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Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs: Phase 3
junior faculty career stages (see Appendix E). Where do the minority female trainees go? This question warrants further study by NIH.
Across the board, trainees, while extremely grateful for the funding support afforded by the training programs, uniformly stated that the levels of funding support are not sufficient and need to be increased. Undergraduates who are greatly challenged by the addition of a demanding research program to a full load of coursework must often take on additional outside work, in order to make ends meet. Program administrators call this situation a “recipe for disaster,” and it constitutes a barrier against participation in these programs for lower-income minority students. Graduate trainees have similar complaints. They are contractually prohibited from obtaining outside jobs, yet the stipend support is barely above the poverty line. In the context of the uneven health benefits afforded by these programs, this too seems like a “catch-22.” Postdoctoral and junior faculty trainees are similarly disheartened by the low stipends afforded by the training programs. This is especially true when trainees have dependents and/or live in major metropolitan areas where the cost of living vastly exceeds what the stipend offers. All trainee respondents were clear and forceful in stating that trainee stipends have to be more in line with market trends; they need to be increased in order to sustain and build student interest in research careers. This sentiment was echoed by numerous program administrators, one of whom stated that the stiffest competition faced in attracting African-American trainees to a research career comes from the salary opportunities provided by advanced health professional programs.
Mentoring, although highly cited as a positive element of the training programs, was criticized as needing significant improvement. Too many trainees reported negative mentoring experiences in the lab. Some minority undergraduate trainees were given mundane administrative tasks to perform in lieu of experiments; others experienced “benign neglect” by their mentors or, at best, a lack of encouragement. Half of the T32 minority postdoctoral fellows reported having no mentor at all, and a trend that was not replicated by nonminority T32 postdoctoral trainees. This is a red flag to which NIH should pay attention especially in the context of the already low numbers of minority trainees at this relatively advanced career stage.
Training in the biomedical sciences historically assumes that if one is trained, one will therefore be a good trainer (mentor). This conclusion does not follow. Mentoring is a skill for which academic researchers rarely receive any formalized training. The old adage, “Do as I did” does not translate well in the context of today’s diverse student populations. Such selective mentoring may indeed explain, at least in part, the homogeneity seen among this study’s trainee respondents post-Ph.D. Those who are just like their mentor are promoted. Those who are different from their mentor are not. Program administrators emphasized that in addition to the lack of mentor training, mentors receive little credit or encouragement for the time taken to mentor trainees. Grants do not provide funds that cover mentoring activities and time. Academic departments do not view mentoring as a major activity that legitimately counts toward tenure. Yet mentoring is absolutely essential to the continued growth and sustenance of