Career coaches as a source of vicarious learning for racial and ethnic minority PhD students in the biomedical sciences: a qualitative study

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Introduction: Many recent mentoring initiatives have sought to help improve the proportion of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities (URMs) in academic positions across the biomedical sciences. However, the intractable nature of the problem of underrepresentation suggests that many young scientists may require supplemental career development beyond what many mentors are able to offer. As an adjunct to traditional scientific mentoring, we created a novel academic career “coaching” intervention for PhD students in the biomedical sciences.
Objective: To determine whether and how academic career coaches can provide effective career-development-related learning experiences for URM PhD students in the biomedical sciences. We focus specifically on vicarious learning experiences, where individuals learn indirectly through the experiences of others.
Method: The intervention is being tested as part of a longitudinal randomized control trial (RCT). Here, we describe a nested qualitative study, using a framework approach to analyze data from a total of 48 semi-structured interviews from 24 URM PhD students (2 interviews per participant, 1 at baseline, 1 at 12-month follow-up) (16 female, 8 male; 11 Black, 12 Hispanic, 1 Native-American). We explored the role of the coach as a source of vicarious learning, in relation to the students’ goal of being future biomedical science faculty.
Results: Coaches were resources through which most students in the study were able to learn vicariously about how to pursue, and succeed within, an academic career. Coaches were particularly useful in instances where students’ research mentors are unable to provide such vicarious learning opportunities, for example because the mentor is too busy to have career-related discussions with a student, or because they have, or value, a different type of academic career to the type the student hopes to achieve.
Implications: Coaching can be an important way to address the lack of structured career development that students receive in their home training environment.

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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0160038
Number of pages19
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume11
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - 28 Jul 2016

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© 2016 Williams et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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