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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

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182a34f36


As doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences progress through their academic careers, they are trained not only in research skills but also in the norms of their disciplines.1 This model is in keeping with the apprenticeship style of teaching that dominates graduate basic science education—the required “curriculum” of skills and behaviors often is not explicit and is taught by role modeling rather that formal didactics.2 Despite educators’ wide acceptance of the critical importance of written and oral communication skills for trainees to succeed in academic research,1–6 formal education in this area is seldom a top priority for graduate programs, and organizing communication training is typically a major challenge for trainees and mentors* alike. Even when trainees begin producing publishable research, formal communication training is often not available to them.

As graduate students in the biomedical sciences begin to transition from the student model of education to the apprentice model of research training, entering a community of practice,7 they typically develop dedicated relationships with their supervising principal investigator. In these relationships, the mentor, often the principal investigator, provides training unique to the discipline and research specialty and plays a major role in the trainee’s socialization in the discipline. The trainees’ responsibilities include beginning to produce formal professional-level oral and written products acceptable to the community and to develop the capacity to participate in the informal professional discourse of the community. Eager to enter the discipline, trainees seek to emulate the particular styles and conventions modeled by their research mentors.1,8–11 During this process, research mentors help trainees develop oral and written communication skills ad hoc, often with little experience in language education and few resources. Not all mentors, however, view this job as part of their responsibilities as mentors.1,12

For the growing number of mentors and trainees for whom English is not their primary language, these issues regarding oral and written communication skills are more complex. These trainees do not always recognize that their writing abilities need improvement,13 and they may find that developing their English skills is overwhelming as they work to bridge the gaps between their grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and rhetorical styles and those of formal scientific English.6,14–16 Mentors who are themselves non-native English speakers, in turn, can find the responsibility of instructing their trainees in spoken and written English especially challenging. Because of the important role that mentors play in trainees’ development,1 knowing more about how mentors and trainees navigate both this process of teaching and learning scientific communication skills and trainees’ entrance into communities of practice can help us to create the most useful and practical methods and resources to support this critical learning.

Some innovative scientific communication programs already exist. For example, Cargill and O’Connor17 created writing courses that are delivered through the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which pair a science content expert with a writing expert to teach English-language research writing skills. Also, the Dissertation House program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (, and other similar programs, as well as less formal writing groups, provide social and content-area support to graduate students struggling with writer’s block and writing-related procrastination and time management obstacles. The Writing and Publishing Scientific Articles workshop at MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC),5 which is taught by scientific editors, provides interactive and in-depth instruction in the format and content of research articles, whereas the Scientific English program, also at MDACC,4 accelerates non-native English speaking trainees’ acquisition of spoken and written English.

In addition to such programs, textbooks and instruction manuals on scientific writing15,16,18–21 are readily available. Although undeniably valuable, these resources do not fully address the developmental needs of trainees. Skillful scientific writing requires not only a full command of the scientific content but also interpretive and critical thinking skills, organizational skills, and the mastery of paraphrase and summary, grammar, and diction. Furthermore, trainees must apply culture-specific rhetorical conventions that underpin both English-language and discipline-specific academic discourse—the secret handshake that is easy when you know it but mysterious and opaque when you do not.8,14,15,22,23 Learning these skills is a gradual process, with continuous practice accompanied by specific, constructive feedback.1,2,11,24–26 In addition to working hard to master technical writing skills, many trainees (and some of their mentors) also struggle with affective challenges, such as writer’s block and perfection paralysis.27,28

Not only do trainees have to master such written communication skills, but they also must develop oral communication skills, including those for both planned presentations (journal clubs, conference presentations) and spontaneous speech (lab discussions, professional networking). Both types of professional oral communication require standardized academic styles of pronunciation and grammar, specialized vocabulary and phrasing, and culturally appropriate scientific arguments.15,23,29 For trainees with limited or no exposure to standard academic English in their formative years, acquiring these skills may be exceptionally challenging and accompanied by anxiety, discouragement, shame, and possibly apprehension about discrimination.30 Speech characteristics (such as accent, grammar, and dialect) are powerful markers of identity and belonging, and differences in speech are often interpreted as markers of the speaker’s diminished credibility.30–40 Regardless of trainees’ linguistic background or acquired repertoire, however, their oral communication skills are limited by affective barriers, such as public speaking anxiety and shyness.41–45 Anxiety about public speaking can be particularly debilitating for non-native English speaking trainees and may ultimately inhibit their academic performance46 and goal achievement.47

Although a few studies describe the difficulties that mentors and mentees face in teaching and learning oral and written scientific communication skills,1,12,47 we are unaware of any that report on systematic investigations into the dynamics of mentor–mentee interaction, including either the perspectives of both mentors and trainees or all forms of scientific communication. Nor are we aware of any programs that purposefully assist both trainees and their mentors in learning and teaching scientific communication skills. Courses, writing groups, workshops, and textbooks are undoubtedly useful, but given that mentor feedback is the dominant means by which trainees acquire scientific communication skills,1 we must pay more attention to how trainees and mentors imagine, experience, and construct this process. This knowledge will help us to find ways to benefit both trainees and mentors as they work together.

In this exploratory, hypothesis-generating qualitative study, we examined how mentored junior researchers acquire scientific communication skills and what role mentoring plays in the process. We conducted focus groups and interviews with mentors and trainees at an academic health science institution with the goal of eliciting themes and constructs related to how mentors and trainees perceive trainees’ development of writing skills, oral presentation skills, and skills in spontaneous conversation, as well as the role that mentors play in this process.


Study design

From June through August 2010, we conducted one-hour focus groups with a purposive sample of postdoctoral fellows and doctoral students as well as faculty who serve as research mentors at MDACC. We stratified groups by gender and language status (L1, English is the primary language; or L2, English is not the primary language). We asked participants to self-identify their language status, based on the language with which they were most comfortable. Questions differed for trainees and mentors. After an extensive review of the literature on mentoring, scientific communication skills development, and sociolinguistics, an interdisciplinary team of investigators worked together to develop the focus group scripts. The team included specialists in scientific mentoring skills development; issues of race, ethnicity, and gender in scientific mentoring; sociolinguistics; scientific communication skills; qualitative research and focus group methodology; psychometrics; and statistics. We designed and conducted the focus groups according to methods described by Krueger and Casey.48 An experienced interviewer (M.G.) participated in the script development and facilitated the focus groups using a semistructured format. See Supplemental Digital Appendix 1,, for the complete focus group scripts.

Procedures and participant recruitment

At MDACC, an average of 1,115 trainees are assigned to 550 faculty mentors in recent years. Among those trainees, approximately 9% are members of underrepresented minority (URM) groups, and 70% are visa holders. Among those mentors, approximately 6% are members of URM groups (data on international origins were unavailable).

We solicited participants through e-mail invitations sent by the MDACC Office of Institutional Research to distribution lists of trainees and faculty in the basic biomedical, population, behavioral, and quantitative sciences. The e-mail invitations stated the eligibility criteria for participants. Trainees were required to be either doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows working with supervising research mentors; some were members of structured training programs, and others were not. Faculty were required to have mentored doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows. All respondents who accepted the invitation were included in one focus group or, for those with time conflicts, scheduled for an interview. The MDACC institutional review board approved our study, and all participants provided written informed consent. Each participant received a $10 gift card to an MDACC dining facility, and, at each focus group, lunch was served.

A licensed clinical social worker from the MDACC Employee Assistance Program was present during all trainee focus groups in the event that participants appeared distressed or requested a personal discussion after the focus group. However, we did not receive any such requests. The expert facilitator (M.G.) recorded all participants’ answers and comments on flip charts and transcribed the focus group session and interview notes. The research team anticipated that participants would express significant concerns regarding mentor/trainee confidentiality; therefore, to maximize participation, we did not audiotape the sessions. To ensure accuracy of the transcribed session notes, the facilitator consistently verified the chart notes with the participants during the sessions. In addition, the social worker verified the accuracy of the facilitator’s note-taking during and after the sessions. The facilitator and social worker later recorded their impressions of the tone and dynamics of the focus groups in separate documents as supplementary information, although we did not use their impressions in our analysis or theme generation. We used a similar verification process for the interviews. Two members of the research team (C.C., C.L.C.) were present for each interview, and the interviewer (C.C.) conducted continuous verification with the interviewee.

Because trainees are required to demonstrate proficiency in English by passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before they are accepted to MDACC, we did not use translators during the focus groups. We gave each participant a written copy of the focus group questions to prevent any misunderstanding of the questions, and the facilitator and social worker closely monitored participants’ comprehension. Participants’ responses indicated adequate comprehension.

Three members of the research team (S.C., C.C., C.L.C.) separately read and re-read the focus group notes and interview transcripts. They hand-coded the participants’ contributions and categorized them into common themes; they did not create any categories in advance. All three researchers recorded emerging themes and discussed them together. Using the constant comparative method, they iteratively discussed, compared, and refined the codes, categories, and themes until they reached a consensus.49 The focus group facilitator and social worker did not participate in this coding and categorizing process. Three other members of the research team (M.G., C.D.B.) (including the focus group facilitator and social worker) then reviewed the codes, categories, and themes. Finally, two randomly chosen participants from the trainee focus groups conducted member checking of the themes and quotes and confirmed the themes. Faculty focus group participants were not available for member checking.


We conducted eight trainee focus groups total—two focus groups for each of four trainee groupings, stratified by language status and gender (L1 women, L1 men, L2 women, L2 men)—and six trainees each participated in a 30-minute telephone interview (n = 43; 27 women, 16 men; 10 URM). We also conducted 10 faculty mentor focus groups total—four focus groups for each of L1 women and L1 men, and one each of L2 women and L2 men—and 16 mentors completed a 30- to 50-minute telephone interview each (n = 50; 22 women, 28 men; 2 URM) (see Table 1 for complete data).

Table 1
Table 1:
Characteristics of Participants by Language Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender in a Qualitative Study of Trainees and Their Mentors Regarding the Development of Scientific Communication Skills, 2010

Salient themes in both trainee and mentor focus groups included perceptions of (1) trainees’ self-confidence in developing writing, presentation, and conversation skills, and mentors’ self-confidence in helping trainees acquire these skills; (2) trainees’ interest in developing scientific communication skills; (3) degree of mentors’ involvement in teaching scientific communication skills; and (4) trainees’ response to mentors’ feedback about their writing and speaking skills. The mentor focus groups raised three additional themes: (1) self-confidence in teaching scientific communication skills; (2) perceptions of trainees’ writing and speaking skills; and (3) perceptions of trainees’ attitudes as a barrier to teaching these skills. Themes were consistent across the focus groups and interviews, although the latter provided greater detail. See Table 2 for a summary of the themes and for supporting quotations.

Table 2
Table 2:
Themes and Representative Quotations From a Qualitative Study of Trainees and Their Mentors Regarding the Development of Scientific Communication Skills, 2010*

From these data, some trends emerged. L1 female trainees, for example, expressed low self-confidence relative to L1 male trainees and L2 female trainees. Although we did not use these observations in our analysis, the facilitator and social worker both reported observing L1 female trainees expressing a startling degree of insecurity, as revealed by their body language, tone of voice, and words. L2 male trainees almost uniformly expressed low self-confidence as well as sensitivity to the audience’s background when communicating through spoken English. L1 male trainees expressed the highest levels of self-confidence in both their writing and speaking skills. Mentors’ comments about trainees did not vary substantially by mentor gender or language status. Mentors consistently expressed frustration with trainees and with their limitations in helping trainees.


Our results indicate that trainees’ development of scientific communication skills is a stressful and difficult process both for trainees and for their mentors. A wide divide separates mentors’ and trainees’ understanding of the process, the issues, and their experiences with each other.

We found that perceptions varied considerably about who is responsible for ensuring that trainees develop scientific communication skills. Trainees expressed awareness of the importance of learning these skills (they knew their mentors expected it), but they felt that their mentors did not always sufficiently help them develop these skills and that some failed to provide social and/or emotional support during the process. Although some trainees described feeling comfortable with their scientific communication skills, many reported low levels of self-confidence. Mentors, on the other hand, expressed the view that their trainees were not sufficiently aware of the crucial importance of scientific communication skills, sometimes had poor attitudes or were reluctant to seek resources, and demonstrated poor communication skills, even late in training. Mentors also talked about the difficulty of working with trainees in this area and the effort it required, and they seemed to agree that their concerns applied to L1 trainees as well as to L2 trainees (in some cases, especially to L1 trainees). Although some mentors felt confident leading their trainees in developing their skills, many, especially L2 men, described a lack of confidence in their ability to teach trainees.

Others have reported findings similar to ours regarding L2 trainees’ needs and the burden placed on both trainees and mentors.1,13 Kranov’s12 study of the development of scientific writing skills in L2 graduate students, using the Delphi method, is particularly detailed. This study described trainees as facing an “exceedingly complex cognitive and social challenge” and faculty as facing “tremendously complex and challenging” barriers. Our study confirms these findings and further demonstrates that such issues are not limited to L2 students and their L1 mentors. Notably, mentors in our study emphasized that L1 trainees struggle with written communication skills just as L2 trainees do.

Our study also confirms many of the themes from the qualitative study by Aitchison and colleagues,1 who studied doctoral students, their mentors, and the development of scientific writing skills at a health sciences institution in Australia. The frustrations of mentors, the distress of trainees, the friction in giving and receiving feedback, and the lack of a common perspective between the two groups in our study were remarkably similar to the findings of the Australian study. Our participants even expressed similar sentiments (mentors: “it’s not my job”; “I’m not an English lecturer”; “it’s nothing personal”; “student[s] spoke of receiving demoralizing, unhelpful, and crushing feedback”). However, another study, which identified specific difficulties and sources of encouragement among medical, nursing, and physical therapy students following a randomized writing intervention, elicited somewhat different themes.9 The researchers reported barriers to initiating or structuring writing (notably, the “subjective and objective cognitive burden” of grappling simultaneously with content and structure), as well as helpful learning strategies, such as group support/mentoring, and backward design of manuscripts. Participants in this study expressed a preference for having a mentor’s guidance in their writing, but they did not describe the nature of the relationship (whether formal or informal, research or writing mentoring).

Substantially less attention in the literature is paid to the development of oral communication skills, whether rehearsed or spontaneous. To our knowledge, no studies have been conducted on science trainees’ oral communication skills development and mentoring. Yet a sizeable literature exists on public speaking anxiety in secondary education and its negative effects on morale, performance, and achievement, especially with respect to L2 students.41–47,50 Although presentation and conversation skills may be somewhat less overtly connected than writing skills with trainees’ academic and career success, they are nonetheless powerful covert influences on trainees’ relationships with colleagues and senior scientists who may affect their careers. When and how often trainees speak up in meetings, approach new people at conferences, handle presentations and the questions that follow, and describe their professional goals have as much to do with others’ judgments of their credibility as do their grammar, vocabulary, and accent in these settings. The interconnectedness of writing and speaking skills51 and their association with the development of critical thinking skills2 provide additional support for understanding and promoting their development in trainees. To our knowledge, our study is the first to investigate both spontaneous and rehearsed oral communication skills as well as scientific writing development processes for both L1 and L2 mentors and trainees.

Our study has a number of limitations. First, selection bias—we recognize that those who chose to participate in our study may not be representative of all trainees at MDACC or trainees in general at other institutions. Focus groups may have included trainees and mentors with special and personal concerns about the topic. In addition, because we did not audiotape the focus groups and interviews, we have not reported verbatim comments; however, the statements we reported in Table 2 were carefully verified by the facilitator and the social worker with participants. Finally, stratification of participants, by English-language skills and race/ethnicity, would have been desirable had the study population been large enough to accommodate this design strategy.


Our qualitative study elicited trainees’ and mentors’ perceptions about the role of the mentoring relationship in addressing the development of scientific communication skills. It also laid important groundwork for a comprehensive investigation of these issues. The degree of distress and dissatisfaction among both mentors and trainees and the disconnect between each group’s understanding of the other’s perspective were striking. Clearly, we need solutions that are practical and realistic, given the constraints on the time, energy, and resources of trainees and mentors alike, and that also align with trainees’ affective needs.

Designing and implementing such solutions will require considerable creativity. An accurate understanding of the problem from the perspectives of all parties is a necessary prerequisite to accomplishing this goal. To study these themes in detail with a larger population, we intend to compare the themes across trainee and mentor race/ethnicity, gender, education, and L1 and L2 language status. We also plan to address the potential role of L1 nonstandard dialects and exposure to standard academic English. Once we have established the perceptions and self-identified needs of both mentors and trainees and have analyzed the dynamics of the mentoring relationship, we can begin to design targeted interventions and resources that address those needs, with the ultimate goal of increasing the self-confidence and career success of junior researchers as well as the satisfaction and effectiveness of their mentors.

* We used the term mentor to refer to the formal supervisor of a trainee’s research, whether a dissertation chair for a doctoral student or the principal investigator for a postdoctoral fellow. Although additional, informal mentors are often available to trainees, our study focused on the dynamics of formal mentoring relationships.
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