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The POSTDOCket, July 2019
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Did They Really Just Say That?! Responding to Bias at Work

by Lena Tenney and J. Marcela Hernandez

Surprised person overhearing group conversation

Did they really just say that? | Alexandra Taraboletti

Many postdoctoral scholars encounter biased comments in the workplace. Whether an intentional act of discrimination or an unintentional manifestation of implicit bias, these “did they really just say that?!” moments create unwelcoming work environments. However, even those who are deeply committed to diversity and inclusion may find themselves unsure whether, and how, to effectively respond to these all-too-common situations. Whether in the lab, a meeting, the classroom, or informal conversations, postdocs can learn to communicate effectively in these challenging “did they really just say that?!” situations through strategic implementation of structural changes and active bystander strategies. These approaches can not only address individual instances of bias, but also cultivate more inclusive work environments.

These conversations can be particularly common in fields that have little or no awareness of things like microaggressions, privilege, and implicit bias. Not surprisingly, these are often the same fields that lack workforce diversity. Given the large underrepresentation of some groups in academia, it is imperative that everyone—not only people with marginalized identities—contribute to a more inclusive environment to allow these groups to thrive. A more inclusive environment will also help with recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in graduate programs, postdoctoral training, faculty, and other professional positions.

Whether in the lab, a meeting, the classroom, or informal conversations, postdocs can learn to communicate effectively in these challenging “did they really just say that?!” situations.

Learn and prepare to recognize and take action against bias

Many postdocs expressively value inclusive environments, but feel powerless to create or maintain them. Furthermore, some postdocs are worried about making a problem worse by calling attention to it, about damaging relationships with professional contacts, or about confirming existing stereotypes that marginalized people are overly sensitive. Others fear professional or personal retaliation. While these concerns are valid and grounded in complex power dynamics that undergird academic workplaces, the good news is that postdocs actually have more power than they think.

Postdocs’ experiences and position within research teams allow them to advocate for junior colleagues such as graduate and undergraduate students, and even for their peers. Having a conversation with a team member that has made a biased comment by discussing how the person at the receiving end might feel is an effective way to be an active bystander. This does not have to be in front of others, and in fact—depending on the person—may be more effective in private. Additionally, postdocs, as targets of or bystanders to bias, can connect with an ombudsman, their institution’s Title IX office, and/or an anonymous bias reporting hotline in order to seek assistance from professionals whose job is to address bias within the institution. Other ways in which a postdoc can help is through instigating structural reform such as suggesting that the group leader add a section to the lab manual to proactively address problematic behavior. If such a document does not exist, suggest the creation of one as a group. These are best practices that should be implemented by postdocs as they become leaders in academia, industry, government, or other organizations.

Postdocs can also take advantage of institutional or online educational resources such as training sessions, interviews, and session slides on how to be an active bystander. Participating in these can empower postdocs to speak up when they witness or experience racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression.

Training to be an active bystander can assist in preparing postdocs to consider context, For instance, they might want to define their goal(s) in speaking up, as well as understand positionality, power dynamics, personal priorities, and existing communication strengths. In order to be best prepared in advance for incidents, an active bystander should know why, when, and how they are personally committed to challenging biased comments.

Strategies for addressing bias in the moment

A number of strategies exist from which postdocs facing bias can choose to use in response—whether they rely heavily on one strategy or prefer to engage with a mixture of approaches.

For instance, using humor can be a way to address microaggressions. For example, many people of color and international postdocs are asked coded questions like, “What are you?” or given backhanded compliments like, “Your English is so good!” A humorous response such as “Human, how about you?” or “Thanks, I should think so considering I’ve spoken English my entire life!” can point out that the question or comment is not appropriate while mitigating defensiveness from the person who said it.

Being literal or refusing to engage with assumptions that undergird bias may also bring attention to how a comment is problematic. For instance, if someone tells a sexist joke insinuating that women do not belong in STEM fields, responding with “If that’s supposed to be a joke, I don’t get it, because I know plenty of successful women who are brilliant in their field” can push back against the sexism of the “joke.”

Asking questions can create an atmosphere of conversation and co-learning when confronting bias. For example, asking “What do you mean when you say that?” can provide an opportunity for the person to clarify their remark and/or intentions, thereby sparking further discussion about the implications of the remark.

Stating discomfort through a response such as, “That phrase makes me uncomfortable. Could you please not use it around me?” is a form of direct communication that also challenges bias while setting personal boundaries in the workplace.

Finally, redirecting someone back to personal or institutional values can also be effective. For instance, when encountering a colleague who is entrenched in their resistance to inclusive workplace practices, a statement such as, “We all have the right to our own personal views, but at the end of the day the handbook says that we do not discriminate in hiring and promotion based on sexual orientation” can redirect the conversation away from a debate about an individual’s opinions and toward what actions must be taken based upon institutional values.

As each generation of scholars strives to create a progressively more inclusive working climate, postgraduate disciplines will attract a stronger and more diverse research workforce. In this way, postdocs have the power to make the future more welcoming and affirming for not only themselves but also future generations of scholars. However, this is only possible if postdocs commit to being consistent champions for change. In the words of Angela Davis, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” The postdoctoral workforce can and will become more inclusive—and it starts with you.

Lena Tenney, MPA, MEd, is the coordinator of public engagement at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at The Ohio State University.

J. Marcela Hernandez, PhD is the administrative director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at The Ohio State University and a former Diversity Officer for the NPA.

Latinx Scientists in the United States

by Juan Pablo Ruiz and Sonia Zárate

Latinx person standing alone from chain of community

Latinx identity is collectivistic culture, which clashes with the individualistic values in academia. | Alexandra Taraboletti

“¿Qué te mortifica?” asks abuela, as she invites you into her kitchen and the familiar scents of your childhood comfort you. “Let me cook you something while you tell me what’s troubling you…” You start, but you struggle to articulate how it feels to be both Latinx and a scientist, as though the two were mutually exclusive, even though you know they are not. You’ve been brought up to value community and familia, and now find yourself navigating a hypercompetitive system and culture founded on a different set of values.

The Latinx panethnic identity is made up of people of Latin American descent. Our cultures and subcultures are as diverse from each other as they are from the American culture. The spectrum of melanin on our skin and whether our grandmothers make us mole, mofongo, or arepas reveal the myriad variety to our rich and diverse stories. However, one aspect that binds the Latinx identity is our collectivistic culture, in which connection to community and communal success are highly valued. By contrast, the absolute values of academic science, focused on individualism, assimilation, and careerism, serve to send a clear message that there is no place for those with different prioritized values.

Like other scientists, those of us within the Latinx community who are pursuing science careers are driven by curiosity and love of discovery. Additionally, the idea that we may one day contribute to and improve our own communities, or perhaps even the larger societies we inhabit, adds meaning and value to the work that we engage in, which is fundamental for our overall sense of well-being. Many mentors and supervisors express interest in contributing to the community and giving back to their cultures—at the very least they have that ethos in the language of their websites and their grants. But, whatever their intentions, they cannot afford to go against a system that dictates whether or not they will be published, funded, or promoted. Ultimately many academic advisors view attempts by students and postdoctoral scholars to fulfill a need for a sense of value and meaning with outside activities, since it eludes them at the bench, as a waste of time that could be better spent working, reading papers, or writing.

Similar to racial microinvalidations, which exclude the experiential reality of individuals from minoritized populations, we propose that value microinvalidations are implicit or explicit messages that invalidate and demean a person’s value system. To be told that your perspective is needed in STEM while actively being shown that the things you value don’t have a place in scientific spaces, even if not intentional, leads to a significant amount of cognitive dissonance, emotional distress, and, eventually, burnout. This denies your curiosity, drive to discover, and other essential parts of what drove you to science in the first place due to an overwhelming and insurmountable inability to “fit in.”

Committing to develop diverse talent includes focusing resources on creating inclusive environments with cultures and values that are aligned with the values of those they seek to develop.

Years of research have tried to determine exactly why initiatives to broaden participation have not yielded better results. From the institutes and programs that are meant to serve and help retain minoritized groups in the system, we continue to hear cries for more data in an attempt to further understand why those groups leave. More recently, we began to hear calls for studies and initiatives that instead focus on the environment and its role in developing and promoting talent or ultimately pushing science students and early career researchers out. Data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (NORC at the University of Chicago) support the argument that yield is not only dependent on developing talent, but on the experience of minoritized groups within academia. When we look at the data between 1977 and 2016, we see a ~two-fold increase per decade in the number of doctorates conferred to Latinx* students in life & physical sciences, math & computer sciences, and engineering each decade: 1395 (1977–1986), 3046 (1987–1996), 4609 (1997–2006), and 9094 (2007–2016). Of the total number of doctoral degrees conferred between 1977 and 2016, 1.1 percent, 0.8 percent, 0.2 percent and 1.6 percent were received by those identifying as Mexicans/Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans or other unspecified Latinx, respectively. Despite the broadening participation initiatives steadily working to increase doctoral degree attainment by Latinx graduate students as well as other groups who are historically underrepresented in the sciences, that increase is nowhere near closing the attainment gap between Latinx and non-Latinx leadership in academic spaces.

If institutions are truly committed to increasing diversity in academic scientific research, we suggest that committing to develop diverse talent includes focusing resources on creating inclusive environments with cultures and values that are aligned with the values of those they seek to develop. Academic institutions need not look further than the cultures of the career paths and organizations that are attracting Latinx scientists to them, such as science communication, which provides a sense of meaning as well as community, for solutions on how to be inclusive. Additionally, institutions must seek input from and listen to the voices of individuals they seek to include. We all have voices and we all have our historias. All it takes is a willingness to escúchar... to listen.

*Described as Hispanic or Latino in Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Juan Pablo Ruiz, DPhil, is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president-elect of Future of Research.

Sonia Zárate, PhD, is a program officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

Mathematics Postdocs and the Challenges of Being one of the Few

By Francesca Bernardi

Highlighting the M in STEM

Remembering the “M” in STEM

When thinking about STEM postdoctoral scholars, we often forget about the M of STEM, mathematics. This is unsurprising considering less than 5 percent of STEM postdocs are in mathematics. Postdoctoral positions in this field are often quite different than science, technology or engineering (STE) postdoc positions. For instance, mathematicians rarely work in labs. Their most used tools are pencil, paper, and computers; they often split their time between research and teaching; and mathematics departments in almost every college and university in the United States are service departments constantly looking for instructors. Although their day-to-day work may differ from other STEM postdocs, mathematicians encounter some of the same difficulties.

Transitioning to a Postdoc in Mathematics

Most mathematics departments have undergraduate and graduate student clubs targeted to underrepresented populations. Participating in these groups can foster a sense of belonging and help build community among students through peer mentoring.

In transitioning to a postdoc, mathematicians are frequently left without a support system for the first time in their academic careers. While most mathematics departments organize on-campus visits and interviews for prospective graduate students and faculty, postdocs are often compelled to accept a job offer in a different state or distant location without having ever visited their future place of employment. Departments and institutions highly invested in the advancement of graduate students and faculty hires don’t always display the same level of investment in postdocs’ success.

Institutions provide students and faculty with mentoring opportunities, professional development training, work and health benefits, and administrative as well as financial support. These resources may not exist for mathematics postdocs; and when PDAs/PDOs do exist, they may cater mostly to life sciences researchers. Since postdoctoral positions are temporary and rarely bring in grants, it can be difficult to attract the attention of administration.

Isolation and Lack of Mentoring Pushed People out of Academia

A key issue for mathematicians during the postdoc years is a reported feeling of isolation and a lack of sense of belonging. The nature of the work can make mathematics particularly isolating for all postdocs, but this feeling is heightened for women and mathematicians from underrepresented groups. For these groups, the low number of peers in the field certainly contributes to the feeling of disconnect (in 2017 the American Mathematical Society reported that less than 23 percent of mathematics postdocs in the United States went to women). However, feeling stranded is compounded by a sudden lack of institutional support.

A key issue for mathematicians during the postdoc years is a reported feeling of isolation and a lack of sense of belonging.

Every postdoc brings professional challenges, but the shortage of available peers and lack of departmental and institutional support disproportionately affects mathematicians from underrepresented groups. These issues impact postdocs’ general well-being as much as their academic careers. Finding female mentors who can serve as role models can be particularly difficult when less than 21 percent of mathematics faculty are women, and only 18 percent of tenured faculty are women.

For an even number of doctoral degrees awarded to women, the STEM fields where postdoctoral training is expected before obtaining a faculty position, see less women actually reach the tenure-track compared to fields where postdoctoral appointments are less common. Mathematics is one of the “postdoc-requiring” fields and adding underrepresentation to the already numerous challenges of being a postdoc ultimately pushes many people out of academia.

Percent of mathematic non-tenure track positions filled in 2017, grouped by gender

Percent of mathematic non-tenure track positions filled in 2017, grouped by gender. Data from American Mathematical Society report.

One Solution to the Problem

Improving academic success of mathematics postdocs starts with improving postdoc mentoring, starting with a well thought-out career plan, such as the Individual Development Plan. Postdocs who write a plan with their advisors submit 23 percent more papers to peer-reviewed journals and write 25 percent more grant proposals compared to those without a written plan. Additionally, these postdocs are able to set clear and realistic goals, improving their sense of belonging within their chosen field. But writing a plan is not enough if there is no accountability: a simple review process can be implemented to encourage both mentors and postdocs to follow through on the written plan.

While math postdocs spend much of their time on solitary research, teaching is an important aspect of their training. Postdocs can benefit from being paired with multiple faculty mentors, each focused on one aspect of the postdoc’s career development. Adding in mathematics career topics at career symposia, connecting math postdocs with early-career mentors, and soliciting math postdocs participation in the decision-making processes at the institutional level (through participation in PDAs) reduces feelings of isolation, teaches leadership skills, and demonstrates the workings of higher education.

Institutions, such as Harvey Mudd College, that have implemented such steps, have helped their math postdocs have a well-rounded and successful postdoc experience. Since faculty participation is necessary for these changes to be feasible, mathematics departments can make the well-being of their postdocs a priority by recognizing and valuing faculty service in developing and participating in a multifaceted postdoctoral program.

Francesca Bernardi, PhD, is a Dean’s postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Mathematics at Florida State University. She is the co-founder of Girls Talk Math, a free day camp focused on mathematics and media for female and gender non-conforming high-school students hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Going Commercial: My Experience as a Postdoctoral Intern in Technology Transfer

By Stephanie M. Davis

Magnifying glass with career icon

Become a Postdoctoral Intern in Technology Transfer

When asked about the societal impact of their research, many postdoctoral scholars mention developing new therapeutics or advancing healthcare without any clear notion of how their research might translate into a practical application. However, the basic research performed by postdocs is crucial for developing new therapies and devices that may be commercialized. Researchers depend upon institutional technology transfer offices to obtain intellectual property protection, licensing their technologies to interested companies. In addition to the legal and business expertise of the employees of these offices, scientists in diverse fields use their technical expertise to assist inventors with bringing their discoveries to market.

Technology Transfer 101

Prior to the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, inventors were required to transfer the ownership of intellectual property (IP) to the government if the IP was generated using federal funds. However, this legislation provided a major incentive for academic inventors and research in the United States to monetize their discoveries by allowing them to retain the rights to IP.

Pie graph of spending in healthcare/medical research and development

Private sector spending vs. government spending in healthcare/medical research and development. | Research! America.

According to a study by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), basic and translational research at universities contributes significantly to the economic output of the United States. Licensing patents from nonprofit institutions and universities has generated 865 billion dollars in GDP over the past 22 years.

One potential factor behind the economic success of licensing university technologies is the high rate of private sector research and development spending. A 2016 report from Research! America showed that 64.7 percent of all research and development healthcare spending originates from the private sector, while 22 percent originates from federal grants. This increasing dependence on industry spending to advance medical research creates the need for scientist experts, or key opinion leaders, who specialize in building private-public partnerships.

The Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Kentucky.

To take advantage of local scientific talent and provide hands-on training for real-world scientific careers, many academic institutions have developed internship programs. For instance, the Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) at the University of Kentucky (UK) began its part-time OTC fellows program in January 2017. All postdoc within this program are required to familiarize themselves with the process of technology transfer through analysis of new technologies.

Although balancing lab duties with an internship in tech transfer can be difficult, this experience not only exposes the postdoc to the groundbreaking research performed at the university level, but also enhances several important transferable skills.

The OTC fellows program allows interested postdocs to acquire extensive real-world experience. When an individual submits a disclosure for an invention, this disclosure is assigned to a postdoc to perform a preliminary market assessment. This includes a thorough examination of the patent landscape to ensure that no prior art existed, a comparison with the leading alternative technologies to identify technical and financial advantages of the disclosed technology, and the identification of potential partners based on key market players, ownership of relevant patents, and the size and growth of potential markets.

Once the postdoc completes the assessment, they arrange a meeting with the inventors to discuss their findings and ensure that all technical details were correctly represented. After the meeting, the postdoc submits the revised invention to the intellectual property committee (IPC) at UK, which consists of university faculty members with prior experience as inventors or entrepreneurs. Finally, the IPC determined whether the university should pursue patent protection for the disclosed innovation based upon the postdoc’s recommendation.

Postdocs in the OTC fellows program are also responsible for assisting licensing managers with later stages of the process, including marketing and licensing university technologies. This involves the postdoc drafting a one-page market abstract that highlights the invention’s purpose, its key advantages, and its stage of development. Ideal licensees are identified by postdocs based on the key market players, inventor relationships, or companies with a particular interest in a type of technology. Postdocs use tools such as LinkedIn to identify and contact marketing personnel at these companies.

Steps of technology transfer

The steps of the technology transfer process that the OTC fellows assist with during their internship. | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A Tech Transfer Fellowship Delivers Transferable Skills

Although balancing lab duties with an internship in tech transfer can be difficult, this experience not only exposes the postdoc to the groundbreaking research performed at the university level, but also enhances several important transferable skills. Programs such as the OTC fellowship challenge postdocs and graduate students in scientific fields to consider the practical implications, the market value, and societal impacts of basic research. Since postdocs were often assigned to disclosures outside of their area of expertise, this experience allows interns to quickly learn about the latest advances in other fields, as they work to accurately assess the novelty and feasibility of the disclosure.

Furthermore, the identification of potential partners for university inventors provides a useful exercise in networking. Reaching out to industry contacts allows postdocs to overcome shyness they might have previously felt while using LinkedIn or when approaching industry experts, giving them the opportunity to build meaningful academic-industry alliances. Building relationships with the entrepreneurial community provides valuable insight to leaders in the PDA of the academic institution. For instance, due to this program, this year, leaders of the PDA at UK oversaw an acclaimed panel discussion led by graduate students and postdocs who had formed startup companies to showcase the role that trainee scientists play in scientific entrepreneurship.

Career Opportunities in Technology Transfer

Gaining experience in commercialization will prepare trainees for careers in several different fields. According to Ryan Staudt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh and current intern at the SciVelo Center, “scientific translation is often not a skill that is emphasized in graduate school, [but] it is essential to postdoctoral careers in science policy, medical writing, and medical affairs.”

As a policy-oriented scientist preparing to begin an AAAS science and technology policy fellowship in the National Institute of Aging Office of Small Business Research, Stephanie Davis, PhD, believes that this experience was crucial to preparing her for her upcoming placement. The growing demand for scientific experts in tech transfer has also led to the development of specialized postdoctoral fellowships at institutes, such as the innovation fellowship at Moffitt Cancer Center or positions in the NCI and NIAID offices of technology transfer.

This experience is an invaluable way to gain transferable skills, build relationships with both the university and broader research community, and learn through firsthand experience how ideas are brought from the bench to the market.

Stephanie M. Davis, Ph.D., recently completed her postdoc at the University of Kentucky and is preparing to begin her placement as a 2019-2020 AAAS executive branch science and technology policy fellow at the National Institutes of Health. She also serves as the current chair of the young scientists committee for the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, a member of the Board of Directors for Future of Research, and volunteers on the editorial team for The POSTDOCket and for the Journal of Science Policy and Governance.

Career Know How: The Less Focused on and Critically Important Aspect of Career Development

By Ian Street

Aligning shape of self with shape of door

Align your identities with your career paths. | Adapted from Vinnie Neuberg

"My worth is bigger than my work," is the quote that resonated at the second plenary talk “Improving Mentoring at All Levels to Enhance Postdoc Career Development and the Diversification and Growth of the Scientific Workforce” at the annual NPA conference delivered by Angela Byars-Winston, PhD. She is a counseling psychologist by training and a tenured professor in the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her talk got to the crux of why career uncertainty and anxiety are high among postdoctoral scholars. She also gave key insight into how to better align our identities with career paths, how to open new possibilities, career resilience, and how serendipity plays a role at any career stage.

Career Readiness is a Continual Process

Byars-Winston’s talk conveyed the shortcomings of countless career development resources and workshops that many universities offer to graduate students and postdocs by drawing a contrast between work preparation (“know-what skills”) vs. career preparation/readiness (“know-how skills”). While the former generally receives a great deal of attention, focus on the latter ought to be similarly important for both mentors and trainees alike.

The two components that are significantly correlated with career success are career readiness and career resilience.

Career preparation requires more effort and vulnerability from both groups. “Each of us is the CEO of You, Incorporated,” is how Byars-Winston puts it. Quoting from one of her slides: “Career readiness is a continual process of actively managing career decisions with attitudinal and cognitive dimensions to act on and transition into the world of work.” In other words, career readiness is effectiveness at handling the career development tasks and decisions given one’s current life stage and circumstances.

Building Resilience and Readiness

In reviewing what the data says about career success, Byars-Winston discussed career effort, readiness and resilience. The 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, has often been used as a barometer of success in science; Byars-Winston discussed when it does and does not apply to individual success or performance. In fact, sheer effort doesn’t correlate 1:1 with success in academic paths. To put it bluntly, successful STEM careers are minimally correlated with hours of effort put in. The two components that are significantly correlated with career success are career readiness and career resilience. Building these into any mentoring plan can help trainees progress along their career paths while also building the capacity to come back from setbacks that happen to almost everyone.

Throughout her talk, Byars-Winston posed questions that postdocs might consider in developing career readiness. “What is your why? What is driving you?” she asked the audience. She suggested using graduate school application statements and cover letters as a beginning point, since these statements provided young scientists an unbiased opportunity to stake out a clear motivation to earn a doctoral degree.

Byars-Winston noted that the question “where do you see yourself in five years?” often provokes anxiety; but continually answering this question renews your motivation. Her emphasis was on understanding that “there’s a bigger reason why we are here than our current roles.”

10000 hour rule crossed out

Sheer effort through hours doesn’t correlate 1:1 with success in academic paths. | Alexandra Taraboletti

Deepening Mentoring

While these are questions for self-reflection on one’s own, it also seems likely that considering these with a network of mentors would help you act as the CEO of “You, Inc.” and to understand your broad worth, outside of any particular work you are currently doing. The four components of career readiness are career identity, career exploration, career planning, and career decision-making.

Byars-Winston’s message about deepening mentoring was echoed in several sessions at the NPA Annual Conference that were about meaningful career exploration and mentoring paradigms. The scholarship of effective mentoring that is the focus of her research program still needs to be fully accepted into the culture of academia, including among postdocs who are both mentors and mentees. Byars-Winston acknowledges that our career paths are complex. While know-what skills are key, so too are know-how skills and a great network of mentors is vital at any career stage.

Ian Street, PhD is the deputy editor of The POSTDOCket.

NPA Leadership Development: An Opportunity to Support Our Valuable Committee and Task Force Teams

By Stephanie Eberle

Group meeting at table with NPA icon

NPA CLI workshop meeting. | Alexandra Taraboletti

The NPA prides itself on providing support for innovative research training and professional growth to benefit postdoctoral scholars across the nation. Did you know, however, that we are dedicated to supporting our committee and task force leaders’ growth as well?

Each year, the NPA kickstarts its annual meeting with the Committee Leaders Institute (CLI), a retreat of its Board members, staff, and committee and task force leaders. As the NPA leadership is spread across the country working at various universities and agencies, the CLI encompasses our time to get to know each other better and to check in on progress toward our respective strategic planning goals. In 2018, we added a new component: leadership development.

The theme for our initial retreat, ‘teamwork,’ provided better clarity of roles and cohesion among our members. Using the StrengthsFinder assessment, leaders and Board members defined both their individual strengths and areas where each aligned. Keeping in line with the Positive Psychology theory on which the assessment is based, participants learned ways to use their strengths to achieve goals, as opposed to focusing on areas of weakness.

In the second half of training, we used Design Thinking to ideate different offerings for our postdoc and PDO members and to set goals to reach these. From this activity last year, we created a career fair for this year’s annual meeting, reorganized the POSTDOCket committee, and determined new ways to collaborate between committees, as opposed to working separately, as was done before.

The leadership training program continued throughout the year with topics chosen by committee and task force leaders and often presented by board members. Shakira Nelson, PhD, for example, provided detailed advice and resources for better time management. Barbara Natalizio, PhD, gave insights on policy and advocacy, helping participants better promote the interests of our constituents. Further, Andrew Bankston, PhD initiated a conversation about volunteer management which resulted in new ideas for recruitment and support. Future topics include project management, work-life balance, and change management; all of which apply to both the work our leaders conduct on behalf of the NPA as well as the work they perform in the myriad sectors of their professional lives.

The biggest topic of interest, ‘communication,’ was reserved for CLI 2019. For this CLI, we split the topic into two sections, negotiation and internal modes of communication. Similar to 2018, participants began with an assessment, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory (TKI), to discuss similarities and differences in communication style. Case studies were then used for immersion into difficult scenarios and practical application of conflict mediation and assertive communication techniques.

Of all the lessons gleaned from the first year of the NPA leadership program, the importance of recognition and support is the most significant.

A unique addition to this year’s CLI was a new Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant, which allowed PDO leaders to join us for this section of the training. PDO directors and staff from across the country shared, from their own experiences, ideas for improved communication between the many varied partners involved in advancing the interests of postdocs. In the afternoon, their training continued with a StrengthsFinder session, presented by Stanford University’s Robin Sugiura, similar to our own session last year.

Committee and task force leaders spent the afternoon in the second section of the CLI 2019, vetting new methods for internal communication. We are currently beta-testing new approaches within our meetings committee and are excited to apply these to improve the everyday workings of the NPA—and to pass these efficiencies on to our membership through better outreach and services!

CLI 2019 ended with Board members and committee and task force leaders providing kudos to each other for the strengths they provide the team and NPA as a whole. Of all the lessons gleaned from the first year of the NPA leadership program, the importance of recognition and support is the most significant. Collaborating with team members from different parts of the country, in different jobs and fields, is made far easier when members know that they are valued.

To maintain this thread of gratitude, participants share their highlights and lowlights on each bi-monthly call and name the areas in which they need help. A format for specific requests gives everyone the opportunity to ask for what they need, regardless of their typical communication style. Finally, we implemented the concept of “snaps” to show approval. At its essence, snapping when someone says something you identify with seems simple. In practice, however, it goes beyond “thank you.” It is a way to say, “I understand you” and the feedback is immediate.

The NPA leadership training program for committee and task force leaders is a way to show our valued team members that we understand the difficulty of their role. They have day jobs, families, and myriad other interests beyond the NPA. We aim to provide them with fresh, new skills to help them succeed in all of these roles and to give back to them some of the time and dedication they give to our volunteers and members. Snaps to all of our leaders and volunteers; we are grateful for all you do!

To learn how you may become more involved in NPA, please contact us, using this form or emailing

Stephanie K. Eberle is assistant dean of the Stanford University’s BioSci Careers community, which serves doctorates, postdocs and MDs in the medical and biosciences fields. They are also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco and vice chair of the board of directors for the NPA, as well as a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. The views presented here are the author’s own.

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!
  • Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute
  • Drexel University
  • King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
  • University of California, Santa Cruz
  • University of Cincinnati
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!

Associate Editors

Thank you to our associate editors for July, especially!