Insights to Inspire: Building Real Connections: Recruiting Future Clinical Researchers

Three young researchers smile while standing with arms folded in a medical office.

For CTSA Program hubs, supporting and promoting the career development of their trainees and scholars can be a lengthy process. Before a hub can evaluate the success of their TL1 or KL2 educational training programs, before trainees or scholars can receive effective mentoring, every hub has to take the first step: recruiting researchers into the program. 

As a part of the Insights to Inspire 2020 series, a number of hubs who demonstrated improvement in the Careers in Clinical and Translational Science Common Metric emphasized the importance of recruitment. These hubs found success through coordinated efforts focused on both cultivation and relationship building. 

Program Champions 

One of the most important ways for hubs to spread the word about training programs is by working within their home institution. The Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research at the University of Michigan (MICHR) uses “champions” to help promote its TL1 program. Brenda Eakin, Program Director for Education and Mentoring at the MICHR, says champions are university faculty with whom hub staff have developed collaborative relationships. For example, staff members may stay in contact with faculty members who have written letters of support for previous applicants. Once those relationships are established, the champions continue to connect potential trainees to MICHR staff. MICHR also schedules informational sessions to recruit pre-doctoral students to their programs including those in fields such as biomedical engineering and nursing. More recently the program has even begun reaching out to art disciplines across campus, as Eakin noted the arts can be helpful in engaging communities in research and bringing attention to clinical and translational science. 

Similarly, the Indiana University CTSI works with “navigators” to provide outreach to trainees and promote translational research to a wide array of training programs across campuses, according to TL1 Principal Investigator Thomas Hurley. “As much as anything else I think it’s the penetration into all aspects of training that allows us to recruit a diverse pool to start with,” Hurley said. 

Personal Interactions and Positive Experiences 

Relationship development with faculty and staff at home institutions and at partner organizations can take time. Recently established hubs also need to provide both outreach and promotion as they establish partnerships.  While a robust marketing strategy – including emails, newsletters and flyers – is important, the highlighted hubs agreed that face-to-face interactions are critical. 

Kathlynn Wray, Program Coordinator for the Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science’s KL2 Program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, says it’s important for hub leaders to make the effort – to start those face-to-face interactions, to go to faculty meetings, to meet with department heads, to get the message out there. “It’s been on the shoulders of the Directors, the CTSA Leadership – the PIs – to talk to their colleagues about it,” Wray said. “It was them literally talking to people and saying ‘Hey, we’ve got this program. Do you know what it is?’” 

Another powerful tool for recruitment comes in the form of positive word of mouth from scholars or trainees who have completed the program. “I can tell them all the great things and benefits of the program but when they hear from another med student who has gone through the training how they’re using those skill sets and how they’re making them a better physician – that’s a lot more empowering than a flyer or promotional video,” Project Administrator Adisa Kalkan said of the TL1 program at the Clinical Research Training Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.  

Catarina Kiefe, Program Director of Mentored Career Development at UMass’s KL2 program, agreed with hub leaders that it is especially important to show women and underrepresented applicants there are people like them at a hub, and then to help them form connections and networks. Creating a supportive environment means it’s critical for institutions to place a priority on providing representation by hiring diverse candidates for faculty and leadership positions to serve as role models. “I think women speaking to women, especially about issues related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and research, that’s really powerful,” Eakin said. “We make a real concerted effort so scholars can see themselves in the faculty mentors we have.”  

The environment must also be welcoming, collaborative and ensure that recruits have what they need to flourish.  Hub leaders say if recruits have a positive experience it increases the likelihood that program graduates will endorse and promote it by word of mouth. Nate Hafer, Director of Operations at the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science, said people at the hub go out of their way to welcome new members of the KL2 training program, and to help them get connected to key resources so they can get started on the right foot. “I think that can be very important for people to get networked into the organization so they don’t feel like they’re wandering around,” Hafer said.  

Building a Partnership 

Similarly, Wray said it’s about truly being there for scholars and trainees, about trying to understand how the hub can help them and what they need to succeed instead of simply asking what are their deliverables and what can they do for the hub. “It becomes much more of a partnership,” Wray said. “They know they can come to us with any issue they’re having. They know they can come to us and we’re going to help them find a solution, not just pass them off.” 

That support can take the form of insisting on institutional support for scholars and trainees. At San Antonio, KL2 Principal Investigator Joel Tsevat implemented a requirement that departments commit to a third year of support for scholars so that their research time is protected. 

Another successful approach at the University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science is providing support to applicants who aren’t selected on their first application to either the KL2 or TL1 programs, according to Director Philip Kern. Victoria King, Director of Career Development at Kentucky, said the hub often works to help refine rejected applications for future rounds. “There’s been a number of times when a slot is open when we select someone but realize someone else is really strong, and we’ve gone to bat for these people to help get them protected time and other resources,” Kern said. 

Once someone has become interested enough to consider applying, all the hubs interviewed stressed the importance and success of taking an individualized approach to working with that applicant. “When I tried to recruit people I tried to listen to them and make them understand I’m interested in them as a person and want to learn from them. It’s an issue of setting the right tone when trying to recruit somebody,” said Kiefe. 

In addition to working with recruits themselves, several hubs noted their success in working with partner organizations outside their home institutions. The recruitment pool for Indiana University’s pre- and post-doctoral training programs includes scholars and trainees from the hub’s home institution as well as Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame. The MICHR has also had success recruiting underrepresented persons by forming partnerships with the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Alabama. 

All the advice shared by the highlighted hubs centered around two distinct but intertwined ideas: partnerships and connectedness. Building a successful recruiting strategy means building successful partnerships, which, for recruits, can best be done by making them feel like a part of the community and institution. It can take different forms, such as working with institutional faculty outside the hub, program graduates, or applicants themselves. But just as in clinical and translational science, collaboration is the key to success.