|MEMBER FEATURE: Services and Resources Available at Postdoctoral Offices of Varying Sizes|
At the 2018 NPA Annual Conference, two PDOs who have been with the NPA since its founding in 2003 discussed the services they provide and the challenges they face with the respective sizes and financial resources of their institutions. Present were Lori Conlan, PhD, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services and the Career Services Center (part of the Office of Intramural Training and Education) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Julie Tetzlaff, PhD, associate dean of postdoctoral affairs and graduate career development (Office of Postdoctoral Education) and assistant professor of pathology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW); and Phil Clifford, PhD, former associate dean of the MCW Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and current associate dean for research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“This information will also allow organizations to critically evaluate their program’s effectiveness, so that data-driven decisions can be made to best support trainee transitions into the modern career environment.”
The PDOs at these institutions have active postdoctoral groups with which they partner (NIH: FelCom, MCW: PAC), provide great career resources for their postdoctoral scholars, and continue shaping the resources the NPA provides to its 215+ member institutions and their 80,000 postdoctoral scholars. In addition, both the NIH and MCW annually offer scholarly travel awards to 10 - 20 percent of postdocs at their respective institution (an average of 250 scholars across NIH, and 20 at MCW).
Detailed Programs in Professional Development
The NIH has approximately 2,800 postdocs in the intramural research program. In contrast, MCW has about 120 postdocs from MCW, the Blood Research Institute of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center. While the size of the populations they serve varies, both PDOs have created detailed and extensive programs designed to forward professional development among their postdocs.
At NIH, the Office of Intramural Training and Education has established five pillars of postdoctoral education/development:
In addition, the Office of Postdoctoral Services works with the many individual institutions within NIH, who may have additional or complementary offerings.
Instead of focusing on skill categories, MCW has developed a postdoctoral training structure that focuses on three career pathways:
At MCW, these pathways are supplemented by a monthly seminar series in career and professional development that explores topics including grant writing, interviewing, career development, non-academic professional opportunities, and annual networking and social retreats.
Exciting initiatives are starting this year at NIH and MCW
At the NIH, international trainees are being given information on employment trends in their home countries. They hear from NIH alumni via webinars (Science Voices from Home). An initiative starting in 2018 will provide more detailed information on career searches around the globe including how resume styles may vary from country to country. As the general postdoc community (including the NIH intramural program) is approximately 60 percent international, this is an important resource.
MCW is developing a web-based grant-writing program that links postdocs to the many resources available at the NIH. MCW is also developing a repository of previously submitted NIH-style grants with reviews and offering external grant reviews from local NIH study section members to improve grant quality. The overall focus and goal of this program is to provide the necessary resources to increase trainee grant submissions and NIH fellowship awards (F31/32) at MCW.
Both large and small PDOs face challenges
Each office struggles with engaging postdocs effectively when they need it (providing the right service at the right time and promoting it effectively so that postdocs can take advantage of it). This issue is especially important to address at the NIH to ensure its satellite campuses feel included. Thus, targeting resources appropriately to these campuses based on the make-up of their specific postdoctoral communities is a high priority for NIH.
MCW struggles with attendance at events and has noticed attrition is a problem for long-term programs. This is not uncommon across PDOs and including more web-based resources may help to provide training and resources to postdocs with varying schedules and lab cultures.
When asked what each envy about the other’s PDO, Conlan said that a smaller postdoc population allows Tetzlaff to develop personal connections with all MCW postdocs, the PDO, and the institution. This approach is not practical at a large, distributed organization like the NIH. Tetzlaff is grateful for her current level of engagement with MCW’s postdocs but wishes she had the resources available at NIH.
Conlan noted that the NIH is tasked with providing as many useful resources as possible to the broader academic community in the United States. These include the Train the Trainer Program to train PDO leaders to improve the workshops and advising they offer trainees, a blog on career topics, and other resources for the entire postdoc community to use.
Both MCW and NIH offer innovative programs to support postdoctoral career and professional development. Each institution can leverage its unique structure and size to offer special experiences to their postdocs (NIH: large, diverse programming, especially for international fellows; MCW: personal, hands-on experiences in consulting (PICO) or teaching). The NIH’s commitment to dissemination of best practices also allows for smaller PDOs to use NIH-developed resources at their own institution (as MCW is doing with its grant-writing program). This mitigates the staffing problem many PDOs face.
Potential postdocs should consider the institution they are joining and whether its structure offers the types of career and professional development experiences they think they need. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to postdoctoral training.
Christopher Smith, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He serves as junior co-chair of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.