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The POSTDOCket, December 2019
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The Invaluable Mentoring Contributions of Postdoctoral Scholars

By Suzanne Witt

Scientific mentor leading mentee through darkness with flashlight

Robert Neubecker

The traditional view of an academic research lab places the primary investigator (PI) as the sole mentor of the group. The PI is ultimately responsible for training their graduate students in technical skills, experimental design, data analysis, and scientific writing. Depending on the size of the lab, this may be an enormous undertaking for a single person, especially on top of their other responsibilities.

The traditional view of an academic research lab places the primary investigator (PI) as the sole mentor of the group. The PI is ultimately responsible for training their graduate students in technical skills, experimental design, data analysis, and scientific writing. Depending on the size of the lab, this may be an enormous undertaking for a single person, especially on top of their other responsibilities.

The Role of Postdocs as Mentors

Thus, in order to facilitate the training of the next generation of scientists, postdoctoral scholars are often called upon to fill these mentorship roles—and with good reason. In a recent article published by PNAS, the crucial role that postdocs play in mentoring graduate students was brought to light in the form of real data. The results of the study showed that the mentorship of younger graduate students by postdocs and senior graduate students was a strong predictor of graduate student success, while contributions from the PI in this area showed no such correlation.

To conduct this study, a group of researchers investigated the skill development of 336 graduate students in the biological sciences from 53 different universities in the United States. The development of the graduate students’ research skills was compared to the type of mentoring structure present in the lab. In other words, the effect of mentorship by postdocs and senior graduate students on the success of younger graduate students was evaluated. The students’ performance in 12 different categories was assessed over a period of four years. These categories included skills such as appropriate integration of primary literature, experimental design, and identification of study limitations, and were evaluated based on reviews of sole-authored writing samples. The students’ scores were grouped into three categories: low, medium, and high skill, and their transitions between these categories were monitored over time.

Engagement of postdocs in lab discussions resulted in students being 4.20 times as likely to show a positive trend in skill development across all four years.

To elucidate the impact of the doctoral training environment on the students’ advancement to higher skill levels, participants completed yearly surveys to collect information on the roles of various lab members. The students were asked which lab members were involved in a variety of tasks, including lab discussions, formulating research hypotheses, and collecting and analyzing data. It was found that the participation of certain individuals in specific tasks strongly predicted an increase in the skill level of the graduate students. Specifically, when senior graduate students and postdocs were involved in lab discussions, graduate students were 4.50 and 5.14 times more likely, respectively, to advance in skill level from year-to-year. Furthermore, the engagement of postdocs in lab discussions resulted in students being 4.20 times as likely to show a positive trend in skill development across all four years. In contrast, the involvement of the PI or other faculty members in any of the tasks was not a predictor of skill development, which further underscores the important role that postdocs play as mentors. As such, a “cascading mentorship” model appears to be more effective than a single-mentor model in academic research labs.

The Postdoc Perspective

Interviews of the study participants revealed that postdocs serve as mentors in several different ways. Of note, postdocs were found to provide hands-on training in the lab, career advice, and emotional support. This degree of responsibility begs the following questions: do postdocs feel prepared to be mentors, and do they feel that this experience is beneficial to their professional development?

Jessica White, PhD, and Travis White, PhD, are assistant professors in the chemistry department at Ohio University, who both completed postdocs prior to beginning their careers as faculty members. When asked if they anticipated serving as mentors, they remarked that interactions with postdocs while they were graduate students gave them an idea of what to expect. Echoing the results of the PNAS study, T. White said that he “quickly realized that as a grad student, you spend most of your time asking the postdocs for help and not the PI.” Furthermore, their PI took measures to prepare them to be mentors by pairing them with undergraduate students in the lab. “Having that experience was incredibly useful when I became a postdoc and transitioned to providing mentorship for graduate students,” J. White explained.

Mentoring graduate students as postdocs helped them prepare for their roles as faculty members, too. Opportunities to practice explaining concepts and techniques to graduate students during their postdocs helped them prepare to teach in a classroom and to train their own students in the lab. Furthermore, both found that they spent a lot of time speaking with graduate students about issues outside of research, such as career goals and interpersonal conflicts. This turned out to be good training for the future, as J. White explained that in her current role as assistant professor, she continues “to have a lot of similar conversations with students, so my past experiences as a postdoc have given me more tools with which to relate, communicate, and advise.”

Both reported that they felt valued by graduate students and their PI for their roles as mentors during their postdocs: “On multiple occasions, the students and PIs made comments to me about how much they appreciated me not only working on my own project, but being there to make day-to-day operations run smoothly and to help others at times with their projects,” T. White explained.

When asked if they felt that being a mentor impacted their ability to do scientific research, they agreed that overall it had a positive impact. According to J. White,“the relationships I developed with the graduate students built trust between us, contributed to a productive and collaborative environment, and enriched the research conducted as a team.” For postdocs and graduate students, the cascading mentorship model appears to be a win-win.

Suzanne Witt, PhD, is an NRC postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.




The Postdoc Academy: A New Digital Professional Development Program for Postdocs

By Sarah Chobot Hokanson and Celine Young

Postdoc Academy logo

The idea for the Postdoc Academy project began the way so many good ideas begin—listening. Our team, comprised of faculty and staff at Boston University, Northwestern University, Michigan State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, understood that professional development content for postdoctoral scholars couldn’t just be built on what we knew as administrators and faculty was critical to professional success. The content also had to be built on the priorities and experiences of postdocs themselves. And so, over many slices of pizza, we visited departments and met postdocs for lunch. After hearing their stories and aspirations, as well as some of the challenges they faced, our team began to build a flexible professional development program designed with postdocs and for postdocs called the Postdoc Academy.

People standing to write ideas
A New Digital Resource for Postdocs Nationwide

This project is now an NIH-funded program designed to support postdoc skill development from their orientation to taking their next career step. The free programming includes two online courses (for those postdocs that need to access content flexibly) and in-person learning communities (for those postdocs looking to connect to other postdocs on their campuses).

The first online course, titled “The Postdoc Academy: Succeeding as a Postdoc,” begins on January 13. Building upon the NPA Core Competencies, postdocs will develop reflection-based strategies and new skills that will help them successfully navigate their time as a postdoc. Course topics include developing resilience, navigating a new community of practice, developing an actionable career plan, and working effectively in intercultural environments. Registration for the edX course is now open.

Postdocs will develop reflection-based strategies and new skills that will help them successfully navigate their time as a postdoc.

Incorporating the Postdoc Academy into Institutional Programming

Once released, the content of the online course will also be freely accessible on the Postdoc Academy website. We encourage you to adopt and adapt these open educational materials to serve the professional development needs of postdocs at your institution.

We have also designed in-person Postdoc Academy Learning Sessions (PALS) to connect the online content directly to your postdocs’ local context and community, promoting deeper learning of the material and connections to other postdocs in-person. PALS are small groups of postdocs who meet in-person weekly while either taking the online course or utilizing Postdoc Academy content in a blended learning format. Each PALS will be guided by a facilitator (a postdoc or anyone who supports postdocs) who will receive a facilitator guide and can join our community of facilitators.

The facilitator of a PALS will:

  • Create an environment for learning through reflection and discussion
  • Promote equitable participation of all members
  • Build trust and create a sense of community
  • Uphold the norms and standards of the Postdoc Academy community

The community of facilitators is focused on supporting practitioners by creating an open discussion space and continued professional development. By joining, you can:

  • Learn from other facilitators and network with other practitioners
  • Access online facilitation trainings, held quarterly
  • Attend in-person facilitation trainings, held yearly at the NPA Annual Conference
  • Access evaluation tools, including pre-session and post-session surveys
  • Stay up-to-date with upcoming online and in-person events

To access the facilitator guide or to join the community of facilitators, visit www.postdocacademy.org/facilitate.

planning ideas writing on paper
Partnering with NPA: Facilitator Training

The Postdoc Academy is excited to partner with NPA, hosting a train-the-trainer style program on Thursday, March 26, 2020 before the NPA Annual Conference. We hope you will join our team and other members of the community for an interactive, day-long training. This immersive workshop will provide hands-on facilitator training, professional development resources, and introduce you to the community of PALS facilitators. Training is open to everyone, designed specifically for those interested in adapting our content to local programming, and accessible to newer facilitators.

If your institution is without a postdoc office or has limited postdoc office resources, we are providing travel awards and this workshop may be a way of establishing professional development for postdocs on your campus. We will expand on traditional programs by working through inclusive facilitation strategies and assisting participants to develop strategies for capacity building within their own institution. We focus on developing and practicing facilitator skills, as well as creating a community of practitioners, in addition to disseminating our materials and content. Register when you sign-up for the NPA Annual Conference.

We hope postdocs and those who support postdocs join our community and explore the freely accessible resources. To learn more about the Postdoc Academy or share your stories with us, visit www.postdocacademy.org, follow @PostdocAcademy on social media, or email postdocacademy@gmail.com to host a workshop on your campus (and share a slice or two of pizza).

The Postdoc Academy is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number R25GM121257. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Sarah Chobot Hokanson, PhD, is the assistant provost of professional development & postdoctoral affairs at Boston University and multi-PI of the Postdoc Academy. She is the former co-chair of the NPA ResDev committee.

Celine Young, PhD, is the program director of the Postdoc Academy from the Office of Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs at Boston University. She is a member of the NPA ResDev committee.




Tips for Interviewing at a Job Fair and Beyond

By Natalia Martin

Man raising hand behind desk in interview

Edited from Pexels

The NPA is hosting the 2020 Career Fair during the Annual Conference next March in San Diego, California. The Resource Development Committee is collaborating with The POSTDOCket to provide a series of resources for postdoctoral scholars to be prepared for this event and the job search process broadly.

Career fairs, sometimes called jobs fairs or recruitment fairs, are events designed to help job seekers and attendees in general, learn about potential employers. These events are typically organized at academic institutions and conferences and take place in a large hall, where each potential employer will have a designated booth or table with a couple of employees representing the company/organization. All those attending the career fair can ask questions to the prospective employers and learn about their company/organization, their application process and anything else the attendees find relevant for their job search (or future job search) process. Postdoctoral scholars that are not yet ready to start the job search and job application process will also benefit from this event, as it is an opportunity to meet potential employers and make connections that could be beneficial at other stages in their careers.

Since some companies/organizations conduct screening interviews at career fairs, in this issue we will offer advice on how to prepare for a potential interview at a career fair and beyond.

Before The Interview

The job search process starts long before the submission of a job application or before attending a career fair. The amount of time needed to prepare for this process can vary but it is advisable to start at least a year before the anticipated end of the postdoctoral appointment.

Know Yourself

Self-assessments and self-reflection are a key and essential aspect of every job search and thus, of the interview process. Although it is possible to find a job without going through a process of self-assessment and self-reflection, it is unlikely that this job will be the best fit. Why is it so crucial for job seekers to develop a clear idea of who they are as a person and as a professional before starting the job application process? Because by knowing one’s personal values, needs, expectations, skills and weaknesses, one can:

  • easily identify if a given job opportunity is sufficiently aligned with one’s needs and expectations or if it is not a good fit, and
  • develop a clear narrative that highlights what one brings to a given role, to the team and the organization.

Several online IDP tools (myIDP, ChemIDP, ImaginePhD and institutional IDPs) and webinars are available to facilitate this process. Additionally, the Resource Development Committee is developing a guide to help postdocs incorporate the use of IDP tools in their postdoc experience. Stay tuned!

Furthermore, attending the NPA Career Fair at this stage in the job search process could be informative and help postdocs who are at this stage to learn about different organizations and make valuable connections.

Be Prepared

For most, if not all people, interviews are stressful. Practicing in front of mentors, career professionals, peers, friends and even mirrors can help job seekers gain confidence and improve their interviewing skills. Practicing is particularly important for job seekers for which English is their second language. Important considerations beyond the content of the answers are to enunciate, project the voice and display positive body language.

The Interview Process

Depending on the job sector, the interview process will be different in terms of timelines, number and types of interviews, etc. However, there are certain common characteristics. In general, there are at least two rounds of interviews: a screening interview and an in-person interview or site-visit. The screening interviews are generally conducted by phone or video calls. However, they can also take place in person at career fairs.

Behave (and Dress) as a Professional

Regardless of the type of interview, it is important to always behave professionally, be on time, polite, and respectful. First impressions are key and dressing professionally is also an important component of making a good first impression. However, it is also important to wear comfortable clothes and select an attire that reflects oneself.

Answer Questions Honestly

This might be obvious but it is key to provide honest answers to the interview questions instead of responding with answers one thinks the future employer might be looking for. The interview is an opportunity for the job seeker to check for fit as much as it is for the potential employer. Answering honestly is not only the ethical behavior one should have but also the best chance to find a position that is a good fit. Additionally, using the STAR (situation, task, action, result) method to answer certain questions can help the interviewee be clear and to the point while answering questions.

Ask Questions

In almost every interview, there is an opportunity for the applicant to ask questions. Taking advantage of this opportunity is critical as it helps demonstrate interest in the job and provides a chance to learn if that role would be a good fit. It is advisable to prepare questions in advance to have as a backup. Other more relevant questions might come to mind during the interview, however, if this is not the case, the backup questions could help. Since some of the prepared questions might be answered during the interview conversations, preparing at least 5 to 10 questions in advance should provide enough backup questions.

After the Interview

After the interview, sending thank-you notes to the hiring manager and each person who was part of the interview is a must. This applies to both screening and on-site interviews. For some hiring managers, omitting this step can take a candidate out of the applicant’s pool. The idea is to thank each interviewer for their time by sending a customized email, which mentions something that was discussed with that interviewer specifically. These emails are also useful to reinforce the applicant’s interest in the position. It is advisable to send these emails within 1-2 days after the interview. This advice is also applicable to other interactions during the career fair.

We hope to see you at the NPA Career Fair and hope that you find some of these tips worth putting into practice!

Natalia Martin, PhD, is a project manager in the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office at the American Chemical Society, which serves graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the chemical sciences. She is also a member of the Board of Directors for the NPA and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium. The views presented here are the author’s own.






Feeling Blue: Increasing Mental Health Awareness in Postdoctoral Researchers

By Eryn McFarlane, Edward Ivimey-Cook, and Murielle Ålund

sad girl sitting in blue

Image edited: freepik.

You have worked for three, four, maybe eight years on THE project, investing all your energy towards this one goal: a doctoral thesis. Finally, the book is written, the work has been presented, the examiners convinced... congratulations, you are a doctor! So now what?

Feeling Blue is OK

If this is how you are feeling despite finally reaching this goal, you are not alone! It can be even more infuriating to realize that you feel down despite having reached a milestone in your career and life. The “post-project blues” is actually quite common for any activity that demands increasing amounts of time, and corresponding stress, until the deadline is fulfilled and the adrenaline rush disappears.

Finishing doctoral studies usually means having to adjust back to a more regular level of work, and work-life balance, without constantly feeling that you should be doing more. The very last months of writing a thesis can be especially stressful and might make you abandon everything else for this last push. It takes time to get back to a normal routine. Adjusting to perhaps not having such a definitive deadline can be disconcerting too, and defending a thesis generally represents an important life transition. You will likely jump into a new project and have to start at ground level again just when you had finally achieved a level of expertise in your field. On top of this change, you may have the responsibility of finishing projects or publications from your dissertation work, without receiving additional remuneration for your effort.

Dealing with Feeling Blue

Give yourself some time to adjust to this big life change. Recognize that feeling blue after such an achievement is part of the process. If possible, give yourself some time to digest, rest, and plan your next project. However, know that the next stage also comes with some challenges, linked among other factors to the general ephemeral nature of postdoctoral contracts. Below the authors are detailing some reasons that postdoctoral scholars are particularly at risk of mental health issues, and some suggestions to improve support within academic institutions.

You don’t need to go alone through a difficult period in your life, reach out for help!

Crisis Text Line: 741-741
Mental Health America: www.mhanational.org
National Suicice Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Samaritans (UK): 116-123
Mind, the mental health charity (UK): www.mind.org.uk

For more useful links: www.happypostdocs.weebly.com

A Sensitive Life Stage Where Short TContracts Bring Uncertainty

To be clear, the authors are not suggesting that the mental health of postdocs is any more important than that of other academics. Rather, they are pointing out general urgency to address the underlying issues that are present at each career stage (which can be quite marked in their differences). Postdoctoral mental health should be considered in a continuum with graduate student mental health, although there are some fundamental issues that characterize this career stage.

For instance, finishing up a graduate degree usually leaves little time for job-hunting. In addition, after a postdoc has been secured, it frequently turns out that the postdoctoral contracts is short and non-permanent (sometimes lasting for only a year), which means there is constant pressure to find the next job in order to secure income for yourself and, in some cases, support family members. Academia often promotes the career benefits of moving without considering the drawbacks. Furthermore, limited postdoc availability in very narrow fields of expertise can force frequent movement. A postdoc might be forced to accept that future progression in academia may mean moving anywhere in the world in order to secure a potential permanent job, even if that means uprooting one’s family every year or so. Securing the next appointment may also mean having a project that rapidly comes together with publishable results. Taken together, this creates a constant feeling of pressure that can negatively impact a postdoc’s long-term mental health.

Increasing Financial Support and Training Personnel as Mental Health First Aiders
woman negotiating pay between breaks in calendar

Relieve stress by providing pay between breaks. Image edited: freepik.

An additional trigger of poor mental health in postdocs is the financial uncertainty that occurs between finishing a doctorate and starting a postdoc. The end date of the graduate student’s defense (or of finishing a postdoc contract) might be weeks or months before the start date of the next postdoctoral position. During this time, few postdocs have a financial safety net. This problem is exacerbated for new postdocs as the first contract after receiving a doctorate often requires moving to a new city or country, and such moves are expensive and time-consuming.

In ideal circumstances, moving costs would be covered by the postdoc’s new department, but this is often not the case. Postdocs regularly pay out of pocket to move, often either preceding or immediately after a period of unemployment, while potentially still incurring student loan costs from ongoing interest accrual. Predictable financial stress negatively affects the mental health of postdocs, particularly when there are not mechanisms to guard against it. On possible solution would be establishing bridge funding for early career researchers to:

  • pay for breaks between contracts (either intentional or not) and
  • help with moving costs.

Establishing a source for bridge funds could be a challenge. One possible solution could be for professional societies with a vested interest in maintaining the mental health of postdoc members. Another solution might involve increased departmental support for a period of time following a successful defense or in a postdoc transition period to decrease this financial burden and subsequent negative effect on postdoc mental health.

While it is true that postdocs have resources available to them (see box), seeking help first requires admitting you might be in trouble. Putting the onus on a postdoc, who might be in a new city or department, to seek out these resources, limits their usefulness. Instead, the authors propose that departments train mental health first aiders (MHFA) who are equipped to recognize when a postdoc (or anyone in the department, including graduate students, faculty and technical staff) needs help. Such first aiders could reach out to defending graduate students or postdocs during anticipated stressful periods such as when transitioning to a new position and provide guidance or help in accessing available resources so that individual postdocs do not need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when seeking out mental health resources in a new department or city. MHFAs have been found to have beneficial effects on the workplace, including increases in knowledge of and changes in attitude towards mental health, and increases of helping behaviors towards those in need. MHFA training is available through private agencies and could be implemented in the same way that physical first aid training is done.

As a postdoc, it is important to understand that these stresses are normal and that seeking help is reasonable. As academics, the authors suggest that the implementation of institutional strategies to help graduate students transitioning to postdocs and postdocs in sensitive times, such as through bridging funding and mental health first aid in departments that employ early career researchers could have outsized positive effects on postdoc mental health.

S. Eryn McFarlane, PhD, is a VR postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, UK and Lund University, Sweden.

Edward Ivimey-Cook, PhD, is a BBSRC-funded senior postdoctoral research associate at the University of East Anglia, UK, and hosts “The Happy Postdocs” website, which includes links to various forms of mental health support.

Murielle Ålund, PhD, is an SNSF postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University, MI, and associate editor at The POSTDOCket.

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.

Welcome to our new members!
  • Baylor University
Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
  • Augusta University
  • Boston Children's Hospital
  • Boston University
  • Florida Atlantic University
  • Louisiana State University
  • McMaster University
  • Northwestern University
  • Oregon Health & Science University
  • Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Sandia National Laboratories
  • Seattle Children's
  • Stowers Institute for Medical Research
  • Syracuse University
  • Thomas Jefferson University
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of North Carolina Charlotte
  • University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of South Florida
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!

Associate Editor

Thank you to our associate editor for December!
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