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Older scientist helping younger scientist. Both are women.

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The National Science Foundation (NSF), which is the third-largest federal research funding stream for universities, is now requiring all grant applicants to submit a mentoring plan for graduate students.

The expanded mentoring requirement went into effect late last month. It’s part of the federal government’s wider push to increase support for scientific research and maintain the United States’ competitive edge as a global leader in technological innovation, as outlined in the landmark CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.

Realizing the goals laid out by the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorized $200 billion in spending on scientific research, development and commercialization over the next decade, will require expanding the pipeline from graduate education to the workforce.

Mentoring will be a component of that effort because it can help students see themselves as scientists. And developing that scientific identity improves academic performance, retention and persistence in STEM, and increases STEM degree completion, according to a 2020 paper published in the International Journal of STEM Education.

"Whether a person is a graduate student or a postdoctoral scholar, they are early-career professionals in STEM,” said Jackie Huntoon, director of the NSF’s division of graduate education. “It’s really the duty of the current professionals—those people who are already in positions of authority in the field—to make sure these new people coming along have the best support possible so they can succeed.”

Mentoring is especially important for the academic and career success of women and racial and ethnic minorities in STEM who face well-documented barriers in academe and remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

According to a 2015 study from the Council of Graduate Schools (some of the most comprehensive available recent data), 44 percent of STEM doctoral students from underrepresented groups earned their Ph.D. within seven years, whereas 36 percent withdrew from their graduate programs during that time period. And 20 percent of the students were still enrolled in their doctoral programs after seven years.

The vast majority of STEM graduate students will work with a senior faculty member on a research project as part of their coursework. And many of those projects are funded by the NSF, an independent agency that supports science and engineering across the United States and its territories.

Federal science agencies fund more than half of university-led research and development initiatives; about 24 percent of that support comes directly from the NSF.

Faculty members applying for NSF funding have long been required to submit a mentor plan for post-doctoral students involved in a proposed project. But when the NSF updated its Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide this year to also require a mentoring plan for graduate students, it signaled an amplified investment in producing the next generation of research scientists.

“NSF spends a lot of money supporting post-docs and graduate students,” Huntoon said. “In order to make sure our investments have the greatest impacts possible, we want to make sure these early career people are receiving every possible leg-up we can give them because we’re investing in the future of the nation.”

The NSF is also now requiring that all annual and final project reports include a certified individual development plan for graduate students and post-docs on an NSF-funded project. The plans can help them with reaching short- and long-term career goals, as well as improving job performance.

A wide range of activities meet the NSF’s definition of mentoring.

Some examples include career counseling; training in preparation of grant proposals, publications and presentations; guidance on ways to improve teaching and mentoring skills; guidance on collaborating with researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary areas; and training in responsible professional practices, according to the NSF.

Although many institutions may already have mentoring plans in place for graduate students, the NSF’s expanded requirements formalizes mentorship as a critical element of managing a research team that includes early-career researchers.

“The most important part of developing and implementing the mentoring plans is the conversations that happen between the mentee and their adviser, or whoever is mentoring them,” Huntoon said. “We need to be prepared to talk to those students and find out what it is they want and where they want to go in their careers and figure out how to help them get there.”

According to a report by the National Academies, one of the key themes that students raised in a study "was how much their graduate school experience depended on their supervising faculty advisor and their relationship with him or her," an NSF spokesperson noted in an email.

While establishing a mentoring plan is especially helpful for first-generation and other underrepresented students who may not have a clear understanding of how to progress in a STEM-focused research career, she said it’s beneficial for all students.

“If you’re a high-achieving student, graduate school may be the first place where you come up against problems that you can’t solve immediately and that have you baffled for extended periods of time,” Huntoon said, adding that she believes the new mentoring requirement will both improve mental health and increase retention rates for all students. “Even the most high-achieving students can benefit from a mentor that’s going to help them get through those challenges, and help them experience failure as a learning opportunity.”

The relationship a graduate student forms with their mentor can make or break their success in the field.

“We know that mentorship is the single-most important factor that predicts whether students will be able to successfully complete their degree,” said Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “It’s not just being someone’s best friend. It’s being clear about expectations.”

Iris Wagstaff, STEM program director for the American Association for the Advancement of Science who reviews grants proposals for the NSF, said many applicants already include mentor plans for graduate students, which often include blueprints for providing additional training, networking and professional development opportunities.

However, without a formalized requirement to mentor graduate students working on an NSF-funded project, emphasis on mentorship can vary by department or institution. Wagstaff said that because faculty can often act as “gatekeepers” of opportunity for graduate students—especially for underrepresented minorities—the expanded NSF policy could help to break down some of those barriers.

“If a (faculty member) is asking for money from the NSF, it helps to formalize these best practices as requirements,” said Wagstaff, a Black woman with a master’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate in STEM education research and policy who often felt unsupported by her graduate advisers. “Somebody like me would have had opportunities for funding to present at conferences, better mentoring and better support in finding a job.”

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