Bridging the GREAT Divide: A Postdoctoral View

At the recent GREAT group meeting (see accompanying article for more information), administrators from medical colleges and postdocs from across the country gathered to discuss issues pertaining to graduate education. During the course of the discussions, it became clear that institutional administrators, faculty members, and postdocs themselves all have different perceptions and expectations of the postdoctoral experience.

Deans and department chairs who attended the conference agreed that postdocs, as a whole, have been an underrepresented group. Qualifying neither as faculty, staff, nor students, postdocs across the country escape ready categorization, bearing diverse titles such as "research associate" or "nonmatriculated graduate student." Such inconsistencies in titles are not a superficial problem. Rather, they directly affect salary, status, and access to benefits such as quality health care, employee programs, and retirement investment options. The consensus among postdocs at the conference was that funding agencies, institutions, and mentors must take responsibility for effecting change in this critical area.

For instance, institutions must meet the challenge of making career resources available to postdocs, enabling them to increase their competitiveness in the job market. While continuing to train postdocs in the area of critical thinking and problem solving, institutions should react to the changing needs of postdocs by developing provisions for alternate career options, how and where to look for a job, writing and presentation skills, and interviewing and negotiating skills. For instance, the University of Pittsburgh offers an all-day survival skills workshop, and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions recently opened the Professional Development Office.

Furthermore, principal investigators (PIs) who serve as postdoctoral preceptors are in a powerful position to emphasize the importance of acquiring these professional skills. For example, rather than simply keeping the postdoc at the bench, PIs can provide postdocs with the opportunity to develop their writing and speaking abilities, to manage people, plan experiments, and to explore career options through internships or other short-term programs. These are opportunities where postdocs can learn skills beyond those needed to conduct scientific research and can gain experience with real pressures that they will encounter in the future.

Postdocs also need to learn a few things. What postdocs require to survive--in other words, to get a job--are skills that often exceed the confines of the laboratory. Most postdocs now realize that a faculty job may not be waiting for them when their fellowships are over. However, not knowing what to do about this job situation leaves many postdocs feeling paralyzed and uncertain about their future careers. Although generating data and developing effective problem-solving expertise are important, communication, writing, managing, and mentoring skills are imperative in both academic and nonacademic fields. Publishing is not the only way to compete. Unfortunately, the importance of these professional skills to a postdoc's marketability are underemphasized, by both postdocs and mentors. It will take a change of attitude to realize that these additional responsibilities are sought after in all disciplines and must be included in the training process.

Postdocs, mentors, and institutional administrators are all accountable for their contribution to the postdoctoral experience. Some progress has been made, but much more work has to be done before all sides are satisfied. Dialogue and understanding begin within these national forums, leading toward a bridge across the GREAT divide.

Pauline Wong received her BS in Biology from Case Western Reserve University. While completing her PhD in Genetics from George Washington University, she served as the President of the Graduate Student Association at her research facility, the American Red Cross? Holland Laboratory. As a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Department of Biological Chemistry, Pauline is currently serving as the President of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association and plays ultimate frisbee in her free time.

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