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The POSTDOCket, June 2019
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Writing Group at Rush University Medical Center

by Simona Radice

group of fist together over computers on work table

How does a writing group help: People / Pexels

Being a productive writer in the world of academia is of undeniable importance, especially for postdoctoral scholars developing their careers. Be it grants or peer-reviewed publications, postdocs better make writing their friend—as the “publish or perish” motto reinforces—and this is what a writing group is for. Postdoctoral scholars at the Rush University Medical Center (RUMC, Chicago, IL) meet once a week for one hour of writing and related discussions.

The current group is composed of a core of seven active participants, including both faculty members and postdocs—providing postdocs the unique opportunity to exchange both peer-to-peer and faculty-to-postdoc feedback.

The Writing Group at RUMC was initiated in 2010 by the mentees of the Rush mentoring program of the Faculty Affairs Department, under the lead of Kharma C. Foucher, MD. In 2014, The Writing Group was opened to postdoctoral scholars, and it has been successfully driven by faculty leaders Hannah Lundberg, PhD, and Kristen Haut, PhD. The Writing Group consists of ten-week sessions that are sequentially run throughout the year with two-week breaks in between each session. The sessions usually occur midafternoon; to help curb any afternoon “hunger spells,” snacks and soft drinks are provided every week by the department’s project coordinator, Jeannette Hui, MPH.

Many postdocs would never admit to needing a writing group, until they tried one. Maybe writing seems easy—a task that they feel they have mastered after completing their thesis; for other people writing may have always been the most difficult, dreaded part of science. Regardless, it generally becomes critical for anyone working to research a single topic for several months or even a few years; they must write to communicate their work. At a certain point after having focused so deeply on one topic, the brain seems to seize up like an engine without oil, or (if you are not an engineer) like a fish out of water. Suddenly, writing even a five-hundred-word abstract feels like climbing a mountain! In this mind set, it is easy to wonder, how would The Writing Group at RUMC help? The most straightforward answer is simple: people! The group makes writing an activity that takes place between friends, one could say.

After this initial exchange, the rest of the hour is spent writing or reading in a friendly and focus-enhancing atmosphere.

At the start of each ten-week writing session of The Writing Group, every participant identifies their goal(s) for that session, considering work priorities and submission deadlines. For example: one person might want to have an article draft ready for co-authors to revise; another might need to have a grant ready to be submitted. At the same time, they set goals for the first week. Week by week the goals are reviewed and revised as work is accomplished. This approach allows for gradual progress in writing, as if one were taking regenerative breaks and checking the path on a map while climbing a mountain. Each person’s goals, along with “expected challenges” and “accomplishments,” are documented in the columns of a shared Google spreadsheet, a simple and easily accessible device where everyone is able to manage their own data. Additional personal sheets may be added into the spreadsheet for monitoring writing progress, for example by recording the number of words per day.

In the first fifteen to thirty minutes of our meeting, each participant shares their work; this is a precious chance to receive feedback, motivation, or hear advice from friends and colleagues. For instance, if a participant is overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a review article, The Writing Group might encourage them to get help from a librarian at their institute when collecting peer-reviewed manuscripts for the article. Or if they have been trying to write but have not accomplished their goals, sharing their frustration out loud with the other Writing Group participants will help them to feel their frustration get diffused in the room, by laughing about it all together and knowing they are not alone! After this initial exchange, the rest of the hour is spent writing or reading in a friendly and focus-enhancing atmosphere.

The structure and ideas behind The RUMC Writing Group is based on the skinny but substantive book: “How to Write a Lot ̶ A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing,” by Paul J. Silva. The message is clear: “Writing is a skill, not an innate gift or a special talent.” In The RUMC Writing Group, participants learn and practice how making a schedule, set clear goals, keep track of their work, reward work done, and build good habits. Multiple members of The Writing Group have found that a common issue for postdocs is to set aside a consistent time in the day for writing.

notepad and pen ready to write with coffee

Make writing part of your daily routine/ Pexels

Jonathan A. Gustafson, PhD, shared a great method for integrating the habit of writing into a busy daily schedule with The Writing Group: “One strategy I have taken to help make myself a little more productive with my writing is to add writing to my ‘morning routine.’ I have a morning habit of waking up early, making a pot of coffee and cooking myself breakfast. I like to sit down, eat and enjoy my coffee for about 30 minutes in the morning. Now, I have added writing to this schedule, where I open up my laptop while I eat and drink my coffee and work on writing content or work on paper revisions. This helps incorporate writing into my routine, as opposed to trying to start a new writing schedule, which is hard.”

The Writing Group is a successful activity held on a weekly basis at the RUMC that provides essential support for the career development of postdocs. This model of writing group is also easily replicable, so other postdoc groups can meet up to set their own writing goals and enjoy the climb together!

Simona Radice, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of tribology of the Orthopedic Surgery Department at RUMC, and an active member of the RUMC postdoctoral committee.

The Academic Job Interview: Three Do’s and Don’ts When Preparing for A Teaching Demonstration

by Barbi Honeycutt

women pointing in teaching gesture

Preparing for a teaching demonstration/ Pexels - edited

Most faculty job interviews include a research presentation and a teaching demonstration as part of the on-campus interview process. Postdoctoral scholars are experts in research. They know how to design experiments, test ideas and hypotheses, and analyze the findings. But while a postdoc may feel confident and prepared for a research presentation, the same person may not feel as prepared for the teaching demonstration.

This is especially true if the academic institution has not provided opportunities to gain teaching experience in graduate school or during your postdoc appointment.

This article explores three tips to consider in preparing for your teaching demonstration to feel confident and ready to ace this part of the interview!

First, what is the teaching demonstration?

There are two main types of teaching demonstrations: the “in class” demonstration and the “open” demonstration. If asked to give an “in class” demonstration, the postdoc will be the guest lecturer for students in an actual course and will teach in their classroom. The topic will most likely relate to the course material and fit into the course syllabus.

In an “open” demonstration, the postdoc will be teaching to a mixed audience that may include undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and campus leaders. The audience will have been uniquely invited and have volunteered to attend. The topic will most likely relate to the postdoc’s research or a course they would likely teach in that department. The “classroom” will probably be a conference room.

Be authentic. Show them who you are as a teacher and what kind of colleague you will be.

There are pros and cons to both formats and every department will do things differently. Make sure to know the type of teaching demonstration expected and learn as much as possible about the audience before the campus visit.

Here are a few ideas to consider in preparing a teaching demonstration.

Three Do’s and Don’ts When Preparing for A Teaching Demonstration:

1. Do teach. Don’t give a presentation.

Search committees want to see how faculty candidates facilitate students’ learning. Teaching is about organizing complex information and helping students make sense of it. Two common mistakes are to give a presentation about how to teach or to try to impress the audience/students with a breath-taking breadth of knowledge about the topic. In a winning teaching demonstration, the presenter will shift the focus from themselves and demonstrate their skill of knowing how to create an environment where the audience/students feel comfortable, engaged, and ready to learn.

Search committees want to see how you connect with and engage students. Unlike a presentation, a teaching demonstration should be more of a dialog; if a postdoc is delivering a lecture they could give without any students in the room, they need to re-think the approach. Don’t talk “at” students the whole time. Talk “with” students, and give them time to talk with each other. The teaching demonstration is different than teaching a course because it’s a one-time event. The “teacher” most likely will not know any of the students, and have to figure out how to establish rapport while also demonstrating how effectively they teach.

3. Do use an active learning strategy. But, don’t do something you’ve never done before.

In planning a teaching session, integrate at least one active learning strategy to engage students. However, this is not the time to experiment with an entirely new teaching strategy. It is hard to feel or demonstrate confidence if the outcome is unknowable, so it is important to use a teaching strategy previously tried in a classroom, or with a group of friends and colleagues. The goal is to provide guided active participation by conveying confidence and authority, and not to suggest things in the classroom will be out of control under your leadership.

Active learning style plot

Source: The Active Learning Group

Final Tips:

Remember, an invitation to teach at a campus, is an admission of status on the final list of candidates. Getting this invitation is a cause for celebration! The search committee members have chosen a select group of postdocs they feel have the capacity to be a good fit for their department. They have invested time and resources and they want to cement a relationship.

Be authentic. Show them who you are as a teacher and what kind of colleague you will be.

For more tips to help prepare for a successful teaching demonstration and a list of questions to ask before visiting the campus, download the free Teaching Demonstration Success Guide.

Barbi Honeycutt, PhD, is a teaching and learning consultant in higher education. She is a speaker, scholar, and author. Honeycutt teaches online professional development courses, facilitates in-person workshops, and creates resources to help higher education professionals increase student engagement and improve learning. Learn more at

H-1B Visa Program Changes in the United States: What to Expect Now and in the Future?

By Brendan Delaney and Sudha Krishnamurthy

The word VISA under a magnifying glass

Taking a close look at changes to the H-1B visa program

The H-1B visa is a professional work visa that is used by many researchers and other professionals working temporarily in the United States. Recently, changes affecting certain H-1B visas were announced. These changes do not affect current postdoctoral scholars working at a university or nonprofit research organization. However, with over fifty percent of the approximate 80–100,000 postdocs in the country being international, this immigration policy change can have a substantial effect on the career planning and job search process of these international postdocs. In this article we discuss the most common work visa, the H-1B, the new changes going into effect next year and the implications for international postdocs who intend to remain in the United States.

The H-1B Visa Process Now

The U.S. federal government has over the last two years or more focused significant efforts in changing how the H-1B visas are reviewed and adjudicated. Now, additional changes to the registration and filing process of these visas are being implemented.

For purposes of the H-1B “cap” (a term commonly used to refer to the maximum number of available H-1B visas per year), the U.S. Congress currently limits the number of H-1B visas available in a fiscal year to 65,000 (with an additional 20,000 visas available to individuals who receive a master’s degree or higher from an accredited U.S. university). However, not all H-1B visas are subject to the cap. Individuals who have previously counted towards the cap are cap-exempt upon renewal. Furthermore, universities and governmental and nonprofit research organizations are cap exempt. It is important to note that currently cap-exempt H-1B visa holders cannot use their current H-1B visa to begin employment with an employer that is subject to the cap; one must obtain cap-subject H-1B visas to work with a cap-subject employer. The designation of individual employers of (i.e., being recognized as “cap-subject” or “cap-exempt”) can at times be complex. Caution should be taken to confirm whether or not a potential employer is in a position to file an H-1B on your behalf at a given time.

April 1 and October 1 are dates of particular importance to H-1B visa holders. The relationship that the H-1B visa has to April 1 and October 1 is as follows: the U.S. federal fiscal year runs from October 1–September 30 each year. On October 1, a new batch of cap-subject H-1B visas become available. Because the H-1B visa utilizes Form I-129, an application can be filed six months in advance of a start date–thus for an October 1 start date, the first date an application can be filed is April 1. For the 2020 fiscal year, the H-1B cap was quickly reached in the first five days of April; this means that an excess of 85,000 cases were filed with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in this time frame.

The H-1B Visa Process – Next Year

Next year (Fiscal Year 2021), however, a new “cap registration’ will go into effect whereby employers can enter the H-1B lottery by providing a smaller amount of information at the time they “registered.” If the employer’s registration is selected, then the employer would file the full H-1B petition. Included in this new process are rules that prohibit “duplicate registrations” and a requirement that employers attest that they intend to employ the beneficiary. It should be noted that “cap exempt” H-1B applications (as described above) will NOT be affected by the rule change. Those applications can continue to be filed in the normal course. In broad terms, this new process is a by-product of the April 2017 “Buy American and Hire American” executive order which specifically mentions the H-1B process.

Consulting with immigration counsel will help with assessing options.

The H-1B Law Changed; How Do These Changes Affect Me?

In regards to the background of the H-1B visa program and its process changes, it is important to consider how these policy changes impact 40,000 international postdocs working in the United States. Most international postdocs are in the United States on either a J1 or H-1B visa. However, most of these H-1B visas are “cap-exempt” since they are primarily doing research in a university or at research institutions which do not count toward the 85,000 visas issued in a fiscal year. In this context, the new H-1B visa program changes do not affect the postdocs working at a university or nonprofit research organization.

However, since a postdoc is considered a temporary training position, it is common to look for employment after the postdoc. Postdocs considering a transition for their next positions into a for-profit space (for example, industry positions) under the H-1B visa program will be subject to the cap described above. Consequently, this new change, which will go into effect for the Fiscal Year 2021, will require international postdocs to plan earlier as they consider their next career move. Postdocs who have earned their master’s and doctorates in the United States have an additional chance of being selected for the additional 20,000 spots. Nevertheless, as every year there are significantly more than 85,000 applications received by the USCIS, it is prudent to plan for alternate scenarios. If an application is not selected in the 85,000 spots (lottery), one options usually left for international postdocs is to consider alternate visas like the O-1 visa. The O-1 visa is for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement. Consulting with immigration counsel will help with assessing options.

Brendan Delaney, Esq, is a partner at Frank and Delaney Immigration Law LLC, an immigration firm in Bethesda, MD, and is an NPA advisor.

Sudha Krishnamurthy, is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral and Graduate Student Affairs and serves as one of the NPA’s International Officers.

Sexual Harassment in STEM: Recent Policy Advancements and Missteps

By Catherine Zander

Cover of NASEM report on sexual harassment

Source: NASEM report on sexual harassment in academia

In June 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released their report on sexual harassment in academia, discussed by the NPA that July. In the year since, there has been significant pressure on major granting organizations, societies, and academic institutions to put some of NASEMS’s recommendations into place to address pervasive sexual harassment. The NPA has openly applauded the quick response of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to this report. Since then, many organizations have taken action. Here we’ve summarized several of the major actions taken by professional societies and national institutions in 2019.

National Academies of Science

There had been a frustration with the National Academies of Science (NAS), who authored the report, not following their own recommendations. With 83 percent of the NAS membership being male, with an average age of 72, many people were skeptical of the academies willingness to change. But, on June 3, 2019, NAS announced the results of its May 31 vote to amend their bylaws allowing for the expulsion of members for breaches of its code of conduct, including sexual harassment. An overwhelming majority, 84 percent, of the ballots approved the amendment and the organization’s bylaws will be changed. This is a monumental moment for the 156-year-old organization.

Block spelling title ix change

The DoE releases potential changes to Title IX // Pexels - edited

Professional Societies

Professional societies are also taking strides to improve the culture for their membership and to hold their members responsible for their actions. As of April 1, 2019, 100 professional societies had signed up to be inaugural members of the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical fields (STEMM). The consortium, like the NASEM sexual harassment study, recognizes that sexual harassment intersects with racial, ethnic and other bases for harassment. With this in mind, they are working to build communities that are actively intolerant of sexual and intersecting forms of harassment.


Congress has also weighed in on the issue. On the first day of the 116th Congress, January 3, 2019, the bipartisan bill, “Combating Sexual Harassment in Science” Act of 2019, HR 36, was introduced to the House. The Senate introduced a companion bill in April. If passed, HR 36 would authorize 17.4 million dollars to the NSF to award grants to expand research and research methodologies into sexual harassment. The NSF would work alongside NASEM to update a responsible conduct guide to prevent and minimize the consequences of sexual harassment in the STEM workforce. Additionally, the Office of Science and Technology Policy would develop a uniform set of policy guidelines to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment and work to help all large federal granting institutions to adopt these policies. The House and Senate referred the legislation to their respective committees, but neither has scheduled legislative hearings on the bill.

National Institutes of Health

In February, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) harassment working group met for the first time. On May 16, the working group held a public listening session to hear from victims of sexual harassment and advocates against sexual violence in the workplace. The session opened with Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, stating, “I want to start by saying I am so sorry. I am sorry not only for what you have experienced but for our collective failure to address the culture and the system that has facilitated sexual harassment. NIH should have done so much more. We are determined to do much more.”

Recent progress and updated policies give cause to remain optimistic about the direction of academic culture and inclusivity.

The session was emotional as many brave women stepped up to share how sexual harassment derailed their careers and how their institutions repeatedly failed them. The stories highlighted how too often academic institutions just “passed the trash,” moving researchers accused of sexual harassment from one institution to another. Many called for the NIH to exclude anyone with a history of sexual misconduct from NIH funding and to make laboratory culture a part of the grant review process. Advocates believe this would remove the financial incentive for academic institutions to protect PIs with a history of sexual harassment. Eunice Neely, Md, MPH, resident at Emory University School of Medicine, highlighted the impact of racism on sexual harassment and the necessity of including racism in this conversation, echoing the original NASEM report. A central theme was in the failure of Title IX to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment and the fundamental flaw of having an institution be their own, “judge, jury, and executioner.”

The session closed with a heartfelt apology from Lawrence A Tabak, DDS, PhD, principal deputy director, NIH, owning his own responsibility, and saying “I want to begin with a personal apology. I want to apologize for what I’ve done and I want to apologize for what I haven’t done. For what I’ve said and for what I haven’t said.” and he recapitulated Collin’s call to action, “We (the NIH) are determined to become part of the solution.” And he addressed the women who spoke, saying, “I really am in awe of the strength and courage that you all displayed today.” The NIH’s harassment working group will present its interim recommendations to Collins this June.

Since the public listening session, Dr. Collins has announced he will decline panel invitations and not attend conferences when “attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda” and encourages other leaders in the biomedical sciences to do that same.

Title IX

Not all recent actions concerning sexual harassment in academia have been received positively by advocacy groups. On November 29, 2018, the Department of Education released proposed changes to Title IX. Rather than addressing the issues highlighted in the NASEM Sexual Harassment in Academia report, advocacy groups believe that the changes to Title IX would exacerbate the prevalence of sexual harassment in academia. The draft document significantly narrows the definition of sexual harassment from, “conduct [that] is sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program based on sex.” to, “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.”

This change in language significantly narrows what would be considered sexual harassment. Currently, under Title IX, schools can be held responsible for not addressing sexual misconduct even if an accuser hasn’t filed a formal complaint. If these changes are enacted, a school would only be held responsible when there is “deliberate indifference.” Finally, these proposed changes significantly alter how an academic institution would investigate sexual harassment and determine culpability. Institutions of higher education would be required to hold a quasi-judicial proceeding in the form of a live hearing where each party may question and cross-examine the other side. Advocate groups, including the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, believe these changes would lengthen timelines and costs for conducting investigations, re-traumatize victims, increase retaliatory actions, and further discourage victim reporting.

The NPA praises the significant steps many organizations are taking to combat sexual harassment in STEM. The recent actions by the NASEM, NSF, professional societies, Congress, and the NIH, illustrate that the community is taking the issues to heart. Recent progress and updated policies give cause to remain optimistic about the direction of academic culture and inclusivity. Has your institution or professional society taken action against sexual harassment in STEM? We’d love to hear about it. Please emails us information at

Catherine B. Zander, PhD, was an American Society of Hematology/American Association for the Advancement of Science Science and Technology Congressional fellow. She is also the co-chair of the Advocacy Committee for the NPA.

A New Committee Leader for NPA’s Outreach Committee

By Chanelle Case Borden

headshot of Chanelle Case Borden

Chanelle Case Borden, NPA Outreach Committee co-chair

The NPA would like to welcome Chanelle Case Borden, PhD, as its newest leader of the Outreach Committee.

Case Borden is a program manager at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Center for Cancer Training in Bethesda, MD. In this role, she serves as the program coordinator for the graduate student recruiting program, manages the onboarding for several partnership programs, and works diligently to improve the training experience at NCI.

Case Borden also established and manages the volunteer science outreach organization, NCI Scientists in the Community, where she partners with schools across Montgomery County to bring the excitement of biomedical science to the classroom. She obtained her doctoral degree in molecular oncology from George Washington University, in partnership with the NIH, and completed her postdoctoral training at the NCI.

As an NPA Outreach Committee co-chair, she hopes to recruit new volunteers to the organization, increase the awareness of issues facing postdoctoral scholars, and help establish the National Postdoc Appreciation Week Awards.

Creating a Postdoctoral Fellows Association at a National Research Laboratory

By Valerie Sloan, Rebecca Haacker

NCAR workshop group

Workshop on Speaking to the Media

Postdoctoral scholars sometimes feel isolated and disconnected from others while in their research environments. “It is a constant, and unexpected, challenge to not feel lost,” says Curtis Walker, PhD, postdoc at the NSF’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “While some individuals know exactly where they are headed next, a common question amongst postdocs is: ‘What’s next?’”

Isolation among postdoctoral scholars

NCAR is a federally funded research and development center in Boulder, Colorado that hosts about fifty postdoctoral fellows at any given time. In 2017, NCAR’s managing institution, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Science (UCAR), conducted a cultural survey to assess overall workforce satisfaction, engagement, and opinions of employees regarding six aspects of the organization: respect, trust, engagement, equity of opportunity, feelings of belonging, and UCAR’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. While the results showed that postdocs reported an overall feeling very positive about working at UCAR (92 percent), only 57 percent of postdocs reported feeling part of the “information loop” and only 49 percent felt they were an integral part of the laboratory (UCAR, 2017).

“These activities also serve as a way for us to gather as postdocs, promoting community building and a sense of belonging in the organization.” - Dagon

Building a postdoc association

In response to this clear need to better integrate the postdocs into the organization and to provide individual career development support beyond what mentors provide, NCAR formed the NCAR fellows association in 2017. We wanted to formalize postdoctoral support, broadly considered a best practice in hosting postdoctoral researchers, and determined that a postdoctoral association would be an integral part of this. Strong postdoctoral support at an institutional level creates a sense of belonging, establishes a standard of professional development, and empowers postdocs with the ability to improve important aspects of postdoctoral development.

The NCAR fellows association is supported by the Advanced Study Program (ASP), the center’s graduate student and postdoctoral program. ASP has a long history of involving postdocs in organizing and determining their experience at NCAR. ASP is largely run by committees of postdocs, and so it was easy to establish the association and have postdoc participation and leadership. The association is co-led by postdocs and ASP staff.

At its inception, NCAR fellows association focused on holding a few carefully chosen high impact events for the postdocs. In September 2017, NCAR celebrated National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week for all postdocs hosted at NCAR/UCAR. The festivities included an opportunity to have a professional headshot taken for websites or LinkedIn profiles as a means of supporting postdocs in their job searches. This was followed by a formal reception for postdocs and their mentors. The event was a success, and as a result it was reported in the Staff Notes, recognizing the efforts of the fellows association.

Soon after, NCAR held a one-day retreat covering topics such as time management, career planning, and the introduction of a new individual development plan that postdocs can use to structure their projects and time at NCAR. The plan was developed by ASP with input from the postdocs and early career scientists. In addition, NCAR made a commitment to the fellows association in the NCAR Education & Outreach Plan 2018-2024 and stated that NCAR will “develop and lead an NCAR-wide community of students and postdoctoral fellows that provides guidance, resources, and support to pursuing careers in the atmospheric and related sciences.” (NCAR 2018).

NCAR began holding a seminar every quarter on a topic that was suggested by the postdocs in the fellows association. These seminars have proven popular, therefore NCAR has gradually increased their frequency, and they are now held monthly. Postdocs and staff work together to decide on topics, format, and speakers. An example is a recent workshop on preparing academic research statements. In this case, the input of postdocs on the timing of the workshop was also essential.

Activities of the Fellows Association

Workshops cover a broad assortment of topics ranging from preparing materials for academic job applications, to panel discussions on how to initiate private sector careers, and from proposal budgets, to scientific collaborations (see Table 1). The workshops and panels are usually one and a half hours in length with an experienced staff or faculty member providing tips and strategies and answering questions in the first half. In the second half of the workshop, participants generally share their own materials or assess provided materials, and exchange feedback. NCAR fellows association sends follow-up emails after the workshops that share documents with advice and approaches.

Although the NCAR fellows association was initially intended for NCAR|UCAR postdocs and graduate students, many early career staff at NCAR|UCAR now attend our workshops as well. The NCAR fellows association also expanded the audience to include postdocs and graduate students from nearby institutions, such as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Boulder labs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In return, the University of Colorado at Boulder has been generous in offering access to their professional development seminars and to social events organized for NCAR’s postdocs.

In addition to formal workshops, the postdocs organize a monthly social event, such as snow-shoeing or social functions at restaurants. These informal networking opportunities amplify their sense of being a meaningful part of NCAR and of having peer support.

Recent workshops of the NCAR Fellows Association

Encouraging results

NCAR/UCAR staff and postdocs had a goal with the establishment of the NCAR fellows association to develop a supportive community of peers, and they are succeeding. Strongly positive informal and formal feedback and growing attendance at workshops is clear evidence that this association is serving a need. In a brief survey after one such workshops (a mock panel proposal review), participants rated the activities promoted by the NCAR fellows association as valuable to highly valuable. Katie Dagon, PhD, and postdoc at NCAR agrees, “These activities also serve as a way for us to gather as postdocs, promoting community building and a sense of belonging in the organization.”

NCAR/UCAR supports the NCAR fellows association because partnership with postdocs will help all postdocs at the institution feel a sense of belonging and of being supported. The institution will conduct a follow-up culture survey in 2020 which we anticipate will show positive results.

At NCAR/UCAR, we have learned that, with involvement of postdocs in planning activities, a postdoctoral association can be created with a limited budget and staff commitment and show positive outcomes very quickly. In addition to postdoc engagement, institutional buy-in is essential for success. Supervisors need to encourage postdocs to attend the workshops and leadership can establish expectations by including postdoctoral support and development in the strategic plans of the institution. We have found that it is possible to develop a program for postdocs starting with a small number of key activities, and we encourage other hosts to do the same.

Valerie Sloan, PhD, is a senior education specialist in the education & outreach group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Rebecca Haacker, M.S., is the director of education & outreach and the Advanced Study program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder: How Self-Analysis will Help in Finding Your Ideal Next Career

By Tracy J. Costello

reflection of mirror in hand

Take the time for self-analysis

The NPA’s overarching mission is to improve the postdoctoral experience and many of the NPA’s Recommended Policies and Practices have been widely adopted by institutions in the public and private sectors. Different reports and studies investigating the postdoc experience highlight the importance of it being a temporary, mentored experience that provides additional technical and professional training that sets the individual up for success in their next career step. However, the transition out of a postdoc into a career is in itself a process that deserves time and attention.

Ultimately, it is imperative that postdocs and graduate students take the time early on to explore potential career options and develop a variety of professional skills.

I have coached postdoctoral fellows for almost a decade as they have navigated their training and entry into careers. There are ten distinct steps of career exploration that every postdoc should be aware of, but it all begins with self-analysis.

Postdocs frequently approach the postdoc office or seek a career coach when there is urgency in leaving their postdoc and securing a new position. This is the least ideal situation that does not allow for the full breadth of career exploration, and the self-analysis through reflection and awareness is often skipped in favor of jumping straight into writing resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and diving into interviews and hoping for the best. I cannot overstate the importance of starting early and beginning with the self-analysis step.

Individuals with PhDs have been trained to value and stress their technical skills and experience over professional skills. However, understanding one’s interests and skills, coupled with one’s values and lifestyle, is critical to being able to identify the career path(s) that are ideal for them.

The most recent article by McConnell et al., surveyed over seven thousand postdocs in 2016 and found that the number of postdocs seeking academic careers (57.7 percent) is still out of step with NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates report that reveals 43 percent of PhDs currently have careers at academic institutions. For the first time, this is roughly equivalent to the number with careers in the private sector (42 percent). McConnell et al. identified several factors positively correlated with seeking academic careers, but when they examined the subset of individuals who were actively seeking positions, their data shows significant evidence of a shift in career focus and a reduction in interest in academic careers. Ultimately, it is imperative that postdocs and graduate students take the time early on to explore potential career options and develop a variety of professional skills.

It takes time to assess what is most meaningful and explore the insight that is revealed. It’s never too late to get started by asking yourself questions to understand your interests such as:

  • What do you love (or hate)?
  • What motivates or inspires you?
  • Next, critically assess your skills, including but not limited to your technical skills.
  • What are your current strengths?
  • What always seems to work out well for you?
  • What have you taught others?
  • How have your skills aided your collaborations?
  • What new skills are you really passionate about learning now?

Self analysis also involves exploring how you collaborate, manage, lead, and communicate. These are all essential to being able to find the right match for your next career step. You will frequently need to explain how you will work on or manage a team, how you handle conflict, and so much more. While self-analysis is a personal thing, it helps to have direction and guidance. There are a variety of personality assessments and interest inventories that will help with the exploration and provide insight into the questions posed here.

Being self-aware is an opportunity for continuous personal growth. It also opens up the path to the nine career exploration steps:

  • develop your network,
  • identify potential career paths,
  • engage in informational interviews,
  • identify skill gaps,
  • actively improve professional skills,
  • identify potential career opportunities,
  • develop application materials (CV, resume, cover letter, etc),
  • interview, and
  • negotiate.

I hope you’re inspired to take a look at yourself and begin your career exploration journey. I encourage you to reach out to postdoc or career offices at your institutions and welcome you to reach out to me as you seek your next career step.

Tracy J. Costello, PhD is currently chair of the Board of Directors of the NPA.

Thank you to new and renewing Sustaining Members of the NPA!

Sustaining Members are a vital part of the NPA. Sustaining Members represent a range of professional societies, postdoc associations, postdoc offices, and other organizations that serve the postdoctoral community. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at NPA Sustaining Member institutions are eligible to join the NPA, at no cost, as Affiliate Members. Check to see if your institution is an NPA Sustaining Member.

Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
  • Harvard Medical School Office
  • Merck Research Laboratories
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Princeton University
  • Stony Brook University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Florida

Associate Editor

Thank you!