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MEMBER FEATURE: Services and Resources Available at Postdoctoral Offices of Varying Sizes
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Photo courtesy of Julie Tetzlaff. In addition to being director of the MCW PDO, Tetzlaff is an assistant professor of pathology who conducts research on sudden infant death syndrome.

Christopher Smith


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).


“When asked what each envy about the other’s PDO, Conlan said that a smaller postdoc population allows Tetzlaff to develop connections between all MCW postdocs, the PDO, and the institution. Tetzlaff is grateful for for her current level of engagement with MCW’s postdocs but wishes she had the resources available at NIH.“


Detailed Programs in Professional Development

Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/the Environmental Factor. Conlan advised participants in her conflict management workshop on techniques for approaching difficult conversations. She then provided a chance to practice giving and receiving personal feedback.


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:

  • Career Readiness
    • Career advancement toolkit and career blog to help in preparing for careers in academics, industry, non-profits or government; cv and resume reviews; classes and counseling on interviewing, negotiating, and transitioning to employment; an annual career symposium
  • Communication
    • Course of giving effective talks/poster presentations; English communication for visiting fellows; grant-writing classes with special focus on the K99 process; writing opportunities, classes and resources such as “Science Writing from the Reader's Perspective” taught by George Gopen, JD, PhD
  • Image from NIH/OITE. Lori Conlan (right) provides a career "tune-up" at an International EXPO.

  • Teaching & Mentoring
    • Summer intern mentoring opportunities and mentorship classes; mentoring up (to one’s mentor) course; and a 9 week online pedagogy course “Scientists Teaching Science”
  • Leadership & Management
    • Management Bootcamp: a four-part preparatory series on understanding yourself and how you interact with others, team dynamics, conflict management, and diversity, culminating in a management course to prepare postdocs to become supervisors for all job sectors
  • Wellness
    • Workshops on resiliency, mediation and other topics to encourage postdocs to take care of themselves, events and groups to promote a sense of community, access to career and wellness counselors

Photo courtesy of Julie Tetzlaff. The MCW PDA works in conjunction with the MCW PDO to promote the professional well-being of MCW post-docs

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:

  • Academic
    • Participant in this 10-month course meet twice per month to discuss topics important in academia including: finding your niche in science, negotiating, hiring and managing, and running a lab. This program is funded by Dean Joseph Kerschner, MD, who is also provost, and executive vice president of the MCW School of Medicine,
  • Industry
    • Under the leadership of Clifford, MCW was one of the original institutions to establish a business consulting program. PICO (Postdoc Industry Consultants), established in 2011, emphasizes practical experience over course work. It allows graduate students and postdocs to immerse themselves as consultants on a project brought to MCW by outside biotech and pharmaceutical firms. PICO was originally funded by a Career Guidance for Trainees grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (PI: Clifford).
  • Photo courtesy of Julie Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff works closely with postdocs as they explore different career paths

  • Teaching
    • “Teaching Postdocs to Teach” is a program that offers a 10-week course in pedagogy and the ability for the trainee to obtain an adjunct appointment as an instructor at local colleges and universities. This experience is invaluable since prior work as an adjunct is frequently a deciding factor in finding a teaching professorship. To incentivize participation and gain faculty advisor’s support, this program pays 5 percent of the postdoc’s salary. This program was developed with a Career Guidance Training grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (PI: Tetzlaff).

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


Image courtesy of Steve McCaw/the Environmental Factor. Conlan at podium engaged an audience of postdocs at a satellite institution.

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


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. Some Sustaining Members have been with us since the beginning, and others are new, but all are appreciated! The NPA wants to thank and recognize all its Sustaining Members. As part of this recognition, each month The POSTDOCket will be featuring an article by or about a Sustaining Member institution. If you would like your postdoc office or other Sustaining Member organization story featured in a MEMBER FEATURE in The POSTDOCket, please email with your member feature story idea.

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.