How to ensure positive research environments (opinion)

Every graduate student or postdoc deserves to be trained in a supportive environment by a respectful adviser. Yet you don’t have to search far to hear stories from graduate students and postdocs who suffer under abusive ones.

Most of those stories do not rise to the level of national outcry, and as is generally the case with any kind of bullying, it is the unrelenting microaggressions of badly behaved (tor)mentors compounded over months and years that snuff out the career aspirations of trainees. This is a tragedy not only for those trainees personally but also for science as a whole. We lose out on new and diverse discoveries when young scientists are not allowed to thrive.

One particularly egregious example of trainee abuse that did create national outcry spanned more than two decades in the engineering department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The faculty member in this case was well-known for verbally berating his students and humiliating them in front of their peers. His shouting reverberated down the hall into other labs and faculty offices, but little was done to call out the perpetrator until John Brady, a graduate student in this PI’s lab, tragically ended his own life because of the relentless abuse.

At what point could such a tragedy have been averted? Who is watching out at our institutions to ensure similar patterns aren’t developing? What policies are we implementing to level the power imbalance that exists between adviser and trainee?

Skill acquisition, technical mastery, personal development and innovation all thrive in supportive team environments that foster mutual respect and open communication. National conversations and policy recommendations related to the qualities of positive learning environments for graduate students and postdocs are increasing and harmonize strongly with current discussions about effective mentoring, wellness and mental health. But more than conversations are needed. Moving from discussion to action, the National Institutes of Health announced in May a new congressionally mandated policy that requires institutions to alert the NIH if an NIH-funded investigator is disciplined due to concerns about “harassment, bullying, retaliation or hostile working conditions.”

A working group of the Group on Research Education and Training (GREAT) convened by the Association of American Medical Colleges has released a report titled “Appropriate Treatment of Research Trainees” (AToRT) to assist universities who are ready to implement new learning environment policies. GREAT is the association’s professional development group for the faculty and administrative leaders of biomedical Ph.D., M.D.-Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs at academic medical centers. The report is a useful tool for trainees, faculty and policy makers and contains specific recommendations for any group advocating for positive training environments. A diverse subcommittee of GREAT, of which I was a member, drafted and distributed it among colleagues at academic medical institutions for comment before finalizing and releasing it publicly.

The AToRT document is structured such that it can have a broad range of uses including:

  • Training sessions for mentoring faculty members;
  • Orientations for new graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and new faculty members;
  • Departmental faculty meetings;
  • Committees for the conception and/or refinement of institutional policies (e.g., grievance policy);
  • Committees impaneled to evaluate cases related to the alleged mistreatment of research trainees; and
  • Coaching sessions for research trainees and/or mentoring faculty members.

The focus of the document is positive and educational, but it also names and denounces behaviors that are incompatible with a positive learning environment, including actions that:

  • demonstrate a loss of personal civility;
  • infringe on a trainee’s autonomy;
  • represent career and professional development abuses;
  • discriminate based on race, gender, religion or other identities; or
  • create excessive pressure to meet unrealistic expectations.

Reading this list of communally agreed-upon unacceptable behaviors can benefit scientists at all levels of training and leadership. The AToRT document is valuable because it goes beyond identifying harmful actions and urges a renewed commitment to three essential, positive principles within our scientific training environments: leadership, professionalism and equity. The document elaborates upon each, which I briefly discuss below.

  • Leadership. Research advisers set the tone and culture in their laboratories. They are responsible for leading by example to build an encouraging and inclusive learning environment. They should model effective and supportive communication with team members at all levels. Advisers should consistently seek opportunities to learn new strategies for leading others. Self-improvement as a mentor entails a commitment to one’s own personal growth, lifelong learning and critical self-reflection.
  • Professionalism. When advisers conduct themselves in a courteous, conscientious and respectful manner, especially when giving needed correction, it helps establish and maintain a positive learning environment. Advisers should make certain that research trainees and colleagues are treated with dignity and sensitivity. Advisers should understand and practice cultural humility in an ever-changing society. They should understand their personal biases and how their personal interactions affect their trainees and colleagues.
  • Equity. Diversity in scientific thought is the foundation for creativity and innovation. Innovation is more likely when people with diverse ideas and experiences are included in all levels of decision making. Every research trainee should have opportunities to be included in relevant scientific and intellectual processes. Advisers should strive to understand, identify and work to dismantle dominant social, cultural and/or professional norms that may create barriers to inclusion and equity. Devoting the time necessary to develop trainees according to their individual needs and goals is an important quality that distinguishes mentors from advisers.

When an adviser does not espouse the ideals outlined above, and mistreats trainees in their sphere of influence, a clear system must be in place for safe reporting of inappropriate actions. The reporting outcome needs to include meaningful training and discipline by those in authority. Imagine what could have been averted in the story of the abusive adviser at the University of Wisconsin had such a reporting and intervention structure been available and used. The AToRT document outlines possible models and structures, which can be tailored to each institution, for reporting, evaluating and intervening so that no trainee ever has to suffer in an abusive environment in order to contribute to scientific understanding.

The demands upon the professors and research advisers who are training the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians have never been greater. Faculty members need our support and advocacy just as much as trainees do. Fortunately, advocating for positive learning environments and effective mentoring relationships is a well-rounded win for trainees, faculty members and the entire scientific enterprise.

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