- Career Center
|The POSTDOCket, July 2020|
The National Postdoctoral Association continues to monitor the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic during this very challenging year, and we hope that all members of our community are staying safe and healthy. Over the past few months,
we have seen the far-reaching impacts of several executive actions that have deeply affected our community of current and future international postdoctoral scholars, as well as the burden and injury racial and social injustices
have had on marginalized communities. In this time of pain and hope, we express our tremendous appreciation for our resilient and remarkable community that is strengthened by robust collaborations, mutual support, and shared learning.
This month’s issue of The POSTDOCket highlights several of these difficult conversations surrounding issues of diversity and inclusion that are so meaningful at this time of great uncertainty. We hope that you take the
time to read through these stories to broaden your awareness of these critical issues and reflect on your own actions to drive change and make impact.
Suspension of the Skilled Worker Visa Program and its Impact on International Postdoctoral Scholars
By Rakesh Chatrikhi and Andrea S. Pereyra
In the United States, over 60 percent of postdoctoral scholars are international trainees that play a crucial role in the overall advancement of research. International postdocs often experience additional struggles, such as language barriers, having to adapt to a new lifestyle, and even discrimination. An important factor that governs international postdocs and can have a significant impact on their lives and career choices is their visa and immigration status. Recent executive actions pertaining to foreign nationals not only impact the international postdoctoral community but are also detrimental to the advancement of scientific research. This article reviews the most common visa types used by international postdocs and how the latest presidential proclamation affects them.
Types of visas used by international postdocs
International postdocs engaged in research or teaching activities at an academic institution or industry in the United States are most likely under one of the following nonimmigrant visa categories:
Current immigration landscape and its impact on the international postdoctoral community
On June 22, 2020, a presidential proclamation “Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak” was issued. Although the full understanding of how this new resolution will affect the international postdoctoral community is still in progress, the key initial takeaways are the following:
In addition, the proclamation extends a pre-existing freeze on the issuance of immigrant visas for those outside of the United States seeking entry as green card holders (in certain immigrant visa categories) until December 31, 2020.
However, even if a postdoctoral scholar is not directly impacted by the scope of this proclamation there are still COVID-19 related circumstances that could delay or prevent re-entry to the United States such as embassy/consulate closures and travel restrictions or bans. Because international travel is being currently shaped by these new visa regulations and health crisis responses it is highly advisable that all international travel plans be discussed with the scholar’s institution or sponsor in advance.
Detrimental effects of restriction on immigration
International scholars are critical to the future of the research enterprise in all its disciplines. Foreign-born scientists and engineers have contributed immensely to the scientific success and maintaining economic leadership of the United States, making it a global leader in healthcare and technology. Skilled immigrants not only contribute at many levels—as technicians, teachers, and researchers—but also generate economic gains by adding to the processes of industrial and business innovation.
Scientific research is a global effort and international collaborations are imperative, especially in times of crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. The presidential proclamation “Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak” will severely disrupt the personal and professional lives of thousands of international scholars, as well as the scientific projects and initiatives that they are engaged in. If the presence of international scholars were substantially diminished, important research and teaching activities in academe, industry, and federal laboratories would be curtailed, according to a report by the U.S. National Research Council.
Additionally, the cumulative effect of immigration restrictions affecting not only international postdoctoral scholars, but also international faculty, and undergraduate and graduate students, will have a devastating effect on the ability of the United States to recruit and retain the world's best and brightest minds. This could have a severe impact on the research enterprise and on the whole U.S. education system. According to an immigration-focused study, not only are skilled immigrants highly mobile, but the technology industries in the United States in which they are concentrated are the largest and fastest-growing exporters and leading contributors to the nation’s economic growth.
Suggestions for international postdocs:
The authors note that working with an immigration counsel is pivotal when preparing applications for visas, especially during this era of ever-changing immigration policies.
Rakesh Chatrikhi, Ph.D., and Andrea S. Pereyra, M.D., Ph.D., are International Officers at the NPA. The authors thank NPA Advisor, Brendan Delaney, J.D., for his expert advice and revisions to this article.
Addressing the Elephant in the Ivory – Diversity in Academia
By Vipul Sharma
Diversity and inclusion is an integral part of any workplace. While there has been progress in academia to abide by those principles, data show there is still a long way to go. Recently, there was a reality check with #BlackintheIvory hashtag on social media. This tag was used by graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, faculty, and administrators from marginalized groups in higher education to share painful posts about their struggle to thrive in racially discriminatory academic settings.
The Elephant, the Ivory: the Data
Although in theory Americans believe in diversity—with 80 percent thinking it is at-least ‘somewhat’ important to have racial and ethnic diversity— more work needs to be done to reflect these ideals in the higher education sector. According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2018, of all full professors, 53 percent were white males and 27 percent were white females. These numbers change slightly at the assistant professor level, with 34 percent white males and 39 percent white females, suggesting progress with gender equity but not as much for racial and ethnic diversity in higher education.
A recent study in PNAS by Hofstra et al. analyzed data from nearly all United States graduate degree recipients over three decades. Their data showed that scholars from underrepresented groups innovate at higher rates than scholars from well-represented groups, but the novel contributions from underrepresented groups are discounted, and their efforts were less likely to result in academic positions. People of color are asked to serve on committees or diversity task forces and mentor students at much higher rates than white scholars, and whilst these activities take time otherwise spent doing research, these efforts are not taken into consideration when it comes to hiring and promotion. Some scholars term this phenomenon the ‘minority tax’ - the burden of extra responsibilities placed on faculty of color in the name of diversity.
Exploring Reasons for Lack of Diversity
Two probable reasons for the lack of diversity could be that there aren’t enough diverse candidates applying for jobs in higher education; or that there is racial and ethnic bias in recruitment, hiring, and promotions; or a combination of both. However, lack of candidates from underrepresented groups cannot be the reason: a study conducted over the course of three decades (1980–2015) shows that the pool of potential candidates from underrepresented groups has gone up 7.6 times and between 2005–2014, including 6,653 biomedical graduate degree holders in the candidate pool—however, these numbers are not reflected in faculty positions.
Candidates from underrepresented groups are very much present, therefore the reason for a lack of representation in the hiring pool could be due to biases introducing structural racialization into the hiring process, resulting in candidates being screened out because of factors such as the school they attended, their access to networks, and even their own name (white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get callbacks from hiring managers). The atmosphere of a lack of diversity among faculty leads a lot of students to the conclusion that the profession is not meant for them because they do not see themselves reflected in the pool of successful professionals. In this way, institutions are also missing out on the insights and experiences of scholars of color.
Many institutions focus on the diversity of their faculty members as an outcome achieved, perpetuating the concept of tokenism. If the only intent/action is diversity and not inclusion, it can lead to imposter syndrome in faculty of color. In addition, it can impact new and upcoming faculty of color with the “gratitude tax,” which is defined as feeling an excessive obligation to the academic institution for being given the “opportunity.” Both imposter syndrome and gratitude tax can lead to questioning and diminishing one’s sense of accomplishment. Rather, the focus should be on whether underrepresented faculty members feel included and valued. After all, a diverse group (including underrepresented and well-represented groups) can only thrive if everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute from their own unique perspective without any unsaid or unseen status quo.
Educating Higher Education
The #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives movement occurred on June 10, 2020 to intentionally allow for individuals to use that day to think and educate themselves about institutional and systemic racism in higher education. Participants were charged to reflect on how they could contribute to meaningful change in their own attitudes and actions, and commit to actionable next steps to eradicate structural barriers in academia. Many institutional departments stopped “business as usual” and used that day to plan their long term commitment and develop an action plan. A lot of information on resources and action examples for scholars at different level (researchers, students, department leaders, funding agencies, support staff, and professional societies) is available on #ShutDownSTEM website.
Universities and academic institutions should be aware of the challenges and barriers for faculty of color in order to understand perspectives and improve institutional policies and practices. To address the issue and foster more diversity, structural improvements need to be implemented at multiple levels to change hiring and retention procedures. At the hiring level, a re-evaluation of hiring practices and criteria used to assess candidates is necessary. At the retention level, additional encouragement, support, career development, and mentorship will be helpful.
This will ensure a robust applicant pool/pipeline of diverse faculty candidates, thus breaking the ‘lack of diverse candidates applying for faculty positions’ claim. This will also create a culture of support to ensure their retention and success.
The change in policies and support for trainees of color can help encourage them to pursue a career in higher education and bring in a new generation of faculty of color. Racism exists in our society—covert and overt—and academic institutions have an opportunity to shape the future and educate the next generation by listening, learning, and developing actionable policies and practices.
Vipul Sharma, PhD, (pronouns: he/him) is a Diversity Officer for the NPA.
Journal of Life Sciences, JoLS, and Society of Life Sciences, SoLS
By Pol Arranz Gibert, Rosa-Maria Ferraiuolo, Theo van den Broek, Chih Hung Lo
Postdoctoral scholars do not usually have many opportunities to experience the work done on the other side of the publication system, in other words: editing and peer-review work. These opportunities are often carried out by more experienced researchers, such as principal investigators, who receive the requests for peer-reviewing articles. Despite the potential of including young postdoctoral researchers in the reviewing process, their inexperience reviewing articles often makes them ineligible. Even more difficult is to find opportunities in editing - such positions are reserved for senior researchers or professional editors. Thus, reviewing or editing experiences tend to be out of reach for many postdocs.
An open-access, peer reviewed life-sciences journal run by postdocs
Journal of Life Sciences (JoLS), is a postdoc community initiative. It is an open access, international peer-reviewed journal that publishes, on an ongoing basis, articles in the field of life sciences including, but not limited to, cell biology, ecology, genetics, immunology, microbiology, neuroscience, physiology and systems biology. JoLS accepts original research papers, reviews, perspectives, commentaries, progress articles, methodologies and research highlights, which go through a rigorous peer-review process with a turn-around time of 5-6 weeks.
JoLS is the first of its kind—a journal entirely run by postdoctoral scholars from universities and research institutes across the world. The operational team includes two editors in chief, a managing editor, an editorial coordinator, several contributing editors, communications director and social media directors. All of them are senior and seasoned postdoctoral scientists with excellent publication record and research experience. Together, JoLS members have built a unique and independent platform to support and enhance the postdoctoral experience in the life sciences. In addition to publishing high-quality articles, the journal offers abundant learning opportunities to new postdoctoral trainees, promising graduate and undergraduate students—including participation in scientific writing, peer-reviewing and editing—that wish to build a compelling scientific resume.
JoLS celebrates accomplished mentors, postdocs and students
Every month JoLS recognizes the accomplishments of postdocs, as well as of graduate and undergraduate students. Send your applications, either self-nominated or endorsed by your mentors/research colleagues, to EIC@journaloflifesciences.org and help JoLS recognize talented scientists. Additionally, JoLS has a dedicated space to celebrate the contributions of principal investigators and mentors in building the career and scientific acumen of postdoctoral trainees. The highly popular Mentor-Postdoc Spotlights (MPS) highlight a mentor's career and scientific success. MPS is JoLS's way of recognizing postdoc mentors' efforts in training the next generation leaders in research and academia. Likewise, there will soon be a segment on Mentor-Graduate Student Spotlight, MGS, series.
SoLS, an excellent opportunity to boost postdocs professional network
Last, JoLS has a sister-organization, the recently launched the Society of Life Sciences (SoLS), where postdoctoral scientists will have opportunities to interview accomplished scientists—Nobel Laureates, senior scientists and professors, young independent investigators, deans/directors of academic/postdoctoral affairs, postdocs/grad students who are lead authors in high-impact journals, federal officials and policymakers whose decisions impact research/development, and the like.
Interviews will be conducted by postdocs, and eligible graduate students, via a set of written questionnaires, specifically tailored to the interviewees. All due credit will be given to the interviewers. Helping to conduct these interviews could be an excellent opportunity to expand one’s professional network and could be a game-changing career move as well. SoLS aims to disseminate the wisdom gained from these interviews to the broader scientific community. If you are interested in any of the opportunities offered by JoLS and SoLS, please contact the editor in chief, EIC@journaloflifesciences.org, with your ideas, suggestions and willingness to participate in networking and professional growth.
Pol Arranz Gibert, PhD, is the managing editor at JoLS, associate editor at The POSTDOCket, and postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Rosa-Maria Ferraiuolo, PhD, is editor in chief at JoLS and postdoctoral researcher at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.
Theo van den Broek, PhD, is editor in chief at JoLS and postdoctoral researcher at Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.
Chih Hung Lo, PhD, is the editorial coordinator at JoLS and postdoctoral researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.
Preparing for the 19th NPA Annual Conference: Thank you to all our Volunteers!
By Lalitha Kurada, on behalf of the Meetings Committee 2020–21
Ever since its establishment in April 2002, the NPA’s Annual Conference offers an excellent networking platform to enhance the postdoc experience. In recognition of the upcoming 2021 conference, NPA would like to express its sincere appreciation to all of its dedicated volunteers devoting their time and energy to accomplish its mission. We also would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the outstanding ongoing contributions and commitment of all unseen hands working towards the grand success of this meeting. The 2020-21 Meetings Committee, co-chaired by Lisa Maria Mustachio, PhD, and Anne Wyllie, PhD, will be coordinating with the following subcommittees throughout the year for the April 2021 conference that will be held in Philadelphia, PA.
The Meetings Committee Co-Chairs
Lisa Maria Mustachio, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Anne Wyllie, PhD, is a newly promoted associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health and the incoming co-chair of the Yale Postdoc Association.
The Communications Subcommittee brainstorms, develops and implements innovative communication strategies to promote the conference before, during and after the Annual Conference. In coordination with the Outreach Committee and editors for The POSTDOCket, the subcommittee also contributes to generating articles and assisting in social media promotions.
Lalitha Kurada, PhD, is a postdoc at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (USU), Bethesda, Maryland.
Niyati Vachharajani, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Volunteers: Daniel Radecki, Kwame Osei-Safo, Sandra Wittleder, Elena Cruz
The Fundraising Subcommittee coordinates with the Development, Outreach and local host committees to secure funding for the Annual Conference. It is also involved in organizing a silent auction/raffle and prizes, as well as the recruitment of companies for the exhibition hall.
Dan Radecki, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sam Castaneda is a long-time supporter and advocate of postdocs, previously served as director of visiting scholars and postdoc affairs at the University of California, Berkeley.
Volunteers: Jingjie Hu, Preeti Kanikarla, Hala Helal, Roozbeh Yousefzadeh.
The Networking Subcommittee reviews and organizes innovative networking opportunities, such as “lunch-around” or “break topics” for the Annual Conference. The subcommittee promotes its agenda via articles published in The POSTDOCket, social media platforms and the Whova conference mobile application.
Priyanka Mishra, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
Vidyanand Sasidharan, PhD, is a postdoc at the Stowers Institute of Medical Research.
Volunteers: Donna Crawley, Cristina Florio, Niyati Vachharajani, Roozbeh Yousefzadeh.
The Posters Subcommittee reviews and selects poster presentations from a pool of presentation abstracts. This committee also recruits, selects and coordinates onsite judging for poster presenters.
Amin Firouzi, PhD, is a researcher at the University of Houston, Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Md Hafiz Uddin, PhD, is a postdoc at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, Wayne State University.
Volunteers: Siddhartha Ghosh, Andrekia Branch, Shatovisha Dey.
The Workshops Subcommittee reviews and selects workshop presentations from a pool of presentation abstracts. This committee also recruits and selects workshop sessions while encouraging professional networking.
Debra A.Fadool, PhD, is a professor at Florida State University.
Volunteers: Amin Firouzi, Priyanka Mishra, Martha Jimenez-Castaneda.
The Keynote and Plenary Subcommittee proposes keynote and plenary topics and helps recruit potential plenary and keynote speakers.
Camila De Avila Dal Bo, PhD, is a postdoc at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
Chris Smith, PhD, is the postdoctoral affairs program manager within the Graduate School at North Carolina State University.
Volunteers: Jingjie Hu, Shatovisha Dey, Eshaani Mitra.
The Awards Subcommittee sets the criteria, reviews and selects the travel and childcare award recipients.
Andrekia Branch, PhD, is the director of the Office of Postdoc Services at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Sumod Sebastian, PhD, is a postdoc at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Volunteers: Maureen Ty, Katherine Peng, Chantal Saberian, Aileen Fernandez, Remya Ammassam Veettil.
Hey Boss, I’m Leaving! How to Approach Career Transitions with your Advisor
By Murielle Ålund
I spent the last few months of my doctoral studies stressing out about the next step: finding a great postdoc position. Specifically, a postdoc that will allow me to continue specializing in my research interests, ideally if possible, with a relatively well-known advisor in my field, to increase networking opportunities and facilitate the next steps in my career. Now, a few years in, everything that looked like the perfect scenario then does not quite work anymore for me and my family, and I have come to the conclusion that I might need to leave my position earlier than originally planned. I am even considering a completely new career path, so this might be a “horizontal” career move, rather than me leaving early because of an amazing “promotion” or opportunity to advance in a traditional academic career.
How and when do I tell my boss that I want to leave early or that my career interests have changed?
I turned to two career specialists that kindly shared some advice on how and when to take up that conversation with your academic advisor. Jennifer Polk, PhD, is an entrepreneur, career coach, and has been the graduate-level-careers expert responsible for From PhD to Life, a career coaching and speaking business, since 2013. John Vasquez, PhD, is the director of assessment and professional development at the Van Andel Institute Graduate School in Grand Rapids (MI) and has more than 20 years of professional experience in higher education at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
According to Vasquez, there is no one good time or way to tell your supervisor that you are leaving earlier than planned. Rather, it depends on the reason why you are leaving, and on how supportive your boss is. First, Vasquez reminds us that interests change over time, and it is thus very important to have regular conversations with your boss about professional development and to identify skills that you are hoping to develop, beyond research and publishing. If your interests change, or you realize that this project or career path is not the right fit for you anymore, these regular conversations should have helped your supervisor understand this as well.
If you are leaving your job because the benefits, support, resources or other terms of your contract are not what you had agreed on, or have changed, or because you find yourself in a toxic work environment because of a “ bad supervisor,” discussions about leaving might be trickier. In this case, Vasquez recommends trying to find an ally, either in or outside of the lab, that your boss also respects, and could help you “test the water” about what your supervisor thinks about you and how they might respond to an announcement of your departure.
Polk reminds us that unless specified otherwise in your contract or any other pertinent agreement, two weeks is considered business standard to give notice of your departure, and giving more is only generous of you. In the interest of maintaining good professional relationships and to facilitate the transition, you might want to give more notice, a decision that can be facilitated by your employer having a good track record of treating resigning employees well. If you are concerned about your boss taking the news badly and terminating you earlier than you had planned to leave or that your working conditions might change, make sure to wait until you are required to give notice or until you have something else lined up. It can help to be ready to leave instantly by quietly sorting both personal items and files at your workplace.
Taking Ownership of your Career
“Part of the process of having a conversation with your advisor about your career plans is also, in some ways, having an honest conversation with yourself and then thinking about what you need vs. want from your advisor regarding that decision, and taking ownership of your career.” [Vasquez]
A postdoc is often referred to as a “trainee” and this is definitely a time for career development, which includes figuring out what career paths might be best for yourself. As Polk brings up, postdoc advisors have an obligation to provide us with training and other kinds of career support, at least informally, but most likely formally depending on your institutions’ guidelines. Both career specialists are advising us to be proactive in seeking out professional development opportunities, and demand to have these conversations with our advisors, including asking for time off to attend workshops, professional conferences and networking opportunities.
“Your advisor's approval is nice to have, but at the end of the day it's your career, your life!” [Polk]
Check out the “Postdoc Guide to Career Development” and the “Mentorship Guide” provided by the NPA, as well as potential resources at your institution, including career services, teaching and learning center, writing center, research office, tech transfer team, entrepreneurship hub, postdoctoral office, and the ombudsman, if there is one. Do not hesitate to ask for informational interviews with people that do jobs that you think could be interesting for you, and ask how they got there. Once you have decided that a different path might be better for you, take ownership of your decision, and remember to be wary of the way you announce your career move. As Vasquez points out, in some way, you will be telling your advisor that you are not looking forward to all the tasks that are part of their daily job! Instead, try to thank them for the experience and skills they helped you to acquire while you were working together.
Murielle Ålund, PhD, is a SNSF postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University, and associate editor at The POSTDOCket.
Postdoc Offices & Associations Deliver Support & Resources During Uncertain Times
By Chris Smith
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of our lives. For postdoctoral researchers, a vulnerable group to begin with, institutional responses to the pandemic resulted in many unable to perform research or other scholarly tasks on campus for a few months. While research restarts are taking place across the United States and postdocs are returning to perform critical on-site work, postdoc offices and associations are working to continue to deliver support and resources using mostly virtual means.
Early into the pandemic, the Society of Postdoctoral Scholars at University of Kentucky developed a needs assessment for their postdocs. This survey was distributed by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) at Kentucky and shared and adapted for distribution at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and NC State University (link to survey templates). In total 174 responses were received across the three institutions. We share some of the survey insights and responses by our institutions and others below.
Postdoc COVID-19 Needs Assessment Results
In response to the question of the challenges around physical distancing, trouble focusing or feeling motivated was reported in 64 percent of respondents. Other challenges were reported in high numbers.
Postdoc offices (PDOs) and associations (PDAs) provide critical functions to address many of these challenges by building postdoc communities and offering support structures for productivity and wellbeing. PDOs can also connect postdocs to campus and other resources to assist them during these challenging times.
A few other statistics that jumped out from the need assessments:
PDOs & PDAs Responding to the Challenges
In response to the data collected, the University of Kentucky’s OPA and Society of Postdoctoral Scholars launched the University of Kentucky Postdoc Emergency Relief Fund (PERF), which was intended to help defray costs associated with working from home during the pandemic. This one-time opportunity allowed postdocs to request up to 100 dollars funding for office supplies, equipment, or furniture, as well as online career and professional development opportunities. Of 64 requests received, 55 were honored helping postdocs remain productive while working from home. A second follow-up survey to the Kentucky postdocs found that the percentage responding they did not have the resources needed to work from home fell from twenty percent to seven percent.
Based on the results of their needs assessment and a strong reported reliance on public transit, the PDO and PDA at UIC are examining the feasibility of creating a rideshare group for postdocs to help postdocs who typically take public transit create carpool and cost-sharing groups with postdocs who typically drive.
At NC State, funds originally designated for postdoc travel awards were shifted to virtual professional development awards for postdocs distributed in May, which supported nine postdocs attending online workshops, pursuing online certificate programs, or conducting data analyses with speciality software while working from home.
PDOs & PDAs Offer Online Programming & Events
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NC State shifted its annual postdoctoral research symposium, usually held in late May, to an online format, featuring “postdoc research spotlights” on our ImPACKful blog and hosted a virtual career panel and networking hour on the day originally scheduled for the in-person symposium.
The UIC PDA, together with other Chicago-area postdocs, organized a data science webinar series for postdocs taught by postdocs: a six-seminar series that focused on short tutorials on topics of interest such as python, machine learning, and R. This was a great professional development opportunity for postdocs who gained experience organizing and delivering a webinar series on topics that many postdocs were interested in learning more about.
Realising that postdoc parents were particularly affected with working from home conditions, the University of Kentucky OPA reached out to Meghan Marsac, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and a tenured associate professor at the university to give an online webinar on parenting through the pandemic (How to Stay Calm-ish and Carry on: Tips on Parenting during COVID-19). Also recognising the needs of international postdocs through these uncertain times, the OPA invited Brendan Delaney, partner at the law firm of Frank & Delaney Immigration Law, LLC and member of the NPA Advisory Council, to give a seminar on visa and immigration options for international postdocs (Visa and Immigration Options for International Postdocs & Researchers). See Delaney’s webinar from the NPA & American Psychological Association on Navigating Pandemic-related Visa and Other Immigration Challenges.
The University of California, Irvine (UCI) PDO has focused on offering programs online that are immediately relevant to the “new normal,” such as “Rock Your LinkedIn Profile,” “Tips for Maintaining Productivity,” and “Virtual Interviewing Clinics.” UCI also holds weekly virtual coffee socials and regular virtual happy hours for its postdocs. Many PDAs have held virtual social events during the pandemic (see Building Community in Times of Crisis in the May 2020 POSTDOCket).
Kayleigh Anderson-Natale, postdoc & professional development manager at UCI, noted a common observation that while speaker/audience interaction in digital programs is often lower than in-person events, online events are more accessible to a busy postdoc population. Programming can also be broader in a virtual context as outside speakers don’t have to travel (incurring expenses). Thus, career panels can include postdoc alumni from across the country, broadening the diversity of perspectives available to current postdocs who may seek employment outside their current geographic area.
Curating Online Resources
Many PDOs have tried to curate online resources for their postdoctoral populations. The UIC Office of Postdoctoral Affairs created a weekly newsletter, Postdocs Plugged-In, which compiles all the fantastic and free online programming and resources that are available from various professional societies and organizations into one easily readable digest. The newsletter also includes announcements and current university COVID-19 updates, continually updated funding and fellowship opportunities, career development resources, mental health resources, and free/low-cost learning resources for parents. This weekly check-in keeps the PDO in regular touch with postdocs and encourages them to reach out with concerns. NC State has also highlighted online programming in its bi-monthly newsletters. The University of Kentucky OPA, in partnership with the Society of Postdoctoral Scholars, built an online community for UK postdocs using Microsoft Teams where discussion channels include topics around COVID-19, parenting, funding, immigration, remote socials, etc. Additionally, akin to UIC’s Postdocs Plugged-In the OPA started sending out “The Postdoc Weekly,” a weekly curated list of virtual career and professional development events emanating both from campus (e.g. University of Kentucky Work-Life) and beyond (e.g. Beyond the Professoriate, Office of Intramural Training and Education).
While times are still uncertain on many fronts, PDOs and PDAs will continue their work supporting postdocs through this pandemic through listening to postdoc needs, building community, offering career support, and sharing resources all with the goal of improving the postdoc experience now and into the future.
Chris Smith, Ph.D., is the postdoc program manager at North Carolina State University and a member of the NPA Board of Directors. Three additional PDO leaders: Kayleigh Anderson-Natale, Ph.D. (UCI), Valerie Miller, Ph.D. (UIC), & Joseph Lutz, Ph.D. (Kentucky), provided insights for this article.
Diversity Fatigue: What is it and how to Overcome it?
By Irene Sanchez-Brualla
In recent years, a term has been coined to describe the downside of the implementation of diversity programs: diversity fatigue. Diversity fatigue has several, divergent definitions: it is defined as a resistance against efforts to increase diversity in the workplace; feeling disheartened regarding how much efforts are still needed to achieve true diversity and inclusion; and a sense that, despite a lot of talking and planning, nothing is really changing. In general, diversity fatigue is a disengagement with diversity policies, and it is considered the “number-one” obstacle to increased diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace.
How can institutions overcome diversity fatigue? When postdoctoral scholars think about strategies to increase diversity in their universities, what types of strategies come to mind? Do PDOs use the same strategies? Are incoming postdocs excited about diversity and willing to organize new initiatives and take part in existing programs? Are senior postdocs willing to continue to be involved? Is the university supportive?
This article will first address the fatigue experienced by people that are against additional or novel programs, and exploring the root of the issue. Finally, the article will propose possible solutions.
Diversity and inclusion improve success
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are not about political correctness, but something we need. Many researchers have established the fact that diversity and inclusion make teams more innovative and successful. This goes beyond the fact that diversity and inclusion policies are vital “to avoid unnecessary liability for violations of the Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” like Dawn-Bennett Alexander, JD, diversity, inclusion and equity trainer, writer, and associate professor of employment law and legal studies at the University of Georgia, said on her TED talk. The risk of lawsuits from inappropriate behavior is too great for institutions to not address this issue with the seriousness it warrants.
In addition to legal risk, many universities may be in precarious financial situations due to the continued coronavirus economic fallout, increasing the importance of being able to use the maximum abilities of every academic in the lab. If a colleague or an authority figure is acting in a way that makes lab members uncomfortable, or prevents them from expressing themselves freely, they cannot contribute the best of themselves to their work, and this loss of effort is something few labs can afford. Our society is already diverse, and needs to integrate that into our university professorships and education to better be able to adapt to future challenges. Even institutions with a long history and strong reputation should understand that in the future student diversity will increase; it is important to cater to the needs of all students in order to continue attracting the highest caliber minds and the greatest talent to your institution.
Finding programs to increase diversity and inclusion
If diversity and inclusion remain relevant in the university and college setting, how can postdocs, PDAs, and PDOs do better at providing programs to support these values?
For practical and comprehensive information about how to get “unstuck” on increasing inclusion in the workplace, Janice Gassam, PhD, founder and diversity and inclusion consultant on BWG Business Solutions and professor at Sacred Heart University, provides some straightforward resources in her work. She studies the reasons why diversity programs generate mistrust and disengagement in employees, and proposes solutions to overcome these issues:
Apart from these specific actions, Gassam has more general recommendations. She proposes changing the language around these practices, using words like “belonging” instead of “diversity” which has a negative connotation for some people, and to improve affirmative action programs, by being extremely transparent about the goals of these programs, and to have objective processes both for hiring employees and for promotion and pay. This article focuses on the work of Gassam, but her recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace are not very different from what other people in this field are advocating for.
Inclusivity as a journey, and a destination
The effort that is still needed to reach a point of social change is too great for minority groups to keep bearing alone. Effective diversity and inclusion practices benefit everybody, not only workers or students from underrepresented backgrounds. Injustice in our societies and communities affects all of us: we all need to be part of the solution, even if the problem doesn’t seem to affect us directly.
People from a more privileged background should be aware of and follow the lead of people from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds—who are likely aware of what their most pressing needs are and have experience implementing solutions. Every person needs to be available to do the work that is required in the face of discrimination, inequity, or other forms of injustice. Nita Mosby Tyler, PhD, founder of The Equity Project, LLC, underlines the importance of having unlikely allies in her TED talk. She states: “To win the fight for equity, we will all need to speak up and stand up […] even when it’s hard and even when we feel out of place”. Justice is counting on the work of all of us. We must not let Her down.
Irene Sanchez-Brualla, PhD, is a postdoc in the laboratory of Patrick Forcelli, PhD, in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at Georgetown University.
Research Considerations During the Covid-19 Outbreak
By Rasika R. Hudlikar
Our ability to respond rapidly to the COVID-19 pandemic, the result of our massive world-wide integrated scientific infrastructure, is unique compared to any other previous pandemic seen by the world. Current research ranges from exploring the viral incubation time, understanding pre-symptomatic transmission, devising strategies to sustain patients experiencing several secondary infections, and gaining data on the susceptibility of immunosuppressed populations to the virus. Technology and communication in a time of crisis have changed the game of scientific research and the healthcare market.
Research represents the constant evolution of human knowledge over time. It is two pronged; basic research delving deep into establishing a fundamental and foundational shared understanding of the principals and processes of natural and observable phenomena, while application-oriented research involves proposing practical solutions to problems, such as how to mitigate disease spread and severity. Most of the research involves interpersonal relations and interdependent communications along with collaborative efforts for producing results.
Such collaborations have previously occurred in offices, laboratories, and at conventions, through human contact, but we are now forging new collaborations via internet groups. The question remains of when and how to return to the spaces we have left. Strategies for scientific research during the pandemic will need to be dramatically different than anyone has ever experienced in academic as well as industrial research.
Leveraging spatial and temporal planning during social distancing
Critical scientific laboratories and healthcare workers heading back to the office are faced with the challenge of optimally using the largely vacant workplace while following social distancing guidelines. This can prove difficult. For instance, in an office the arrangements of research desks and chairs may be changed to accommodate the latest recommendations of safe physical distancing. Various space planning tools like Gensler that use generative algorithms for the existing layout of the workplace can be used for setting up physical distancing conditions. However, office space is a relatively small part of an overall lab. It may be difficult to reshuffle the infrastructure of research labs, whether they are involved in purely dry lab bioinformatics work or wet lab work, with a precise layout of sensitive equipment that is prohibitive to move.
Another solution is adjusting the allowed headcount, or people able to be present in one space. This type of solution is often used in evaluating proper opening of flexible places like conference rooms, learning/computer labs, and auditoriums with restricted seating areas. Posted and online notices of social distancing policies will help users to follow the guidelines. However, this may result in only certain research getting done during the pandemic, postponing or eliminating the research of other postdocs.
A third solution includes scheduling strict lab work times for lab members, employing shift work type calendars for shared instruments or lab spaces in order to allow postdocs, technicians, and graduate students a moderate amount of access to the equipment and space needed to conduct research. This approach can be used to rationally maximize scientific opportunities while supporting an evolving approach for the safety of the research personnel. However, arranging and balancing these schedules is also time consuming in the long run, and it can be difficult to find appropriate shifts for lab members who also have to balance competing family obligations.
Some countries have started issuing “immunity passports,” certificates that enable individuals to travel or return to work based on the assumption that an antibody test can appropriately determine immunity. This would negate the need for social distancing for this subset of individuals, who could then return to a normal research schedule. However, this strategy is controversial, and has not yet occurred in the United States. For instance, some scientists point out that there is no uniform agreement yet on how long immunity lasts or how effective antibody tests are at determining long-term immunity in COVID-19.
Technology in support of social distancing
While only a year ago online exchanges were rare in scientific communities, traditional in-person scientific exchanges have evolved to thrive in the online setting. Conferences, dissertation defenses, lab meetings, journal clubs and presentations can be efficiently carried out using Wi-Fi with platforms that offer appropriate data sharing security. Use of online applications or tools for lab meetings, communication and sharing of data are increasingly common.
Labs can become ‘smart.’ Using the ‘smart’ technology, advanced sensors can be used to maintain the air pressure in the research buildings and security badge accessibility of the facilities can be strictly enforced to minimally monitor movement and activity. This would ensure that a facility has limited the number of people within according to social distancing guidelines. Current scientific equipment is engineered to facilitate remote troubleshooting of on-site problems along with lower energy consumption; therefore replacing older equipment is useful in promoting healthy social distancing practices.
Modification of the research dogma
While the pandemic continues, labs are challenged with finding novel ways to conduct high-value research activities while promoting as low risk as possible to the research personnel. One potential solution would be cross-training staff in multiple research fields (e.g., cell line research, animal research and data analysis). This redundancy could assist in continuing to move the research goals forward during emergency situations.
Another important consideration is the labs conventional supply chain for lab chemicals, reagents and animals. Some of these supplies could be local-sourced, reducing the potential for a costly interruption, delay, or supply chain loss during quarantine and other mobility constraints brought on by the pandemic. Alternatively, labs could form purchasing cooperatives to purchase items in bulk, sharing the cost and necessitating only a single delivery into the University.
Changing political policies impact more than the purchase and delivery of high-value scientific equipment, but also travel considerations for scientific meetings and conferences that are used to share scientific data and for career advancement. In addition, interstate and international collaborations, international research scholars, and exchange visitor programs throughout the United States are being influenced by the pandemic. Such exchanges will need some patience and effort to accomplish.
Finally, many research projects benefit from exemptions or have a memorandum of understanding with the hosting government. The impact of COVID-19 policy changes on current and future memorandi or exemptions is likely being continuously reviewed by universities with the consultation of the local health authorities. Creating a university-wide multidisciplinary task force to conduct research into COVID-19 treatment, vaccines, epidemiology, and pharmacology is important. Several such task forces are being created with funding from government agencies including NIH, NSF, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and private foundations like the Gates foundation. Members of these task forces become the frontline workers; strategies are needed to support the challenge of working in a lab during a pandemic while seeking the cause, the cure, and the prevention of the pandemic-causing virus.
Rasika R. Hudlikar, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ.
We are grateful to EVERY new and renewing Sustaining Member of the NPA; consider joining today!
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!
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!
Thank you to our associate editors for July!