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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

New Scientist Program: Checking-In Topics
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  1. Collegiality - Barbara King (2005)
  2. Professional Development Plans - Barbara King (2005)
  3. Establishing a Research Agenda - Barbara King (2006)
  4. Bridging Career Goals and Responsible Research - Barbara King (2006)
  5. Understanding the Federal Budget - Barbara King (2006)
  6. Balancing Work and Personal Time - Barbara King (2006)
  7. Navigating the Federal Bureaucracy - Barbara King (2006)
  8. The Value of Networking (2006)
  9. Mid-Year Reviews - (2006)
  10. RPES - Unraveling the Mysteries - Barbara King (2006)
  11. ARS Manuscript Peer Review - (2006)
  12. Survey Results and Regular Communication - Barbara King (2006)
  13. Work: Life Balance - Barbara King (2006)
  14. Mentoring Philosophies - Barbara King (2007)
  15. Prot?g? Strategies - Barbara King (2007)
  16. Effective Communication-the Building Block of Relationships - Barbara King (2007)
  17. Checking-out Assumptions - Barbara King (2007)
  18. Fact or Fiction - Dealing With Rumors - Barbara King (2007)
  19. Time Management - Barbara King (2007)
  20. When Leadership Changes - Dr. Gary Snowder (2007)
  21. 2007 Survey Results - Barbara King (2007)
  22. Stick to the Plan - Be Flexible - Dr. Richard Beeman (2007)
  23. "What to do if -" - Dr. Jeff Pedersen (2008)
  24. On Connecting The Dots - Dr. W. P. Kemp (2008)
  25. Developing Support Personnel - One Key to Building a Consistent Research Program - Dr. Jon Hanson (2008)
  26. Reciprocity in Mentoring - Barbara King (2008)
  27. Ethics: Handling Ethical Dilemmas - Barbara King (2008)
  28. Mentoring Handbook - Barbara King (2008)
  29. Making Your Voice Heard - Barbara King (2008)
  30. Career-Building Skill Sets - Barbara King (2008)
  31. Coming up with a Plan - Dr. Mark West (2008)
  32. RPES: It's Never Too Early to Start - Dr. Mickey McGuire (2008)
  33. Perfecting Your "Elevator Talk" - Barbara King (2009)
  34. How You Got Where You Are Today - Dr. Scott Bean (2009)
  35. Building a Scientific Community - Barbara King (2009)
  36. Training - Dr. Mickey McGuire (2009)
  37. Developing and Maintaining Staff - Barbara King (2009)
  38. Fitting your Research into the Team Mission - Dr. Kristine Bennett (2009)
  39. Dealing With Setbacks - Barbara King (2009)
  40. The Importance of Trust in Mentoring - Barbara King (2010)
  41. Writing as a Habit - Barbara King (2010)
  42. Annual and Mid Year Reviews, Mid-Course Discussion, NASPDP Assessment and RPES - Barbara King (2010)
  43. Customer Focus Groups - Barbara King (2010)
  44. Choose Carefully - Balancing Research and "Good Citizenship" - Barbara King (2010)
  45. Lessons Learned - Barbara King (2010)
  46. Writing and Publishing Papers as an ARS Scientist - Dr. Debby Samac (2010)
  47. It's That Time of Year - Where You've Been and Where You Plan to Go! - Barbara King (2010)
  48. The Technician/Scientist Relationship - Dr. Erin Espeland (2011)
  49. The Challenge of Establishing New Research Collaborations - Dr. Virginia L. Jin (2011)
  50. Getting Ready for RPES, Plan It, Do it, And Don't Forget To Write It Down - Dr. James Strange (2011)
  51. Learning How to Play in the Sandbox - Barbara King (2011)
  52. Planning Your Accomplishments and Impact - Barbara King (2011)
  53. Shrimp on a Treadmill - Barbara King (2011)
  54. Is it really all downhill after three years? - Barbara King (2011)
  55. Recycled: When Leadership Change - Dr. Gary Snowder (Sept 2007)
  56. Coming soon - instant messaging and video conferencing - two more ways of keeping in contact with your match - Barbara King (2011)
  57. Conducting Midyear and Annual Performance Reviews - Dr. Deborah Samac (2011)
  58. Getting the Most from Your Employees - Dr. Bryan Kaphammer (2011)

(Starting with the most recent additions)

58. Getting the Most from Your Employees:  Dr. Bryan Kaphammer, Acting Associate Area Director
A challenge faced by all supervisors, and maybe especially new SYs, is how to engage your technicians, students, and any other direct reports, such that they perform at their best, and work as a well-functioning team. The first step should be explaining your expectations to those employees you supervise. At the same time, be open to learning from employees, who may well have more expertise and/or experience than you in some technical areas. There may also be situations that call for you to instruct employees on how you want the task done. You should not assume the employee understands your expectations of them. All of us have been in a situation where we believed we were meeting expectations but found out later that we had not. This is frustrating for everyone involved. Remembering how frustrated you have been in this situation will help you remember to clearly communicate your expectations to those you supervise.

How you communicate your expectations can make a difference. You know how you want people to communicate with you. Whether it is in writing, a phone call, or face to face, we all have our preferred method of communication. Your supervisees also have their preferred method for receiving information. Just because you like email does not mean that everyone likes email. Your communication will be most effective if you communicate with the employee using their preferred method, whatever it may be. If uncertain about their preference, just ask them, and let them know your preferred method of communication. At the same time, never underestimate the value of face to face conversations.

Once you have clearly communicated your expectations to your direct reports, you have begun the process of engaging them so they can perform at their best. Another way to ensure they are engaged is to show them how their specific task fits into the overall project. Everyone likes to think that what they do is making a difference. Understanding how their work contributes to the success of the project allows the employee to share in the project's success. Your success becomes their success and success is a strong motivator. So, take the time to communicate your expectation and show how the employee's work contributes to the project. Doing so will help all your team members perform at their best.

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57.  Conducting Midyear and Annual Performance Reviews:  Dr. Deborah Samac, Plant Pathologist with the Plant Science Research Unit in St. Paul MN
Part of your job that you may have little experience in performing is supervising technical support staff. An important component of your supervisory role is evaluating employee performance. It is important to give your employees feedback on their performance throughout the year, particularly to reinforce positive performance. The formal reviews are carried out at the midyear and annual performance reviews. The purpose of these reviews is to evaluate performance, review progress in achieving goals, identify the employee's strengths and weaknesses, and lay the groundwork for future goals and objectives. The annual review provides the necessary documentation for step increases and performance awards. An effective performance reviews will improve your employee's performance and connection to the research. Conducting the reviews will help you to improve your leadership skills and help identify skill gaps in individuals and in your team. The performance reviews are not times to discuss serious nonperformance concerns or disciplinary issues, which should be handled in separate conversations. 

The key to a successful review meeting for both you and the employee is in planning and preparation. This includes reviewing the documentation submitted by the employee, your observations of the employee's performance, and input from the people who work with the employee. It is helpful to keep a written log of your observations that include specific examples of the employee's performance over the year. For the annual review, summarize your evaluation noting performance in which the employee exceeded goals and areas for improvement, then complete the rating form. Discuss the ratings with your RL before meeting with the employee.  This step helps ensure consistent rating across the management unit. A general outline for the review meeting is: state the purpose of the meeting and topics to be covered, discuss positive past performance, indicate areas for improvement, seek employee input for improving performance, offer your suggestions for improvement, discuss future research objectives, and discuss employee developmental needs and goals. Ask the employee about any concerns they have.  Finally, initial and date (midyear) or sign and date (annual) the paperwork. 

Be sure to allow plenty of uninterrupted time for the meeting. Your mentor is a good source for additional details on conducting appraisals and a 1-hour module on conducting appraisals and handling emotional employees is available in AgLearn (Performance Appraisal Essentials: Conducting the Traditional Appraisal).

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56.  Coming soon - instant messaging and video conferencing - two more ways of keeping in contact with your match:  Barbara King
Because mentors and prot?g?s are rarely at the same location, email and telephone conversations are the most common ways to keep in contact. Some matches have been able to meet up at professional conferences or arrange visits to one another's location. But actually "seeing" your match, has been a challenge.  Although ARS does not allow the use of Skype, a similar product - Office Communicator - is now, or should shortly, be available to ARS employees. Office Communicator includes features such as instant messaging, Voice Over IP and Video Conferencing. Although not all locations currently have this feature, if you are interested in having the software loaded onto your computer, contact your location IT person. If you're already a user of instant messaging and Skype, you know the almost limitless benefits. Although video conferencing is not the same as meeting in person, being able to talk and see the other person does add a personal dimension that email or phone calls lack. As this software becomes available to all NPA locations, the video conferencing could be a very welcome tool for mentors and prot?g?s.

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55.  When Leadership Changes: from Dr. Gary Snowder, Sept. 2007
With all the changes occurring in ARS, and with the approaching retirement of Dr. Blackburn, I recalled a previous checking-in topic that addressed changes in leadership, and thought this would be a good topic to "recycle." As always, if you have ideas for topics, or would like to pen a short essay, send me an email or give me a call. (See Topic #22)

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54.  Is it really all downhill after three years?  Barbara King
A report recently released by the Partnership for Public Service found that federal employee satisfaction is highest in the first three years of employment, and then drops. In this particular study, USDA ranked 23rd out of 26 agencies (the study did not break down results by sub-agencies). Another study by the same group investigated innovation - how innovated employees report they are and whether their creativity and innovation is rewarded. In that second report, ARS ranked 55 out of 223 agencies with an innovation score of 69 compared to a high of 78.8 (Goddard Space Flight Center). Both studies emphasized the importance of leadership, workplace culture, and empowerment to take initiative. Maintaining a positive attitude regardless of the workplace environment and leadership strengths, can be challenging, even for the most optimistically inclined employees, and perhaps especially for prot?g?s who are in their early careers. The benefits of having another ear and source of advice can be beneficial for both mentors and prot?g?s.

Both reports can be found on the NPA Diversity Bulletin Board in the Employee Satisfaction and Retention folder.

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53.  Shrimp on a Treadmill:  Barbara King (2011)
Last week NPR ran a story on fallout to researchers whose research drew ridicule from lawmakers and political groups who characterize such research as examples of wasteful government spending. One example cited was that of researchers who studied shrimp and how they responded to changes in water quality that included observing shrimp exercising on tiny treadmills. You can imagine the critical spin that was put on that particular research. At any rate, according to NPR, "....shrimp on a treadmill is fast becoming shorthand for government waste."  Whether or not ARS research has ever won such acclaim (either this or the earlier "Golden Fleece Award" from the late Senator Proxmire), as a scientist you need to be aware of what you can and cannot say/do in regards to media inquiries.  For instance, imagine answering your phone and being told by a reporter that a member of Congress has just singled out your research as an example of "shrimp on a treadmill" and wants your reaction and thoughts. What can you do and/or say?  What ought you do?

Dr. Tom Trout, RL with the Water Management Unit in Fort Collins cautions that cold calls by reporters do occur and scientists need to be prepared. Trout notes that there are generally two categories of writers/reporters: popular media (newspapers, radio, TV) and specialized, such as agriculturally-related writers, trade organizations, etc. The latter are generally easy to work with in that they have a background in science and their only agenda is to tell the full story and focus on the research. Reporters from the popular media, though, tend to perhaps also have their own agenda, which may or may not be focused on the research.  Trout suggests that effectively working with the media is a learned skill that can be developed, especially if scientists always have in their minds a clear statement about their research that explains the need, what the scientist did, what the impact was, and the problem that is being solved. This is the same type of statement used in your annual reports and RPES write-ups. Keep these statements in your head at all times so that you can reflexively recall them at a moment's notice. If you do receive a call or inquiry from a reporter, you shouldn't be surprised, nor should you get carried away with providing any more information than what is being asked. One last note, if scientists are contacted by a nationwide organization, or are invited for a radio or television interview, they need to refer the reporter to the ARS Information Staff (Sandy Miller Hays). And, yes, there is an "app" for that, i.e., Policy and Procedures Manual 150. Additionally, no doubt your mentor has had similar experiences and further advice.

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52.  Planning Your Accomplishments and Impact:  Barbara King (2011)
All scientists in ARS should by now be very familiar with the importance of documented accomplishments and impact of their research, especially in regard to the RPES (Research Position Evaluation System). Briefly, an accomplishment is what was done and an impact is why that accomplishment is important. Both need documentation such as: publications in peer-reviewed journals, patents, technology transfer, documented use of research, etc. Several previous checking-in messages have discussed RPES (see especially topics 50 and 32). Accomplishments and impact also are reflected in annual reports, and some of you may contribute to those reports through your accomplishments and/or by helping to write the report for your unit. If prot?g?s are having trouble conceiving what to aim for in terms of accomplishments and impact, be sure to talk with your RL and other scientists in your unit. Mentors are also ideal sources of advice.

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51. Learning How to Play in the Sandbox: Barbara King (2011)
We can probably all recall the joys and trepidations of toddler playgrounds and school rooms and learning how to manage the social intricacies of making friends, using our indoor voices, and generally learning how to play in the sandbox.  I'm reminded of a snapshot of my two sons in their backyard sandbox with the youngest having a grand time digging away and oblivious to the piles of sand his older brother was heaping on him (thank goodness for baseball caps and nylon jackets!).  While the office sandbox isn't likely to cover you with grit, the detritus of the office sandbox can be messy in its own way.  We like to believe that all adults have mastered the sandbox and have learned the basics - play nice, no shouting, respect differences (age, backgrounds, perspectives), no throwing (gossip, insults, etc.), and cooperation.  Yet, work life sometimes mimics children's playgrounds.  Intemperate, aloof, bullying, bossy, and/or clueless colleagues can be a challenge.  Few people really want to be "that guy/gal" whose mere presence can clear out a room faster than a fire alarm drill.  Even if "that guy/gal" isn't in your workplace, what do you do when interpersonal differences get in the way of getting the work done?  This sort of work environment can be equally destructive to people on the lowest rung and to those in the upper tiers of management.  It is likely that both mentors and prot?g?s have had experience - positive and negative - in dealing with workplace conflicts.  If you're experiencing conflict now, give your mentor/prot?g? a call to do some brainstorming on how to deal with workplace distractions.

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50. Getting Ready for RPES, Plan It, Do it, And Don't Forget To Write It Down: Dr. James Strange, Entomologist, Pollinating Insects - Biology, Management and Systematics Research, Logan, UT (2011)
Two years ago I was getting my RPES case write-up together leading up to the end of my probation period and promotion panel. I had been with ARS for just over two years and my research program was just getting legs, but I still did not have that many publications from the work. I had not saved any industries, I had not invented anything that would revolutionize American agriculture and I had not formulated any new theories to rock the foundations of biology. I was Joe Six Pack Scientist, coming to work, doing my experiments and failing as much as succeeding. I was not looking forward to putting this on paper, especially since I was feeling like I didn't have anything BIG to boast about. To top it all off, I am a bit of a slacker when it comes to doing paperwork. What I did have was several colleagues, friends and mentors that wanted me to succeed and who were not going to let me fail just because I felt like I hadn't done much. Here is a list of things I learned that might help as you look ahead to preparing for your case write-up.

  1. Start now. My first case write-up was due within 2? years of my start date. That is not much time. It is even less time if you are a procrastinator like I am. I can turn a year into a month in no time, it is a special gift I have. If you also possess this gift, get started early. Make sure you keep your CV up to date, write down everything that is anything.
  2. Have a plan. This was the hardest part for me. You have to have 5 Demonstrated Accomplishments so you should be thinking about how what you are doing fits into those areas. For me the hard part was trying to figure out where to put a limited number of publications to maximize the impact.
  3. Make sure you have electronic copies of all your stuff. Put the .pdf versions of your publications into a folder specified for RPES. File your abstracts for meetings there and any invitations for talks there. If you get an award or grant, put the award letter in the file. You will need these and I spent half of my RPES time trying to organize this stuff.
  4. Read the RPES guidelines (ARS 431.3). There is quite a bit of information in there and I was constantly referring to it.
  5. There are probably some scientists in your unit that have done a successful case write up in the past year or two. Ask them if you can see their write up. Get several examples.
  6. Have several people comment on your case write up. The best comments I had came from people outside of my unit, but you need people close to you to read it too. Try to get someone who has served on a few panels to read it. They will know what to look for and how to fix things.
  7. Publish. In the end, this is what really matters.

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49. The Challenge of Establishing New Research Collaborations: Dr. Virginia L. Jin, Soil Scientist, Agroecosystem Management Research Unit, Lincoln, NE (2011)
One of the biggest challenges starting as a new scientist is developing new research collaborations with new people in a new environment. It's exciting, it's interesting, and it can pay off big in the short- and long-term. It's also full of unknowns. Who are these people? How do they work? More importantly, could we work well together to our mutual benefit? It's sometimes hard to tell as a new-comer. Getting to know your potential research collaborators is a critical part of understanding how your research programs enhance each other. It is also an opportunity for developing a friendly, mutually productive working relationship. Defining the nature of the research collaboration is particularly important. Research agreements that include both independent research aspects as well as those that require closer coordination gives both collaborators multiple avenues for accomplishing their objectives. This flexibility helps maximize your time and resources while enhancing the breadth of your research program. It's important to define the roles of each collaborator, set a clear plan of progress, and communicate regularly. It's also important to know when to refocus or redirect your collaborations. Redefining your research relationships can be difficult, but minimizing inefficiencies in how your time and resources are spent is as important as cultivating productive collaborations for growing a successful and enduring research program.

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48. The Technician/Scientist Relationship: Dr. Erin Espeland (2011)
As a new ARS scientist, you are faced with a multitude of expectations, and managing a technician can be critical to establishing your ARS career. You may have limited supervisory experience, and that experience was likely in an academic setting as a grad student or post-doc, with students and interns who required far different managerial techniques and employment expectations compared to federal career technicians. In addition, you might be stationed in a small town where you and your technician are part of the larger community outside the work station. Negotiating the sometimes choppy waters of territoriality among technicians at your location, maintaining professional relationships with people who may also be your close neighbors, and establishing your authority with a technician who may know more about the technical aspects of your study system than you do are sometimes, but not always, challenging issues.

Technician personalities and skill sets often determine our research programs to a greater extent than we might think at the outset of the scientist/technician relationship. What qualities define a successful ARS technician? How can these qualities be developed further? What are the leadership skills that ARS scientists need to develop in order to have productive, trusting relationships with their technicians? How can we avoid common pitfalls early on in the supervisor/technician relationship that become difficult obstacles to overcome later? Recognizing the potential conflicts in advance can save an enormous amount of time, energy, and hurt feelings. Advice and guidance from your research leader and other location scientists can be helpful. Your mentor is another resource, perhaps with a more neutral perspective.

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47. It's That Time of Year - Where You've Been and Where You Plan to Go! Barbara King (2010)
This end of year topic includes reminders about your federal retirement and also includes a simple and engaging planning exercise. First, a few reminders about your federal retirement. All new federal civilian employees hired as of January 1, 1987 are under the FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) which has three parts: social security, basic benefit, and thrift savings. Employees are required to contribute to social security/medicare (about 7.5%) and to the FERS basic benefit (about 1%), and can elect to contribute to the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan). For TSP, ARS contributes 1%, and will match up to 5% of an employee's contributions.

Everyone is no doubt aware of social security benefits. The FERS basic benefit plan will pay an annuity of 1% of your high three average earnings multiplied by the number of years worked. This can be a little, or a lot, depending obviously on earnings and years of service. TSP is based on your contributions and how well (or not) your investments grow. One piece of advice: contribute at least 5% so you get the matching 5% from ARS. As you are able, continue to increase your contributions as much as possible, by dedicating all or a portion of each promotion, step increase or (when we have them!) annual cost of living increases. Here are some websites: general information on FERS; information on the TSP and the Employee Personal Page (earnings and leave statements, on-line TSP contributions and allocations, etc. While FERS includes a small defined benefit, it likely will be no more than a third of your retirement income, the rest will be social security and your TSP. Here is one other web site on the TSP.

There are many approaches to investing, and more books on investment strategies than one could ever read. My suggestion for those of you new to investing: pick up a copy of The Investment Answer by Daniel Goldie and Gordon Murray. This short book - 60 some pages - is concise, easy to read and gives the reader a solid understanding of the fundamentals of investing.

Now for some other type of planning. Call me sentimental, but one new year/end of year exercise I enjoy spending a little time doing is a simple paper and pencil review of the past year and planned anticipation of the coming years. Without a plan, life just kind of happens. This is especially true for retirement planning! A favorite saying of a former mentor of mine was "days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years." So, to avoid the "where did the years go?" dismay, here's what I do. Take a plain sheet of paper, orient it portrait, add the heading "my life" (and date it!), then divide the sheet into three columns: one narrow one in the middle, and two wider columns on each side. Title the left column "Personal", the middle column "When" and the right column, "Professional." Now the fun part begins. The "When" can be specific years or ages, or can be in increments of years (say, one year from now, five years from now, retirement, and so on to old age).

Start filling-in the sheet. You can start by jotting down what you hope to have accomplished professionally by the time you retire, maybe you have a "bucket list" on your personal side. Or, maybe you just want to have more balance. Maybe, by a certain age, or certain timeframe, you have a specific goal (promotion, major impact/patent, family plans, design a house, etc.) - jot it down. Then, work backward noting what you need to do at each major step (decade, five years, etc.) to meet your goals. Or, maybe you want to start with where you are today and work forward incrementally. The purpose is to get you thinking about where you are and where you want to go/what you want to achieve personally and professionally, and how to balance everything, including retirement planning. This exercise can be modified to fit whatever you want to focus on - maybe you only want to focus on the next ten years. This exercise can be specific or general. Have fun and best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and new year!

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46. Writing and Publishing Papers as an ARS Scientist: Dr. Debby Samac, ARS Research Plant Pathologist, St. Paul, MN (2010)
There are specific policies and procedures that you need to follow for publishing papers and documenting your papers as an ARS employee. Since publishing is critical to your success in ARS, it is important that you understand these policies and procedures. ARS has specific guidelines on authorship criteria that reflect those of the major scientific journals. These are detailed in P&P 152.2 Authorship of Research and Technical Reports and Papers. The ARS guidelines focus on significant contribution to scholarship, writing, and manuscript review. You and your mentor may want to discuss what constitutes a significant contribution and how to handle situations with non-ARS collaborators who may not follow the same authorship criteria. All publications must be documented in ARIS using ARS-115 before being submitted. For peer-reviewed journal articles, an interpretive summary is needed. ARS administrators use these for decision-making about resource allocations, budget development, and program planning. They are used for communication of research with Congress, the Executive Branch, policymakers, and Information Staff. More people may read your Interpretive Summary than read your paper, so it is important to take the time to write a good summary. Refer to P&P152.1 Procedures for Publishing Manuscripts and Abstracts with Non-USDA Publishers on the elements needed in an Interpretive Summary. Getting feedback on your first interpretive summaries can speed up approval of the ARS-115 and submission of your paper to the journal. Check in with your mentor and unit secretary about the procedures for peer review of the manuscript and completing the ARS-115.

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45. Lessons Learned: Barbara King (2010)
Prot?g?s have many challenges in their first year (or two/three!) such as cementing their research plans, making sure they are involved in the unit's CRIS (see Kristine Bennett's topic #38), establishing good working relationships with location personnel (other scientists, RL(s), technicians, support staff, custodians, etc.) as well as with professional and community contacts, and understanding the RPES and annual performance processes (see topics #42 and 32). Getting off on the right foot is important, but it's probably never too late to step back, assess where you are now and where you want to be in five years, and think about if you're "on track" or "off track." While "do-overs" have largely disappeared from playgrounds, "do-overs" are still possible in the work world. Mentors no doubt can look back on their careers and identify decisions that they wish they had handled differently, and can talk about what "do-overs" they did, or perhaps wish they had done.

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44. Choose Carefully - Balancing Research and "Good Citizenship": Barbara King (2010)
New SYs can be fertile ground for being tapped by their unit/center leadership for committee assignments, outreach activities, and short-term (maybe even long-term) special projects. Other units/centers take pains to "protect" new SYs from those sorts of assignments. At the same time, local community groups (4H, Extension, schools, youth programs, service organizations, etc.) actively seek ARS scientists for help with any number of activities, including career fairs, science fair judging, coaching, and advisory boards, to name just a few. While those sorts of activities can appeal to scientists at any stage of their career, new SYs and probably especially those with school-age children and/or with a strong desire for civic engagement may actively seek those sorts of involvements, and may bear the brunt of such invitations. ARS scientists at any stage of their career can find striking a balance between being a good unit/community citizen and maintaining their research an on-going challenge. While there is not a "one size fits all" approach, brainstorming ways to prioritize interests can be a worthy conversation between prot?g?s and mentors.

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43. Customer Focus Groups: Barbara King (2010)
Summer is nearly upon us and with summer comes the annual field day. This event, usually one very long day, provides scientists the opportunity to talk about the impact of their science with the general public as well as the more targeted customer focus group and other farmers and ranchers, governmental entities (local, state, federal), and local business owners. These events typically involve everyone at the location, and scientists are usually given time to present their research and take questions. While scientists are exceedingly adept at explaining their research to other scientists at professional meetings, at field days and other similar venues they may struggle to clearly describe the what, how, and why of their research to the general public. Scientists can leverage their skills and actively engage the general public and policy makers by educating them about the importance of science and science funding. The annual field days are excellent opportunities to engage the public. Additionally, by delivering a thoughtful and well-designed public talk at the field day, scientists should also take advantage of other opportunities to educate the public about the importance of scientific findings, as well as talk about the excitement and rewards of a scientific career. Mentors and prot?g?s alike can benefit by taking the time to learn how to be effective public speakers, but especially by learning how to be effective public speakers about science.

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42. Annual and Mid Year Reviews, Mid-Course Discussion, NASPDP Assessment and RPES: Barbara King (2010)

By now new scientists have no doubt heard - and maybe even know a lot about: Mid Year Review; Annual Performance Review; the NASPDP Assessment; and RPES It is important that new scientists understand the distinctions among these reviews. The Annual Performance Review is a formal review conducted by your RL, and covers the requirements of your position description, which includes several "critical elements," one of which is a minimum number of publications. A Mid Year review is also conducted for each employee and serves as a check to ensure that employees are on track to meet their performance requirements. New scientists should understand that meeting the minimal annual performance requirements will not ensure promotion when they are reviewed by RPES panels. Additionally, the NASPDP now incorporates a formalized Mid-Course Discussion between the RL and new scientist about 18 months after the new scientist has been in the program. The purpose of this review is to ensure that the new scientist is on track for a successful RPES review.

At the end of the NASPDP, scientists are assessed by a small panel of NPA scientists to provide independent feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each participant. At the proper time, the scientist prepares a draft RPES case write-up (or similar for Cat 4 SYs) that serves as the document that guides the panel.

Under the RPES process, Category 1 scientists prepare a detailed case write-up that is reviewed by a panel of scientists. The case write-up addresses four factors: 1) Research Assignment; 2) Supervisory Controls; 3) Guidelines and Originality; 4) Contributions, Impact, and Stature. Of those four factors, particular emphasis in the case write-up is placed on Factor 4 (Contributions, Impact, and Stature).

The AFM website includes several policies relevant to RPES: A short guide to RPES can be found at:, the RPES Manual can be found at:, and the manual for panelists can be found at: If prot?g?s have questions about these reviews, they should talk with their RL and certainly also talk with their mentor. Although mentors do not participate in any way in performance reviews, they nonetheless can be a key source of advice about the various processes.

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41. Writing as a Habit: Barbara King (2010)

One activity that was emphasized in New Scientist Orientation is the importance of publishing your research results. Despite what at times may seem to be overwhelming demands on your time, carving out blocks of hours to collect your thoughts and results, and putting those into words on paper, is essential to your success in ARS. Good writing generally takes time, practice, and concentration, regardless of your comfort and skill with writing. One strategy to help avoid the craziness of looming deadlines is to establish a habit of writing, say on a daily or weekly basis. This dedicated writing time will force you to gather your thoughts and data on a regular basis and it will also give you the opportunity to actually write. Senior and junior scientists may be very good at designing and running projects, but not so good at taking the time to write manuscripts. Other senior and junior scientists are masters at both tasks. Talk with your "match" about tricks and strategies for writing.

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40. The Importance of Trust in Mentoring - Barbara King (2010)

In two earlier checking-in topics (#s 26 and 14) I referred to the book Power Mentoring by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy and briefly noted the reciprocity between mentors and prot?g?s (#26) and mentoring philosophies (#14). According to the authors, trust between mentors and prot?g?s is key to successful mentoring, and mentors and prot?g?s must learn to trust each other and must also be trustworthy. How can mentors and prot?g?s achieve trust? The authors discuss five elements of building and maintaining trust: 1) shared values; 2) giving and receiving difficult feedback; 3) loyalty; 4) willingness to be personal; and 5) mutual work productivity.

  1. Shared values and perspectives can be immediately recognized or can be something that develops over time through sharing stories and observing how the other person acts in a variety of situations.
  2. Giving and receiving difficult feedback is another avenue to building trust. For instance, prot?g?s can establish trust by seeking advice from their mentor and then accepting that advice, however painful it might be. One example cited in the book dealt with a prot?g? who asked her mentor to provide constructive feedback on a planned presentation that resulted in several fairly extensive revisions before the prot?g? and mentor were satisfied with the presentation and the prot?g? felt fully confident in being able to deliver the presentation.
  3. Trust is also manifested through loyalty, especially during times of adversity. Mentors typically have more experience and more extensive networks than prot?g?s, which can result in the mentor caught between supporting one over the other. The example in the book involved two politicians where the mentor backed her prot?g? even though the mentor's party (and the other candidate) expected full support from her.
  4. Trust, by its very nature is personal and is "...about being vulnerable and knowing enough about the other to inflict damage but never doing it." In one case a prot?g? confided to her mentor that she was pregnant and sought advice on how to tell her boss and colleagues.
  5. When mentors and prot?g?s work together, a kind of rhythm can develop. When working together, a mentor helps to enhance their prot?g?'s self esteem. This can be especially powerful when the mentor steps back and lets the prot?g? take the lead in a project, yet offers support if the project is not fully successful.

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39. Dealing With Setbacks - Barbara King (2009)

Certainly your trip through graduate school had its share of celebrations big and small, and no doubt, days when you questioned just why you chose to pursue a PhD. Life after graduate school may have some of the same types of highs and lows. For the most part, your experiments are humming along smoothly, work relationships are collegial and inspiring, and life is good. Until, that is, something is not so good. It might be a failed experiment, or a rejected manuscript, or perhaps a disappointing annual review or RPES decision. For prot?g?s, receiving a disappointing RPES decision may seem like one of the biggest setbacks you can face in your career. Despite the disappointment though, a "retain" decision is not a show-stopper, nor is it a reason for anguish. While platitudes and advice to stick post-it notes telling you how good you really are only go so far (and recent research is casting doubt on the usefulness of such tactics), there are tangible resources at your disposal. Certainly your RL and other unit scientists, as well as your mentor can provide some insight and advice. Additionally, Dr. McGuire reviews every case write-up and provides comments and suggestions and is another resource. Dr. McGuire provided an overview of the RPES process in a previous Checking-In Topic (#32), and the RPES guidelines (ARS 431.3) can also be reviewed. For other sorts of setbacks, your same circle of colleagues can be sought out, as can your mentor. Learning how to deal with any of those sorts of setbacks can be a lesson in itself, and most ARS scientists have had occasions to learn those lessons and pass on their "lessons learned."

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38. Fitting your Research into the Team Mission - Dr. Kristine Bennett (2009)

Beginning a new career as a scientist at ARS can be a daunting experience. Generally speaking, most scientists are hired in the middle of a CRIS cycle, with milestones set and research programs well outlined for the people already there, and perhaps for the person being replaced. The research proposed may not necessarily fit well with your areas of expertise or interest. Depending on the location you are hired into, you may be told which projects to work on, you may be given minimal guidance as to what the appropriate steps are for developing your own research program, or you may be let loose into the ARS research scene without much more than a pat on the back and a "good luck and here's your lab." In any of the above cases, it's important to communicate early on and clearly with your colleagues what your interests are, how you see yourself fitting in, and for them to communicate back to you what they see as your role in the team. After all, they hired you with something in mind, right? The earlier this conversation happens, the easier it will be for you to integrate into the research mission of the location and establish collaborative projects with your peers. The other scientists at your location may or may not initiate this. Some locations will prefer to have you adhere to the proposed CRIS projects and allow you to have more input when the new CRIS cycle comes around, while others will give more leeway in terms of beginning projects of your own design right away. It's important that, in either case, you and your fellow scientists know what the expectations are. New projects can usually be added to the annual milestones for greater impact, and milestones can be changed to better reflect the new direction of the scientific staff. Knowing the degree of flexibility within your unit can make developing your program a little easier.

Additionally, external research opportunities come up frequently. If you are not given much leeway in terms of CRIS projects, this is an excellent way to get started on projects that are of more interest to you personally. I would advise taking advantage of these if they seem to apply to your research and you have the time, resources, and interest. You never know, the small extra funding that you apply for from the Office of International Research Programs (for example) may turn into a large scale project with substantial impact potential.

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37. Developing and Maintaining Staff - Barbara King (2009)

Every scientist knows that having solid technical support is crucial to their research program. At the NPA Leadership Conference this past spring, one of the breakout session discussions included conversations about what sorts of things SYs can do to develop and retain staff, especially technical staff. One of the challenges is that technicians reach their full performance level fairly early in their career. Given that reality, scientists are left to figure out how to recognize the important contribution made by technicians, how to help technicians maintain currency in their field, and how to provide opportunities for technicians to remain engaged. Here are some ideas that were generated during the discussion:

  1. If you hire a technician, be sure that at the point of hire, that you are very clear with the intended hire about performance expectations, anticipated progression along the career ladder, and the ARS grade cap. If your technician was already on the staff when you were hired, be sure that you understand the rules about career ladders and promotions, and get up to speed with ARS/OPM rules and regulations. The location's Administrative Officer and/or the Area HR Specialist can answer your questions and provide guidance.
  2. Send your technician to other locations for specialized training on new equipment, or to learn a new procedure from other technicians. This not only gives the technician training but also is a great way to develop some contacts and networks.
  3. You might also consider paying tuition for your technician to take job-related courses.
  4. Keep communication lines open - make sure you're available for conversations, and actively seek input from your technician.
  5. Ask your technician what s/he wants and try to make it happen if possible, and do some brainstorming if the request is something you can't make happen.
  6. Make sure that your technician thoughtfully uses the IDP process.
  7. Use awards - Spot Awards, time-off, performance.
  8. Be flexible about work schedules - flexible work schedules can be a huge benefit to employees. At the same time, be generous with leave requests.

As you look at these suggestions, mentors probably have other suggestions that have worked for them.

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36. Training - Mickey McGuire (2009)

At the last NPA Leadership meeting held in April 2009 in Denver, we held a session on leadership development. As part of the session, I covered a wide range of training programs that help individuals improve their managerial/leadership competencies. Often, early career scientists enter a program straight out of graduate school or perhaps with some post-doc experience and are provided a nice laboratory, funds to do research and, "oh, by the way, here is a person to help you." Typically, our early career scientists have never been in a position that required formally supervising someone. Did they teach you how to supervise someone in graduate school? Most likely not but this is something that can be learned. Just as you learned how to use a microscope, design an excellent experiment that will answer hypotheses, etc., good supervisory skills will enable you to manage your laboratory effectively and help keep a harmonious workplace. If you are new to ARS but have experience in the private sector or University, you probably supervised individuals. While some of the core supervisory principals are the same, supervising people in the government can provide additional challenges. So, we encourage you to learn and or sharpen your skills through formal supervisory training. There are several excellent courses that can be found at the following websites:

For the mentors, we really appreciate you taking time to help one of your colleagues. There is also lots of training out there for you as well. Since you are involved in this program, I suspect you may have interest in further developing your leadership skills. The websites above offer several excellent mid/senior career programs that can help you navigate some of the challenges you may face now or in the future. Please seriously consider sharpening your saw as well. For further information, your research leader and/or center director received a thumb drive at the leadership conference that contains additional information.

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35. Building a Scientific Community - Barbara King (2009)

How locations create and maintain workplace community among employees was one of the feature stories in the April 2009 edition of "Voices" ( That story focused generally on location community and how workplace community plays out at locations in the NPA. Meetings, social events, volunteer efforts, and events to welcome new - and bid farewell to - departing employees are some examples of workplace community. Additionally, employees in some occupations, especially scientists, may develop their own community.

A scientific community is one way that scientists can talk about their research, the ups and downs of a given project, brainstorm potential projects, discuss technical innovations, celebrate publishing results, or just generally keep conversations between scientists alive regardless of disciplines. Exactly how a scientific community develops at any given location is probably largely dependent on the culture of that location. For instance, do scientists talk with one another about their research? Are scientists easily accessible to one another? Are office doors open or closed? Are people genuinely interested in each other's research? The number of scientists may or may not influence the ease, or difficulty, of developing a community of scientists. Also, the proximity of a location to a university can open up opportunities for collaboration and communication, but what about locations far from a university?

What does it mean to be part of a community of scientists, and how do those types of communities develop? How do new scientists either start, or become part of, a community of scientists? Prot?g?s may well have been part of a strong community of scientists during their graduate program and may be expecting to develop a similar type of community with scientists at their location and within ARS. As mentors, what sorts of advice would each of you give to your prot?g? about creating or joining a community of scientists?

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34. How You Got Where You Are Today - Dr. Scott Bean (2009)

Recently I was asked to give a talk on how I got where I am today. This was an interesting experience for me to look back over the past several years and see what events had happened that steered me to my current place. It was also interesting to see how many people had helped me along the way in various ways... often without me realizing how important their help was at the time. The path that lead me to ARS was definitely not a straight line. I started out in college in mechanical engineering which I quickly realized was not the place for me (the first turn in my path). I eventually ended up getting my B.S. in Wildlife Biology and had the good fortune to have Dr. Don Kaufman as my undergraduate advisor. I was able to take some independent research hours from Dr. Kaufman and was hooked on research and from that experience decided to get my Ph.D. in Wildlife Biology. However, I did not get into the graduate school I wanted to go to and instead took a job as a lab assistant working for Dr. George Lookhart with ARS in Manhattan (second turn in my path). Dr. Lookhart gave me a lot of independence and I soon got interested in working with wheat proteins and decided to get my graduate degrees in Grain Science (third turn in my path). At the same time that I was accepted into graduate school for Grain Science at KSU, I found out that my application to graduate school for Wildlife Biology had been misfiled and that I was accepted into the program. I now had a choice to make and decided to stay with Grain Science. After finishing my Ph.D., a new position opened up in the ARS lab in Manhattan working on grain sorghum, something I wasn't initially very interested in, but applied anyway and got the job (fourth turn in my path). Now I can't imagine working with any other cereal, my sorghum research has been very enjoyable. As a new ARS scientist, I received strong support from my RL at the time, Dr. Okky Chung, and also several other scientists working on sorghum. This really helped to jump start my program. Looking back, it is interesting to see how the one little act of misfiling my graduate application set me on a completely different path in life and all the good things that resulted from that. It has also made me very grateful for all the people who helped me along the way. As you move along your career path, you will no doubt encounter unexpected twists and turns and road blocks. Although not always easy to do when facing such things, I would encourage you to try and keep an open mind and turn whatever is in your path into an opportunity.

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33. Perfecting Your "Elevator Talk" - Barbara King (2009)

Job seekers are urged to perfect the "elevator talk" - a short statement of why they should be hired. You have a job, so you might be thinking, "Why bother with creating a new "elevator talk?" While the "elevator talk" is a useful tool for job seekers, that tool is also handy for those of us who have interesting and challenging work. Being able to distill in a few sentences what you do and why what you do is important, is something that you should be able to effortlessly recite to professional colleagues, friends and neighbors, and just about anyone you come in contact with. Why, you ask? For starters, every interaction is an opportunity not only to talk spontaneously and confidently about what you do and why your work is important, it is also a chance to explain ARS and describe the sorts of research conducted by you and other ARS scientists. Just as recruiting is often linked to word of mouth, the same can be said for the power of stories to inform others about you and ARS in general. Personal stories can be compelling, and when shared with students of any age, can inspire them to want to learn more about science. At a minimum, a good "what I do elevator talk" given to non-scientists, exposes them to the mystery and value of scientific research. Likewise, a good talk given to professional colleagues captures what you do in a concise and meaningful context. The next time you're asked about what you do, having your rehearsed talk will give you the confidence to describe your work succinctly and persuasively.

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32. RPES: It's Never Too Early to Start - Dr. Mickey McGuire (2009)

All of the newly hired scientists by now have completed the New SY Orientation Workshop held in Fort Collins. Our last workshop was December 1-4 and was attended by 9 new scientists. One of the discussion points has always been the Research Position Evaluation System or RPES. This is a formal classification system approved by Office of Personnel Management specifically for those classified in primarily research positions. For those of you classified as Category 1, RPES is an important component of your lives because it directly impacts what grade level you are assigned, which, by the way, also impacts your salary. During the New SY workshop, we throw a lot of things at you very fast and we realize not everything has sunk in. This month's checking in topic suggestion is RPES and how you can best approach your case write-up.

  1. Start early. Whenever you start a new project, prepare or revise your contributions to a project plan, or simply plan an experiment, you should be thinking how your work will lead to the impact statement of an accomplishment.
  2. Read the RPES guidelines (ARS 431.3) at least once a year. In particular concentrate on panel operations and how they score a case. Pay particular attention to the language beside each factor. Be aiming for language that will assure a promotion at your next review.
  3. Publish, publish, publish in peer reviewed journals!
  4. Try to get examples of case write-ups from successful scientists. Do this early, well before you start writing your case.
  5. Keep a file; electronic, hard copy or both. In this file include invitations, including those you do not accept; contacts from people requesting advice; requests for manuscript and grant proposal reviews; grant proposals you write, even if they don't get funded; commodity group meetings you attend and possible contacts for your IDR list, etc.
  6. Listen to your stakeholders. If you work in an applied field, your stakeholders can provide research topics that are typically short turn around but can lead to early adoption (=IMPACT!).
  7. Your mentor has been through the process before and your RL has had RPES training and serves on panels. Be sure to utilize these resources and listen to their advice. In addition, the Area Office gives a thorough review to each and every case write-up before it goes forward to the RPE staff.

Most of all, concentrate on your high impact research and publish in peer reviewed journals. We expect a lot from our scientists but the rewards can be excellent!

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31. Coming up with a Plan - Dr. Mark West (2008)

Hello. If we haven't met, let me introduce myself, my role in the NPA and how I may be able to help you. My name is Mark West and my job title is Area Statistician. I love my job which is to provide statistical support to you. I have nineteen years experience consulting with agricultural scientists. I joined ARS in 2000. Prior to joining ARS I was on the faculty at Auburn University from 1989 to 2000 doing what I do now but also teaching service courses in statistics. Many of my experiences as consultant involved helping out with analysis and interpreting results after the experiment was already conducted. These interactions were just fine when the experiments were well-planned. However, I have run across quite a few poorly planned experiments and well-planned experiments that failed for reasons that could have been avoided. Poorly planned and poorly executed experiments waste your time and resources. One of my roles as Area Statistician is to provide assistance in helping you plan your experiment correctly so that your work will meet the level of scrutiny of your peers and that of OSQR. Most of all your experiments should provide information that you can use to help carry your science forward. Needless to say this is a very challenging role and carries a heavy weight of responsibility for you, those involved with your research and me. When planning your experiment, please have someone check it over with a critical eye. I would be very happy to look over your plan and offer my suggestions but I would also encourage you to ask others in your field for their opinions as well. I hope to hear from you. Please visit the NPA Statistics page for contact information and a description of other services that I provide.

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30. Career-Building Skill Sets - Barbara King (2008)

Career planning can take any number of directions - from the initial "what kind of job do I want?" to the more specific "how do I advance in this job?" For the purposes of this checking-in topic, it is assumed that each of you have answered the first question and are beginning to think about your first RPES panel and perhaps are starting to think about how you define career success, which likely includes the issue of advancement. (Then again, if the assumption is wrong and if you're a prot?g? you probably should call your mentor right away; and if you are a mentor, maybe you should call your prot?g?!)

While a visit to nearly any bookstore or library will give you seemingly limitless resources on career planning, the following are highlights from an article in the October 2008 issue of AMSTATNEWS (American Statistical Association magazine), courtesy of Dr. Mark West (NPA Statistician). Although the article "Snakes and Ladders: Building a Career in Statistics" by David Banks, Duke University, deals specifically with statistical careers, the skill sets he lists are easily relevant to any professional career. I took Banks' seven skill sets, added some narrative, and also added an eighth skill set - collegiality - that I consider to be equally important:

  1. Technical Strength. This is almost a given, and is a never-ending process of maintaining currency in your field. If you move into management, though, you will not only need to have the technical knowledge, you will also need to have developed an expertise with management skills. Talk to your mentor or your RL about the types of opportunities you can pursue to help you figure out if management is something that appeals to you and what sorts of courses or details (temporary job assignments) you can take that will give you the knowledge and experience needed for those jobs.
  2. Computational Ability. Numbers matter and how you design and interpret studies are key steps to having results that will stand up to scrutiny. Statistical literacy is becoming more important as publishing standards require more statistical sophistication. Just as other technologies are rapidly advancing so are the methodologies of statistics. Remember that Mark West is available for assistance with statistical design of your studies.
  3. Public Speaking. The importance of being able to communicate orally cannot be underestimated (see checking-in topic #29). If you doubt this, just think of all the dull lectures and conference presentations you have attended where the speaker either did not have a coherent message, or stumbled and stammered his or her way through what could have been a dynamite talk. Even speaking up during meetings is an opportunity to either be heard or ignored, largely depending on what you say and how you say it. Public speaking begins with organized ideas and ends with an effective delivery. Putting effort into how to organize your ideas and developing an effective delivery will serve you well whatever direction your career takes.
  4. Writing. This is just as important as being able to convey your ideas orally. Both skills take practice and a commitment to always trying to improve your skills. Besides writing, another way to improve your writing is to read (for pleasure or work), because really good writers are also most likely prolific readers.
  5. Social Networking. While networking among and within your professional field is important (see checking-in topic #8), Banks points out that it is equally important to seek the company of people who are not in your immediate field who can complement your strengths and interests, and generally keep your mind and life active and rewarding beyond your profession.
  6. Organization. Learn how to manage paperwork, deadlines, and responsiveness to inquiries. Your ability to do so ensures that others will have confidence in you and also reflects to others that you are reliable and productive.
  7. Time Management. Demands on your time are a given. Learning how to manage your time and energy is critical. Find a system - task lists, calendars, daily schedule, etc. - that works for you, and use it.
  8. Collegiality(see checking-in #1). Some people may be able to get away with being prickly, aggressive, and/or generally unfriendly, but most of us cannot. Even if we could, it is far better to be the kind of person others seek out rather than someone who is avoided or worse, reviled.

Banks also noted that your reputation, capability, and social capital are strengths that you should constantly nurture. What you say and do, your science, how capable and reliable you are, and your ability to read signals and get along with others - are all equally important. As you assess your current job and think about where you want to be in three, five, ten or even 15 years down the road, keep in mind these eight career-building skill sets.

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29. Making Your Voice Heard - Barbara King (2008)

Preparing and delivering presentations is a skill set that every ARS scientist should learn how to do, and do well. Whether you are making a presentation at a professional conference, explaining your research to the general public, or even making a point during a staff meeting, you want your message to be clear and have meaning for your audience. Despite good intentions, presentations are almost sure to falter unless you take the time to carefully prepare your content and practice your delivery. For most of us, public speaking is a learned skill. Mastering public speaking though, takes time, effort, and practice. Having a meaningful message and effectively delivering that message are keys to effective presentations and to successful communication in general.

I have two recommendations to help start you on the path of making truly effective presentations. The first one is an exceptionally good and readable book that contains lots of tips: "Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story" by Jerry Weissman, Prentice-Hall (2003) ISBN 0-13-046413-9, $25.00). This book is a gem and I highly recommend it as a resource you will return to time after time.

The second resource calls for a definite commitment on your part. With that said, consider joining a Toastmasters group. The structured and inclusive approach of Toastmasters (types of speeches, instant evaluation, extemporaneous speaking, etc.) is a proven method to help individuals develop and polish their presentation skills. Regardless of where you are in your career and no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with public speaking, Toastmasters is a terrific way to further develop and hone your communication skills. Most communities have at least one Toastmasters group - if your community does not have one, recruit some other employees and form your own group. Information about Toastmasters can be found at:

The time and effort you put into learning how to give a good presentation that your audience will appreciate and remember will be time well spent.

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28. Mentoring Handbook -Barbara King (2008)

The Mentoring Handbook - "Mentoring Handbook: July 2008" has been revised, and is now available on the NPA web site here. This revision of the handbook incorporates the previously stand alone "Getting Started" file and also includes a listing of recommended topics for mentors and prot?g?s to discuss. A very short list of recommended resources is also included, and mentors and prot?g?s are invited to add to this list (send your recommendations to

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27. Ethics: Handling ethical dilemmas... - Barbara King (2008)

Ethical dilemmas can surface in any number of situations, and learning how to spot potential conflicts and resolve them can help researchers avoid even larger problems later on. For instance, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an emerging ethical problem involves researchers "touching-up" or otherwise altering images in order to make them easier-to-read. Probably every scientist has encountered, or will encounter, an ethical situation where they are uncertain as to what action should be taken. In the above example, suspecting an altered image is just part of the dilemma. Knowing what to do, or who to report your suspicions to, is not always clear. Ethical dilemmas can crop up at any time and can present early career and senior scientists with difficult decisions and sensitive situations. Learning how to identify and deal with ethical dilemmas is a topic worthy of discussion at any time with mentors and prot?g?s.

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26. Reciprocity in Mentoring - Barbara King (2008)

Reciprocity, or honest give and take between individuals, is often the bedrock of meaningful relationships. The mentor-prot?g? relationship also relies on reciprocity and exchange of information. Without the social exchange of information, where both parties benefit, mentoring relationships will likely wither. Both mentors and prot?g?s have consistently reported that they hope to benefit in some way from the mentoring relationship. In the book Power Mentoring (by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy), the duality of benefits to mentor and prot?g? is discussed extensively, and the value of reciprocity is captured by the assessments of several prot?g? and mentor pairs. In one pair, the prot?g? noted that her mentor has a great deal of experience and comfort in dealing with senior executives, and in turn is a valuable sounding board who not only asks the tough questions to ensure that she covers all the bases before presenting an idea to her supervisors, but can also help line up the support of senior line management. Her mentor, in turn, reported that she has benefited by having someone new to the organization, and from a different demographic (in this case, a different generation; in other cases, gender, or racial or ethnic group) give a fresh perspective and honest feedback to her about her perspective. As your mentoring relationships build over time, keep in mind the reciprocity each of you have to give and receive information and advice.

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25. Developing Support Personnel - One Key to Building a Consistent Research Program - Dr. Jon Hanson (2008)

One of the most important aspects to the establishment of a consistent research program is the development of good technical support. A major aspect of assuring such support rests in the development and implementation of performance plans for those you supervise. Performance reviews are one of your most important forms of documenting an employee's contribution to your project. Development of the performance plan requires planning on the front end, monitoring throughout the year, and an honest assessment at the end of the year. Discuss with your mentor the performance plans your have developed for those you supervise. Use the following points to guide your discussions with your supervisees.

1. Planning Performance

  • Develop performance plans that are accurate, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and allow for performance above the fully successful level.
  • Describe standards in terms of quality, quantity, timeliness and/or method of work.
  • Focus on expected results and outcomes and ensure that expectations are aligned with agency/unit strategic goals and objectives. Avoid duty statements. Standards should tell the employee how well they must perform in order to meet the fully successful level.
  • Involve employees in the development of performance plans.
  • Be timely in setting performance plans in place.
  • Revise plans if performance expectations change during the rating cycle.
  • Be prepared to explain to employees how they can exceed their standards.
  • Communicate to employees that "Fully Successful" performance is good performance. Work at the expected level of performance is of good quality, quantity, and accomplished within established time frames.
  • Ensure that plans are consistent and equitable within your program.
  • Establish meetings with employees to set plans in place. Clearly communicate expectations and clarify generic or vague standards. To the extent possible, ensure employees understand your expectations.

2. Monitoring Performance

  • Continuously monitor and provide performance feedback often during the rating cycle.
  • Maintain written records of feedback and specific accounts of employee performance during rating cycle.
  • Conduct timely mid-year reviews.
  • Inform employees of performance falling below last formal appraisal of performance.

3. Performance Assessment

  • Notify your Research Leader immediately when performance problems begin with anyone you supervise.
  • Performance assessments should not be a surprise at the end of the rating cycle.
  • Do not inflate the ratings. Supervisors are often tempted to use an inflated rating to motivate improved job performance. This does not achieve the desired result. When a manager later tries to blame poor performance for an adverse employment action, those dishonest appraisals open up a land mine of credibility concerns.
  • Ensure continued accuracy of performance plans.

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24. On Connecting The Dots - Dr. W. P. Kemp (2008)

Quite a lot of what has been written in this series is very helpful to those of us negotiating the intricacies of the civil-servant/scientist world that we find ourselves inhabiting these days. This missive includes, should you choose to accept it, a reading assignment as well as some thoughts on being useful to someone near you.

Some years ago, 2005 in fact, Steve Jobs - yes, the Steve Jobs of Macintosh-Apple-Pixar fame - gave a very insightful three-part address to the Graduating Class of Reed College. For those of you who are not already aware of this address, it can be found at the Stanford University News Service web site address - - and for those of you who vaguely remember reading this address some years ago, I encourage you to quickly revisit this link. Now that you're back, and regardless of how you feel about Steve Jobs, the businessperson or the human being, his reflections for the benefit of the Reed College Graduating Class of 2005, as well as the rest of us, I suppose, are indeed quite moving.

Looking forward to an ARS career that will likely span 5-7 OSQR cycles and a greater number of Executive Branch Administrations, might appear rather daunting, but one can find great comfort in Jobs' admonishment that you can be sure that the dots will somehow connect, but only when looking back. Of course, the dots are - and please excuse the OSQR reference here - personal milestones that extend over an entire career. In my singular (N=1) experience, over the course of more OSQR cycles than I care to admit, I have found the "dot-connecting working hypothesis" that Jobs espouses to be rather useful, I mean, comforting, not only while negotiating large steps associated with moving from one OSQR cycle to the next, but even when facing choices made within an OSQR cycle that resulted from discoveries as well as failures. Admittedly, though, the thrill of discovery is far more enjoyable even though failures, again in hindsight, frequently resulted in more progress being made.

In sum, Jobs is suggesting that cautious optimism - of course, in addition to careful attention to detail - has an important place in the short journey that we have as scientists in this world. Jobs is also careful to note the importance of others that influenced and/or assisted him in his singular, but far from lonely, journey; and yes, luck and timing are both in one's lifetime equation. So, recognizing that each replicate or personal scientific experience is likely to be attended with struggles that would be familiar to our peers, one can't help but wonder just what might be gained as an agency if we devoted perhaps an additional 1% of our precious time - say, five minutes of a normal schedule - in assisting each other with "Connecting the Dots."

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23. "What to do if...:" - Dr. Jeff Pedersen (2008)

Barbara King asked me to write a short piece to be used as a "checking-in topic" and suggested that I look over some of the past articles for perspective. The one that caught my eye was Work:Life Balance. In a dissimilar vein, we are too frequently tempted to find balance between integrity and practicality. As scientists, the integrity of our work is everything. Our professional integrity is critical too because it translates directly into trust, which is the stuff career opportunities arise from.

So when checking-in with your mentor/prot?g? this month, consider discussing some real-life scenarios, each of which I've experienced more than once:

  1. After months or years of work, actual sample identities are somehow lost but their identity is still obvious to you.
  2. The probability that your desired outcome is significant is P=0.06 and your data set contains several unexplainable outliers.
  3. You are serving as a referee on good friend's manuscript or proposal that does not represent good science.
  4. A stakeholder threatens you with adverse action if you release certain information or materials.

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22. Stick to the Plan - Be Flexible - Dr. Richard Beeman (2007)

Dr. Richard Beeman, 2007 NPA Senior Scientist of the Year, kindly supplied the following musings on his 27-year career with ARS. As evidenced by his essay, Dr. Beeman reflects on the choices, challenges, and opportunities he encountered during his journey with the Agency. Clearly, maintaining an open mind, keeping creatively engaged, and following through on unexpected opportunities led Dr. Beeman to forge a spectacularly successful career with ARS. I think you will find his story provocative.

Many ARS scientists have (unlike me) kept to the path they originally charted, and have had great success. The reflections below summarize my personal research journey, and I do not presume to suggest that my experience will be relevant or useful to anyone else. Even the most intelligent and insightful people fare poorly at predicting the future -- even the near-future. One of the corollaries to this fact is that five-year research plans often do not play out as foreseen. Perseverance and long-term commitment are noble traits, but inflexible adherence to a plan that is faltering might reflect mere stubbornness or lack of creativity, rather than good discipline. The recent ARS directive allowing changes in CRIS milestones represents an acknowledgment of this truth. These milestones should be viewed as flexible and temporary guideposts, or as one snapshot of a possible future, not as rigid requirements.

I was hired by ARS in 1979 as a toxicologist to conduct research on insect chemical control issues and develop pest-control alternatives in the stored-product arena. For at least the first several months on the job, I had no clear vision, even of a possible near-term path for my research, never mind a long-term path. I considered the idea of developing a program in pesticide residue analysis and environmental monitoring, but eventually decided to try to document the status of insect resistance to the few chemical pesticides then registered for direct application to stored grain. My surveys of insect resistance inevitably led to the field of genetics, since all resistance to toxins has a genetic basis. I was quite surprised by the emerging realization that I was fascinated by genetics, and that my heart was not in chemical toxicology and never had been, even though I had spent years of study to earn credentials in that field. It was therefore a natural step to modify my research plan to begin to investigate the genetic basis of pesticide resistance and to become interested in better ways to engage in gene discovery. I had been working with the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, in large part because it was an important pest of stored grain; it had proven to be highly adaptable to all classes of insecticides in terms of resistance development; and it was easy to rear and manipulate in the laboratory. It now became evident that Tribolium also had excellent potential to become a laboratory model for genetics research, along the lines of the fruit fly, Drosophila. It was at this point that I began to deviate sharply from my position description, and began to invest effort in developing basic techniques for genetic manipulation of Tribolium. These efforts had no direct relevance to, and were quite separate and distinct from, my prescribed studies of pesticide resistance or pest control technology, although I was hopeful that in the long run, a useful connection could be made. My supervisors reacted to this change with skepticism, although I realized then, and now, that keeping your supervisor informed and in the loop is critical. While times change, and bureaucracies expand, ARS continues to remain open to different ways of addressing problems.

Twenty years later, my willingness to pursue an unexpected and uncertain opportunity has led to success, and now might seem prescient. It was not. No one can see the future, especially 20 years in advance. I did sense that Tribolium could be a good genetic model, but I could not have imagined that this new path would lead to the first entire genome sequence of a pest insect, a complete catalog of all 16,000 Tribolium genes, the discovery of hundreds of good candidate genes for biopesticide targeting, or the development of sophisticated methods for germline transformation and functional genomic evaluation. The lesson I've learned from my experience is that maintaining a receptivity and responsiveness to a changing environment, and listening to your inner voice, are as likely to lead to success in ARS as subordinating yourself too completely to others, including supervisors and customers. Of course it is important to listen to these other voices, but they should not always be allowed to drown out your own. You might actually have a better idea than your supervisors and customers how to achieve a goal that you all share. Everyone wants their problems solved ASAP, but all of us should know that the shortest distance between a problem and a solution is seldom a straight line, and often involves an unpredictable meander.

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21. 2007 Survey Results - Barbara King (2007)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to the survey on the mentoring program. The results indicate that, overall, mentors and prot?g?s report high levels of satisfaction with the Framework (structure, materials, frequency of interactions); Transitions (to job, worksite, community, work:life balance); and General Usefulness (advice, networking, collaborations, etc.); while questions dealing with Recruitment reveal that most respondents heard about their current job through some type of word of mouth.

Yet, despite this overall satisfaction with the program, only about half of the mentors and prot?g?s report communicating with one another once a month. While the monthly checking-in topics apparently serve as a spark for contacting one another, the open-ended comments indicate that some mentors and prot?g?s are not especially satisfied with the frequency of their interactions. An additional tool that could be used is the Discussion tool on the Sharepoint site. Discussions can be used for general questions, comments, or threaded discussions. Everyone (mentors, prot?g?s, and RLs) has access to the Sharepoint site - - type in your user name and password used to access Outlook).

The Executive Summary has been saved on the NPA home page, and both the Executive Summary and full report (saved as Report-2007) of the survey results have been saved on the Sharepoint site. In the coming months, some of the program materials will be revised, and if any of you have any changes or other suggestions to the program materials, please feel free to share your ideas with me and/or Dr. Chandler. And, of course, do not hesitate to give your match a call! Also, as always, if you have a topic for a future Checking-In topic, give me a call or email me your idea (or write-up).

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20. When Leadership Changes - Dr. Gary Snowder (2007)

It is inevitable that leadership in ARS will change. In my almost 20 years with ARS, I have worked under the leadership of seven Research Leaders and five Area Directors while having worked at only two ARS locations. Each Research Leader had a different management style, personality, and often new idea or strategy for research direction. To a scientist, changes in leadership may be disruptive or productive. The outcome generally depends on the attitude and actions of the individual scientist. Early career scientists could benefit from practical advice related to leadership changes. This advice might also help new scientists work more effectively with their current research leaders.

Although I have some personal advice to share, as a scientist I must refer to research (that obviously agrees with my philosophy). A recent study in the Harvard Business Review (Surviving Your New CEO by K. P. Coyne and E. J. Coyne, May 2007) identified critical factors that new leaders are quickly looking for. Basically, new leadership wants team players and people to accomplish new goals. Here are a few of my interpretations of their study:

Catch the vision. Although it may be tempting to take a "wait and see" attitude about a new leader, this is a wrong approach. New leaders are looking for players, teammates, action figures - not sideliners or fence sitters. Understand the vision of the new leader, buy into that vision, and let the new leader know you are supportive. Silence on you part does not equate into agreement, but leaves new leaders to draw their own conclusions about you.

Play hard. Be proactive by demonstrating your willingness to accept new changes, policies, and direction. Let your actions validate your commitment. Of course, all of this must be done with sincerity and without being sycophantic (flattering, apple polishing).

Leave your baggage at the door. Whatever personnel problems, or past disputes over lab space, funds, equipment, technicians, vehicles, computers, have been, bury them in a deep abyss. Bringing up past battles, historical preferential treatment, and old wounds to your new leader is a waste of everyone's time. Be focused on the future.

Accept change. New leaders have their own agenda and your agenda is not necessarily of great interest to them. Your short and long term goals may not now be aligned with those of new leadership - your goals and research may have to be modified. Never attempt to thrust your own agenda ahead of the new leader. (This is a tough concept to grasp for some scientists who are personally attached to their own research program. You must realize, ARS scientists are hired to conduct agency research not personal research.)

Be honest. When discussing your research with the new leader, present the facts as clearly and as honestly as possible. Sugarcoating is the wrong approach. The truth will eventually be found out and no leader is supportive of a scientist who is not trustworthy. If you fail to identify the negatives of your projects (things gone wrong) the leader will either assume you are not smart enough to recognize problems or you try to hide the truth.

Get'er done. It is most important to demonstrate your worth to the new leader by accomplishing important projects in a timely manner. Identify solutions rather than moan about problems. Always follow through on assignments. Establish your value quickly.

Learn to disagree. Every individual has their unique style for dealing with differences of opinion. Effective leaders expect subordinates to have differing opinions and to share them in a constructive and non-confrontational manner. Subordinates must realize that they are offering options and alternatives. The key is to offer choices that help the leader achieve his/her vision. Once the decision is made, discussion is over.

In the business world, when subordinates fail in any of the above actions, they have a high likelihood of needing to update their resume.

Whether a leadership change is disruptive or productive, is truly a matter of how you respond to change.

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19. Time Management - Barbara King (2007)

The responses from the survey are trickling in - thanks to each of you who have taken the time to complete the survey. While we haven't done any real analysis yet, one theme that has emerged from the survey for prot?g?s is the question that asks proteges to list their most pressing concern(s). Several prot?g?s cited their most common pressing concern is time management, especially finding time for conducting research while also completing paperwork and administrative duties; to working with support staff who are limited to working 40 hours a week; to balancing work and personal life. While there are tons of books on time management, mentors should be able to help their prot?g? figure out some strategies that will reduce (maybe even eliminate!) much of the aggravation and heartburn that comes from that sense of being over scheduled.

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18. Fact or Fiction - Dealing With Rumors - Barbara King(2007)

There has been nearly an endless flurry of rumors and worries concerning possible reorganization of ARS. Dr. Blackburn addresses the reorganization proposals in his annual ARMPS discussion, so there is no need to discuss the different proposals in this column. However, this recent spate of rumors and associated "what-ifs" is a good reminder of the importance of keeping things in perspective. Regardless of what organization or institution one works in today, one thing that can be counted on is that what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow, or three months from now, or even next year, but then again, things might not change a bit. At any rate, new scientists may or may not have first-hand experience dealing with the uncertainties surrounding the array of rumors and political maneuvering that has occurred with the proposed realignment of ARS. Mentors, who probably have "seen it all and heard it all" can be an important sounding board, as well as provide their insights and experiences, and be able to share with their prot?g? the types of coping skills they have employed in the past in dealing with the various rumors that are bound to occur within any large organization when change is contemplated.

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17. Checking-out Assumptions: May 2007 (Barbara King)

Regardless of where matches are in their mentoring relationship, it is always a good idea to assess the relationship to determine if the interests and needs of the prot?g? and mentor are being met. One barrier to meeting the needs and interests can be unaddressed and in some instances unacknowledged, assumptions on the part of mentors and/or prot?g?s. A simple yet effective method of addressing assumptions is for mentors and prot?g?s to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What is my role?
  2. How would my "match" (mentor or prot?g?) describe my role?
  3. What do I expect to learn from this role?
  4. What is the role of my "match" (prot?g?/mentor)?
  5. How has our relationship evolved?
  6. Are my needs and interests being met?
  7. Are the needs and interests of my match being met?

New and seasoned matches are urged to use these questions as a basis for assessing the effectiveness of their mentoring relationship and the future direction of their relationship.

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16. Effective Communication - the Building Block of Relationships - Barbara King (2007)

The two previous checking-in topics on relationship building between mentors and prot?g?s touched indirectly on the need for effective communication. A key aspect of mentoring - for both mentors and prot?g?s - is the ability to effectively communicate. Establishing good communication in a mentoring program such as this one that relies on telephone and email can be problematic, especially since classic non-verbal signals (smiles, frowns, and gestures) are not visible to the other person. Email, although notorious for misinterpretations has two distinct advantages: interruptions are impossible, and messages can be re-read and considered before replying.

Regardless of the situation (face to face, telephone, or email) the foundation of good communication is the ability to actively listen to what another person is saying. Active listening is crucial in any meaningful relationship. Briefly, to be an active listener - for both mentors and prot?g?s - means:

  • Giving full attention to the speaker and minimizing distractions.
  • Rephrasing what the speaker has said.
  • Asking for clarification.
  • Providing feedback.
  • Minimizing interruptions.
  • Being open to hearing other viewpoints, ideas, etc.
  • Being willing to set aside your need or desire to control or otherwise dominate the conversation and/or the relationship in general.

Active listening for mentor/prot?g? partnerships is especially valuable in building and maintaining the relationship. Too often, attempts at communication fail either because the message was not clearly conveyed or the intended target failed to grasp the significance.

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15. Prot?g? Strategies - Barbara King (2007)

In the January message, four mentoring philosophies were briefly touched on, and mentors were invited to think about what approach best fits their motivations for being a mentor, while prot?g?s were urged to think about what sorts of expectations they have for the mentoring program. Both mentors and prot?g?s were encouraged to talk with one another about their motivations and expectations.

While mentors typically fit into one of the four philosophical approaches described in the January checking-in message, there is not a similar set of styles identified for prot?g?s. Although there is not a set of recognized "prot?g? styles", Ensher and Murphy (Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get The Most Out of Their Relationships, 2005, Jossey-Bass), have identified four basic strategies that prot?g?s are encouraged to follow. These four strategies are:

  • Have a plan. Prot?g?s must be able to articulate to their mentor what they hope to accomplish in their career and what they anticipate doing at the peak of their career.
  • Bring something to exchange. In the NPA program, several mentors have noted that they hope to benefit, and those benefits can take the form of improving their communication styles as well as gaining technical knowledge from their prot?g?. Prot?g?s should be able to state what they can give back to ensure the relationship is a win:win for each partner.
  • Make a good impression. Prot?g?s are encouraged to exhibit self-confidence and to develop an "executive presence", the ability to see and project yourself as an equal. Accordingly, prot?g?s should pay attention to their non-verbal signals (body language, eye contact, mannerisms) as well as their ability to effectively articulate their thoughts and ideas. The NPA program relies heavily on e-mail and telephone exchanges, and prot?g?s (and mentors) need to be cognizant of the pitfalls inherent in electronic communications.
  • Communicate positively and with passion. Prot?g?s should frame issues and questions in a constructive manner, and be able to clearly articulate what they expect to gain from the mentor, what sorts of advice they are seeking, and the types of problems they either are facing or perhaps anticipate eventually facing. Following these strategies should help start and maintain a mutually beneficial mentor:prot?g? partnership. Prot?g?s can use these four strategies throughout the mentoring relationship as a means of self-awareness. Keep in mind that as the relationship deepens, both parties will test the other. Mentors want to be assured that his or her time is not being wasted, and prot?g?s expect that their mentor's advice has value.

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14. Mentoring Philosophies - Barbara King (2007)

What type of mentoring philosophy do you as a mentor practice? What would your prot?g? say is your mentoring philosophy? What are the expectations of your prot?g?? Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy, in their book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get The Most Out of Their Relationships (2005, Jossey-Bass) talk about four mentoring models: Corporate Citizen; Pragmatic; Global Citizen; and Master. While no one philosophical approach is better than any of the others, the philosophy influences the mentoring relationship, especially in terms of shared expectations. According to Ensher and Murphy, the underlying goal for a Corporate Citizen mentor is to help prepare the next generation of leaders for the organization. Pragmatic Mentors, on the other hand, tend to view mentoring as egalitarian, with mutual benefits for themselves and their prot?g?s. Some pragmatic mentors seek to identify and develop their own successor so as to ensure their agenda is carried forward. Global Citizen Mentors are more concerned with imparting their life knowledge in general rather than focusing on helping their prot?g? advance in a particular job or career path. Finally, Master mentors focus on getting to know their prot?g?'s as individuals so that they can tailor their approach to the needs and interests of the prot?g?.

As your mentoring relationships develop, think about what sorts of approaches and expectations each of you bring to the relationship. It is important for mentors to think about the underlying motivations they have for mentoring, and for prot?g?s to think about what they expect to gain. At the same time, it is important for mentors and prot?g?s to discuss with one another their expectations. If the mentor perhaps doesn't know what the prot?g? is looking for (and vice versa) the relationship may not be mutually satisfying.

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13. Work: Life Balance - Barbara King (2006)

With the end of the year rapidly approaching and the holiday season in full swing, finding time to fit in all of one's responsibilities and personal interests can be a challenge. While the holidays can be especially full, balancing work and non-work lives challenges almost every employee throughout the year. In fact, as shown by the survey we conducted earlier this year, while prot?g?s are very satisfied with advice from mentors on balancing work and non-work activities, 64% of the prot?g?s reported that they didn't even discuss work:life balance with their RL. Balancing work and personal time, though, is probably just one of the many challenges facing employers and employees, including ARS. The workplace is changing - from the way work is done, what type of work is done, and where and even when work is performed. At the same time, the workforce is changing, and the two younger generations may have very different perspectives from the two older generations on this whole notion of work - the how, what, where and when. One major change already impacting ARS and NPA is the change in emphasis from "classic" agricultural field-related degrees to more lab-based and interdisciplinary academic preparation. Many mentors have already established themselves as reliable sources of advice on balancing work and personal time, and hopefully mentors and prot?g?s will be able to turn to each other for advice on issues that are likely to arise as the workplace continues this evolution of change and renewal.

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12. Survey Results and Regular Communication - Barbara King (2006)

The survey results were recently posted on the NPA home page as part of the New Scientists section in the Spotlight section. Overall, the return was very high, and the results were quite favorable.

If you've not yet checked out the results, you're encouraged to do so at: /Aboutus/docs.htm?docid=14078
(then click on Results of Survey...).

The results were presented during the Administrator's Council meeting in Beltsville in September. Several other Areas have expressed interest in developing similar mentoring programs for their new scientists, and the Area Office has fielded several inquiries about the mechanics of our program.

We continue to look at the results to help continue improving the program. The results showed that many prot?g?s are concerned about balancing administrative duties with their scientific duties, identifying their role (in their unit, at their location, and in ARS generally), and preparing their first case report. Developing a mentoring relationship takes time, commitment, and a sense of direction from both parties. One key to successful mentoring matches is regular communication, and the best way of ensuring that mentors and prot?g?s talk on a regular basis is to establish a date and time for talking. While there is not a magic formula for the frequency of such discussions, certainly once a month would be a minimum. Additionally, having some sort of agenda or "talking points" for both mentors and prot?g?s is also recommended. One challenge for mentors and prot?g?s is the geographic distance between many of our matches. While face to face meetings are bound to be helpful, that's not something that all matches will be able to accomplish, so it's imperative that matches find other methods to develop and maintain active and meaningful discussions. Hopefully, these monthly checking-in topics serve as a reminder for matches to maintain a dialogue.

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11. ARS Manuscript Peer Review - (2006)

Dr. Gary Snowder, with the Clay Center research center, submitted the following:
Before most manuscripts can be submitted to a journal, ARS requires manuscripts to be reviewed by "qualified peer(s) with knowledge and familiarity in the field of research." The first impression of this process by new ARS scientists may be that it is a waste of time because the manuscript will be reviewed by peers selected by the journal editor and that a pre-submission peer review slows down the time to publication. A new scientist is always eager to publish and desires as few hurdles as possible to get a manuscript in print. However, ARS's requirement for qualified peer review can only improve the quality of the manuscript and sometimes the scientist.

It is the Research Leader's responsibility to assure that the scientist selects qualified peers to review the manuscript. Ask your RL for recommendations. Never select peers to rubber stamp a manuscript; rather select peers who will be helpful, even critical. Although only two peers may be sufficient for review, sometimes it is wise to select more to meet the broad spectrum of a manuscript. For example, a manuscript on the genetics of disease resistance may benefit from a review by a statistician, a geneticist, and a veterinarian. More than one reviewer in the same scientific field could be sought after.

Remember the objective of peer review is to improve the manuscript. So expect and welcome suggestions, comments, and even criticism. Science should always be open to criticism. Learn to accept criticism and to learn from it. A reviewed manuscript with red ink all over it should be appreciated because a reviewer made a sincere effort on your behalf.

There are several benefits to a peer review that a young scientist must recognize. Experienced reviewers can:

  1. Quickly point out errors in format to meet a journal's requirement.
  2. Improve writing style of inexperienced authors.
  3. Point out embarrassing errors before the journal editor does.
  4. Identify weaknesses that will cause the manuscript to be rejected by
    the target journal.
  5. Contribute to networking with other scientists with similar research

These benefits result in a successful submission of a quality manuscript.

Yes, this process may slow down the time to publication; but it helps you as a scientist to publish higher quality manuscripts. Despite the delay in submission time, every scientist should schedule the production of manuscripts by taking into account the time invested in the peer-reviewed process. Again, it will only be in your best interest.

ARS scientists are held to a higher standard than most of our colleagues. The manuscript peer review process helps us rise to that higher standard.

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10. RPES - Unraveling the Mysteries - Barbara King (2006)

While many prot?g?s have a couple of years before they first encounter the RPES process, now is as good a time as ever to begin understanding the process, especially in terms of what documentation is required and guidelines for best articulating your accomplishments. As with any evaluative method, knowing in advance what is required is the best way of preparing. Research Leaders are definitely one source of information and advice, and mentors can also provide their insights and guidance.

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9. Mid-Year Reviews - (2006)

Dr. Gary Snowder, with the Clay Center research center, submitted the following suggestions for mid-year evaluations:

It is the time for mid-year performance review. Be sure to be prepared for this important meeting. Review your Performance Standards and make notes of what you have completed on each accomplishment. It is your responsibility to make sure your RL understands your accomplishments. Never assume the RL knows everything you have done. Be sure to inform the RL of your future plans to meet your goals.

Also, make notes on items you need special assistance on from the RL, such as lab equipment or supplies, data analyses, data collection, etc. Do not hesitate to politely address these items with your RL. If you have a problem to address, offer a possible solution or alternative solutions. Remember, the responsibility for the final decision lies with the RL. If you do not agree with the decision to your problem or the logic of the decision, let it go. Life is too short to worry over things you have no control over.

Most things in this life are accomplished in a step by step approach. The Performance Standards is an outline of your step by step accomplishments to meet a goal. Take them seriously. If you can not meet one of your listed accomplishments within the year, let the RL know as soon as possible. Never surprise the RL at the end of the year with a list of excuses of why something was not accomplished. A second "never" item is: never go into the interview with the idea of listing everything that needs to be fixed. The purpose of the mid year is to check on your personal progress. IF the RL asks you about any concerns, start with the positive things and then offer suggestions to remove "hurdles". Conflicts with other personnel can easily be identified by simply stating "My working relationship with so-and-so needs to improve." I think you get the jest of what I am saying.

At the end of the interview, recognize and thank the RL for all of his/her efforts to support you and your research. I make it a point to leave with a handshake and eye contact.

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8. The Value of Networking - (2006)

Dr. Gary Snowder, with the Clay Center research center, submitted this description of the benefits and the "how-to" of networking:

The value of networking is often overlooked by young scientists. Webster's New World Dictionary defines a network as a "group, system, etc. of interconnected or cooperating individuals." Networking involves communicating with fellow researchers at other ARS or university settings. These contacts can be a dependable source of information about a research area in which you are unfamiliar. Research Leader's should play an active part in assisting young scientists to network by recommending names, encouraging participation on out-of-house research committees, and by talking up the young scientists to the RL's contacts. Mentors can also take an active role by promoting prot?g?s in a similar manner.

It is amazing how well networking works to promote a person's career. The more people who are aware of your strengths, abilities, and research interests, the greater your opportunity to be sought after for cooperative research and presentations. It is generally a false assumption that every one will become aware of your research and interest because they read your publication. If you want to get your name out in your field of science, be sure to communicate with colleagues. Every scientist enjoys talking about their research so it is easy to get others to initiate a conversation. One can simply include a question about their research when requesting a reprint. Or ask a colleague for their opinion about your own research. A good researcher should already know "who" is conducting similar or related research from the current literature. From this list, one can network by email or phone call. At committee meetings, young researchers should take advantage of interacting with other researchers. Active membership in a related professional association or society is a start at networking, but the key is to be an active member by attending meetings, joining committees, reviewing manuscripts, etc.

The benefits of networking are many fold. There is name recognition, increased opportunities to join committees, gain a greater understanding for lab or statistical procedures, recognize new opportunities, establish new long term relationships that you can depend on for assistance, see a whole new side to a problem, find additional mentors to model your career after, etc. As your own career advances, everyone will know you and begin to seek your assistance or opinion on related matters. Remember that research in a vacuum is usually of little worth. Networking is bi-directional, by expecting assistance you must also place the expectation on yourself that you will be a source of assistance to others.

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7. Navigating the Federal Bureaucracy - Barbara King (2006)

One major aspect of successfully building a career with ARS is understanding how the ARS bureaucracy operates. Acronyms are just the beginning. More important is navigating the morass of rules and procedures without becoming disenchanted or frustrated. The seemingly endless protocols, forms, and approvals can be daunting, especially to new scientists. Mentors, by virtue of their experience are in a position to explain the internal workings of ARS, particularly the organizational structure at the national level. For example, the National Program Staff (NPS), the Office of Scientific Quality Review (OSQR), and the Office of Technology Transfer are three units whose activities directly affect research unit operations. If you and your match haven't yet discussed the role and impact of at least these three offices, now would be a good time to start those discussions.

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6. Balancing Work and Personal Time - Barbara King (2006)

Striking a balance between work and personal time can be an endless game of give and take with job demands, dual careers, and desires for family/personal time all seemingly in competition with one another. This balancing between work and personal time can be especially tricky for new scientists as they learn a new job, maneuver through a new bureaucratic structure, and possibly acclimate to a new community. While science can be an all-consuming profession, many employees seek a balanced lifestyle. New scientists may not have a firm grasp of what sorts of options are available, or how best to approach their supervisor about work:life conflicts. New scientists may be wary of broaching this topic with their RL, or with their mentor, although mentors should be comfortable in bringing up these topics with their proteges.

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5. Understanding the Federal Budget - Barbara King (2006)

The recent release of President Bush's budget recommendations to Congress have resulted in a flurry of media attention, with earmarks, rescissions, omni-bus bills, deficits, and entitlement programs the topic of many news stories and editorials. How the federal budget impacts ARS, and especially how earmarks, rescissions and omni-bus bills affect ARS is something that mentors can help proteges understand. Along with the budget implications, mentors are also in a position to describe to proteges the importance of customers/stakeholders, the ins and outs of working with customer groups and other interested parties, and the need to understand the various rules and regulations governing budget related activities.

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4. Bridging Career Goals and Responsible Research - Barbara King (2006)

The January topic discussed developing research agendas. This month, the research thread is once again raised, with the focus on responsible research. Responsible research entails a wide range of activities and practices, from organizational ethics to meaningful outcomes to individual career aspirations. The ARS Code of Scientific Ethics addresses the general parameters of responsible research. For instance, the importance of scientific debate, authorship issues, conflicts of interest, and the treatment of human and animal subjects are some of the issues included in the code. Additionally, the ARS web site provides linkages to overviews of ARS research as well as detailed descriptions of the entire ARS research enterprise. While those sites are very useful, conversations about organizational and professional ethics and how scientists resolve individual moral dilemmas can also be very useful. Mentors and prot?g?s can benefit by talking to one another and gaining insights, comparing experiences, and generally brainstorming.

The ARS code of ethics can be found at:; to learn about the ARS research structure, click on /Research/Research.htm. The link from the Indiana University several case studies dealing with moral dilemmas that can be used as a starting point for general discussions.

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3. Establishing a Research Agenda - Barbara King (2006)

Happy New Year! This is the third installment of "checking-in" topics for mentors and prot?g?s. One of the more critical planning stages for new scientists involves establishing a research agenda. The ARS structure, and general federal bureaucracy, can both help and perhaps hinder even the best intentioned plans. Developing thoughtful, well-conceived research agendas require time and patience, as well as a solid understanding of ARS guidelines and RPES expectations. Research leaders are a valuable resource, as are mentors. If you and your match haven't yet had conversations about how to go about laying-out a research agenda, now is a good time to start those discussions. At the same time, scientists are urged to give some thought to developing collaborations, learning about various publishing venues, crafting a writing style, and of course, answering the RPES questions always posed by Dr. Roos: "So what?", "What is the Impact?" and "Who cares?"

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2. Professional Development Plans - Barbara King (2005)

This is the second installment of the "checking-in" series.

With the calendar year rapidly drawing to a close, many prot?g?s will experience the ARS performance review system for the first time. Although mentors do not have a role in the evaluation process, they nevertheless are in a position to demystify the process and answer any questions or concerns prot?g?'s might have. The review process includes the Individual Development Plan (IDP). The IDP is an opportunity for employees to discuss with their supervisor the types of specialized training that might be valuable. For example, new scientists might be interested in supervisory classes through the Texas A&M Supervisory Academy or the OPM Management Development Centers, or the Congressional Briefing class (see the attached documents). The ARS Human Resources website also includes a listing of courses: Mentors might have recommendations concerning any of these courses or other courses not listed. Additionally, you might want to review the portion of the NASPDP document, especially the section on performance evaluations.

Best wishes for a restful Thanksgiving.

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1. Collegiality - Barbara King (2005)

From time to time I will send an email message to all pairs as a "check-in" and include a suggested topic for mentors and prot?g?s to pursue. Hopefully each of you has been able to make contact with your "match" and that a meaningful conversation has been started. If that conversation hasn't yet started, give me a call or email me.

The "Getting Started" document provides one sketch of how mentor and prot?g? relationships develop over time. Collegiality is one topic that was listed in the Building Trust phase. For new employees, the direction a relationship takes with co-workers is often established during the first several months of employment. Getting along with your supervisor is just one relationship. Working together with support staff - managerial, technical, clerical, and custodial - is also critical. At the same time, ARS scientists are expected to forge positive relationships with customers, focus groups, faculty, and other scientists. Additionally, scientists will likely have supervisory responsibilities, and may not have had any previous supervisory experience. Mentors will probably have their own stories and strategies and advice on what steps to take to enhance collegiality as well as what pitfalls to avoid, and have some advice on supervision. If you and your partner haven't addressed collegiality, now is a good time to begin that discussion.

As always, if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions, please give me a call or send me an email.

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Last Modified: 8/13/2016
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