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National Research Council (US) Committee for the Assessment of NIH Minority Research Training Programs. Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs: Phase 3. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005.

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Assessment of NIH Minority Research and Training Programs: Phase 3.

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4Graduate Fellowships and Traineeship Programs

Graduate education and research training differs significantly from undergraduate education and research training. The undergraduate years are generally exploratory in nature, and the coursework is usually broad and inclusive of a variety of disciplines. A successful undergraduate education is designed to produce an intellectually “well-rounded” individual. Undergraduate research training is similarly forgiving. An earnest effort in the laboratory is expected of all undergraduate research trainees, but novel research findings are not a requirement for graduation.

Graduate education and research training, on the other hand, are extremely focused and specific. “Broadness” in the biomedical sciences may mean that psychology trainees also study neuroscience and evolutionary biochemistry, or that immunology trainees also study botany and statistics. Graduate-level training in the biomedical sciences does not often stray into nonscience disciplines. Graduate research training is similarly focused and demanding. Not only is one expected to spend countless hours in the laboratory or office, but novel research findings are a prerequisite to graduation with one's Ph.D. degree.

Graduate training includes traditional learning through classes, seminars, and the like, but it also includes training for other skill sets, such as how to design definitive experiments, how to critically read published research literature, how to present one's research findings to a scientific audience, how to write a research paper suitable for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, how to write a competitive grant proposal, and how to collaborate successfully with others.

Graduate trainees also experience their own unique brand of stress. Many are financially strapped. Many teach undergraduates in addition to doing their own research. Some have young families to attend to. Long hours in the laboratory or office may stress partner relationships or lead to divorce. In many cases, graduate training has no set end point. It could take four to ten full-time years to earn a Ph.D. At some point, trainees must identify, propose, and defend a suitable dissertation topic and hope that, in the meantime, their work is not preempted by another research group. Importantly, mentors have extraordinary influence over the lives and futures of their graduate trainees. Power struggles and disagreements are common among these long-lived training relationships. mentors usually have the final word on whether or not a trainee graduates at all.

Some graduate-level underrepresented minority trainees experience additional challenges. Some may not have had sufficient undergraduate preparation to withstand the rigors of graduate-level coursework. In these cases, remedial training may be necessary in addition to everything else. Graduate training often entails moving to another city or state. Distance from family and community brings with it a whole host of problems. For example, as the gap in educational achievement between minority trainees and their family members grows, previously shared interests may diminish and finding common ground may become more difficult. Family members who do not understand why graduate training takes so long may be critical of minority trainees. Familiar family refrains include, “Why didn't you go to medical school?” and “When are you going to graduate and get a job?” Some minority trainees are viewed by their own communities as having “sold out” or as being “too good for the rest of us” simply because they left the neighborhood or the reservation in pursuit of doctoral-level training. Such phenomena may also affect some nonminority trainees.

On campus, minority trainees may experience further isolation.37 They have fewer peers with whom they share a common cultural background. Indeed, many learn not to discuss anything related to their cultural background because doing so may elicit ignorant and offensive remarks by nonminority lab mates, whether intended or not. Some faculty view minority trainees as inherently less-qualified than nonminority trainees. This negatively impacts minority trainee morale. Minority trainees have difficulty finding prospective relationship partners with whom they share a common background, simply because there are comparatively fewer minorities on campus. When minority trainees seek to become involved in minority scientific professional societies, they are sometimes discouraged or even prohibited from doing so by faculty mentors who do not value such organizations. Regardless of these challenges, some minority trainees do ultimately graduate with their Ph.D. and go on to become successful biomedical researchers and allied professionals.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a critical role in training future generations of biomedical researchers. First, graduate training is an extension of the support NIH provides our nation's scientists as they advance the forefront of biomedical knowledge. In other words, graduate trainees do much of the work funded by NIH research grants. Thus, they are integral to the NIH mission. Second, the costs associated with graduate-level training in the biomedical sciences far exceed those of other graduate or professional training programs, both because the training itself takes longer and because research supplies are particularly expensive. Third, as a condition of their fiscal relationship with NIH, many graduate trainees in the biomedical sciences are not permitted to take an outside job. They are, in essence, wedded to the laboratory bench or office until such time as they graduate. Thus, if graduate trainees were required to pay for even a portion of their training, this would undoubtedly exclude some trainees from participation. Since scientific aptitude is a unique commodity in limited supply across the human population, it does not make sense to endorse policies that further limit the pool of scientific talent available for development. Graduate training in the biomedical sciences is difficult enough, and the prohibition on outside work ensures that trainees are contributing all they can to the research enterprise. Thus, it seems fair and reasonable that NIH continue to support our nation's best graduate programs in the biomedical sciences, as well as requiring that trainees devote 100 percent effort to them.

Graduate Programs for Underrepresented Minorities

Increasing the number of qualified underrepresented minorities who can contribute meaningfully to the national research enterprise is a challenge on many different levels. The training pipeline between the undergraduate and graduate career stages is a metaphorical constriction that limits the number of individuals who may advance to the next step. The constriction is sustained, in part, by the high academic standards required for entry into graduate training programs. It is also sustained by a limit of scientific aptitude across the human population. Indeed, this is why so many foreigners are invited to train within our system. Given recent world events, fewer foreigners are coming to the United States to train, and this is impacting our research capacity on a national scale.

Minority-targeted training programs are not an attempt to lower academic standards for entry into graduate training programs; rather, they are an attempt to increase the available supply of qualified underrepresented minority applicants to these programs. One way to increase supply is to support research training at minority-serving institutions. To this end, NIH supports a variety of capacity-building mechanisms that are intended to bolster the research infrastructure of minority-serving institutions. These capacity-building mechanisms provide for laboratory renovations, equipment costs, research supplies, and trainee support. Unfortunately, this study does not examine minority-serving institution capacity-building awards because electronic trainee data were unavailable to the study committee.

(R25) Bridges to the Doctorate

The R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program is administered by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and supported by a cluster of NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs). It is designed to improve the preparation and increase the number of underrepresented minorities at master's degree-awarding institutions who will continue on to doctoral programs in biomedical research at doctorate-granting institutions. “Many underrepresented minority students enter terminal master's degree programs and have the potential to become independent research scientists,” according to the program announcement. “That potential may be developed by improving the skills they need to be successful research scientists and by providing challenging curricula, outstanding mentoring, active research experiences, guidance, advice, and financial support.”

The R25 Bridges to the Doctorate awards are made to partnerships between master's institutions and doctoral institutions, with the goal of providing a seamless transition between these institutions for underrepresented minority students in biomedical research. The master's institution must have a significant enrollment of underrepresented minority students. Further, the partnership may involve a consortium of several institutions or several institutions within a single state system. Collaborative agreements between the institutions involved in a particular grant are designed to fit local needs and meet local goals. As discussed in the 2002 Request for Application (RFA) for the program,38 institutions may include, but are not limited to, the following kinds of program elements:

  • Establishing a mentoring program for master's students with faculty at the doctoral institution.
  • Enhancing the curriculum of the master's institution.
  • Enabling and encouraging students from either institution to take classes at the other institution.
  • Offering academic counseling for master's students.
  • Providing research opportunities for master's students at the doctoral institution or in private industrial laboratories (students may receive compensation for these activities).
  • Strengthening the research capability of the master's institution (e.g., by fostering research collaborations among faculty and joint seminar programs).

Since the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program does not provide doctoral-level training support, partner institutions must specify how institutional support will be provided to students once they transfer to a Ph.D. program.

(T32) NRSA Minority Institutional Research Training Program

The Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program for minorities provides predoctoral support through T32 institutional training grants. During the period covered by this retrospective study (1970-1999), two NIH institutes offered minority-targeted versions of the NRSA Institutional Training Grants program. Since 1984, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has awarded Minority Institutional Research Training Grants to minority-serving institutions. The program provides training to graduate and health professional students enrolled at minority schools that have the potential to develop a meritorious program in cardiovascular, pulmonary, hematologic, or sleep disorders research. These individuals should be in the developmental stages of their career. The minority institution collaborates with a research center that has strong, well-established programs of research in these areas. The partnering institution opens its facilities to the minority individual and provides a mentor to work with the individual's adviser at the minority institution.

Since 1978, NIMH has employed the minority-targeted T32 grant mechanism. These awards are designed to provide training programs that significantly increase the number of underrepresented minority scientists trained to conduct research in mental health, mental illness, drug abuse, and neurological sciences. The programs do so by training future scientists with state-of-the-art research skills in cutting-edge science and a commitment to research in their chosen field.

(T35) NRSA Short-Term Institutional Training Grants

The Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program for minorities provides predoctoral support through T35 institutional training grants. These awards support intensive, short-term research training experiences (usually during the summer) for students in health professional schools, and in the case of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), they are also used for undergraduate research training. NHLBI supports T35 Short-Term Research Training for underrepresented minority undergraduate and graduate students and for students in health professional schools to expose them to biomedical and behavioral research and career options in these fields. The proposed training must be in either basic or clinical aspects of the health-related science and should be of sufficient depth to enable the trainees, upon completion of the program, to have a thorough exposure to principles underlying the conduct of research. Awards are made to eligible institutions to develop or enhance research training opportunities specifically in cardiovascular, pulmonary, hematological, and sleep disorders research. NHLBI has utilized the T35 minority-targeted Short-Term Institutional Training Grant funding vehicle since 1990.

(F31) NRSA Minority Institutional Research Training Program

The Ruth L. Kirchstein NRSA program for minorities also provides predoctoral support through F31 individual predoctoral fellowships. During the period covered by this study (1970-1999), 17 of the 27 NIH institutes have utilized the NRSA F31 Predoctoral Fellowship Award for Minority Students. These awards provide up to five years of support for research training leading to a Ph.D., M.D.-Ph.D., or other professional degree combined with a Ph.D. in the biomedical or behavioral sciences. The intent of this fellowship program is to encourage students from underrepresented minority groups to seek graduate degrees and, thus, further the goal of increasing the number of minority scientists who are prepared to pursue careers in biomedical and behavioral research. The F31 fellowship provides an annual stipend, tuition, and fee allowance as well as an annual institutional allowance that may be used for travel to scientific meetings and for laboratory and other training expenses.

(F31) MARC NRSA Predoctoral Fellowship Program

The NIGMS awards F31 Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) predoctoral fellowships to outstanding graduates of the R25 MARC Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U*STAR) program to help them pursue a graduate degree in the biomedical sciences. The F31 fellowships are individual NRSAs that provide up to five years of support. These awards provide an annual stipend, tuition and fees, and an allowance to the predoctoral fellow's sponsoring institution to help defray such trainee expenses as research supplies and equipment. Support is not available for individuals enrolled in medical or other professional schools unless they are enrolled in a combined-degree (e.g., M.D.-Ph.D., D.D.S.-Ph.D., or D.V.M.-Ph.D.) program.

(R03) Minority Dissertation Research Grant

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have utilized this funding vehicle since 1991 and 1994, respectively. It provides R03 Minority Dissertation Research Grants to doctoral candidates from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to pursue research careers in any area relevant to the supporting institute. Eligible doctoral candidates are minorities enrolled in accredited doctoral degree program in the behavioral, biomedical, or social science s and must have approval of the dissertation proposal by a named committee. The award provides support to the candidate to facilitate completion of the doctoral research and dissertation.

Focus of the Assessment

Information on these programs was gathered and assessed through the following steps:

  1. Key documents related to the programs were reviewed, including any previous evaluations that were conducted by NIH institutes and centers.
  2. Trainees previously supported by these graduate research training awards were interviewed by the NIH-approved contractor using a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) protocol. These interviews were about 30 minutes in length and utilized both structured response and open-ended questions.
  3. Information was collected through formal interviews with program administrators at recipient institutions (PARIs). These telephone interviews were conducted by the NIH data contractor. The interviews were open-ended and administered in an ethnographic style.39

Previous Program Evaluations Conducted by NIH

Evaluation of the (R25) Bridges to the Doctorate

In 1999, NIGMS convened a working group to examine the current status of the two R25 Bridges programs (undergraduate and graduate) and to review and revise program goals for the future.40 As part of its work, this group reviewed data from NIGMS staff and found that, as of September 1999, NIGMS could assert some success with the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program and urged the program to improve further. However, recent data show decreases in the rate of student success over time.

  1. Indicator: Transfer Rate
    • In 1999, NIGMS reported that after five years, 57 percent of all R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program trainees had transferred to a doctoral program.
    • The 1999 working group recommended an increase in the number and percentage of underrepresented minority students in R25 Bridges institutions who successfully transfer from master's to doctoral programs by achieving a 90 percent transfer rate by 2005.
    • However, in the most recent year (FY 2003) for which data are available, the percentage of trainees who were transferring had declined to just 30 percent.
  2. Indicator: Completion of the Ph.D.
    • In 1999, NIGMS reported that of the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate trainees who transfer, 60 percent had obtained a Ph.D. or were seeking the advanced degree.
    • The working group recommended an increase in the number and percentage of underrepresented minority students in R25 Bridges institutions who successfully complete the doctorate by achieving a completion rate of 70 percent of all students who transfer by 2005.

Evaluation of the (F31) MARC Predoctoral Fellowship Program

Published by NIGMS in May 2000,41 this study was designed to assess the success of F31 MARC predoctoral fellows in establishing research careers and the types of research careers and research activities engaged in by these individuals. The data were drawn from existing NIH databases as well as from curricula vitae (CVs) provided by individuals supported as MARC predoctoral fellows. The study group population included all individuals with initial support under the F31 MARC Predoctoral Fellowship Program from 1981 to 1993. It is unlikely that individuals receiving initial support after 1993 would have had adequate time for completion of postdoctoral training and establishment of a research career. A total of 191 individuals were supported under this program during 1981-1993. The study population was stratified into three cohorts based on initial year of fellowship support: 1981-1985, 1986-1990, and 1991-1993.

Overall, the results of this study show a favorable achievement pattern for former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows consistent over the three cohorts. Furthermore, the data presented in this study parallel results obtained in previous evaluations of NRSA trainees and fellows.

The level of application for NIH grants and the number of publications by former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows are comparable to those of other NIH trainees and fellows. Moreover, even though these results should not be generalized because of the small sample size, they do suggest that the potential for individuals supported by F31 MARC predoctoral fellowships to pursue active careers in research is good. Summary data on the postgraduate training and career involvement in research for recipients of F31 MARC predoctoral fellowship support are displayed in Tables 4-1 and 4-2. Note that some individuals were unresponsive to NIGMS requests for their CVs; thus, the percentages may appear somewhat “off” because the tables do not resolve how many respondents with Ph.D.s actually submitted their CVs.

TABLE 4-1 . Postgraduate Training of F31 MARC Predoctoral Scholars, 1981-1993 .

TABLE 4-1

Postgraduate Training of F31 MARC Predoctoral Scholars, 1981-1993 .

TABLE 4-2 . Research Involvement of F31 MARC Predoctoral Fellows, 1981-1993 .

TABLE 4-2

Research Involvement of F31 MARC Predoctoral Fellows, 1981-1993 .

As shown in Table 4-1, the completion rate of 63 percent for F31 MARC predoctoral fellows from 1981 to199042 compares favorably to the 69 percent completion rate for NRSA F31 predoctoral fellows and trainees from 1967 to 1975 documented in a 1984 study by the National Academy of Sciences.43 A more recent study of predoctoral trainees supported by NIH from 1980 to 1986 found a higher completion rate of 76 percent.44

The average time lapse for completion of the Ph.D. degree by former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows was 7.3 years, slightly less time than comparable life sciences Ph.D. degrees as seen in a 1999 study sponsored by the National Science Foundation.45 The average lapsed time for completion of the M.D.-Ph.D. by F31 MARC predoctoral fellows was 7.7 years.

The greatest percentage of F31 MARC predoctoral fellows obtained doctorates in biochemistry-chemistry, with the next largest discipline being physiology-biophysics.46

Of former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows with Ph.D. degrees, 63 percent received postdoctoral training, similar to graduates of the NIGMS Medical Scientist Training Program47 but lower than F31 NRSA predoctoral fellows and trainees (78 percent).48

As shown in Table 4-2, of the 127 F31 MARC predoctoral fellows supported between 1981 and 1990, 17 percent have applied for NIH grants. The success rate for the 21 individuals who did apply for NIH support was 67 percent.

The majority of former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows are or have been employed in academia. The number employed by industry increased threefold from the 1981-1985 cohort to the 1986-1990 cohort and remained stable at approximately 25 percent for the 1991-1993 cohort. The percentage of former F31 MARC predoctoral fellows employed by the government was extremely small.49

Trainee Interview Data

As shown in Table 4-3, NIH supported 16,480 graduate trainees in the study's universe of targeted and nontargeted comparison programs between 1970 and 1999.50 The NIH-approved data contractor utilized for this study interviewed a total of 328 trainees who were supported by these programs during the time frame of the study.

TABLE 4-3 . Graduate Fellows and Trainees by Program, Race/Ethnicity in the Universe and Sample, and Race/Ethnicity as Self-Identified in Interviews .

TABLE 4-3

Graduate Fellows and Trainees by Program, Race/Ethnicity in the Universe and Sample, and Race/Ethnicity as Self-Identified in Interviews .

In the absence of NIH-wide electronic trainee tracking data, the NIH data contractor was not successful in its efforts to locate and interview trainees. Of the 2,464 graduate trainees in the sample, the contractor was able to obtain contact data on only 759 trainees, or 31 percent of the eligible trainees. This was the case despite its use of two commercial and proprietary credit card databases that together maintain credit card-related contact information for millions of Americans, and the query of the U.S. Postal Service address-forwarding database. There is, consequently, a high likelihood of sample bias among the trainee survey results. The committee believes that the external validity of the data is compromised and that this caveat should be considered when making inferences based on these data.

In addition, the NIH data contractor was not able to interview all those trainees for whom it had contact data. Of the 759 eligible graduate trainees, 344 were never contacted, 9 failed the screener, 60 refused the interview, and 18 failed to complete the interview, resulting in 328 completed interviews. Some evidence suggests the trainees interviewed for our survey were more likely to be among the more “successful” program participants. For example, among those who participated in the R25 Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, survey respondents were more likely to have transferred to a four-year institution and completed a bachelor's degree than program participants in general. The study committee was similarly skeptical of the large numbers of respondents who had at least one family member with a bachelor's or graduate degree. The committee believes the data from these interviews may not reflect the responses that would have been obtained had the respondents been more representative of the larger universe of program participants. Nevertheless, the data are instructive in a general way and are described in this report qualitatively. For example, respondent data are reported using a variety of nonspecific phrases such as: “nearly all reported,” “a majority of respondents said”, “a minority of respondents said,” “more likely,” and “less likely.” Such phrases should not be equated with statistical significance.

Trainee Characteristics

The gender distribution of trainees shows some differences by program and minority group. The majority of minority trainees for each of the graduate-level programs were female. This finding is consistent with demographic characteristics of trainees in NIH minority undergraduate research training programs.

Nearly all nonminority respondents in the F31 fellows and T32 trainees programs were white. Among all targeted graduate-level programs, African Americans and Hispanics prevail, and this is consistent with the demographics of targeted programs at the undergraduate level. By contrast, there were more Hispanics than African Americans among minority trainees in nontargeted programs. Finally, R25 Bridges to the Doctorate trainees reflected the highest percentage of Native Americans (12 percent) relative to other graduate-level programs. There is no cognate nontargeted program for comparison with the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate.

Roughly one-quarter of the minority trainees in targeted programs said that English was not their first language. About one-half of all graduate-level trainees were married or living in a long-term relationship. The F31 fellows and T32 trainees, regardless of minority status, were more likely to have dependents than those who participated in T35 short-term training grants. About one-fifth of the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents reported having had dependents while they were in the program. Among minorities in the nontargeted F31 fellows and T32 trainees programs, roughly one-third report having had dependents while they were in the program.

A majority of respondents across programs and minority groups reported that a parent or sibling had earned a graduate degree. The proportion of minority trainees having family members with graduate degrees may be high relative to the general population, but lower than that for nonminority trainees.

Recruitment

Respondents reported differences in the way they learned about the program in which they participated. R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents reported learning about the program primarily from an undergraduate professor or a graduate adviser. The F31 fellows and T32 trainees usually learned about their program from their graduate adviser. Nonminority respondents reported this more often than did minority respondents. The second most cited sources of information about the programs were departmental staff and colleagues. Nonminority respondents were more likely to cite these sources than minority respondents. The latter reported learning about the program from a bulletin board or some “other” source more often than did their nonminority peers. For the T35 short-term training grant respondents, sources of information about the program varied widely. This likely reflects the heterogeneity of this trainee population, but the numbers of respondents were too small and had too great a chance of bias for comparisons among programs.

Funding

Respondents were asked two questions about funding support: (1) their sources of support during graduate school, and (2) additional sources of support while they were in the program. A majority of F31 fellows and T32 trainees and T35 short-term institutional training grant respondents reported holding scholarships while in graduate school. This was not true for R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents whose graduate school support came from a variety of sources, including spouse or family. A large fraction of respondents across all graduate-level programs reported having taken out loans while in graduate school. Nonminority respondents, in general, were more likely to cite personal, family, or spousal support while in the program. Numerous respondents across the graduate-level programs said that the financial support offered by the program was necessary and helpful but should be increased.

Mentoring

Respondents were asked if they had a mentor while in the program, specifically “someone who took a personal interest in and was supportive of the trainee's research career.” The vast majority of respondents regardless of program and race or ethnic group indicated that they had a mentor. Mentors for R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents were evenly split between male and female and reflect diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Mentors for respondents from the F31 fellows and T32 trainees programs and the T35 short-term institutional training program were overwhelmingly white and male.

Respondents were asked a series of questions about their laboratory heads or principal investigators (PIs), including whether they encouraged the trainee in his or her research, whether they were good to work with, if they were active in the scientific community, whether they provided good career advice, if the career advice was good, and whether they helped the trainee obtain funding for research. There was little variation in the response patterns to these questions across programs and racial or ethnic groups. The majority of respondents reported that their PIs provided some or abundant encouragement to participate in research and that their PIs were either good or very good to work with. Respondents also reported that their PIs were mostly active or very active in the scientific community. A majority of respondents indicated that their PIs provided good or very good career advice. The majority of respondents across programs and racial or ethnic groups interacted with their PIs at least weekly.

The majority of respondents across programs and racial or ethnic groups reported being close to or familiar with their PIs. Nearly one-half of F31 fellows or T32 trainees remained in contact with their PIs for more than six years. This was not the case for trainees on T35 short-term training grants perhaps because of the transient nature of the short-term training experience. R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents demonstrate an even spread across the response variables. One-third of these did not remain in touch with their PIs.

A modest majority of respondents indicated that their PIs had some or abundant influence on their careers. R25 Bridges to the Doctorate and T35 short-term training grant respondents were more likely than F31 fellows and T32 trainees to report a “neutral” influence. One-quarter of the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents and one-third of the targeted short-term training program respondents stated their PIs had no influence on their careers.

The majority of respondents across programs and racial or ethnic groups reported that the program influenced their education and their careers. Respondents who were F31 fellows and T32 trainees were somewhat more likely to report that their program influenced their careers than were respondents on T35 short-term training grants. In the case of R25 Bridges to the Doctorate, some PIs helped students conclude that a research career was not for them. Interestingly, one-half of all R25 Bridges respondents commented that mentoring within the program could be improved. One PARI touched upon the issue by saying, “… one of the things with all of these training grants is that basically the faculty time … is all pro bono.”

Trainee Experience with Laboratory or Research Group

The majority of respondents across programs and racial or ethnic groups interacted with their laboratory or research group on at least a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Respondents reported less frequent interaction with other colleagues, but there were also differences in this interaction. Minority respondents supported by T35 short-term training grants were more likely to report interaction with other colleagues than did nonminority respondents. Conversely, F31 fellows and T32 trainees in nontargeted programs were more likely to report interactions with other colleagues than were respondents in targeted programs.

Nonminority respondents in general reported higher levels of social integration (familiar or close) than did minority respondents. Minorities in nontargeted programs were least as likely to report feeling familiar or close to their groups or colleagues. Not surprisingly, respondents who were F31 fellows or T32 trainees were more likely to stay in touch with their groups and other colleagues and for a longer period of time after leaving the program than were respondents on T35 short-term training grants. Similarly, respondents who were F31 fellows and T32 trainees reported that their groups influenced their careers more so than did R25 Bridges or T35 short-term training program respondents.

Trainee Expectations about the Program

Among respondents who were F31 fellows and T32 trainees, most expected their programs to provide financial support. Among those with this expectation, nearly all said that it was met. Among respondents who were in T35 short-term training grant programs, only a fraction expected their program to provide financial support, but most of those who had this expectation said it was met.

Nearly all respondents across programs and racial or ethnic groups expected the program to improve their research skills and to provide an opportunity to establish a relationship with a mentor. Among those who had these expectations, nearly all said that they were met.

Only a fraction of F31 fellows and T32 trainees expected the program to improve their teaching skills, and of those who had this expectation most said it was met. Whether respondents who received T35 short-term training grants expected the program to improve teaching skills depended on whether the respondent was in a targeted or nontargeted program. Only a fraction of respondents in nontargeted programs had this expectation, but most of those in targeted programs did. This likely reflects the heterogeneity of the targeted T35 short-term trainee population, which was comprised chiefly of undergraduate and graduate trainees. In either case, most respondents had their expectations met.

Trainee Outcomes with Regard to Program Completion

A modest majority of R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents said the Ph.D. was the highest degree they expected to earn. Almost one-half of R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents had successfully completed their master's degrees, and one-tenth had earned Ph.D.s. One-quarter left the program without earning any degrees. A decline in transfer rates from master's to doctoral-level institutions has been observed for this program in recent years. The vast majority of trainee respondents from the F31 Fellow and T32 Trainee programs said a Ph.D. was the highest degree they sought. A substantial majority of these successfully obtained the degree. The majority of respondents who participated in the T35 short-term training grant program said the M.D. was the highest degree they sought. Only a smaller fraction stated that the Ph.D. was their goal. Of those who said the M.D. was their goal, most attained it, with the exception of the minority trainees in targeted T35 short-term training programs, many of whom were undergraduates. Only a small fraction of these trainees attained an M.D. degree.

Trainee Expectations and Outcomes about Career after Program

Most F31 fellows and T32 Trainee respondents expected the program to increase their chances of obtaining postdoctoral positions after graduate training, or to improve their chances of obtaining research and/or faculty positions or assist in securing grants. Among these respondents, most reported that their expectations were met. Medical school and practicing medicine were far more on the minds of participants in T35 short-term training grant programs than for F31 fellows and T32 trainees.

Most F31 fellows and T32 trainee respondents said that their next career step would be postdoctoral work or a job in academe, private industry, or government. The frequency with which trainees did what they expected they would do was striking. Slightly more trainees undertook postdoctoral training than said they had expected to do so. The following factors are even more dramatic: Among nonminority trainees, only a fraction expected academe to be their next step, yet roughly one-half of this cohort reported taking work in academe. These may be mostly teaching positions, given that full-time research faculty positions are nearly impossible to obtain, at least in the biological sciences, without first doing postdoctoral work. Additionally, a tiny fraction of respondents expected to move to the private sector, yet fully one-fifth did. These trends may reflect the uncertainty and small size of the post-Ph.D. job market in academe, or they could simply be an artifact of trainee recall about expectations they may have had in the past. Since the same trend appears among the T35 short-term training grant respondents, a “recall artifact” may be more likely. Nonetheless, minority trainees were less likely than nonminority trainees to report that their expectations were met with regard to securing employment.

Among F31 fellows and T32 Trainee respondents the most recent employer for more than one-half of them is a U.S. university, U.S. community college, or U.S. medical school. A smaller fraction reported working in the private sector. For T35 short-term training grant respondents, most recent employer responses were highly variable.

Just over one-half of all F31 fellows and T32 Trainee respondents in these programs reported being a senior author on one or more published research papers subsequent to earning their Ph.D.; this proportion was higher for nonminority trainees than for minority trainees. Roughly one-half of all F31 fellows and T32 trainees reported obtaining one or more research grants after graduation. This does not hold for T35 short-term training grant respondents, perhaps because of this population's focus on clinical service delivery and its overall heterogeneity.

Comments of Trainees and Fellows about the Program

Trainees interviewed for this study were asked several open-ended questions including, What were the best features of the program? What were the worst features of the program? What improvements for the program would you recommend? and Do you have anything else you would like to say to NIH? Their answers provide a picture of the program features that were important to them and the concerns they had about the program and their experience in it.

Program Quality

In response to the question, Do you have anything else you would like to say to NIH? the overwhelming majority of respondents who were in these programs commented on the quality of and/or their appreciation for the program. There were some variations in the response by program and race or ethnicity as listed below.

(T32) NRSA Institutional Training Grants

  • Among underrepresented minorities who were supported on minority T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grants, a high number of responses commented on the importance of the program for minority students. One respondent argued, “It's a fantastic program and it's trained a number of prominent minorities that are sociologists today. I'm proud to be a part of it.” Another said, “Without the award, young researchers of color would not get the experience they need.”
  • Trainees who were supported on nontargeted T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grants emphasized the importance of the program to their education and training. One respondent called the program “wildly successful”.
  • There were respondents who indicated that, although the program was successful educationally, their job prospects after completion of the program were limited. When asked in what ways the program did not meet their expectations, the response offered most frequently was that career opportunities after the program did not meet the respondent's expectation. However, when asked in what way the program influenced their careers, one of the most cited responses across programs and racial/ethnic groups was the career opportunities that the award afforded them. The prestige of their awards featured prominently among their responses, especially for those respondents who were F31 NRSA predoctoral fellows.
  • A handful of trainees who were supported under nontargeted T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grants also noted that there was a need for more trainees from underrepresented minority groups.

(F31) Fellowships and (R03) Dissertation Grants

  • Respondents who were funded either through the F31 fellowship or R03 dissertation grant programs agreed that the program was very positive for them, and they were more likely than T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grant respondents to say that the funding either “came at the right time for” or “played a key role in” their research.
  • Respondents, especially F31 NRSA predoctoral fellows, also noted that the fellowship was instrumental to their success in graduate school. One minority respondent on a nontargeted grant said, “I'm thankful for it. It came at the right time. It was very prestigious. It was a good opportunity.” Another nonminority respondent replied, “It's important to be funded so that one can focus one's attention on accomplishing a long-term goal.”

Taken together, these comments indicate a high-level of satisfaction among survey respondents with their experiences with the program. Of note, when asked what the worst features of the program were? a frequent response was “none,” but for almost all programs and racial or ethnic groups the majority of respondents raised important issues for consideration, which are described below.

Program Features

Financial Support. When asked what the best features of the program were, the feature cited more than any other was the financial support offered to students so that they could focus on their studies or dissertation research. This was true across all graduate-level programs and racial or ethnic groups. This differs from undergraduate programs whose respondents were less likely to cite the financial support as a best feature.

In addition to noting the importance of financial support, many respondents praised the flexibility that funding afforded. Rather than working at an outside job, predoctoral trainees said that the funding allowed them to focus exclusively on their research projects. A small handful of F31 fellows—in both targeted and nontargeted programs—noted the importance of the prestige attached to the award.

While financial support was most frequently cited as the best feature of these programs, when asked what improvements to the program they would suggest, the response offered most frequently among those who answered the question was to increase the stipend and other financial support.

A disturbing and somewhat ironic observation was offered by three F31 NRSA predoctoral fellows who said that when they received the fellowship, they lost the health insurance that had been provided to them as part of their institutional training grant support.

Educational Preparation. When asked what the best features of the program were one- third of the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents cited activities leading to further intellectual development. These included laboratory research experience, classes, special seminars, and workshops. The skills cited by respondents included research skills, laboratory techniques, critical thinking, teaching skills, making presentations, organizational skills, and database management. A program feature cited as a best feature by several R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents was the opportunity to travel to conferences or to undertake research at another campus or at NIH. One respondent, however, indicated that traveling to another school to do research was a worst feature saying “that school lacked the technologies to do the research.”

When asked how the program influenced their education, respondents who were on training grants frequently noted how it allowed them either to complete their education and acquire skills or to participate in research. They also frequently noted how the program shaped their career goals or was influential in determining their research focus.

Among those respondents who were on F31 fellowships or R03 dissertation grants, the most frequently cited response was the opportunity to conduct research or complete their dissertation.

Networking. Networking appears to be a key feature and key area of concern for respondents who were in targeted and nontargeted trainee programs. Networking was highly cited as a best feature by respondents in both targeted and nontargeted trainee programs. When asked in what ways the program influenced their education, minorities in targeted programs frequently answered that the program provided networking opportunities they otherwise would not have had. Networking was also mentioned by some respondents as an area in need of improvement.

Mentoring. Mentoring also appears to be a key feature and a key area of concern for respondents in targeted and nontargeted trainee programs. Although not highly cited, mentoring was an important best feature for some respondents, predominantly those in nontargeted trainee programs. It was also the third most often cited area in need of improvement. Indeed, in response to a question about ways in which the program did not meet the respondent's expectations, the second largest response focused on deficiencies in the mentoring offered.

When asked how their PIs influenced their education or career path, R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents reflected that they were either encouraged or discouraged to continue on to a doctoral program in biomedical research. Those who were encouraged received help in establishing the academic connections needed for a smooth transition to a Ph.D. program. Those who were discouraged reported experiencing varying degrees of benign neglect.

Program Outreach. A large number of respondents who were trained on targeted or nontargeted training grants indicated that they believed their program could improve outreach to new trainees.

Grant Writing and Application Process. When asked how the program influenced their education and careers, the most frequently cited response among those who had F31 fellowships or R03 dissertation grants, along with the importance of the research experience, was the acquisition of grant writing skills. The application process was often cited as one of the worst features of the program by F31 fellows or those in R03 dissertation grant programs and was an area in need of improvement. However, two respondents said they learned a lot from the feedback they received on their research proposals.

Payback. There were complaints about the payback provisions, especially among nonminorities on training grants.

Other Features. Other worst features or suggestions for NIH noted by only a few respondents included long hours, departmental politics, favoritism, and the use of trainees as “cheap labor.” Several respondents said that NIH should demand greater accountability from recipient institutions, and two respondents suggested cutting funds for trainees or fellows who are not making sufficient progress.

On Being a Minority. When asked how being a minority affected their experience in the program, three types of answers were offered. First, almost exclusively among minorities on T32 NRSA institutional training grants—targeted or nontargeted—respondents indicated that being a minority focused their research interests on issues related to minority communities or populations. Second, a substantial number of respondents, chiefly those on NIMH R03 dissertation research grants, said it helped them secure the grant in the first place, and another substantial number of minority respondents in nontargeted training programs indicated that being a minority created opportunities for them.

However, an equally large number of respondents across all three programs reported negative experiences associated with being a minority. They expressed such concerns as feeling isolated or having inadequate support because of their race or ethnicity. Several noted that others appeared to perceive them negatively because they had targeted awards or simply because of their race or ethnicity.

Interviews with Program Administrators at Recipient Institutions (PARIs)

(R25) Bridges to the Doctorate Program Interviews

History and Evolution of the Program

The two R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program administrators interviewed for this study described very different origins for their programs. In one case, the program evolved out of a summer research training program that the institution had been running across a number of scientific disciplines. The program administrator related that the two partner master's degree institutions identified “students in their master's programs that the faculty at those institutions felt would be potential … candidates for pursuing the Ph.D. and [who] had interests that matched the kind of research that the faculty at [our] department was engaged in.” These students, then, were invited to attend the doctoral institution for the summer, “and we basically had a variety of activities aimed at … orienting them to the research that was being done here and linking them up with one or more … mentors, with the initial goal being that these students would then select—when they returned to their home institution—the thesis option for the master's degree. In a lot of these clinical training master's programs, including ours, students have an option of doing a master's with or without a thesis.” The goal is to interest the students in the possibility of pursuing the Ph.D. and a career in research.

In the other case, the program was initiated when the program administrator saw the announcement from NIH and decided to respond to it in partnership with a master's degree institution at which the administrator had previously been a faculty member. The master's degree institution had a healthy pool of students and a track record of success in recruiting minority trainees into the biomedical sciences. The focus of the R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program was to motivate these students to pursue doctoral studies. Unfortunately, shortly after the program was funded the master's degree institution became ineligible to continue as a grantee because it had just begun to offer its first doctoral program. So the program had to be reconstituted using a different master's degree institution that similarly targeted the Native American population. This program articulated four goals:

  1. Target enrollment goals for research assistantships to support a certain number of students each year at the master's level;
  2. Enhance the research capacity of the master's institution;
  3. Prepare faculty at the doctoral institution for optimal advisement of students when they enter the doctoral program; and
  4. Integrate the local Native American community into the program, by working with elders, medicine people, and other spiritual leaders from the urban Indian area around the school as well as from nearby reservations.

Advertisement and Recruitment

Both PARIs stated that recruitment begins at the master's level institution and targets nursing and clinical master's students. Brochures and web sites assist in advertising the program to students. The recruitment role of the program administrator at the doctoral institution involves discussing the doctoral program with prospective trainees. One PARI said that the master's institution works with the Indian Health Service in an effort to identify prospective trainees. Another PARI stated that recruitment relies primarily on faculty at master's institutions who identify and then recommend individual trainees to the department chair.

Criteria for Trainee Selection into the Program

The R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program administrators who were interviewed are faculty at doctoral institutions. They described the selection of trainees as follows:

  • “We are interested in people who have an interest in a scientific career or careers as a nurse researcher. We want people who have some evidence of having the aptitude and the prior education that will allow them to be successful. We have a more holistic view of what their application is, rather than one that's sort of more … formulaic.”
  • “The typical student sort of coming into [our institution] is … primarily … looking at the clinical training as a sort of career path.”
  • “In nursing science, people who come to doctoral level training tend to be quite a bit older than your average doctoral student. It is not unusual to have people well into their 40s.”

Trainee Experience in the Program

The two R25 Bridges to the Doctorate program administrators were asked to discuss the kinds of challenges that trainees in the program face. They provided frank insights about academic and personal issues, as summarized below.

The chief academic challenge that R25 Bridges to the Doctorate trainees face is that the requirements of the programs tend to be additions to their regular academic load, making participation and success a somewhat daunting task. “The problem that we and our partner institutions face is that the second year of the master's program is very heavily clinically oriented. And there just aren't as many hours in the day as students could possibly need in order to do everything plus take on the added responsibility of doing a master's thesis.” The other administrator interviewed remarked, “I think one challenge for many of them has been the need to carry a full course load.”

The combination of increased academic load and the fact that many of the trainees are in clinical programs further reduces the opportunity for success. As one program administrator related, “Our big challenge is to basically convince them that a research and teaching career is one that they should consider over simply going the route of … the typical undergraduate who might major in biochem but is really interested in going into medicine.”

A key issue for many students is that they need to move away from family, community, and/or tribe to participate in these programs and this makes adjustment difficult. One administrator related that the willingness to make a long-distance move for their education was difficult, saying “I think moving away from family and from their tribes is a challenge.” Their program tries to overcome this through several mechanisms:

General sociability. “I think one big factor is just personal acquaintance with all the people in the project. So we are a pretty, I think, … friendly and personable group, and we engage the students right from the start in the larger group of people involved in the project.”

Annual retreat. “We have an annual project retreat that brings everyone involved in the project together, students and faculty from all the institutions, medicine people and spiritual leaders, elders, and some of our … staff. And we have this retreat off-site at one of the reservation communities, and that serves as a gathering for the whole group. It gives us a chance to do [a] kind of team building. It is an opportunity for everybody to get kind of a dose of culture, to carry everyone through to the next year's meeting. And for those people who are involved who aren't Indians, it serves as an immersion experience to acquaint them with the background of our students. So I think that is probably the highlight of our year in terms of their own success.”

The other administrator interviewed also brought up this set of issues, noting that “the thought of going away from the family is sort of very difficult. Going to college, then doing a two- or three-year clinical training program, and then continuing on for more education is both from … the personal development and [from the] financial standpoint, a real difficulty.”

The program elements that appeared to be the key to success for these students were oversight and mentoring. One of the administrators interviewed said, “There is support in two ways. One is through the Indian support programs at each school that are already in place, not part of our program funding, but the [Indian Health Service] funding. And the second is just the regular academic support services that are available at each school, people's academic advisers [and] student services. And we … recommend to the students to work with both of those. At [the master's institution], their Indian support program works with a model they call Intrusive Monitoring of all their students, and the students sign release forms so that the staff can check in with their teachers and get information about a student's progress as they go along. The people who have been to school up there will laugh and say, ‘Well, you know, the … program knows we are going bad before we do.' So they have a very close, kind of, monitoring of progress. So that is one approach, and it seems to work for them. At [the other master's institution], what I have seen is really quite a different approach where the Indian program is very focused on helping students be ready to learn, and so it is more preventive. They work with biofeedback and the students are pretty engaged in doing this kind of thing. They stop by the American Indian focus room, and the programs are all set up on the computer. It is very much kind of a stop and take stock of the day and prepare yourself to move along and learn the best you can. And it is just a different approach, but it also seems to work really well.”

One of the two administrators added that mentoring is critical as well. “One of the things about all of these programs is if you have at least a couple of faculty at each institution that are really committed to the mentoring of these individuals, you make significant progress. And … if for one reason or another, those individuals are not available or they're overworked so that the amount of time that they can commit to these programs is limited, you are not as successful.”

Ways to Improve the Administration of the Program

One of the two administrators noted that a key area for improvement in going forward was the need to improve communication between the doctoral institution and the two master's institutions. They have begun this process by having regular videoconferences that both improve the efficiency of communication and allow the campuses to draw more on the partnership. The administrator seeks to establish a “day-to-day” presence on the master's institution campuses that will allow the programs to communicate regularly about recruitment, program activities, and trainee follow-up. The administrator related, “Our goal is to basically have it so that there's at the very least a weekly seminar that links students at the partner institutions with students here and with faculty here. So that if we have this infrastructural seamless connection between the institutions, the task of keeping people on-task and moving toward a goal, I think, would be a lot easier.”

(T32) NRSA Institutional Training Grant Interviews

Five PARIs were interviewed about the T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grants that they administer. All of those interviewed were PIs on the grants.

History and Evolution of the Program

Collectively, these programs have been around for 22 to 30 years. Generally speaking, the grant is used to train pre- and postdoctoral trainees in interdisciplinary research across a number of departments.

Advertisement and Recruitment

One PARI described the use of a targeted campaign of writing letters to faculty and deans across the country to advertise the program and solicit trainee interest. Some institutions conduct outreach to nearby minority-serving institutions. “We have specific targeting to predominantly black enrollment universities. And we have local efforts within the city to seek out minority candidates.” Another PARI lamented that the problem is that so many universities are competing for such a small pool of minority talent. Yet another PARI complained that the definition of minority is too restrictive. “[There] was a first-generation Vietnamese kid whose parents spent time on boats in the South China Sea. He was brilliant as all get-out. I could not get him any minority help.”

Some PARIs advertise the availability of training grant slots by using the web or purchasing advertisements in minority trade magazines. Within the institution, one PARI described an announcement that was circulated to faculty with the invitation to nominate their best predoctoral student. According to one PARI, “The frustrating thing I have found over the years is we could recruit to our heart's content, but the young smart African Americans are much more interested in the professions for advanced training than they are in basic research.” This same PARI recommended, “Increase stipend levels to be competitive with professional training programs.” Another PARI argued for a more proactive outreach strategy, “We need to go to junior high schools and high schools and begin there. Since ours is a graduate program, we clearly need to do a better job in the undergraduate years to even announce the fact that there is [a discipline called] public health.”

Criteria for Trainee Selection into the Program

For predoctoral trainees, one PARI described a fairly traditional set of criteria, “They have to meet the criteria of the graduate training program that they are admitted to, and those criteria include a certain set of prerequisite courses that they need to have taken. Since biochemistry is typically a last year course at the undergraduate level, it means that they had to take organic and inorganic [chemistry]. They also need to have had at least a year of calculus. There isn't a GPA [grade point average] cutoff, but the higher the GPA, the happier we are. And similarly, there isn't a GRE [Graduate record Examination] cutoff, but the higher … [the scores] are, the happier we are. Probably, the most critical thing in the entry process is having letters from faculty at other institutions, or this institution, depending upon where they did their undergraduate work, that indicate that they have been exposed, in some fashion, to research, because, in my experience, that's a big predictor of success. They know what a Ph.D. program is all about when they apply.”

Another PARI described a different set of criteria, “We're looking for bright people. I mean, we take people—in public health we have people that range in skills from basic laboratory biology all the way to geography and demography and social sciences, and everything in between. So, the training, discipline, and interests really don't matter, because we need everybody. We look for bright, creative, imaginative people. And if you give me somebody bright and creative, we'll work it out.” One more PARI stated, “We deal with a pretty good cut of intellectual quality. So it turns out, the most important factor is interest and dedication. It's not accomplishment. It's not prior research. It is interest and commitment. That's the most important predictor of success.”

Trainee Experience in the Program

In terms of the challenges faced by minority trainees, one PARI shared, “I've had a number of minority students over the years, and the general problem that I've seen over the years is [their lack of a] good earlier education. For example, one of the super bright students I'm working with now is working on her Ph.D., but she can't write. We're not talking about intelligence or energy or creativity; we're talking about basic skills. I think a lot of the minority students are not getting a good basic education.” Another PARI said, “Getting a job after the program is the biggest challenge. We've had people come to us and say ‘I can't get a job. Can you find the funding for me for another year?'” One of the biggest challenges faced by trainees at another institution was described as follows: “My institution funnels all of the training grant stipends through the Financial Aid Office. They are paid in three installments, one at the beginning of each semester and one at the beginning of summer, rather than getting a monthly check. [Furthermore] Financial Aid people deny these students other forms of financial aid because they regard the training grant as a source of financial aid. And so the students who are on the training grant are at a disadvantage, compared to other students who are paid the same amount of money, but from a different source. And, when you give them their checks a month late, it creates hardship for them. I've written checks from my own bank account to cover these kids who don't get their paychecks on time because, you know, they have to pay the rent, they have to eat, regardless of whether the Financial Aid Office thinks it's worth their time to pay them on time. So that's the biggest problem.”

Mechanisms for keeping up on trainee progress are important to maintaining a high training standard and ensuring that trainees are on the right track. One PARI said, “We have different levels of feedback. Coursework is one. Formal candidate reviews is a second. Review by the mentor is third. There is little opportunity at these graduate levels for remediation. I think that we see people who fall off the ladder because they're just not able to keep up and aren't given reinforcement of what skills sets are required and what the expectations are.” Another PARI said, “We're part of a large medical school. I don't know every candidate because there are hundreds and hundreds of graduate students and postdocs here. Sometimes a person will come to us and say, ‘This lab isn't working out for me.' We either give them advice about what to do, or if it looks like it's a real serious problem, we talk to their preceptor. Our view is, first of all, it's the right thing to do to try and help this person. But also, it isn't good for our training program if people are unhappy and unsuccessful.” Yet another PARI adds, “Graduate students interact with trainers on a daily basis. They submit reports twice yearly to the principal investigator. They meet with their committee at least twice a year. They attend weekly conferences designed specifically for the group of trainees on the training grant.

Share a Trainee Success Story

One PARI related, “We have a number of candidates from 15 to 20 years ago who completed their degree, went on to postdoctoral work, and from there went on to academic positions at various institutions across the country. [They] are now full professors. We also have candidates who have gone into the pharmaceutical industry.”

Describe a Trainee Who Was Not Successful in the Program

One PARI explained, “I'm working with a doctoral student now who's having trouble with writing. Her problem is that when you ask her a question, she thinks of 15 things that are important to put in the answer, and then she answers with all the 15 things. You can't do it that way. That's something you learn in grade 10. So, this has been a problem.” Another PARI added, “You do get some people without a good work ethic, and they aren't productive. If they're not productive at this stage of their career, they cannot get a job. We've had several of those.”

Comments on Relationships of PARIs to NIH

One PARI was asked to describe his or her interactions with NIH about the training program. “Basically, none. If the occasional financial question comes up, then I talk with the financial administrator, but I don't have a great deal of interaction with the program administrator.” Another PARI related, “Hardly ever. We've had this training program over 25 years. I know a fair amount about training grants and how to do them, what's expected. So if I had a problem, I wouldn't hesitate to call them and talk with them. You know, occasionally around renewal time, I may call them and talk to them to make sure that I'm on target and I do a good renewal. I've done these five or six times and they've always been funded. So I don't talk to them a lot because things seem to be going well.” In contrast, another PARI remarked, “They're my life blood, of course. When I wrote to the director's office recently for help with a small crisis, they were fabulous. I was really amazed at how terrific they were.”

Ways to Improve the Administration of Training Programs

“More money for administration!” argued one PARI. Another had a few suggestions for improving administration of these programs: “I would say one frustration that we have relates to the demography of who is coming to the United States. What we're seeing is an increasing number of people from Thailand or China or India, and they're really good. But they don't qualify for the training grant because under NRSA policies you've got to be a permanent resident or a citizen. When the act was written 30 years ago this probably made sense. There is a certain irony in that you can be on an NIH grant if you're not a citizen, but you can't be on any training grants. There are places right now where they can't even fill their training grants, because they don't have enough qualified applicants. I wish we had more flexibility and could pick the best people, and not the best people who have a green card or are American citizens.”

According to one PARI, “I think most people will tell you that putting together the application for a training grant renewal is probably the least pleasant experience you'll ever have. People would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than put one of these grants together, because the documentation and requirements of what you have to present are just enormous. If there was some simplified process for applying and the grant wasn't so complicated that would help a lot.” Also, “I guess there are two things I would say about the money part, which NIH ought to think about. One of them is when a graduate student goes to work in your lab the school charges the preceptor of the graduate student for the tuition. I think if you're really interested in training pre-docs NIH should help the preceptors by paying a larger fraction of that cost.” Then, “For grants where there's more clinical research, I think sometimes preceptors have a hard time being a good preceptor, because they're often earning their living seeing patients and the student sometimes doesn't get the amount of attention they deserve. I think the NIH in general is concerned about this, and they're starting to ease up on allowing funds for faculty to be part of packages for grants.”

Another PARI said, “I think the whole class of training grants ought to be reviewed as career development efforts. What's missing is a sense of national commitment amongst the successful awardees in promoting and developing. It's the opportunity and, I would argue, responsibility of the government, in the process of funding training activities, to promote training as a career development effort. What does a trainee get out of participating in NIH-sponsored training programs? The answer is a stipend. And it could be a whole lot more. The NIH could very cheaply offer a whole lot of added value such as career development, contacts, networking, access to specific NIH programs, invitations to come to NIH for conferences. NIH could take advantage of these future leaders and give them value added, but it fails to do so.”

NIH Policies That Hinder Administration of the Programs

“We need more money above the line. It's always been a problem. I mean, NIH basically said it is going to invest money in the fellow. Who could argue with that? But it does take institutional resources to keep a program going. And so, I admire the fact of putting the money where it counts, but NIH has gone too far.” Also, “It's clear that NIH's intent is that a trainee be awarded for a minimum of a year. But there's a requirement that you can't reuse dollars if somebody doesn't complete their year. That's a waste for everybody. Changes happen in peoples' lives. You can't even go on maternity leave. What sort of nuttiness is that?” Another PARI said, “The obligation, without any sort of advice or support or national coordinating effort, to follow candidates for 20 years is a burden on universities. This is a national issue. For all training grants, why isn't there some effort to coordinate ‘tracking' efforts nationally?”

Program Evaluation

PARIs were asked whether they engage in any program evaluation activities in relation to the T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grant. One PARI remarked, “We appointed a steering committee of fairly distinguished senior scientists in [the field]. They're like a board of trustees, and they give us advice. They look over who we're training. They go over the progress reports. They review our application when we do renewals.” As another PARI described it, “We have a steering committee that evaluates the program at least annually, and usually, they are involved in all appointments to the training grants. So they review all trainees on an annual basis prior to reappointment.” A number of PARIs stated that they view the five-year competitive renewal process as an evaluation of sorts. One PARI provided a bottom line, “To me what really counts is, have they gone out and achieved significant positions? If they're in the research field, are they being productive?”

(T35) Short-Term Institutional Training Grant Interviews

Twelve PARIs were interviewed. All were either current or recent PIs of the programs. Some were founders and others began running the program within the last five years.

History and Evolution of the Program

All programs have been well established for ten years or more. Some T35 programs were started in response to a specific NIH RFA (Request for Proposals), and others evolved as a part of larger institutional efforts to recruit and train underrepresented minority (URM) students into research science, especially environmental health and toxicology.

Programs Stated Goals

All programs have the goal of attracting minority students to research science, and this goal has not changed over the years for any of the programs.

Percentage of PARI Time Working on Program

PARIs report that time spent working on the program is variable, depending on immediate program needs. Activities that require PARI time include setting up the program for the following summer, recruitment of students, review of student applications to the program, and conducting the program itself. One PARI said that asking what percentage of time he or she spends on running the program is a “nonsense question.” Another said, “The NIH says that I spend no time on the program…. At certain times of the year I spend 50 percent of my time.” Others gave generalized percentages ranging from less than 10 percent to 35 percent of their time.

Advertisement and Recruitment

A variety of methods are used to advertise the T35 NRSA Short-Term Institutional Training programs and recruit students to them. Some programs send minority faculty and students to nearby minority-serving institutions or other colleges to deliver a brief talk explaining the program and encouraging students to apply. Another institution is part of a consortium of schools that includes the Big Ten. Given its extensive connectivity with regional institutions, word of mouth has been sufficient advertisement for this T35 program, in particular. Yet another institution uses a top-down approach, and its T35 advertising and recruitment activities rely on the institution's already comprehensive minority recruitment infrastructure. Still other institutions use a web site or booth at the annual MARC undergraduate conferences to advertise and recruit future applicants to their programs. Some PARIs remarked that female applicants both outnumber and outcompete male applicants. One institution is challenged to identify Hispanic and Native American applicants, given its geographic locale. Yet another institution is challenged to identify African-American applicants, given a different locale.

Criteria for Trainee Selection into the Program

Trainee selection criteria vary across the T35 Short-Term Institutional Training programs and institutions, in part because this funding vehicle may be utilized to support the training of undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral students. Some institutions accept students anywhere between their second year of college and the first few years of graduate school. Others accept only junior or senior undergraduates. One institution is academically traditional and accepts only those trainees whose GPA is 3.6 or better as long as the student has stellar letters of recommendation and comes from a high-caliber undergraduate school. Others have a lower GPA requirement but scrutinize each application for evidence of a research orientation, such as previous lab research experience or a well-written personal statement that explains the student's curiosity for scientific research. In the words of one PARI, “I look for that spark, that genuine interest in research, as opposed to those that just thought it might be a good way to help their resume for medical school, which, really [is] the vast majority of the applicants.” Yet another PARI explains what he or she looks for when reviewing student applications, is “… a student [who has] a high energy level, intellectually curious, good work ethic….” Some institutions accept only applicants whose stated research interest is in the environmental health sciences. Another institution looks for students expressing an interest in clinical research, specifically public health and community medicine. Yet another institution focuses on “growing talent” as opposed to “harvesting” talent that is already apparent. This PARI explains, “I take a lot of students with borderline grades, … students who might well think they want to go to med school, but may simply not have the performance to get into medical school, and who may be open to looking for an alternative career.” Another PARI concurs, “I think there's a tendency to want to get the best numbers, but I think you miss the sort of middle group that is really a rich target for research careers.”

Trainee Experience in the Program

A few PARIs commented that students' science and writing skills may be deficient. One PARI said, “Our program is academically challenging. The students who are not well prepared, … it was tough going. Our program is rigorous and we don't compromise. That was a challenge for some students.” Another says, “Sometimes we wind up with students who probably are not as well prepared as the bulk of the students. And so, we try to have a variety of special programs to help them deal with the academic material.”

Another challenge facing students in the T35 short-term training programs is, as one PARI put it, “the vast difference between here and home.” Some PARIs said that students may be challenged by the drastic change in their living situation. Some institutions put students in dormitories; others house them off-campus in private student homes. One PARI believes that cultural issues are at play when T35 trainees come to the campus. He generalized by saying that African-American students can at times come across as aggressive, and Hispanic students may at times come across as passive. Nonminority persons in the labs in which these students work for the summer do not always know how to negotiate cultural norms different from their own.

Trainee Success Stories

PARIs offered many stories of students who succeeded in the T35 Short-Term Institutional Training program and then went on to graduate from Ph.D., M.D., or MD-Ph.D. programs. In some cases, the students were academically stellar to begin with. In other cases students were “rough around the edges” at the start of T35 short-term training, yet quite polished by the end of it. One PARI said, “the other kind of student that we consider a real success is the kind of student who comes in not really aware of what research really is, or the opportunities it provides, and then finds that they're really excited by research and that they really love doing it.”

Yet another PARI said, “Typically in the first two or three weeks, I hear, ‘I don't understand my project. I don't know what we're doing … I just don't get it.' But, invariably by the end of the summer and, I guarantee, 90 percent of the time—the students are able to give a very eloquent discussion of what they did during the research experience. And the quality of the posters they present is analogous to what I see when I go to scientific meetings. By the end of the summer, the kids know they've made the transition. The sense of empowerment that the students get is incredible.”

Unsuccessful Trainees

PARIs were asked to describe situations in which an individual trainee was not successful in the T35 Short-Term Institutional Training program. The reasons given for “failing the program” vary widely. Here are some representative quotes: “We have maybe one or two students drop out every other year, … because of [either] personal problems or health problems or family problems.” Also, “A student with a serious substance abuse problem who refused offers of help. He was dismissed from the program.” Then, “I'm not sure that someone does not succeed. I think what happens is that a student may realize that this is an endeavor that they don't wish to pursue any further.” In addition, “Occasionally we have a student who seems virtually abandoned by their lab and so we intervene and try to fix that. That's pretty rare, but that lab doesn't get called upon after that.” And, “Early on, we had some students that took advantage of the program. They felt getting in was all they needed to do. So, they didn't show up, or they didn't work very hard.” All PARIs agreed that diligent oversight of students' progress is critical to facilitating trainee success in the program. Oversight in this regard includes regular meetings and interactions with both students and mentors.

Comments on PARI Relationship to NIH

Most PARIs reported low-frequency, albeit positive, contacts with NIH. Other than filing annual progress reports and a five-year competitive renewal, little interaction takes place between the institution and NIH. One PARI reported a strong relationship to NIH. Another PARI lamented the paperwork saying, “It's way too bureaucratic and way too much paperwork for what's involved, the amount of money, the amount of … I'm going to be honest with you because, they have just added another level of bureaucracy, another form this year, and it's so silly, for students who are here for ten to twelve weeks.” Another PARI reported, “I contacted NIH about the issue of these reverse discrimination lawsuits.”

Ways to Improve the Administration of These Programs

“More money for administrative support and funding for more social events for trainees.” “More flexibility operating the program. Less bureaucratic interference.”

NIH Policies That Hinder Administration of the Program

One PARI replied, “[There is] no administrative support on grants. Everything depends on the goodwill of a few.” Another PARI said, “NIH prohibits faculty from receiving salary support from these grants. Yet doing so would be an incentive for faculty to run these programs.” Yet another PARI said, “There is no salary support for me as the PI and minimal salary support for my assistant, who helps me administer the program.” Another said, “There's no reward [for running these kinds of programs] other than a personal and internal award. In fact, by putting time into this program you penalize your career.” “Finally, [we need a better way to] reward people for throwing away their time on an altruistic activity that doesn't pay.”

Several PARIs reported that their institution allows nonminority students who are economically disadvantaged to participate in the programs. One PARI said, “I think NIH needs to address and offer some support to program directors about the issue of reverse discrimination. My feeling is that the NIH approach is, Well, you figure it out. Then they kind of bury their heads in the sand.”

Another PARI comments that the funding cycle is off-kilter with the administration of a summer program, “It's possible that I would have five students who have signed on to come here [in the summer], then all of a sudden I find out in April that the program hasn't been re-funded. There's a bit of time discrepancy there.” Another PARI commented, “The overhead allowed is only 8 percent. Thus, it's better to pursue other types of grants, as they offer more overhead.” Another PARI laments, “The [research] supply monies that are offered are about $125 per student per month. Those monies aren't enough to cover anything, to tell you the truth. I mean, you could burn that in a morning.” Yet another said that “[students] frequently request more socializing activities, but the NIH policies will not allow it.” Finally, “NIH requires you to describe a plan for minority recruiting, but it prohibits the consideration of results. They used to want to know what the outcome of your plan was. Did you manage to bring in minority students? Did they succeed and so forth? Now they don't want you to do that. It seems nuts to me. That is the best measure of success!”

Program Evaluation

All PARIs said that there is an evaluation component to the program they administer, usually on an annual basis. The evaluation includes some form of input from students and mentors whether by survey or in-person interviews conducted by a third party. A few PARIs mentioned ongoing efforts to track student outcomes. As for results, one PARI said, “I think the major change [that resulted from this program] has been the growth in the minority population in the medical school, which I believe is the desired outcome of this effort.” Another said, “Whether these students [get a Ph.D.], whether they end up in environmental health. Even if they went on to medical school and so forth, we think that's okay. We still believe they benefited from the program and that will eventually be to everyone's benefit.” Another PARI remarked, “The numbers of minority applicants that have applied to the medical school and graduate school here have skyrocketed. And it's a result of this program.”

Final Comments from PARIs

Final comments include the following: “Outreach and recruitment to science needs to start in K-12, ” and “I think maybe getting undergraduate educators together with graduate educators and even high school educators looking at the whole process, you know, could be very helpful, very rewarding.” “The lack of adequate preparation at minority-serving institutions is problematic for generating a competitive applicant pool.” Finally, “I hope that NIH … keeps these programs running. They clearly serve a purpose and [fill] a huge need. This program has really impacted our school.”

Conclusion

Minority respondents to our survey who participated in graduate-level NIH training programs were predominantly female across all of the programs sampled. This parallels what was observed among minority undergraduate respondents, yet it diverges from what was observed among minority postdoctoral and junior faculty respondents who were predominantly male. The reason for the demographic shift at higher career stages is unknown and worthy of further study. The majority of graduate-level respondents across programs and without regard to minority status reported that a parent or sibling had earned a graduate degree. Thus, individuals who become graduate trainees, regardless of minority status, tend to come from families with a history of high educational attainment.

With regard to trainee outcomes, almost one-half of R25 Bridges to the Doctorate respondents successfully completed a master's degree, and one-tenth had earned a Ph.D. One-quarter left the program without a degree. Among F31 NRSA fellows and T32 trainees, a majority were successful in obtaining their Ph.D. Further, slightly more than one-half of the graduate respondents reported being a senior author on one or more published research papers after obtaining their Ph.D. In addition, about one-half report successfully obtaining one or more research grants post-Ph.D. These data are consistent with the committee's impression that the sample of survey respondents who could be located was biased toward more successful NIH trainees. This tells us little about the majority of graduate-level trainees who could not be located using commercial credit card databases and a U.S. Postal service database, and it does raise questions as to why such individuals do not appear to be participating in today's credit economy.

Responses from F31 NRSA fellows and R03 dissertation award recipients indicate a high-level of satisfaction with their experiences in the training programs, although minority respondents in nontargeted training programs were least likely to report feeling familiar or close to their research groups and colleagues. The T32 NRSA Institutional Training Grant trainees frequently noted the difficult job prospects they faced after completion of their training program. When trainees were asked to report the best feature of the training programs in which they participated, financial support was cited most frequently. When asked if there was anything else they wished to tell NIH, the most common response among this cohort was that stipend support needs to be increased. Mentoring was cited by all graduate trainees as a key feature of the programs, although there was consensus among trainees that mentoring is an area in need of improvement. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among R25 Bridges to the Doctorate trainees.

Nineteen program administrators were interviewed regarding graduate-level training programs. All of those interviewed are associated with programs that are well established. When asked to comment on the challenges faced by minority trainees, the following themes figured prominently among program administrator responses: the lack of adequate academic preparation among minority trainees, the pervasiveness of financial hardship, frequent “culture shock” when transitioning to higher-caliber institutions, personal or family problems, and problems integrating or being accepted into one's research group. In light of these problems, program administrators emphasized that outreach for these programs should begin during the K-12 years and that graduate trainee stipends should be increased so that trainees are not set up for failure.

When asked about the criteria that are used to select trainees for entrance into various programs, administrators emphasized two modes of screening. The first applies traditional graduate school criteria such as high grades, excellent letters of recommendation, and a record of scientific accomplishment at the undergraduate level. The committee refers to this approach to trainee selection as harvesting talent. The second applies nontraditional selection criteria that emphasize a student's potential, rather than past accomplishments. For example, some programs will accept minority trainees with borderline grades and limited undergraduate scientific achievements as long as the student demonstrates a sincere interest in pursuing biomedical research as a possible career path. The committee refers to this approach to trainee selection as growing talent.

Most program administrators reported that a critical program element is oversight and monitoring of trainee progress, in order to catch problems before they become intractable for trainees and faculty alike. When asked how NIH could improve these programs, the following suggestions were offered: simplify the grant application process, provide greater local flexibility, increase the allowable budget for administrative support, compensate faculty for the time they spend mentoring trainees, provide more legal guidance on affirmative action policies, and finally, implement a trainee tracking system in order to better monitor trainee outcomes.

Footnotes

37

The statements in this paragraph reflect graduate trainee responses to open-ended survey questions.

38

National Institutes of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health. Initiative for Minority Students: Bridges to the Baccalaureate, Program Announcement (PAR-02-084). See http://grants2​.nih.gov​/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-02-084.

39

Ethnographic interviewing uses techniques from anthropology to collect concrete information from individuals in their context of use. Thus, rather than studying individuals per se, ethnography entails learning from them. This nuance has implications with regard to the kind of information that is collected.

40

National Institute of General Medical Sciences and Office of Research on Minority Health, National Institutes of Health. Undated. Planning and Priorities of the Bridges to the Future Program. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. See http://nigms​.nih.gov​/news/reports/bridges.html.

41

National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health. 2000. The Careers and Professional Activities of Former NIGMS Minority Access to Research Careers Predoctoral Fellows. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. See http://www​.nigms.nih​.gov/news/reports/marcstudy.html.

42

Ibid.

43

Coggeshall, P.E., and P. W. Brown. 1984. The Career Achievements of NIH Predoctoral Trainees ands Fellows. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

44

Pion, G. M. 2001, The Early Career Progress of NRSA Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows. Bethesda, Md.: National Institutes of Health.

45

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2002. Doctoral Scientists and Engineers: 1999 Profile (NSF 03-302). Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation.

46

National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health. 1998. Careers and Professional Activities of Former NIGMS Minority Access to Research Careers Predoctoral Fellows. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

47

National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health. 1998. The Careers and Professional Activities of Graduates of the NIGMS Medical Scientist Training Program. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

48

National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health. 2000. Careers and Professional Activities of Former NIGMS Minority Access to Research Careers Predoctoral Fellows. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

49

Ibid.

50

Nontargeted comparison program parameters were matched as closely as possible to targeted program parameters. Thus, both categories of program derive from the same institutes and were administered during the same temporal window.

Copyright © 2005, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22667

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