- Career Center
|The POSTDOCket, January 2020|
Effective Learning Strategies for Postdoctoral Scholars
By Rituparna Ganguly
Postdoctoral scholars devote precious years of their lives for learning and training to develop a personal expertise that ultimately leads to their ideal career. However, very few of them pause to consider in-depth strategies of effective learning. Effective learning is not a simple task that can be accomplished easily, but rather, requires long-term deliberate practice where learning becomes a lifestyle. It is very easy to lose track of your end goals and waste valuable time and effort on things that will not advance you or your projects. The key to effective learning is to have a definitive plan and maintain a personal checklist to follow. The purpose of this article is to discuss a few fundamental strategies that postdocs can use.
Setting up career direction:
Determining your career goals early during your graduate degree or postdoctoral job search helps to jump-start the learning process and to connect you with a lab where the skill sets most useful to you can be developed. In addition, it puts you in control of your own future, allowing you to find the connections that will truly help you. Zhen Chen, assistant professor at the Department of Diabetes Complications and Metabolism at City of Hope, said, “Stay focused and keep an open mind. If you decide to go for an academic route, devote all your effort towards writing fellowships or grants. Also, communicate with your mentor about these plans early and invite his/her input, in terms of timeline, effort, projects, etc. However, if the outcome is not as desirable, re-evaluate your goal and explore alternative career paths." The key is understanding when to stay the course and when to pivot, whether one chooses a career path in industry, academia, nonprofit, or government. The sooner and more strongly you can focus on the skills, background and relationships you need, to reach your personal career goals, the more likely you are to achieve success.
Networking with people in a specific career path lets you learn about their definite skill-sets. It also introduces you to people in the career field you are interested in before you are applying for a job or a position. Manasi Kamat, PhD, currently a scientist at Allergan and a former postdoctoral scholar at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope says that she chose her postdoctoral lab to expand skills in human-related research. She told The POSTDOCket that networking was one of the most important aspects of her transition. Kamat said, “Make sure you know what you want and when you network ask the right kind of questions. Do not give up easily, there will be multiple rejections and obstacles. Just keep your calm and carry on.” In Chen’s opinion, the best approach to pursue an academic position is to present at conferences, read your colleagues’ work, and talk to them specifically about the topic of research. Discussing a manuscript with its author not only enhances your knowledge of the topic, but it creates a relationship you may be able to draw on later.
Personal to-do list:
Keeping a personal to-do list is very useful. An example of such a list may contain very specific and achievable learning goals and cover different aspects of your personal career development, e.g. technical advancement, scientific advancement, professional development, etc. You could do this by creating the resume or CV you would like to have in five years time, and slowly making each item a reality. This process will help you achieve progress steadily without feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work to be done or stuck in one area that is providing little advancement and will help you to stay focused on your end goals. Another idea is to check job descriptions and find out the skills that are typically sought after, and add those to the list.
Dividing up a long to-do list into smaller pieces and trying to take one step every month or maybe every week is the best way to achieve a learning goal. Chen’s advice on this is really important; she says “Set short- and long-term goals and milestones, which should be very specific and measurable. Divide these achievable milestones in weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, and yearly periods.” Every small step will help to move a little closer to the destination.
Postdoctoral Associations (PDAs):
PDAs can be very useful resources if utilized effectively. For instance, a PDA is an ideal organization to discuss potential internship opportunities to learn a specific technique or attend courses available on campus. PDAs can also help to connect members with institutional alumni in a specific field. Most of the time, the PDA wants to hear from the postdoctoral scholars how to better create a supportive and inspiring learning environment.
Online learning platforms like Coursera, Udemy or edX can be utilized to take courses or acquire certifications. In many cases, group learning with peers can be really helpful, and a defined timeline can help to provide motivation and a means of being accountable.
Personal performance evaluation:
A personal performance evaluation can be extremely useful if properly done every six months or so. Self-evaluation is a great way to identify progress towards your career goals; a six month time frame lets you see the bigger picture, celebrate your accomplishments, and evaluate the gaps that still exist. Evaluation could cover various aspects of your career development, e.g. writing skills, presentation skills, technical skills, development of expertise in your particular field.
Plan to encounter obstacles:
Obstacles are an integral part of life. There will be issues in any learning process as well. Therefore, it is always helpful to build and maintain contacts with experienced people. Attending local networking events or participating in group career development activities, provide an opportunity to build strong relationships with like-minded peers. In addition to the chance to develop evidence of your ability to work in a team, you can benefit personally as a postdoc through sharing ideas and learning new strategies from skilled individuals. LinkedIn or other social networks provide a further opportunity to expand your ability to contact experts in the career field you are focused on and get their insights.
Overall, remaining patient, taking small methodical steps towards a bigger goal, and staying focused are the keys to effective learning. It is very important to remember that learning takes a lot of time and effort; therefore, it’s extremely essential to be completely sure before embarking on a new educational venture.
Rituparna Ganguly, PhD, is an American Heart Association (AHA) postdoctoral fellow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, Duarte, California.
Meet the 2020 NPA Meetings Committee Members!
By Pauline Charbogne, Louise Lassalle, The Meetings Committee
Each year, many volunteers pitch in to help make the NPA Annual Conference a great success. Too often, these volunteers are not seen for the work that they do, which makes it difficult to acknowledge the individual contributions, and also to recruit new volunteers who can carry on the outstanding service. We have a very diverse group helping in planning the 2020 meeting in San Diego, and we would like to thank everyone, starting with the leaders of each subcommittee. This year, in addition to our Meetings Committee co-chaired by Lisa Mustachio, PhD, and Rajan Chaudhari, PhD, we have the following eight subcommittees focusing on different aspects of the meeting:
The networking subcommittee reviews and organizes existing and new, innovative networking opportunities, such as “lunch-around” or “break topics” opportunities, for the Annual Conference. This subcommittee assists the communications subcommittee and Outreach Committee with promotions via articles in The POSTDOCket, social media platforms, and the Whova conference mobile application.
Pauline Charbogne, PhD, currently works with the Society for Neuroscience on matters related to training. Louise Lassalle, PhD, is the assistant director of Life Design at The Johns Hopkins University.
The awards subcommittee reviews, sets the criteria and then selects the travel and childcare award recipients.
Andrekia Branch is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services at Virginia Commonwealth University. Abirami Santhanam, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston studying neural regeneration in the retina.
The posters subcommittee is responsible for recruiting and selecting poster presenters, as well as coordinating the onsite poster judging.
Natalia Sizochenko, PhD, is a postdoc with Dartmouth College in the field of Computational Biology.
The workshops subcommittee is responsible for recruiting and selecting workshops sessions, to facilitate the free flow of information and encourage professional networking among all participants.
Debi Fadool, PhD, is the Nancy Marcus Professor, and associate dean and director of postdoctoral affairs at Florida State University. Anne Wyllie, PhD, is a pneumococcologist postdoc at Yale University.
The Career Fair subcommittee assists the NPA Development Committee in organizing and running the new Annual Conference Career Fair by developing and implementing strategies to promote potential participating companies and attendees.
Ranveer Jayani, PhD, has been doing research in the field of cancer and molecular biology at the University of California San Diego, location of the 2020 NPA meeting. Susmita Ghosh, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of Central Florida, and an expert in immunology, infectious diseases, microbiology, and related fields.
The keynote and plenary subcommittee proposes keynote and plenary topics, and recruits and identifies potential speakers for the 2021 conference.
Chris Smith, PhD, is a neuroscientist and postdoctoral affairs program manager at North Carolina State University. Pravesh Gupta, PhD, is a postdoc and project lead studying brain tumor immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The fundraising subcommittee works with the Development, Outreach and local host committees to obtain funding for the Annual Conference and works on obtaining items for the silent auction/raffle and prizes. Their work also includes the recruitment of companies for the new Annual Conference Career Fair, as well as for the exhibition hall.
Sam Castaneda is a long-time supporter and advocate of postdocs, previously serving as director of visiting scholars and postdoc affairs at UC Berkeley Center. Nicholas Murphy, PhD, is a postdoc at the Baylor College of Medicine studying neuroscience and neurophysiology.
The communications subcommittee brainstorms, develops, and implements innovative communication strategies to promote the conference as well as reporting out during and after the Annual Conference. This subcommittee works with the Outreach Committee and editors for The POSTDOCket on various articles and potential social media promotions.
Aaron Reifler, PhD, is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Michigan State University. Lalitha Kurada, PhD, is a postdoc at the George Washington University.
THANK YOU to all volunteers!
Each subcommittee has numerous volunteers that have contributed hours of their time to help coordinate and plan the meeting, and there are several volunteers involved in short-term/one-off tasks to assist in the planning and organization of the Annual Conference. These include the following areas: workshops rubric and posters rubric restructure, volunteer coordinator, onsite Annual Conference volunteers, researchers for potential sponsors/contacts, fundraisers by cold calls/emails and others. On behalf of the NPA, the Meetings Committee, and postdocs around the globe, we would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude!
Full list of volunteers by subcommittee:
The Meetings Committee submitted this article as a group. Pauline Charbogne, PhD, currently works with the Society for Neuroscience on matters related to training and is cochair of the networking subcommittee of the Meetings Committee. Louise Lassalle, PhD, is the assistant director of Life Design at The Johns Hopkins University and is co-chair of the networking subcommittee of the Meetings Committee..
Confronting and Quieting Imposter Syndrome – Your Worst Best Friend, Ever!
By Ericka Boone
In elementary school, I loved math. By seventh grade, I hated it to my core. Really, who cares about calculating what time two trains meet as long as they don’t crash! It all made my head swim, and my math teacher made it worse! He only called on students that were certain to know the answer and ignored—or worse—ridiculed all others. In this class, a lack of understanding was the enemy, and empowering students to work through questions was non-existent. Unbeknownst to me then, this is where I first encountered imposter syndrome.
Regardless of accolades and successes, those imposter fears (self-doubt, fear of being exposed as not as smart as my peers) resurfaced from time to time during my graduate and postdoctoral training and during my first position outside of academia. I never talked about it—my fear that I would expose my closely held secret for all to see—that is, until I attended a work-life balance presentation that changed my life. The topic was Imposter Syndrome. At first, I was stunned because no one had ever mentioned it. I thought those feelings of professional self-doubt were all in my head. But as I thought more about it, I felt liberated. I now had new knowledge that could help me and that I could use, together with my personal experience, to help others!
Last April, I had the awesome opportunity to present a workshop on Imposter Syndrome at the 2019 NPA Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. To my delight, the session was an absolute success! As evidenced by the standing room only crowd, session attendees were eager to gain insight on how to deal with the imposter within.
So, what is Imposter Syndrome? It is not a mental health diagnosis and does not equate to low self-esteem. Rather it is described as a pattern of thought where high-achieving individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as completely unprepared and unqualified. In a nutshell, imposter syndrome is that internal “worst best friend” that rudely reminds you of your mistakes, that you are a bit of a fraud, your accomplishments are due to ANYTHING other than your talent or intellect, and EVERYONE is going to find out! The most difficult part of dealing with imposter syndrome is that NO ONE talks about it, so it can loom over us like a dark cloud...undermining our courage to speak up and express our ideas, explore new opportunities or areas of interest, or simply show up more fully in our own lives. Because few seem to facilitate conversations between individuals to provide an outlet, I decided that I would.
Know that you are not alone! It is estimated that 70 percent of the population has battled the “imposter monster.” Some of the most successful people, including tech giants, politicians, actors, and even your mentors have likely encountered imposter syndrome. But, while it is comforting to know that others have battled imposter thoughts, it is not enough. Learning how to quickly identify and defuse imposter thoughts/fears can empower us to not only better manage them, but also gain a new perspective. For my workshop, I knew that my intrepid scholars needed armor and weapons to fully engage in battle with their imposter fears and combat the whirlwind of anxiety and negative self-talk that accompany them. Here are my tips:
Be Your Own Best Friend
Plant Your Feet...Breathe
Silence is NOT Golden
Cut Out the Instagram/Snapchat Mentality
Do Something Good for Yourself
There was a TREMENDOUS amount of interaction among our session attendees at the NPA meeting, and I have received many enthusiastic emails! And just in case you are wondering if these tips work for me: I have recently had to put them into heavy rotation…but I had to add one more—lean on your circle (personal and professional) to help get you over the hump. The relief I felt when my circle began to huddle around me in support was invaluable. It reassured me that I had the trust and support of others that I respected! I hope that you too can use these tips to get your defenses up and disarm your imposter fears. I invite you to suit up and come join me as I continue my imposter-free journey. Until we meet again, take good care of you!
Ericka Boone, PhD, is the director of the NIH Division of Loan Repayment. This NPA POSTDOCket submission was prepared by Boone in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government..
Postdoctoral Funding With Strings Attached
By Aliyah M. Weinstein
Postdoctoral scholars who are funded by NIH T- and F-series grants may be put into a career-altering bind if they complete less than two years of postdoctoral training. That is because grant-funded postdocs must agree to pay back their first 12 months of funding to the NIH through qualified research, teaching, or health-related activities. Otherwise, they may be required to pay back their stipend financially.
The current training payback policy has been in effect since 1993. Prior to 1993, postdocs were required to pay back all grant funding they received during their postdoctoral training. All postdocs who are appointed to a T- or F-series grant sign a payback agreement, thereby agreeing to this policy when they are appointed to the grant and are again reminded of this obligation when they terminate grant funding. The NIH then follows up with a yearly reminder letter via mail, until the payback obligation is fulfilled.
Postdocs must initiate the repayment process within two years of terminating their postdoctoral grant funding. This means submitting paperwork to the NIH indicating that they’ve spent time working in a qualified scientific job. Postdocs who stay in their postdoctoral position beyond one year fulfill the repayment obligation through this work. More uncertainty arises for postdocs who move on to other careers.
In the current employment environment, the variety of roles available to graduate degree holders outside of academia can be two sides of the same coin when it comes to grant payback. While postdocs have a greater likelihood of landing a career that aligns with their interests and values, it also introduces confusion into what is counted as a health-related activity for the purpose of the payback obligation. According to the NIH, the category of health-related activities “incorporates a broad range of activities related to the description, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of disease from the most basic biomedical or behavioral research to the most applied or clinical research.” This category allows the NIH to adapt to and accept new careers for the purposes of repayment. Anecdotally, accepted health-related activities have included careers in science communication and academic roles outside of research. Postdocs can also contact their program officer at the NIH to discuss whether their post-postdoc career qualifies towards repayment.
Some former postdocs have opted to take jobs outside of science and risk having to repay their postdoc stipend. For these postdocs, the financial stability of a high-paying job in finance or consulting outweighs the burden of financial repayment in the long run.
There are myriad factors that already contribute to a postdoc’s decision to stay or leave their position, but the financial implications of the payback agreement cannot be overlooked. Despite the payback policy being in place for over 25 years, many postdocs and PIs expressed confusion or lack of knowledge about it, following a thread recently posted on Twitter. Minimal information about the repayment obligation is available from sources other than the NIH, meaning that postdocs searching for guidance as they navigate this situation will not find much information. More publicity about the payback obligation for grant-funded postdocs will allow postdocs to make a more informed decision about the type of funding they accept during their postdoc and what career they choose afterward.
Aliyah M. Weinstein, PhD, works in scientific marketing and communications in the nonprofit sector.
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!
Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!
Thank you to our associate editor for January!