Funding bodies are acknowledging the unfortunate fact that, in lean times, younger researchers shoulder a disproportionate burden of the “less-to-go-around” phenomenon: when there is less to go around, everyone wants to bet on the favorite—in this case, older investigators with an established funding record. Acknowledging there’s an issue is the good news.
The bad news part one is that this concept is not universally accepted; the bad news part two is that even if agencies decide to try to rectify this situation, funders aren’t sure what form such help should take. On her blog, The Rock Talk, Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research (http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2012/02/13/age-distribution-of-nih-principal-investigators-and-medical-school-faculty/) has some interesting charts and an animation demonstrating how the age distribution of funded researchers has shifted to the right (older) during the past 30 years. In 1980, 18% of principal investigators funded by NIH grants were 36 or younger; in 2011, only 3% were. As for the idea of helping younger investigators not being universally accepted, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (NIH Courts Younger Researchers, Even as It Debates How Far to Go; March 25 2012) quoted Richard Nakamura, acting director of the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, as saying “There’s no question that NIH is very concerned about the fact of the increasing age of ‘independence’ in science…” However, Nakamura went on to characterize the discussion of whether to lend a hand to younger applicants as “a huge debate”. The con side in that debate argues that helping younger researchers runs counter to the idea of a scientific meritocracy.
So, how can younger researchers help themselves? By getting funded, of course. In future newsletters, we’ll provide information about funding resources and grant-writing advice specifically for young investigators (subscribe to our newsletter here). But this column is to point you to some resources to accomplish a (hopefully) easier task: securing mentors. A lot has been written on this subject, some useful, some banal. We’ll point you to some of the more useful material and some actual research on mentoring. Naturally, since it’s a subject near and dear to them, researchers have done a lot of work on how people collaborate to do research.
Strangely, given the vast amount that has been written in the past twenty years about the importance of mentoring for minorities, we could not find good websites listing mentoring resources or advice for minorities. Most of the sites were discipline specific, such as for minorities in cardiovascular research or biochemistry. KevinMD, a health social media blogger we like, had a guest blog about it (http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2012/01/lack-underrepresented-minorities-stem.htm) which made some interesting points, again related to using social media and technology to address the lack of certain minority groups in research fields. If anyone knows of good mentoring resources for minorities, please send them in so we can share them.
To read more, and see links to websites and articles about finding and keeping mentors, click here: We found this heartening tidbit in an article entitled “Scientists’ collaboration strategies: implications for scientific and technical human capital” by Bozeman and Corley (Research Policy http://www.rvm.gatech.edu/paperfiles/04/bb_EC.pdf : “collaborations often begin informally and stem from informal conversations between colleagues.” That’s reassuring because it means that casual interactions with established scientists that occur at meetings, in hallways, or on science social media sites (or Facebook, for that matter) can lead to mentoring relationships. So be forthcoming and cogent about your work even in casual social situations—and on your Facebook page—because it might pay off.
We also liked this article in Science because it simply laid out a list of rules for finding a mentor. Most of them were sensible, if not earthshattering, such as Rule #7, Give and Take. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2006_11_24/mind_matters_getting_yourself_mentored Science also published their top ten tips on this topic: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2009_08_14/caredit.a0900101
This site, from the NIH, (http://sourcebook.od.nih.gov/ethic-conduct/mentor-guide.htm ) introduced us to the term internetworking, though much of the material on this site is aimed at mentors, not mentees. Internetworking is definitely going to become more important as more scientists join social media research sites, and the generation of scientists who grew up on the Internet become the mentors rather than the mentees. So don’t wait until you’re a PI to establish your presence and enter the fray on science social media sites. Sites like www.researchgate.net and www.academia.edu are good places to start; each of them claims about 1 million registered users.
Last, but not least, here are some sites with information on mentoring for women. This site http://www.underthemicroscope.com/blog/how-to-find-mentors-for-women-in-science-technology-engineering-and-math has a long list of websites that provide infrastructure for women in various scientific disciplines to find mentors.