The Development of Scientific Communication Skills: A Qualitative Study of the Perceptions of Trainees and Their Mentors

Cameron, Carrie PhD; Collie, Candice L. MPH; Baldwin, Constance D. PhD; Bartholomew, L. Kay EdD, MPH; Palmer, J. Lynn PhD; Greer, Marilyn PhD; Chang, Shine PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182a34f36
Research Reports

Purpose: Scientific communication, both written and oral, is the cornerstone of success in biomedical research, yet formal instruction is rarely provided. Trainees with little exposure to standard academic English may find developing scientific communication skills challenging. In this exploratory, hypothesis-generating qualitative study, the authors examined the process by which mentored junior researchers learn scientific communication skills, their feelings about the challenges, and their mentor’s role in the process.

Method: In 2010, the authors conducted semistructured focus groups and interviews to explore research trainees’ and faculty mentors’ perceptions and practices regarding scientific communication skills development, as part of the development phase of a larger quantitative study. The facilitator took detailed notes and verified their accuracy with participants during the sessions; a second member of the research team observed and verified the recorded notes. Three coders performed a thematic analysis, and the other authors reviewed it.

Results: Forty-three trainees and 50 mentors participated. Trainees and mentors had diverging views on the role of mentoring in fostering communication skills development. Trainees expressed varying levels of self-confidence but considerable angst. Mentors felt that most trainees have low self-confidence. Trainees expressed interest in learning scientific communication skills, but mentors reported that some trainees were insufficiently motivated and seemed resistant to guidance. Both groups agreed that trainees found mentors’ feedback difficult to accept.

Conclusions: The degree of distress, dissatisfaction, and lack of mutual understanding between mentors and trainees was striking. These themes have important implications for best practices and resource development.

Dr. Cameron is assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology, and associate director, Cancer Prevention Research Training Program, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas.

Ms. Collie is program coordinator, Cancer Prevention Research Training Program, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas.

Dr. Baldwin is professor, Department of Pediatrics, and codirector, Academic Pediatrics Fellowship Program, Golisano Children’s Hospital, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York.

Dr. Bartholomew is associate professor, Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, and associate dean for academic affairs, University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas.

Dr. Palmer is director of programs, American Statistical Association, Alexandria, Virginia.

Dr. Greer is director, Office of Institutional Research, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas.

Dr. Chang is professor, Department of Epidemiology, and director, Cancer Prevention Research Training Program, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to acknowledge Angela Byars-Winston, Christine Pfund, Lori Bakken, and Walter Pagel for providing valuable expertise in study design; Angela Passaretti for assisting with the focus groups; Cheryl Anderson for assisting with the data analysis and manuscript revision processes; and Ellen Brackenridge for reviewing the original manuscript.

Funding/Support: This study was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (R01 GM085600-01A1). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agency.

Other disclosures: None.

Ethical approval: The protocol for this study (#2009-0405) was approved by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center institutional review board on September 17, 2009.

Previous presentations: Some parts of this report were presented at the American Association for Cancer Education Annual Meeting, on September 29, 2012, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and at the 5th Annual Conference on Understanding Interventions that Broaden Participation in Research Careers, on May 11, 2012, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Supplemental digital content for this article is available at http://links.lww.com/ACADMED/A149.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Cameron, Cancer Prevention Research Training Program, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1155 Herman Pressler Blvd., Unit 1365, Houston, TX 77030-3721; telephone: (713) 794-1476; e-mail: ccameron@mdanderson.org.

© 2013 by the Association of American Medical Colleges