February 19, 2020
Scientific communication predicts research career intention
BY Meagan Raeke
“Trainees at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral level are leaving the academic research track at alarming rates, and disproportionately if they’re members of groups underrepresented in the biomedical sciences,” says Carrie Cameron, Ph.D., associate professor of Behavioral Science.
To understand why this is happening, MD Anderson researchers looked at the role that both formal and informal scientific communication skills play in STEM doctoral students’ and postdoctoral trainees’ intentions to pursue careers in academic research. Their findings have been published in the latest issue of PLOS ONE.
“Our study is part of a portfolio of NIH-funded grants to figure out what’s driving this trend and how to respond to it,” says Cameron, lead author of the study.
Mentoring in scientific communication skills linked to research career intention
With a background in linguistics and understanding of the relationship between language and identity, Cameron hypothesized that communication skills could be a driver behind research career persistence and science identity.
The team developed a model of scientific communication and how it’s mentored, then conducted a longitudinal survey of 185 doctoral and postdoctoral fellows at 71 U.S. institutions at four time points over two years.
“We found that practicing and receiving mentoring in scientific communication influence psychological constructs that altogether account for a third of research career intention – separate from research skills,” Cameron says. Demographic factors did not have a significant impact on career intention when controlled for scientific communication variables.
Informal and formal scientific communication activities assessed
The study assessed both formal scientific communication activities, including research-related writing and presenting, and informal activities, such as asking questions in group discussions or participating in journal clubs. The survey questions focused on frequency, not success, of scientific communication activities -- in other words, not the number of accepted articles, but the time spent writing or speaking.
“We were surprised that conversational behavior, such as asking questions, talking to senior scientists or visitors and speaking up in a lab meetings, had a slightly higher impact on career intention than scientific writing,” Cameron says. “It’s semi-scholarly, but you can’t script it or plan it like a presentation. It’s also such an easy thing to mentor.”
In addition to scientific communication productivity, or frequency, the study also measured:
- self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s own scientific communication skills
- outcome expectations, defined as the consequences trainees expect to result from their scientific communication efforts
- science identity, meaning a sense of belonging within the research community, and
- types and amounts of mentoring received in scientific communication.
The authors noted that two specific pathways emerged from the study: scientific communication productivity and outcome expectations directly predicted trainees’ career intentions. Additionally, scientific communication productivity and mentoring affected self-efficacy, which in turn predicted science identity.
How trainees and mentors can enable scientific communication
The study results hint at practical solutions to keep more trainees on the path to academic research careers.
“If you’re a trainee, speak up whenever you can and write as much as you can, even if you don’t have results,” Cameron says. “For mentors, set expectations for scientific communication in their lab and encourage trainees to do as much as they can.”
The next phrase of research on scientific communication mentorship
Limitations of the study include potential selection bias because those who signed up to participate may have had existing interest in the topic. Limited sample size precluded some additional analyses.
The next phase of the team’s research involves translating the findings into a series of workshops for mentors on how to mentor for scientific communication. Mentors and their trainees will be surveyed before and after each workshop to see if the program has a lasting impact on the trainee’s scientific communication skills and intent to pursue an academic research career.
MD Anderson co-authors on the study are Hwa Young Lee, Ph.D., Cheryl Anderson, Ph.D., and Shine Chang, Ph.D.
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Set expectations for scientific communication in the lab and encourage trainees to do as much as they can.
Carrie Cameron, Ph.D.