How to ensure a positive research environment (feedback)

Every graduate student or postdock deserves to be trained in a supportive environment by a reputable advisor. Yet you don’t have to search far to hear stories from undergraduate students and postdocs who suffer under abusers.

Most of these stories do not rise to the level of national outrage, and as is usually the case with any form of intimidation, it is the relentless micro-aggression of misbehaving counselors that occurs over months and years that shatters career aspirations. Trainees This is a tragedy not only for those trainees personally, but also for science as a whole. When young scientists are not allowed to improve, we lose new and varied discoveries.

A typical example of trainee abuse that has caused national outrage for more than two decades in the engineering department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In this case the faculty member was well known for verbally reprimanding his students and insulting them in front of their peers. His screams echoed through other labs and faculty offices down the hall, but rarely did the culprit call until John Brady, a graduate student at this PI lab, tragically ended his own life due to relentless torture.

At what stage could such a tragedy have been avoided? Who is keeping an eye on our organization to ensure that similar patterns do not develop? What policies are we implementing to balance the existing power imbalance between mentors and trainees?

Skills acquisition, technological expertise, personal development and innovation all contribute to a team environment that promotes mutual respect and open communication. The National Conversation and Policy Recommendations on the Qualities of a Positive Learning Environment for Graduate Students and Postdox are strongly consistent and consistent with current discussions on effective counseling, wellness and mental health. But more is needed than conversation. Moving from discussion to action, the National Institutes of Health announced in May a new congressional binding policy requiring organizations to warn the NIH if a NIH-funded investigator is disciplined due to concerns about “harassment, intimidation, retaliation or adverse work situations.” .

A working group (GREAT) of a research education and training group formed by the Association of American Medical Colleges has published a report entitled “Appropriate Treatment of Research Trainees” (ATORT) to assist universities ready to implement new learning environment policies. Great is the Professional Development Group of the Association for Faculty of Biomedical PhD, MD-PhD and Administrative Leaders. And postdoctoral programs at the Academic Medical Center. The report is a useful tool for trainees, faculty and policy makers and contains specific recommendations for any group in favor of a positive learning environment. A diverse subcommittee of the GREAT, of which I was a member, draws up and distributes it among colleagues at academic medical institutions for comment before finalizing and publicly disclosing it.

The AToRT document is designed to have a wide range of uses, including:

  • Training sessions for mentoring faculty members;
  • Adaptations for new undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and new faculty members;
  • Departmental faculty meetings;
  • Committee for the concept and / or revision of institutional policy (e.g., grievance policy);
  • Committees have been empaneled to evaluate cases of alleged misconduct with research trainees; And
  • Coaching sessions for research trainees and / or mentoring faculty members.

The focus of the document is positive and instructive, but it names and condemns behaviors that are not compatible with a positive learning environment, including actions that include:

  • Showing damage to personal civilization;
  • Violation of a trainee’s autonomy;
  • Representing abuse of profession and professional development;
  • Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or other identity; Or
  • Create extra pressure to meet unrealistic expectations.

Reading this list of communally acceptable-unacceptable behaviors can benefit scientists at all levels of training and leadership. The AToRT document is valuable because it goes beyond the identification of harmful actions and calls for renewed commitment to three essential, positive principles within our scientific training environment: leadership, professionalism and fairness. The document details each one, which I will discuss briefly below.

  • Leadership. Research advisors set the tone and culture in their lab. They are responsible for leading by example to create an encouraging and inclusive learning environment. They should have models of effective and helpful communication with team members at all levels. Counselors should seek opportunities to learn new strategies to consistently lead others. Self-improvement as a counselor is committed to one’s own personal growth, lifelong learning, and critical self-reflection.
  • Professionalism. It helps to establish and maintain a positive learning environment when mentors treat themselves with humility, conscientiousness and respect, especially when making necessary corrections. Advisers should ensure that research trainees and colleagues are treated with dignity and sensitivity. In an ever-changing society, counselors should understand and practice cultural humility. They should understand how their personal biases and their personal interactions affect their trainees and colleagues.
  • Equity. The diversity of scientific thought is the basis of creativity and innovation. Innovation is more likely when people with diverse ideas and experience are involved in all levels of decision making. Every research trainee should have the opportunity to be involved in the relevant scientific and intellectual process. Counselors should strive to understand, identify, and act on influential social, cultural, and / or professional norms that may interfere with inclusion and equity. An important quality that separates trainees from mentors is that they spend the time they need to develop according to their personal needs and goals.

When a counselor does not support the above-mentioned norms and abuses trainees in terms of their impact, there must be a clear mechanism for safe reporting of inappropriate actions. The results of the report need to include meaningful training and discipline of the authorities. Imagine what would have been avoided in the story of the humiliating advisor at the University of Wisconsin if such a reporting and intervention framework had been available and used. The AToRT document outlines possible models and structures that can be created for each organization, for reporting, evaluation, and intervention so that a trainee never has to suffer in a hostile environment to contribute to scientific understanding.

The demand for professors and research advisers training the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians has never been higher. We need the support and support of the members of the faculty as well as the trainees. Fortunately, advocating for a positive learning environment and effective mentoring relationship is a win-win for trainees, faculty members, and the entire scientific community..

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