Is NSF's postdoc mentoring plan actually doing anything?

Mar 26 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

NSF first introduced the Postdoc Mentoring Plan as a supplementary document a few years ago. At the time everyone was all:


There was basically no information on what we should be writing and panels had no idea what they should be expecting. It was basically a free-for-all and plans ranged from "Trust me, I do this" to two pages that made it sound like the postdoc would be working 6 jobs at once. In the years since, things have stabilized and there's numerous examples out there, providing guidance to people putting their plan together.

But has it DONE anything? Are NSF postdocs mentored better today than 5 years ago? How would we even know?

Ok, so I'll go on record that I am totally behind the idea and philosophy behind the postdoc mentoring plan. I get it, and I honestly want to put my postdocs in the best place to succeed with what they want to do as a career (which may not be a TT position). I think it's valuable for PIs to think about the training environment they are providing and what alternatives there are.

Do I think the PDMP achieves those goals? Probably not.

Why? Because I think the people who take it seriously are those who take postdoc training seriously in the first place. I think it's easy to toss words on a page that sound great without ever doing a damn thing about it. Most of all, NSF funding being what it is, it is RARE for a postdoc to be present when they mentoring plan is put together. Nearly every PDMP plan I see is either "postdoc TBD" or "potential postdoc X". Having an in-house postdoc who is funded and will transition to the new grant is just hard to do, given the grant cycle and budget limitations of NSF. All that is to say that most postdocs are likely to never even see the mentoring plan submitted for the grant they are paid by.

And what does it matter anyway? There is no possible way I can imagine that NSF could enforce any of it. Unless a PI puts specific assessment goals (useless if you don't have a PDF in-house already) or commits money to some sort of external training, there's no way for NSF to evaluate whether you are doing anything you said you would. It's entirely on faith that merely making you think about it was enough to affect change.

And finally, how would we even know whether this is effective? There is no way to assess the difference in postdoc mentoring without infinite variables. The PDMP is like an untestable hypothesis and we're being told to go along because it probably does something. Maybe.

Again, in a vacuum I think it's a good idea. But supp docs in these proposals continue to multiple faster than deanlet positions. I recently submitted a proposal that required 4 supp docs, at two pages each. That's another half a proposal, if you're counting at home. And with the new Nagoya Protocol going into effect, you can bet anyone collecting samples outside the US on NSF money is about to have some new paperwork. The supp docs continue to multiply, so I don't think it's a terrible thing to ask whether or not those documents are achieving their goal.

In the case of the PDMP, there's no way to answer that. And so we just write them so we can hold it up and say we did something. And that, my friends, is the definition of make-work paperwork.

7 responses so far

  • PaleoGould says:

    Fair, but then, in the words of Bakunin, what is to be done? There's enough bad mentoring going around that "trust me" isn't quite adequate. Should we give institutions the responsibility to oversee mentoring issues? A dedicated mentoring professional in HR departments perhaps?

  • Alex says:

    A question that few/no bureaucracies have successfully answered is what you should do when "Trust me!" isn't adequate but "Produce detailed paperwork" clearly ain't gonna do the trick either.

    If we could figure this one out we could probably improve a whole lot of things besides postdoc mentoring.

  • I would MUCH prefer mandated mentoring training, in a similar fashion as Ethics and Chem safety training are currently required. Making PIs write a PDMP screams of We Did Something, rather than making any real change.

  • katiesci says:

    Huh. Why can't they handle it like they do with NSF fellowships? Each year I had to complete a LONG survey and mention every class I took, presentation I did, outreach, my current career goals, etc. They have mucho amounts of data on NSF fellows because of this. I realize the difference is that it's a fellowship rather than being paid on a research grant but that Postdoc TBD is, eventually, Ded and should report if they're being mentored appropriately. Is the PI expected to put updates on the mentoring portion in their annual reports?

  • I have never been asked to comment on mentoring in my annual reviews. Maybe others have.

  • EcoNerd says:

    I actually provide my post-docs with the mentoring plan (which does not change a whole lot from project to project). The plan provides a set of expectations about the kind of support they should expect, and includes formal goal-setting, opportunities for career development,etc. I have not had anyone demand some of the more structured aspects of the plan, but I think that is because we acheive the same ends in a less formal way. But at least this way they know that I have pledged certain things that the post-doc is entitled to.

  • I think it's good to provide the document to postdocs, all I'm saying is that the mentoring plan isn't making you a better mentor.

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