Successful Mentoring Relationships Key for Research Students, Postdocs

The updated AAMC compacts are designed to help research students and postdocs develop relationships with mentors as they begin careers in an increasingly competitive field.

Finding the right mentor and building rapport can define careers for young biomedical scientists, helping them make their way in an increasingly competitive field. But many postdocs and graduate students don’t know how to go about forming these relationships.

The AAMC recently updated two documents designed to help trainees and mentors develop and maintain successful relationships. The Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors and the Compact Between Biomedical Graduate Students and Their Research Advisors outline commitments and set expectations for mentors and mentees. With many changes in biomedicine, both updated versions focus on developing communication, leadership, and management skills that could translate to careers in academia, industry, or elsewhere.

The compacts set the “ground rules so everyone is on the same page,” said Jerome Breslin, PhD, director of graduate programs in molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida Health Morsani School of Medicine and part of a six-member committee that revised the documents.

Each mentee and mentor can discuss the compacts to determine, for example, how often to meet and what career development activities are appropriate, according to Jodi Yellin, PhD, AAMC director of science policy who led the revision committee. “They are not necessarily meant to be something that is signed and sealed,” said Yellin. “Some institutions could choose to use it that way. But we made it a template so they can personalize and use it as they wish.”

“When I was a grad student I had a really fantastic mentor—one with open communication, trust, and respect. He was dedicated to my training as a scientist.”

Patricia Cameron, PhD
Graduate School of Augusta University in Georgia

According to Yellin, the first postdoc compact was developed in 2006, when there was a call for more centralized oversight of postdocs. “Back then you would join a person’s lab, but not the institution,” she said. “But now there is postdoc leadership, or at least a faculty [member] designated to oversee postdocs at an institution. Some institutions have postdoc offices to consolidate their onboarding, to make sure there is equitable pay and to address career development needs.”

Originally published in 2008, the graduate student compact emphasizes the importance of mentors providing information and exposure to careers earlier in training, “so [graduate students] won’t enter postdoc training wondering what they are going to do,” Yellin said.

Two-way street

Patricia Cameron, PhD, says she wouldn’t be where she is today without her mentors. “When I was a graduate student I had a really fantastic mentor—Dr. Pietro DeCamilli. We had open communication, trust, and respect. He was dedicated to my training as a scientist and a professional,” said Cameron, vice dean at the Graduate School at Augusta University in Georgia and chair of the AAMC Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) Group.

Some students and postdocs naturally fall into relationships like the one Cameron described. But when there isn’t an easy connection, the compacts can help mentees begin a conversation with potential mentors. “The compact is designed so that the trainee has a plan and isn’t just waiting for the mentor to tell them what to do,” Breslin said.

For new graduate students, it can be difficult to even know where to begin career and training conversations, Cameron said. “Especially for new students [the compact] gives them key talking points on where to start and what to talk about. Then different parts become more relevant as they move through their training and careers.”

But the “responsibility is on both ends,” Breslin noted. The graduate compact states that mentors should “be accessible to give advice and feedback on career goals” and help students develop skills that go beyond the laboratory, like grant writing and collaborative research. According to the postdoc compact, mentors should “foster career development” and help trainees explore a “variety of career paths.”

But ultimately, students and postdocs need to be their own advocates. “It’s their career. They have to be proactive and try to find opportunities, create self-awareness, and learn their weaknesses and strengths,” Breslin added.

In 5 to 10 years, it could be time for another revision to the compacts, according to Breslin. “There are fundamental things that will stay the same, but new problems [will] arise and we [will] discover new things about how people work together. We want these to be living documents.”