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NPA Core Competencies
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Download the complete Core Competencies document: Core Competencies.

Download the competencies checklist: Competency checklist.


Six Core Competencies | How to Use Document | Life-Long Learning | Examples of Potential Uses

Training Methods | Evaluation | Resources | Reading List


Rationale for Core Competencies

In an era of increasing complexity for the research enterprise, postdoctoral scholars pursue professional opportunities not only in academia but also in industry, government, nonprofits, and entrepreneurship. The variety of career options available today demands a diverse array of skills, such as writing grant proposals and CVs or mastering the principles of effective resource management, that are often neglected during doctoral study and postdoctoral research. The postdoctoral experience will be more relevant to career and professional development if the scholar seeks or is offered opportunities to acquire, maintain, or improve such skills.[1] The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has established six core competencies to offer guidance to individual postdoctoral scholars who must seek out relevant training experiences, in collaboration with mentors, institutions, and other advisors who provide this training. "Competency" has been defined as "an acquired personal skill that is demonstrated in [one's] ability to provide a consistently adequate or high level of performance in a specific job function."[2] These competencies are meant to serve primarily as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars, and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors.

Click on one of the core competencies below OR begin reading here to view the description and resources for each competency.

The six core competencies are:

1. Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge
2. Research skill development
3. Communication skills
4. Professionalism
5. Leadership and management skills
6. Responsible conduct of research


How to Use The Core Competencies

The goal of a postdoctoral fellowship is to provide the training necessary for the postdoctoral scholar to achieve intellectual and professional independence and success. This toolkit was developed to provide definition for the scholar and his/her support community as to the competencies essential to achieving this independence. Some of these competencies will have been acquired during graduate training. Thus, some aspects of the competencies will describe refinements of skills already achieved, and some will represent new or advanced skills.


Life-long Learning: A Customized Approach

Life-long learning is essential to career independence and success and requires on-going self evaluation. Throughout the postdoctoral fellowship training period, scholars should continuously refer to the competencies to measure their own desired goal and skill acquisition.

Postdoctoral training will be experienced in a variety of ways as a result of the singular aspects of the postdoctoral appointment, such as the focus on research over coursework or on other skills relevant to the individual's intended professional outcome, as well as the integral role of the supervisor and the diversity of graduate training among postdoctoral scholars. Roughly half of such scholars have received their Ph.D. degrees outside the United States and, thus, they may begin the postdoctoral training period with strengths and challenges that vary from those of U.S.-trained scholars.[3] As such, the six core competencies are not intended to be prescriptive or limiting. They are provided as a resource to be used and adapted in a variety of ways by the many stakeholders involved in the training experience of postdoctoral scholars.


Examples of Potential Uses of the Competencies

  • Postdoctoral scholars can use the competencies as a basis for self-evaluation and to determine areas for their own self-improvement.
  • Investigators can incorporate training in these skills into mentoring activities or group meetings. They can also use the competencies as a framework for a formal postdoctoral training plan, a requirement for all NSF grants supporting postdoctoral scholars. Some topics could be incorporated into faculty professional development to encourage their use in informal training situations with postdoctoral scholars.
  • Postdoctoral scholars' office leaders can develop professional development programs around the competency areas.
  • Institutions can play a more substantive role in the training of postdoctoral scholars by adopting an overarching curriculum of training opportunities.
  • Institutions responsible for the development of graduate curricula could use the competencies as a template for preparing graduate students so that they can continue their training in these areas as postdoctoral scholars.
  • Disciplinary societies can tailor their programming and the services they offer to their postdoctoral scholar constituents to enhance these competencies.
  • Those providing resources to the postdoctoral community could use the competencies as a guide for their content.

Training Methods: Combining Formal and Informal Methods

A key component to the postdoctoral experience is the mentoring received from postdoctoral supervisors. Many of the skills outlined in this document can be acquired using informal methods such as one-on-one mentoring, journal clubs, informal chalk talks, and group meetings. The latter also provide the opportunity for "mentoring ladders" or multi-generational learning, as undergraduate and graduate students can learn alongside the postdoctoral scholars. One on one instruction however may not be feasible in today's large interdisciplinary research groups and with demanding schedules. Nor is it prudent to assume that every mentor will have the mastery required to teach all of these topics. Therefore, formal instruction is an important complement to informal methods.

Effective formal teaching methods must conform to the individual postdoctoral scholar's optimal learning style and the technological limits of the institution. No one didactic method works for all members of an audience. Many trainees benefit from accessible, individualized online courses while others would benefit from focused group discussions or didactic lectures. Consequently, trainers must be prepared to use multiple teaching methods, for example, brownbag lunch seminars, interactive workshops, podcasts and tele/videoconferences, or guest lecture seminars, to deliver critical information. Reinforcement of subject matter using different teaching formats may be organized into a series of frequently-scheduled courses, seminars, or workshops.



One of the most important uses of the Core Competencies is to provide a framework for constructive evaluation and feedback. The diversity of competencies and skills outlined in this document can be evaluated using a number of mechanisms including informal feedback on particular skills, formal job evaluations, an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and other training program assessments. It is not the intent of this document to outline or list evaluation methods. Rather, the document should be used to help the fellow proactively create a balanced portfolio of structured oversight and self-assessment through input from advisors, mentors, peers and colleagues. The NPA Core Competencies enforce the notion that the successful transition to intellectual and professional independence depends on the individual's responsibility to embrace self-assessment and to apply it to all the Core Competencies.


[1] According to the 2004-2005 Sigma Xi postdoc survey of U.S. postdoctoral scholars: "Postdocs who reported the highest levels of oversight and professional development [including training in many of the competencies noted herein] were more satisfied, gave their advisors higher ratings, reported fewer conflicts with their advisors, and were more productive than those reporting the lowest levels." Davis, G. 2005. Doctors without orders. American Scientist 93(3, supplement). (accessed 06/24/2009)
[2] BNET Business dictionary

[3] Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey results (accessed 08/12/2008)


Prepared by the NPA Core Competencies Committee (2007-2009) (see appendix for list of committee members)



Special acknowledgement and thanks to Jennifer Hobin, Ph.D. formerly of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for adapting and condensing the Core Competencies so that they can be better used for an online toolkit. Our version differs slightly from hers.

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