I’ve had both excellent and abysmal mentorship experiences in academia. It’s for this reason that I – and my colleagues in the research training centre and faculty development and diversity office at the SickKids Research Institute – put a lot of effort into ensuring that our 2,000-plus researchers have access to excellent supervision, mentorship and leadership. And, just as importantly, they have access to opportunities to develop skills and knowledge that will help them become better mentors and leaders themselves.
But leadership and mentorship training has proven to be a bit of a sticky wicket, especially for postdocs. Lumping them in with graduate students – as people with influence but not formal leadership in the lab – didn’t work particularly well. We then moved them to a more advanced version of the program aimed at people with significant leadership roles who weren’t principal investigators (PIs), like our grant-paid scientific staff. But a program aimed at people building careers within their current organization – rather than preparing to be leaders and mentors in any number of different roles and fields, as postdocs are – wasn’t a great fit either.
Postdocs are just different. They occupy a liminal space between student and professional, between mentored and independent, between short-term trainee and long-term employee. Despite this liminal space, or perhaps because of it, they are absolutely essential to the function of any research institution. Their roles and needs as mentors and managers, now and in the future, aren’t quite like anyone else’s in academia in their nature and importance.
And it turns out that occupying that liminal space makes postdocs uniquely powerful influences on the more junior people they work with. As David Feldon and his co-authors argue in a 2019 research paper, the key predictor of students success in the lab is the mentorship skills of the postdocs they work with. That means, surprisingly, that PIs are far less influential.
With all this feedback and research in hand, it was clear we needed to establish a training program that would be useful to postdocs in their own skill and career growth as well as help them support the undergraduate and graduate students they themselves mentor. It turned out that what we needed already existed. Nearly everyone we spoke with who had a successful postdoc mentorship experience made the same suggestion: go look at CIMER.
CIMER is the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, which creates and publishes discipline-specific mentorship training program curricula for students, postdocs and early career faculty. The curricula use case-based, discussion-focused facilitation to help research mentors collaboratively learn, practice and reflect on crucial mentorship skills. They emerge from the course with new mentorship skills and with a new lens through which to critically assess and improve the mentorship culture of their labs and organizations.
CIMER offers a variety of supports and services for organizations establishing mentorship training programs. We’re a fan of the DIY approach in the research training centre, so we chose not to hire CIMER to facilitate the program nor to train our facilitators. Rather, we selected and tailored some key elements of the curriculum to our specific needs.
The curriculum suggests having participants complete various self-assessment and communication-styles inventories, but a key element of our leadership and mentorship training programs across SickKids is using a standardized assessment (SDI 2.0) and vocabulary to understand and talk about how we work and communicate. We collaborated with our organizational development team to embed SDI in the self-assessment, communication and conflict areas of the course.
Regular reflection leading to a culminating project
We also felt that the program, as designed, missed a key opportunity for using the development of a mentorship philosophy and statement as a through-line in the course, and as an opportunity for participants to record their learning and reflection. We redesigned it to make the mentorship philosophy mandatory rather than optional. This includes critiquing models, reflecting on and revising a draft statement at the end of each class, peer review, and the creation of a mentorship statement and accompanying lab charter as a culminating assignment.
Addressing anti-oppression and systemic bias in academia
The other significant shortfall we found with the CIMER program is how it addresses equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It focuses on individual biases and perspectives and fails to provide mentors with crucial knowledge and language they need to understand how academia as a system perpetuates inequity and exclusion. Relying on the expertise of our EDI manager, we gave the subject much more dedicated time in the course and embedded it into every module. We started with a grounding in foundational principles and concepts and focused on systemic causes and remedies for inequity. We also incorporated a research assignment that sees each mentor review a major paper on anti-oppressive mentorship practices, critique it with their colleagues and incorporate best practices into their mentorship plan and lab charter.
Feedback from our first two cohorts has been uniformly positive. There have been notable improvements in participants’ perceptions of their mentorship skills and confidence. Satisfaction with the program has been extremely high, especially the highly collaborative, small-cohort model that helps postdocs, who often feel isolated and invisible, build community and peer support. In addition to launching our third cohort later this year, our next major goal is developing a longitudinal assessment that will measure longer-term impacts of the program on mentorship skills and the success of mentees.