Developing the Skills You Need to Succeed: Tales From Association Postdocs, Part 1

In our section, Evolution of Postdoc Organizations, we have focused on postdoc programs, offices, and associations--and in particular, on their beginnings and their futures. But the very nature of the postdoctoral experience is that each postdoc moves on, leaving the association behind. The postdocs who found and contribute to their associations obviously shape the organizations, but do the associations also shape the postdocs? As you'll see in our series, Developing the Skills You Need to Succeed--Tales From Association Postdocs, the answer is most definitely "Yes." Read on to see how the association experience can impact the professional lives of postdocs.

There you are in the lab and up to your eyeballs in experiments. When you take a break to check your e-mail, you find a message from some postdoc you have never met, asking you and many others to get involved in running the campus postdoctoral association. "Eeeps!" you mutter, "I am swamped with work, my advisor wants data yesterday--I don't have time for this. Anyway, what's in it for me?"

Easy: necessary professional development.

As postdocs who founded or helped associations grow will tell you, you can gain valuable leadership and management experience by getting involved. You can polish your communication skills. And you can enlarge your network of contacts. All of which can often lead to future employment opportunities.

In this series, we'll be asking current and former "movers and shakers" from postdoc associations around the country to tell us how their experiences in helping to organize associations and/or the events they hold have shaped their professional lives.

At Next Wave itself, you don't have to go far to learn about the benefits of being involved in a postdoc association. Perhaps you have seen Lisa Kozlowski's name on our Web pages. Prior to coming to the Next Wave to handle the site's promotion and outreach in the United States, she was a co-vice-president of the postdoc association at Johns Hopkins ( JHPDA). The biggest lesson from her experience? Networking. Notes Lisa, "Although I knew that networking was important and I had already been doing it, I think the JHPDA and national meetings [on postdoc issues] let me see the power of it." This power really hit home at a career session at last year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of the Next Wave). Lisa expected to walk into the seminar room and not know anyone, but, to her surprise, the entire panel waved and greeted her--all of the panelists were scientists she had met at the GREAT meeting's gathering of postdocs or at other postdoc association events. Developing these contacts proved beneficial--these scientists gave her career advice and alerted her to job opportunities, like the one at Next Wave!

Networking also helped Pat Bresnahan, who's networking contacts helped her find, in her words, "the stamina to hold out for a job that she would really enjoy." Pat helped form the Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and she and the PSA garnered national attention with their 1995 survey of the UCSF postdoctoral experience. Her involvement in the association gave her the opportunity to meet scientists in a variety of "off-the-bench" jobs, individuals who were deeply satisfied with careers outside research. So, when it came time to consider her own career options, Pat contemplated taking a research position in industry, with the goal of eventually moving to the business side of a company. But her network told her to hold out ... that it was possible to make the jump immediately into a business-oriented position. And Pat's organizational skills--amply demonstrated by her postdoc association experience--sparked the interest of a corporate recruiter who helped Pat find her current position in a large biotech company.

Pat's experience in industry has made her realize that "scientists view their skill set very narrowly," focusing on the techniques they know and the systems they have mastered. But, says Pat, "what the real world wants is communication, leadership, and project management skills." As an active member of a postdoc association, you can work on projects outside of the lab that demonstrate valuable organizational and people skills, increasing your marketability. Or, in the case of Brad Sturgeon, you may win the respect of the colleagues who are in the position to give your career a boost.

Some of you may be familiar with Brad as the author of one of the articles on planning a career fair. A year after he first helped to organize the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Science and Career Fair, he became the chair-elect for his local section of the American Chemical Society (ACS). One of his responsibilities as chair-elect was organizing a sectional conference. Having already honed his talents by planning the NIEHS fair, Brad feels that he impressed members of the ACS executive committee with his meeting organization skills. The meeting's success garnered him the respect of his fellow section members. And, perhaps more importantly, it resulted in local chemists writing letters of recommendation for him. Brad believes these letters helped him secure his current job--a job that he really enjoys--as a chemistry teacher at The North Carolina School of Science and Math, a residential magnet school for high school students in North Carolina.

Finding an enjoyable job is, for some, an elusive goal. But a little work outside of the lab may give you the skills you need to achieve your career objectives. In the coming months, we'll bring you other stories of postdocs who have found careers they love or developed the skills they needed to succeed--all through active participation in their local postdoc association.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers