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NPA Holds First Ever Summit on Postdoc Women's Career Advancement

By Kathleen Flint, Ph.D., NPA ADVANCE Project Manager

The NPA recently held the National Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Summit was the first event of its kind to examine the postdoctoral stage of women's careers and consider the key factors influencing their transition to independent investigator positions. Sessions focused on both the challenges facing women postdoctoral scholars (postdocs) as well as possible solutions for retaining them in academia, such as implementing family-friendly postdoc policies, improving mentoring, and training in career and professional development.

The Summit was held on March 10-11, 2010, immediately preceding the NPA's eighth Annual Meeting. The Summit drew nearly 140 participants from a range of stakeholders, including faculty and administrators, postdoc office and association leaders, professional society and agency staff, postdocs and gradua

te students. This diverse audience fostered dynamic discussions and produced constructive ideas for promoting postdoctoral women's advancement.

Day One: Introducing the Issues and the Key Players

The Summit opened with welcomes from Stacy Gelhaus, chair of the NPA Board of Directors, and Kelly Mack, ADVANCE program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Gelhaus, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, shared anecdotes from he

r own experiences which highlighted the continuing concerns of women's underrepresentation in science and balancing career and family. Mack welcomed the postdocs in the audience, noting that "it is the nation's postdoctorate that both represents and encapsulates the essence of a millennial generation of scientists." She cited a recent study of millennial women employees, which showed that they prioritize quality of life, meaningful work and flexibility. This generation of workers will also become increasingly diverse, with the majority of the U.S. workforce soon to be women, black and Latino.  Therefore, she enjoined participants to broaden their discussions to include issues of underrepresentation and diversity. [See highlights from Dr. Mack's remarks]

The first plenary panel, "Postdoc Women and the Academic Pipeline: Stories from the Trenches," featured perspectives from the key stakeholders in the postdoctoral community: postdoc, faculty and institution. Postdoctoral scholar Elizabeth Freeland from Washington University at St. Louis shared the story of her family-motivated career break following receipt of her Ph.D. in physics and the subsequent challenges and successes she experienced in returning to research. She was followed by Catherine Mavriplis, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Ottawa, who reflected on her own career path through the postdoc to the tenure track and shared career advice for postdocs seeking permanent positions. Finally, Sibby Anderson-Thompkins provided the institutional perspective on the policies and support needed by postdoc women, drawing on her experience as the director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Panelists also shared some initial recommendations for both individuals and institutions, such as: establishing a family-friendly culture; taking advantage of mentoring and professional development opportunities; and supporting flexibility in the "postdoc clock," the typical timescale designated for the duration of postdoc appointments and for "early-career" funding eligibility, which could be negatively impacted by family events. [See "Postdoc Women and the Academic Pipeline: Stories from the Trenches" presentation slides]

In her keynote dinner address, Kathie Olsen, senior advisor and former deputy director of the NSF, gave a retrospective on how the academic career path and the concerns for women have changed (and not changed) over the last thirty years. She pointed out a number of issues that remain to be addressed, such as the lengthening time to the tenure track, gender-based salary disparities, and the continuing lack of representation of women on the tenure track. She also noted that the important factors for success as a postdoc are in fact the same factors for all scientists, men and women, such as mentoring, obtaining funding and grants, and having direction and vision. Fostering these success factors, however, is especially important for postdoc women who are more likely than postdoc men to leave the academic career path. [See Dr. Olsen's presentation slides]

Day Two: Reviewing the Data and Understanding the Challenges

The second day of the Summit began with an examination of the data on postdocs and their career paths. Amber Budden, a postdoc at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, described gender and family-status differences in the postdoctoral experience evidenced in the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey data. These differences included women submitting fewer publications, men being more likely to view their advisor as a mentor, and postdoc parents working fewer hours and having been postdocs longer. NSF senior statistician Jeri Mulrow presented an overview of NSF's current data on postdocs and its future plans to improve these data with the upcoming Postdoc Data Project. The Postdoc Data Project will gather nation-wide data on domestic and international postdocs, giving a first-ever accurate count as well as information about postdocs' career issues and experiences. [See "Data on Postdocs and Gender: What Do We Know?" presentation slides]

The second panel was a session entitled "Why do Postdoc Women Leave the Academic Career Pipeline?" where speakers presented evidence for the diminishing numbers of postdoc women continuing their pursuit of independent investigator positions and the reasons they might opt against this career path. According to speakers, the relative fraction of women scientists and engineers shows a significant drop between the Ph.D. and the faculty tenure track, and the primary factor influencing this drop appears to be family formation. Donna Ginther, professor of economics at the University of Kansas, has found that the biggest impact on women's likelihood of getting a tenure-track job is having children during the postdoc. However, the possible reasons why, such as differences in productivity, job choices, or institutional barriers, require further study. Mary Ann Mason, professor of law at UC Berkeley, reported that issues relating to children were the most common reasons cited by postdoc women for changing their career goal away from becoming a research-focused professor. Moreover, postdoc women who have had children since becoming a postdoc were significantly more likely to decide against the professoriate compared with men who have also had children and women with no plans to have children. She went on to highlight the important role family-responsive policies and support structures could play in retaining postdocs. NIH research fellow Diana Stavreva identified a second key issue for postdoc women's retention: lack of confidence. A study conducted by the NIH taskforce on the status of intramural women scientists found that, in spite of feeling their professional preparation was adequate, postdoc women are less confident than postdoc men that they will obtain a principal investigator position and tenure. Other factors identified were feelings of isolation, lack of mentoring, as well as general concern about the academic job market due to decreasing tenure-track openings. [See "Why do Postdoc Women Leave the Academic Career Pipeline?" presentation slides]

A working lunch marked the transition to presenters discussing what can be done to retain postdoc women in academia. NPA project manager Kathleen Flint briefly introduced NPA ADVANCE, the NPA's NSF-funded project to promote promising practices for women making the postdoc-to-faculty transition. She also presented some preliminary data collected on promising institutional practices for postdocs. Her remarks were followed by a presentation from Alice Hogan, who shared an overview of promising practices and lessons learned from her time as the first program director of the NSF's ADVANCE program. The working lunch concluded with small-group discussions, where participants discussed with those at their table a series of prepared questions and developed group responses. Questions topics included creative ways to keep a research project going while a postdoc goes on parental leave and how individuals can begin to change their institutional culture to value both excellence and work-life balance (e.g., "having it all"). [See Working Lunch presentation slides]

Breakout Sessions: Focusing on What We Can Do

Afternoon sessions focused on examples of promising practices, with three parallel sessions on retaining postdoc women through: mentoring; career and professional development; and effective postdoctoral policies.

The session on mentoring presented some practical approaches for mentoring postdoc women. Speakers shared steps that institutions can take to foster healthy mentoring relationships as well as steps individual postdocs can take to find a mentor and to manage their own careers. Joan Lakoski, associate dean for postdoctoral education at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, discussed the continuum of a postdoc's mentoring life cycle and shared recommendations for how institutions can create a "culture of mentoring." These recommendations included ways in which the institution also benefits from effective mentoring, such as recruiting and developing the next generation of leaders. Donna Ginther presented a promising mentoring model for junior faculty that could be readily adaptable for postdocs. The mentoring workshops utilized a group-mentoring approach of junior and senior researchers and participants came with a publication "in progress" as a starting point for their discussions. Donna Dean, senior science advisor with Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, shared mentoring advice for the individual postdoc as well as insights on how everyone can contribute to a mentoring-friendly institutional environment. Postdocs must take an active and deliberate role in their career planning, she emphasized. [See "Retaining Postdoc Women through Mentoring" presentation slides]

Career and Professional Development
Panelists in the breakout session on career and professional development presented a series of tools and opportunities for postdoc women. Catherine Mavriplis described a long-standing workshop series for grad students and postdocs on the key elements of the professorship: FORWARD to Professorship.  She and her collaborators are also promoting the establishment of these workshops at other institutions by offering seed grants and train-the-trainers opportunities. She was followed by Phil Clifford, associate dean for postdoctoral education at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who presented an overview of the individual development plan (IDP) and its usefulness for postdoc women to develop and maintain a plan for their career. The IDP is a flexible tool that can be institutionalized to provide a framework for communication and feedback between postdocs and their supervisors, but can also benefit the individual postdoc who seeks to use the IDP on his or her own. The session concluded with remarks from Janet Bandows Koster, executive director of the Association for Women in Science, on the important role professional societies have played in providing professional development opportunities for their members, and how it is especially important for junior members, like postdocs, to take advantage of these. [See "Retaining Postdoc Women with Professional and Career Development" presentation slides]

Postdoctoral Policies
The session "Retaining Postdoc Women through Effective Postdoctoral Policies" focused on the institutional environment and the importance of policies and other infrastructure in supporting postdoc women. First, Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean for biomedical research, education and training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, described some of the innovative postdoctoral policies at Vanderbilt. These included an IDP required of all postdocs, the provision of a full-time psychological counselor for postdocs, and a minimum of six weeks paid maternity leave available in addition to sick and annual leave. He also touched upon some of the challenges in maintaining such policies, such as the classification of postdocs as employees or students. The session concluded with Helen Mederer, professor of sociology and anthropology at University of Rhode Island (URI), who shared her experience with URI's ADVANCE program to establish family-friendly policies and programs for faculty. In particular, she described the philosophical framework as well as the business case they developed for the importance of parental leave and dual-career hiring assistance for all faculty (men and women). She stressed that both the philosophical and business cases were critical components in their strategies for institutional change. [See "Retaining Postdoc Women through Effective Postdoctoral Policies" presentation slides]

Wrapping Up: What are the Next Steps?

Throughout the Summit, presenters recommended a number of promising practices for aiding postdoc women to transition to the professoriate. These included recommendations for institutions, such as establishing paid parental leave policies available to all postdocs and ensuring compliance with Title IX prohibitions on discrimination due to pregnancy or family status; for funding agencies, such as extending financial support and flexibility to postdocs experiencing family events and working with institutions to provide national leadership on these issues; and for professional societies, such as fostering networking and mentoring opportunities for early-career researchers.

The final session concluded with recommendations for individuals as well, noting the importance of the individual in any effort to change institutional culture. Discussant Lara Shamieh, a postdoc at the University of Washington, shared her perspective on the Summit's discussions that cultural change will have to begin from the "grassroots" and we all have to do our part. Robert Tillman, director of faculty professional development at Columbia University Medical Center, echoed this view, noting that, "We are the institution."

These recommendations and other promising practices discussed during the Summit will appear in a resource book under development by NPA ADVANCE to be released in 2011. Summit participants and those interested in continuing these dialogues are invited to join the NPA ADVANCE project listserv. 


As part of NPA ADVANCE, the summit is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0819994. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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