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Knocking on Doors to Opportunities: Profile of Administrative Postdoc Natalie Chernets
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Lining Zhu


Do you feel stuck after a few years of postdoctoral training? Is your dream job becoming a more blurred image than ever before? If your answer is yes, then you are not the only one! Natalie Chernets, PhD, an administrative postdoctoral fellow at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital went through the same pain. However, she steered her career path in a new direction. Her story shows: No one will answer the door if you don't knock on it.


What was your journey to the administrative postdoctoral scholar position?


I first learned about a similar opportunity—the Research Administration Fellowship Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) at the Translational Research Workshop in 2015. Unfortunately, the opportunity at CHOP was open to CHOP trainees only. I contacted the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Jefferson, but they were not able to accommodate my request at that time.


Meanwhile, the research lab I worked in lost funding. As a result, my full-time position at the lab was reduced to a part-time position. Three months later, I transferred to another lab for a temporary part-time project. I worked there for eight months, and the funding was about to end. At the same time, the associate dean [for student and postdoctoral affairs], Lisa Kozlowski, PhD, asked if I would be interested in a part-time administrative postdoc position in the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs developing career guidance programs. I accepted the offer, and later the position was extended to full-time.


While there was an element of timing, I had the skills to excel in the new position. Before becoming an administrative postdoc, I served as an executive board member for the Jefferson Postdoctoral Association and as a chair of the Gordon Research Seminar for Plasma Processing Science. Since I was a part-time postdoc for almost a year, I spent a significant amount of time in professional development. I attended the Annual NIH Career Symposium; I was selected to serve as a quod erat demonstrandum [QED] fellow, helping a team from Monell Chemical Senses Center develop a proof-of-concept market research plan. I learned many aspects of professional development at conferences held by the American Society for Cell Biology, American Chemical Society, Society of Investigative Dermatology, etc. After all the training, I started to develop core skills for the administrative postdoc position. Therefore, when the opportunity came, I was ready to fit in.


How are your job responsibilities as an administrative postdoc different from those of traditional bench work postdocs?


Chernets leads a negotiation workshop for National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2016.

I develop, implement, and evaluate career development programs for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at Thomas Jefferson University.On a weekly basis, I partner with different groups to plan monthly workshops to better meet postdocs’ needs. I work with our Center for Teaching and Learning, human resources, career center, and academic affairs. In addition, I worked with Phillip Clifford, PhD, associate dean for research and director of mentoring at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to develop and facilitate an interactive workgroup on negotiations during National Postdoc Appreciation Week. I assisted our Jefferson Postdoc Association, Business and Biotech Group, and Graduate Student Association on campus who work with our Office of Postdoctoral Affairs to organize large-scale events such as the Postdoctoral Research Symposium and speed networking events.


Beyond developing workshops, I initiate meetings with postdocs to discuss the challenges that they face during their career transitions. I help them in their career exploration, and we strategize on how to land a permanent position that fits their interests, skills, and values. For incoming graduate students, I created an online portal, encouraging them to set goals and assess their progress with the assistance of campus professionals.


I’m also active outside of my institution. I serve as a mentor at the Association for Women in Science Philadelphia Chapter in the Mentoring Circle Program. In addition, at the 2017 NPA Annual Meeting, with Lisa Kozlowski and postdoc fellow Pardeep Kumar, I presented a 90-minute immersive professional development workshop on how to make the fullest of your training in the lab with a tight budget. Also Dr. Kozlowski and I facilitated a 60-minute discussion on how to fundraise for postdoc organizations.


How is your job performance evaluated?


It’s a challenging question. Since this is a brand new position, the performance goals are not pre-written. Based on the office needs, we experiment with new programs and assessment strategies. Therefore, Dr. Kozlowski and I focus more on short-term goals. This year, we aimed at developing more professional workshops for our postdocs, submitting a proposal to the NPA Annual Meeting, submitting abstracts to professional meetings such as Graduate Career Consortium and Future of Bioscience Graduate and Postdoctoral Training. Recently, our grant application to the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund was successful.


What transferable skills have you gained and/or strengthened throughout the training?


While I brought leadership, communication, and grant writing skills to this role, I definitely enhanced each of them. Additionally, I developed career advising skills through one-on-one and group meetings with postdocs, serving as a liaison with the Jefferson Career Development Office, and reading literature on various professional development topics. During the process of implementing hands-on training workshops, my philosophy of pedagogy became more mature, and I practice active learning methodologies.


Personally, I broadened my knowledge in job search strategies, CV/résumé optimization, interviewing, networking, and many other aspects.


What have been the biggest challenges so far in your job, and how did you overcome them?


The learning curve was steep since I was the first administrative postdoctoral fellow at Thomas Jefferson University. I developed goal-setting, decision-making, and time management skills to balance between testing new programs and maintaining existing ones.


One of our challenges so far is the limited attendance in some workshops. Through conversations with representatives from other institutions, I realized that we are not alone. To overcome this challenge, I have been experimenting with marketing tactics as well as using my personal buy-in with postdocs and students to increase attendance rate.


How has your postdoc training prepared you for your career goal?


As to my own professional development, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Jefferson was very generous in providing opportunities for me to attend meetings such as Train the Trainers at the NIH, regional Graduate Career Consortium Meeting, the NPA Annual Meeting, and the Future of Biomedical Research Graduate and the Postdoctoral Training Meeting. Attending these meetings help me build my network and learn about the cutting-edge professional development initiatives and challenges in career development.


Throughout my on-the-job training, I am intensively involved in many aspects of leading a postdoctoral office such as collaborating inside and outside Jefferson College of Biomedical Sciences, writing grant proposals, and submitting conference abstracts. All these skills will expedite my way to my career goal to lead a postdoctoral affairs office, as well as other positions in student affairs, career centers, and research administration.


Lastly, my mentor, Dr. Kozlowski, has helped me build a network of professionals from postdoctoral offices and career centers. She introduced me to leaders at Jefferson and included me in local committees such as grad council meetings. Also she was very supportive of many novel initiatives. In addition, I owe my thanks to our Dean of Jefferson College of Biomedical Sciences, Gerald Grunwald, PhD, for supporting our efforts.


What advice do you want to give to people who are interested in administrative postdoc positions?


Make your interest in transitioning into administrative roles visible to other people. If such a position doesn’t exist in your institute, create one if you can. Think about what skills you can bring to the table and what other proficiencies you want to develop further. Then, schedule an appointment with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and show what potential solutions you come up with to address the postdocs’ challenges.


I can’t stress enough how important networking is. I try to hold 2-4 informational interviews per month. Informational interviews are great opportunities to learn the day-to-day activities of the role, skills necessary to excel at that particular job, typical salaries, and the organization culture. In the end, politely ask the person if he/she can refer you to someone else who can share additional information. The people who I interacted with offered invaluable advice that guides my career transition.


Lining Zhu, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the City of Hope, focusing on developing antibody-based bioassays and anti-fungal chimera antigen receptor therapy. She is also the VP of Communications at the Association for Women in Science Los Angeles/Ventura County Chapter and a Toastmasters addict.