While the response rate to our survey was somewhat low (approximately 31% of K’s and 32% of mentors), it is similar to other Web-based surveys. For example, a study examining response rates across 39 studies that used Web-based surveys found an average response rate of 34%. 15
To assess the representativeness of our respondents to the population of K’s and mentors, to the extent possible, we compared them to the national profile of K recipients and mentors. Because reporting of such demographics as age, gender, and race is voluntary on grant applications, K recipients who responded to this study cannot be compared directly to known demographics of all K recipients. The gender representation of the K recipients in our survey is similar to NIH data indicating that approximately 45% of research career award recipients in 2008 were women.16
The average age of our K recipient respondents (40.4 years) is quite consistent with NIH data on the average age of first time R01 principal investigators (42.6 years).17
Given that our K recipients had completed on average 3 years of their K program, their age at survey completion is also consistent with the recent report on K01, K08, and K23 recipients showing a median age at award of 37 years for all applicants to these award programs.18
The middle age of the mentors was not surprising considering these were most likely senior investigators. Although there is no existing data on K mentors to compare to our respondents, as a point of reference, in 2008 women accounted for approximately 28% of NIH research awards15
which is very similar to reported gender of the mentor by the recipients and the representation of female mentor respondents in our survey.
The National Institutes of Health Individual Mentored Career Development Awards Program report used several databases to report on the race/ethnicity of K applicants. It excluded K01 programs that were specifically targeted to diversity. For the remaining 9403 K01 (during 2000–2005), K08 (during 1990–2005), and K23 (during 2000–2005) applicants, 9.8% had unknown or unreported race/ethnicity. Of those that were reported, 2.6% of the K applicants self-identified as black and 3.4% as Hispanic. 18
Our survey did not exclude K01’s targeting diversity. Assuming that the respondents in our survey were similar to the entire pool of K awardees, there were several important findings. Perhaps the most concerning was the ethnic and racial makeup of the respondents in our sample, with Hispanics comprising 5.1% and blacks 3.2% of the total respondents. The ethnic and racial makeup of the mentor sample, with Hispanics represented by only 3.2% of the mentors and no black mentors, parallels the K recipients. Even presuming a response bias, these low percentages reflect a need to evaluate and promote programs that encourage minority participation of investigators and mentors in research.
A recent study by Ginther et al. evaluated R01 research project grants submitted between 2000 and 2006 by Ph.D. investigators at US institutions, including 83,188 applications and 40,069 unique investigators. Twenty-one percent of the applications were from Asian, black, Hispanic or Native American investigators. Of those only 1.4% were from black investigators. In addition to low numbers of black applicants, NIH R01 applications from black investigators were 13.2 percentage points less likely to be awarded (p
< 0.001) than applications from white investigators. 19
Tabak and Collins further evaluated the funding success rates of minorities by looking at the success rate of underrepresented minorities who had previously received the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) Loan Repayment Program (LRP) or an NIH Research Training and Fellowship Award (T and F series), or a Career Development Award (K series). They found a similar trend of lower success rates and suggested that Ginther’s results might be generalizable beyond R01 funding. 20
They also noted that blacks and Hispanics were less likely to reapply after failing to receive funding on their first try. Establishing a core of minority mentors will be difficult unless the number of funded minority investigators increases.
Progress to encourage and increase minority and women’s participation in research will take time to build a sufficient minority and female senior investigator pool who can be mentors. While this diversity is important in the overall research enterprise, it may not be as important in the development of minority of female researchers since having a mentor appears more important than the mentor being from the same ethnic or cultural group. 3
A 1995 survey of full time medical school faculty reported that 86% of minority faculty did not think that it was important to have mentors of their same gender or minority group.4
In a 1998 survey of instructors and assistant professors at Harvard Medical School, accounting for ethnic and cultural issues and gender was not important to satisfaction with mentoring. 21
In contrast to the above two studies, this study asked K recipients directly about their satisfaction with their mentor relationship. Although overall 11.8% of K’s were dissatisfied with their mentor, it is concerning that 20.7% of black K’s were dissatisfied. How and whether race contributes to such dissatisfaction is not known. It must be kept in mind that there were only 29 black K respondents in our sample, which again points out a need to further evaluate minority participation in the K program. Although there were fewer women than men service as mentors, the gender of the K recipient and the mentor did not significantly correlate with satisfaction in our study.
Among this study’s K recipient respondents, 46.4% held Ph.D. and 51.1% M.D. degrees. A total of 49.6% of the mentors held Ph.D. and 48.3% M.D. degrees. The NIH Extramural Nexus
recently reported that approximately 70% of NIH supported PIs have Ph.D.’s which has remained stable over the past 25 years. Most of the remaining PI’s were M.D.s or M.D./Ph.D.s with small percentages in other degrees. The NIH also reports that the percentage of M.D.’s receiving NIH awards has declined from approximately 20% to 17%. 22
Such a decline is concerning in light of increasing NIH emphasis on clinical translational research. In this study, more of the degrees held by the K recipients and mentors were M.D.s (approximately 50%) as compared to the NIH report. This difference is likely due to the clinical focus of these K awards. It is encouraging that M.D. investigators are serving as mentors for these clinically oriented K recipients. It is also interesting to note that 20% of K awardees had industry funding and 40% had funding from nonprofit sources other than NIH. Having experience with diverse funding sources is likely to serve them well in an era of declining (or flattening) of NIH budgets. Kram has classified mentoring activities into two kinds: instrumental and psychosocial. Instrumental support is influential in furthering the mentee’s professional goals, including reviewing and writing manuscripts and grant proposals, discussing research projects, and providing sponsorship, coaching, exposure, opportunities, and challenging assignments. Psychosocial mentoring includes role modeling, empathizing, and counseling as well as supporting the scholar through difficult courses and challenging obstacles. 23
Satisfaction with the mentor relationship in our study was consistent with satisfaction with both instrumental and psychosocial types of activities (see and ).
Our study shows that mentors spend time in discussions, meetings, and email exchanges with their mentee. The frequency of contact either in a meeting or by phone/email was significantly correlated with mentee satisfaction in the relationship with their mentor (, and ). This correlation has been shown in other reports of mentee–mentor relationships in general academic mentoring. 24
The assessment by a mentee of the mentoring experience is related to mentee outcomes. In a study of primary care fellows, those fellows who had “influential” mentors spent more time conducting research and published more papers. When asked about the attributes of their mentors, the respondents identified three domains: the relationship between themselves and their mentor (e.g., advice and guidance); the personal attributes of their mentor (e.g., kind and thoughtful); and the professional attributes of their mentor (e.g., role model). 10
Given that the K mentor relationship is intended for research, it is not surprising that the outcomes reported by the K’s in this study are higher in research related areas (presentations or posters, publications, and grant writing) then other areas of professional growth.
Having a mentor in the early years has been cited as a critical element in starting a productive professional career.25
In academic medicine, studies have shown that faculty members who identified a mentor felt more confident than their peers, were more likely to have a productive research career, and reported greater career satisfaction.4,6,11,26,27
Only one study about K recipients’ perspectives on their mentors was located. 28
This study used focus groups (n
= 28) with K23 grantees to better understand the benefits and challenges they faced in the grant program. The discussion section noted that 26 of the 28 respondents indicated that their mentor “fostered involvement in research and scholarly activity.”27
The NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA; (RFA-RM-09–004) are designed to support model academic homes that provide resources and promote clinical and translational research that is aimed to improve health and prevent disease. 29
Mentoring of new investigators is a vital part of these programs. The grant requires institutions to provide not only a mentoring pool but also plans for training and evaluating the mentors, or replacing them, if necessary. In 2009, only 13 of the 46 CTSA institutions had formal mentoring training programs. 31
This same study of CTSA centers with KL2 scholars (a CTSA institutional mentored career development program to develop clinical research leaders), showed that only 17 of the 46 KL2 programs currently conducted formal evaluations of the mentoring relationship and another five were developing an evaluation instrument.30
Some of these institutions utilize the Berk et al.2
tool used in our study. Future comparison of data among CTSAs regarding mentoring qualities and satisfaction may help clarify the attributes of an effective research mentor relationship.
As previously noted, K awards do not provide salary or other support for the mentors yet they are expected to not only share knowledge but also their research resources and time. Burnham et al. have stated, “There is a pressing need for the research community to address the workload, institutional expectations, and reward system for research mentors.”31
Burnham and colleagues recommend several methods of supporting research mentors including monetary support, access to core laboratories and other CTSA-related services, assistance with grant and manuscript preparation, membership in mentor academies, mentor awards, training, promotion, and peer support. Identifying and implementing additional supports for research mentors is a particularly important issue if we also expect them to participate in mentor training programs. Essential to this purpose will be continuous evaluation of mentor supports and their impact on the outcomes we want to achieve from high quality mentoring relationships.