Hines said, it's good to be involved in other areas, too. Hines cautions, "You cannot do everything and may have to say 'No' [to some of these requests]."
Aguilera made a similar point. Universities sometimes place minorities on committees because they think that they will be more sensitive to minority issues than other faculty members, he said. But that's faulty thinking, he added, as advocates for increasing diversity in the student body and professoriate can be found throughout his campus at UTEP and others nationwide.
Aguilera said that minority faculty members may find themselves being asked to serve as mentors for minority graduate students or postdoctoral fellows in their program. This often is due to a student perception that mentors of the same ethnicity "share the same work ethic and will be more receptive to problems or dilemmas unique to being a minority."
While minority students frequently seek out minority mentors, Aguilera said that many professors, both minority and non-minority, will "bend over backwards for students who we think are especially vulnerable to feeling isolated or lost."
"Professors are altruistic and the good ones will look after their students," he said. "Someone looked over us while we were coming up. Now it's payback."
25 August 2008