Communication skills may help keep research trainees on the academic track
Clayton R. Boldt, Ph.D.
A well-trained research workforce is essential for addressing both current and future health challenges in the U.S. However, according to a 2012 report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, the proportion of biomedical and behavioral research trainees that progress to established academic research positions is declining.
In 1993, 34 percent of all Ph.D. students went on to attain tenured or tenure-track faculty positions, but that has fallen to 26 percent as of 2012. The numbers are even smaller when considering trainees who are women or from racial/ethnic minorities.
The NIH recognizes the need for evidence-based programs to promote successful career transitions for trainees. A newly funded research project at MD Anderson Cancer Center aims to do just that, by reinforcing scientific communication skills.
“We’ve shown that scientific communication skills are an important predictor of a trainee’s intention to continue pursuit of a research career,” said Carrie Cameron, Ph.D., associate professor of Epidemiology, referring to a 2017 study from MD Anderson. “We’ve found that even something as simple as speaking up more in the research environment as part of normal conversation is a significant predictor, apart from formal writing and presenting. Therefore, we established a program to train mentors to foster these skills in their diverse trainees and encourage their continued, successful pursuit of careers in this field.”
The Scientific Communication Advances Research Excellence (SCOARE) program was funded by the NIH to strengthen career intention and improve scientific communication skills among diverse research trainees. The program is co-led by Cameron and Shine Chang, Ph.D., professor of Epidemiology.
Chang and Cameron also lead MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Research Training Program, aimed at helping trainees pursue and assume leadership roles as health scientists and clinicians who are focused on cancer prevention and control. Through the training program, they are able to develop, test and disseminate a variety of programs, such as SCOARE, to help early-career scientists be successful during their career progression.
Funded for five years, SCOARE includes mentor-training seminars each year as well as a research component to evaluate mentor implementation of new practices and outcomes in their trainees. The evaluations also will inform the design and development of a facilitator training program to extend the program’s future reach.
“Scientific communication is not an area of emphasis in most degree programs for biomedical and behavioral research, so mentors are not always equipped to help their trainees become better scientific writers, speakers or presenters,” said Chang. “We’re hoping to provide research mentors with practical techniques and strategies they’re able to use immediately.”
The program begins this year with a series of three-hour workshops across the country. Four sites will be hosting mentor training sessions, including Georgia State University in Atlanta, the University of Colorado in Boulder, Northwestern University in Chicago and the Gulf Coast Consortia in Houston.
By the end of the funding period, the program will have trained at least 500 mentors and 45 facilitators across the country, empowering them to foster these skills in the future research workforce.
“We’re excited to begin with our training sessions and work with mentors toward this goal,” said Cameron. “Not only will this help scientists better communicate about their work with peers, but also will equip mentors to better support their trainees’ career development.”