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Incorporating Professional Development into Postdoctoral Training
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Rachel Mulheren


Postdoctoral scholars need to develop skills beyond the technical focus of their research. Networking, communication, career planning, teaching, grant writing and other professional development skills can help postdocs get and excel in a job in any area. However, making time in a busy schedule is a challenge, and some postdocs face pressure from their supervisors to engage only on their project during work hours. Others aren’t comfortable asking for time to attend events that occur during the day. But with some strategic planning, postdocs can build in time to cultivate skills that will prepare them for future positions. And PIs and institutions that support postdoc professional development might even discover some benefits for themselves.


Institutions, PIs, and postdocs might first look at the goals of a postdoctoral position. Cathee Johnson Phillips, MA, former executive director of the NPA, said that a postdoc should be viewed “…as a time of professional development and growth in regard to lifelong learning and critical skills such as communication, professional etiquette, leadership and management, and responsible conduct of research.” Guided by this definition, postdocs can be better prepared to ask about professional development opportunities as early as the interview stage so that they can select a supportive institution and PI. Even though a new postdoc may be undecided as to what type of job to eventually pursue, incorporating professional development into a training plan will prepare postdocs for jobs in academia, industry, and other careers.


Individual postdocs must be proactive in figuring out how to fit professional development into their training period. In a 2011 survey from Australia, 72 percent of postdocs reported that their mentors were not broaching the subject of their professional development and that the postdocs were unfamiliar with the professional development review by their institutions. PIs can provide insight from their own experience, and it never hurts to ask them for advice and training opportunities. Establishing secondary mentors in a variety of institutions and job fields can also be a great way to learn from the experiences of others.


Developing skills with help from the NPA


The NPA offers several resources for career planning and skill development. The new myPostdoc Monthly series covers a variety of relevant skills—NPA members can watch archived webinars or join live on the first Wednesday of each month. (Not a member? Check if you’re eligible for free Affiliate membership through your institution.) In addition to these resources, postdocs can join an NPA committee to contribute to new ideas and build new skills and experience.

In some cases, a PI may be reluctant to allow postdocs time away from research. If there is concern that in-person professional development events might detract from research time, postdocs can ask to make up for missed research time. In addition, electronic resources such as recorded webinars and online resources can be viewed any time. Postdocs can also make a case for how professional development benefits their current PIs. For example, training can help postdocs develop independence to become more effective leaders in their current positions. Skills such as grant-writing and collaborations can also directly benefit PIs. Learning how to present their work at professional meetings or improve writing skills enables postdocs to serve as capable representatives for their PIs.


Institutions also stand to gain by providing such opportunities. In a 2013 survey of postdoc ratings, professional development opportunities were noted as a strength of several highly-ranked institutions. Many institutions offer general professional development guidance in areas such as CV/resume building, research presentation, scientific communication, job interviewing, and career fairs. By providing ample training opportunities in these areas, institutions can be more competitive in attracting qualified postdocs. Institutions can also track career success from former postdocs to justify training in these skills.


Postdoctoral associations can advocate on behalf of postdocs so that PIs understand the importance of professional development and allow time for training. In fact, the Council on Financial Assistance Reform, an interagency group tasked with policy leadership for U.S. federal grants, has stated that postdocs are allowed time to pursue skills outside of their research. Speaking up may be more challenging for some individuals, in which case they can use their institutional postdoc associations or the NPA as references in discussion with their PIs. Postdoctoral associations can also work with professional development and career offices to tailor events to fit the needs of postdocs with diverse career interests.


A great starting place for figuring out which skills you need to develop and a timeline for doing so is an individual development plan, or IDP (for example, see this guide or myIDP). The first step is to complete a self-assessment of skills, values, and interests that can help narrow down suitable career paths. Next, postdocs set strategic goals to build any missing skills necessary to succeed in the career(s) of interest.


Asking for input from the lab PI is important, because it will help postdocs gain buy-in from the PI and ultimately increase chances of success. The plan is formalized in writing and is used to guide the postdoc’s activities for the next year. Of course, the IDP is fluid and needs to be updated periodically as skills are acquired or plans change.


In summary, here are a few suggestions for how to plan postdoc professional development:

  1. Find out about professional development opportunities offered by your institution, nearby institutions, or national organizations.
  2. Find out how much time your PI will allow for career development outside of the lab as early as possible, even during the interview.
  3. Provide concrete examples of how professional development has or will benefit you AND your PI.
  4. In collaboration with the lab PI, create an IDP to lay out a plan for what kind of training you need to accomplish during your postdoc.

As professional development is a critical component of postdoctoral training, postdocs must advocate for themselves while institutions and PIs must endorse the need for training outside of the lab. As Doug Lederman puts it, “…it is up to individual scientists and their universities to ensure that their postdocs get the training they need. It's important for postdocs, individual researchers and universities to work together.”


Rachel Mulheren, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Kennedy Krieger Institute. She is a member of the NPA Advocacy Committee and co-chairs the Policy and Advocacy Committee for the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association.


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