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Understand and establish expectations

Guidance on what you should expect, and what it expected of you.

Why this is important

In new relationships there is a period of time where people get to know each other, define expectations, and establish standard ways of working together. This involves a period of uncertainty as you work to build trust. A key skill during this integration process is the ability to observe, pause, and reflect, before responding or taking action. This can be difficult because transitions are stressful and new environments can be confusing.

Resources available to support you

We encourage you to participate in OITE well-being activities and to proactively make a plan for managing the stress of this important transition.

One key thing to remember is that many people are available to offer guidance and support, including members of your immediate research group, the broader research branch, neighboring groups who can share experiences and provide input, and trainees and fellows you meet in your building and through various NIH activities, who can share insights into their experiences and strategies for integrating effectively

In addition, there are important institutional supports available throughout this process in your IC (your IC training director and training office staff) and the OITE (OITE staff, career counselors, and well-being advisors.)

Standard expectations trainees should have

We want all NIH trainees and fellows to feel supported to grow and develop as scientists, professionals, and individuals. Therefore, it is important to highlight standard expectations that all trainees and fellows should have. We know this list is long BUT it is also important.

  • that you will be treated calmly and with respect in all interpersonal interactions
  • that you will be treated with dignity no matter your identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, nationality, etc.
  • guidance and support when there are difficulties with others, in or out of the group
  • guidance and support if you have questions or concerns about responsible conduct of research, the appropriate treatment of human subjects or animals in research, the NIH relationship policy, and the NIH anti-harassment program
  • understanding so that you can tend to your personal needs when issues arise
  • guidance about your role(s) in the group, possible projects, and other learning opportunities
  • some flexibility to set research directions, while keeping your training level and the needs of the group in mind
  • oversight coupled with increased independence in the design, execution and analysis of experiments
  • time during normal working hours to participate in OITE, IC, and trans-NIH training activities
  • feedback about your performance, input about areas of improvement, and support as you work to respond to feedback
  • that you will be able to take sick/family leave, vacations, and personal time without fear of repercussion or penalty (with advanced notification whenever possible)
  • opportunities to present your work and to participate in writing abstracts and manuscripts if the work progresses to the point of publication
  • consideration of financial support for appropriate FAES courses, travel to scientific conferences, and other training opportunities

Understand group culture and expectations of you

No two research groups are the same and it is critical that you understand expectations within your group. Therefore, ask about:

  • required trainings that must be completed at the outset
  • computer access and software you will need to work in the group
  • your work schedule, including required core hours in your group
  • how the group maintains data notebooks
  • group meeting schedules and format
  • shared lab maintenance
  • regular meetings with your PI and other research supervisors
  • how your PI and other research supervisors like to see ‘data in progress’
  • group communication systems including Slack or Teams
  • how your PI and other research supervisors prefer you to communicate with them
  • how orders are placed and resources are shared
  • how to notify your supervisor about planned and unexpected leave time
  • how to notify your supervisor when you plan to be away for IC, OITE or NIH meetings and trainings
  • any processes or expectations specific to your research group

Understanding these functional elements of the group will help you integrate effectively and avoid misunderstandings. Even if this information is in a “welcome to my group” letter, talk with your PI, or another senior member of the group, about these details. That way you can explore any hidden meanings and practicalities that might not be conveyed in the written document.

Talk about your expectations with your PI and other research supervisors

Another step to establishing quality mentoring relationships is sharing your needs, goals, and expectations. Some ICs and PIs require you to complete an individual development plan (IDP) to guide this process; take your time and put careful thought into this document. If your IC/PI does not require a written IDP, use the OITE IDP template to help organize your thoughts. OITE staff, career and wellness advisors are happy to meet with you to develop your IDP. Staff in your IC training office may also be available to support you.

To help you discuss your unique situation, goals and expectations of the training experience, be sure to consider:

  • Specific research skill gaps you need, or want, to fill through courses and hands-on training
    • prioritize coursework and trainings related to your research, but be sure and discuss others too.
  • Specific OITE or IC programs you want to participate in, and experiences you believe will facilitate the achievement of your long-term career goals.
    • It is especially important to discuss those that require a substantial time commitment, such as the NIH Academy on Health Disparities, writing fellowships or grant applications, or mentoring summer interns.
  • Your current educational and career goals
    • this helps you and your PI develop a plan that prioritizes activities most relevant to your long-term goals, such as mentoring other trainees, having patient contact, or participating in an industry collaboration.
  • Any unique needs you have
    • Perhaps you are a caretaker and need to set some tight boundaries around work hours, you need flexibility to observe religious holidays, you use they/them pronouns, are neurodiverse or have health/mental health concerns and would benefit from some accommodations. Even if you discussed your unique needs earlier, it is wise to review details now. If you have not discussed this before, consider what information and details you wish to share as you prepare for a conversation. OITE well-being advisors can support you in deciding what to share and how to share the information.

Talking with your PI and other supervisors about your goals and needs can be challenging. Remember to seek guidance as you plan important conversations. We recommend that you first seek guidance from your IC training director, but if that is not comfortable for you, or you still have concerns, please reach out to OITE. OITE staff, career counselors, and well-being advisors offer many resources to guide you as you work to clearly express your needs and discuss expectations with your daily supervisors and PI. We also host informal drop-in sessions to answer your questions and OITE well-being advisors lead a drop-in support group for new trainees. Information about these events can be found in our daily emails and on the upcoming OITE events page.

Communicate to establish possible projects

Understanding your research responsibilities and deciding on projects is a protracted process that requires patience and flexibility as research projects often change, especially at the outset. The process includes:

  • reading papers and discussing them with others
  • talking with others about their projects
  • completing required trainings
  • filling knowledge and skill gaps through reading, coursework, and observation
  • doing exploratory experiments, deciding the best course of action, and making adjustments

If you are working closely with someone else in the group:

  • ask what you can do to learn new skills to promote independence; do not worry that you do not have a project of your own at the outset, but ask about how that may evolve in the future
  • talk with them about your learning style and what would make it easier for you to ask questions and help you develop new skills and abilities
  • ask them how to best solicit their input and support when you have questions; while setting regular meetings can be helpful, some people prefer a more casual way of engaging and you may need to compromise to get the support you need.

If you are working to establish your own research agenda, remember:

  • be flexible and avoid choosing a project that is very far outside of the interest and expertise of the group or your PI. This helps you avoid becoming isolated in the group and facilitates collaborations that may lead to more opportunities.
  • be honest about your skill-set and be clear when you need additional training or coursework to be successful
  • explore collaborations that will lead to increased productivity and learning opportunities
  • balance high-risk approaches with projects the have the potential to yield results more quickly

Because research groups differ, the experience of trainees and fellows can vastly differ. In addition, each of you thrives under different circumstances. If you notice that you are frequently frustrated and increasingly worried about successfully integrating into your group, seek guidance and support. We recommend that you first seek guidance from your IC training director, but if that is not comfortable for you, or you still have concerns, please reach out to us in the OITE. Also remember that tending to your health and well-being throughout this transition is a key element to your success. The OITE offers many well-being activities to support you.

Next steps

Read more on how to navigate the transition.

Integrate into your research group