Not only is the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Medicine Office of Postdoctoral Programs one of the first resource offices for postdocs in the country, it is also unique in that it was established at the administration's initiative, not because of advocacy from an existing postdoc association. Early in 1996, individuals at the university became aware of the postdoctoral issues that were surfacing nationwide. Grassroots postdoctoral associations were springing up at several campuses and advocating for changes in the treatment of postdocs. It was readily apparent that Penn needed more structure and clarity regarding postdoctoral appointments, and as a result, the universitywide Policy for Postdoctoral Fellows in the Physical, Biological, and Health Sciences and in Engineering was created. Neal Nathanson, professor emeritus of microbiology, expressed concern that, because of the large number of postdocs in the School of Medicine, successful implementation of the policy would require administrative support. The dean, William N. Kelley, and senior vice dean, Richard L. Tannen, supported his proposal to create an office to handle policy and program developments related to the School of Medicine's postdoctoral training, and the office opened on 1 July 1997.

In April 1997, I was hired by the director of faculty affairs, Victoria Mulhern, to create what would become the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine Office of Postdoctoral Programs. From all appearances, my initial directive was simple: to determine the number of postdocs in the School of Medicine. Little did I know that each morning 3 years later, I would still find glancing at the number of postdocs in our database to be one of the most satisfying and tangible reminders of how much progress we have made.

In the summer of 1997, the newly appointed associate dean for postdoctoral research training, Trevor M. Penning, defined the academic mission for the office: to support postdoctoral recruitment, training, and "placement"(career development). Much administrative work needed to be done before progress could be made in those areas. Coming from a human resources perspective (I previously worked for 3 years in the university's employment office), it seemed natural to me to develop an administrative model for the office that was similar to the staff hiring model: First, develop a detailed database to track postdocs; second, establish a postdoctoral appointment process; and third, develop resources for postdocs, faculty, and staff (including establishing minimal goals for programming and developing a Web site).

Because our initial success depended on our meeting the needs of three audiences--faculty, postdocs, and departmental business and research support staff--our strategy was to develop collaborative relationships with all three groups. With almost 700 postdocs and 1300 faculty members, it was unclear how much information and structure for postdoctoral appointments already existed in the departments. Therefore, we scheduled meetings with department chairs and business administrators, created an advisory committee, and held postdoctoral round-table discussions in order to get ongoing feedback about current policy and training issues. In short, creating the office became a team effort.

Changing the research "culture," including how mentor-postdoc relationships are developed and maintained, is challenging in any university. Having a postdoc population that ranks among the 10 largest in the country makes this challenge seem Herculean. (Someday researchers may wish to study the "tenacity" gene, which I am blessed with in great quantity.) With support from Penning, Mulhern, and the information technology office, I began building a database from data in the university's personnel/payroll system, with additional fields for gathering information about recruitment and career goals. The existing information systems created many challenges, because the necessary data were not in one place. In addition, we had to work with business administrators and faculty members to ensure that the payroll system included postdocs who were paid from outside grants. Our final design was a distributed database that pulled information from several university sources and also included data fields for information that the office collected.

To clarify postdoc hiring practices, we created initial hire letters and a unified appointment process. It was more challenging to ensure that postdocs actually received these appointment letters and that critical information about the postdoc population was captured upon their arrival. Gaining the support of the central School of Medicine administration, developing automated monthly reports, meeting with all newly hired business administrators, and constantly reminding faculty and staff members all contributed to our success. Within 2 years of implementing the postdoctoral appointment process, we achieved 90% compliance with the initial appointment process.

On the programming end, we created orientation programs and packets to distribute to new postdocs. As postdocs were appointed in the payroll system, we sent them packets and invited them to an orientation session. (Orientation sessions are held twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.) We held bioethics training for current postdocs and encouraged them to attend a grant-funding seminar. In addition to providing services to postdocs, we also needed to give faculty and staff administrative support. For example, appendices for National Institutes of Health training grant applications and national surveys are completed centrally by our office. Most recently, we developed a comprehensive manual for department administrators on postdoc appointments.

In the fall of 1998, with our administrative base in place, we switched our focus to the academic goals of the program. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to tackle new challenges, but overwhelmed at the idea of adding additional work to the existing efforts required to maintain the current appointment process, office support, and programs (such as orientation and bioethics). We summoned the patience and courage to request an additional full-time support staff position from the administration. We knew it would be challenging to find someone who was energetic, experienced, and also able to be flexible with a newly created office and a newly defined position. However, we were so excited and thrilled to receive this approval that even the 2-month recruitment process seemed like a gift from heaven.

The additional financial support allowed us to hire Elizabeth Ellington as the office's administrative assistant. This freed up the time and energy necessary to allow us to develop a more comprehensive and standardized training program for postdocs. Based on our interactions with postdocs, we learned that they felt they needed additional resources to improve their ancillary research skills (e.g., scientific writing, public presenting, and grantsmanship) and career development skills (e.g., job searching, networking, and interviewing). In response to this feedback, the office initiated a career workshop series, a research survival skills series, and a biomedical career fair in full or pilot formats over the next year and a half. In addition, knowing that we could not provide individualized support for all of the postdocs' career development needs, we established a collaborative relationship with the university's career services office, which now provides career advice and programs for postdocs.

Simultaneously, we worked with the Advisory Committee and the Postdoctoral Council--a body of 20 postdocs that evolved out of the postdoctoral round tables to provide postdoctoral representation and feedback to our office and the School of Medicine administration--to create a document outlining a standardized training program for all School of Medicine postdocs, with research and career skills programs as required or optional elements. The formal document that outlines the program, the Guidelines for Postdoctoral Appointments, Training and Education , received final approval from the School of Medicine administration and all faculty governance bodies in May 2000. I cannot express how completely this accomplishment incorporates the office's early goals and initiatives. The Advisory Committee and Postdoctoral Council were thrilled to see the guidelines successfully approved, and I am still a bit in awe that we survived the yearlong approval process. We are now perfectly poised to begin working with the two groups to further develop and implement the policy and training components outlined in the new guidelines.

The office's progress toward the overarching goal of improving postdoctoral training is best summed up by the words of Winston Churchill: "This is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning." With a firm foundation in place, we will continue to support individual postdocs by improving their postdoctoral training experiences and enabling them to achieve their career goals, while at the same time supporting research faculty and staff members with broader recruitment and training issues.

Janet Zinser received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991 and has worked for the University for over 10 years in several different capacities, including an employment specialist for human resources. In the Spring of 1997, Janet was hired to develop the School of Medicine Office of Postdoctoral Programs. During the past three years, the Office has received national recognition and has recently received approval for a standardized training program for all school of Medicine postdoctoral appointees.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers