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NIDA. (2009, November 1). Mentoring: A Guide for Drug Abuse Researchers. Retrieved from

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Chapter 1. Placing Mentoring in Context

The demographics of students and mentees are changing continually. As the demographic characteristics of mentees shift, so must the training of mentors.

Background for Mentors

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As senior investigators, mentors influence the culture of the institutions in which they work and the culture of their field as a whole. In order to foster a climate that best supports training of new investigators, mentors must be aware of issues and trends in their field of research. They need to be aware of the challenges and issues associated with recruiting junior investigators, developing family-friendly policies, meeting demands for multidisciplinary science, and understanding changes in funding opportunities for new investigators. This chapter presents information on some of these topics. Awareness of these background factors can help mentors create a climate that fosters the most optimal training experience for junior investigators.

Demographic Trends Related to Research Trainees

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The demographics of students and mentees are changing continually. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), published in 2007, indicate that 11 percent of the U.S. population were enrolled in graduate programs, while in 2004 it had increased to 25 percent. Much of this increase was attributed to enrollments after 1990. Graduate enrollment by Hispanic students increased by 377 percent during these years; enrollment by Asian/Pacific Islander students increased by 373 percent; Black student enrollment increased by 181 percent; American Indian/ Alaska Native student enrollment increased by 162 percent; and enrollment by White students increased by 27 percent. More females than males were enrolled in graduate programs in 2004. The time span between receipt of an undergraduate degree and receipt of a doctoral degree increased from 8.7 years in 1980 to 10 years in 2003. The NPSAS data also indicate that the average age of graduate students in 2004 was 33, and 23 percent were older than 40 years.

As the demographic characteristics of mentees shift, so must the training role of mentors. Shifts in the age of mentees suggest that mentors must create challenging learning environments to meet the various learning styles of adult students and to build upon the mentees' prior research and work-related experiences. As the racial and ethnic composition of trainees is becoming more diverse, mentors must ensure that they are responding to the unique experiences of minority students as they work with them toward achieving independence.

Approaches from single disciplines have done much to advance drug abuse research, but technological, methodological, and other advances have established the need for increasingly multidisciplinary approaches to address more complex questions.

Specific to drug abuse research, it has been estimated that a substantial number of drug abuse researchers will retire in the next decade. A conference was held in May 2006, titled "Reflections on 40 Years of Substance Abuse Research," at which it was estimated that approximately one-third of investigators will retire in the near future, and that this percentage may be an underestimate for physician investigators. Thus, it is more critical than ever to recruit more scientists to the area of drug abuse research and to mentor them well.

The Need for Multidisciplinary Training

Drug abuse research, as well as other health science research, is becoming increasingly complex and multidisciplinary in nature. Approaches from single disciplines have done much to advance the science, but technological, methodological, and other advances have established the need for increasingly multidisciplinary approaches to address more complex questions. Multidisciplinary training is more essential than ever for the development of junior investigators. In response to this, mentors must be willing to adopt a new mentoring strategy that involves working with those outside of their field and appreciating other scientific cultures. They must also encourage their mentees to adopt a multidisciplinary perspective when appropriate and support them in developing a multidisciplinary team of mentors. This is especially important as increasing numbers of funding opportunities are developed to support interdisciplinary science. Multidisciplinary training will require a team approach to mentoring, which combines a structured, core didactic component and an apprenticeship-style training component.

Other Trends

A recent survey of 1,300 postdocs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that more family-friendly policies are needed at U.S. research institutions. Family responsibilities appear to influence the career goals of men and women differently: women who are married with children are less likely to report wanting to be a principal investigator (PI), when compared with men, women who are single, and women who are married without children. Approximately 57 percent of married, childless, female postdocs reported that having a child would influence their career, compared with 29 percent of married, childless male postdocs. The survey suggests that some female mentees might require part-time positions. The report also suggests the importance of providing affordable child care for researchers. The importance of child care is further suggested by the fact that 40 percent of professionals with Ph.D.'s in the life sciences are women, and yet, only 29 percent of tenure track positions are held by women (Bhattacharjee, 2007).

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Applying for funding for junior scientists has become increasingly competitive. Even as NIH funds doubled in recent years, the percentage of grants going to new investigators has remained at 6 percent of the total funded R01s. Interestingly, while the number of funded T32s (institutional training grants) and K01s (mentored scientist awards) has increased over the past 4 years, the number of individual postdoctoral grants (F32s) has decreased. Furthermore, the average age of the recipient of a first award increased by approximately 5 years during the period from 1980 to 2006. Currently, on average, Ph.D. investigators are 42 years of age at the time of their first R01 award, and M.D. investigators are 44 years old. Mentors should be aware of these trends and be prepared to find ways to support their mentees while they are working toward independence.

Mentors and mentees can evaluate trends in postgraduate training and fellowships by visiting the Web site of the NIH Office of Extramural Research. This site shows both current and long-term trends in awards made by NIH to universities, hospitals, and other research institutions (see The Web site reports awards by average cost, mechanism, principal investigator, organization, geographic area, and characteristics of the principal investigator. Conducting a search on this site can identify a range of available training opportunities. A unique feature of this Web site for mentees is the link to various reports, PowerPoint presentations, and executive summaries.

Current Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists

In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) undertook the task of identifying changing needs in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. The Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists was formed at the National Research Council, and from the Institute of Medicine issued the report Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists (2000). The report helped to define current needs and made recommendations for future directions. Specifically, the report stated that—

Fellows on NRSA grants, compared with their colleagues without NRSA support, were more likely to be appointed as faculty and more likely to apply for and receive independent NIH support.
  • Research training and overall Ph.D. production in the behavioral and social sciences should not be increased. However, several areas that would benefit from an increase in research training were singled out, such as health services research, outcomes research, nursing, dentistry, epidemiology, and biostatistics.
  • There should be an increase in interdisciplinary research training programs to enable investigators to respond to future research initiatives.
  • Because of the successful career outcomes of National Research Service Award (NRSA) recipients, NRSA training grants and fellowships should be emphasized over graduate research assistantships.
  • Despite the persistence of health disparities among underrepresented minority populations, low numbers of Black, Hispanic, and Native American trainees are in the research workforce. Thus, there is a need for both more minority scientists and a greater focus on racial and ethnic disparities in health problems.
Although medically underserved minority populations are rapidly increasing, the number of research personnel who seek to address the health problems of these populations is not growing commensurately. NIDA's Strategic Plan on Reducing Health Disparities includes a focus on underserved minority populations as well as training in health disparities research.

The NIH response to the NAS report is consistent with several of the NAS report's recommendations, including—

  • Universities should give all students adequate training and career development opportunities, faculty should frequently monitor progress, and there should be adequate channels for the resolution of grievances.
  • The emphasis on multidisciplinary training should be expanded.

Health Disparities Research Training

NIH also has maintained that training programs should expose participants to issues associated with health disparities, according to the NIH Strategic Research Plan and Budget to Reduce and Ultimately Eliminate Health Disparities, Fiscal Years 2002–2006 (PDF, 880KB). In response to the NIH initiative to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities, NIDA includes as part of its strategic plan a goal to advance the understanding of the development and progression of diseases and disabilities, such as drug abuse, addiction, and their consequences, which contribute to health disparities in minority populations (see NIDA Strategic Plan on Reducing Health Disparities).


Awareness of the context of research training within institutions and in the broader field can help mentors provide the best training experience, address the needs of the mentees, and influence the culture of training. This will ensure that training experiences continue to improve over time and that they are suited to the needs of mentees.