NIH Fellows Committee Job/Alumni Network: A Work in Progress

My first National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fellows Committee (FELCOM) meeting seems but a blur now, as it did then: Fellows in their respective subcommittees rapidly reported on the activities and progress they had made during the month. I wondered how I would be able to make a contribution and aid my fellow postdocs. Then we had a guest fellow speak on behalf of her institute. She was in the midst of a job search and seemed frustrated by the fact that there was no network of NIH contacts for her to tap into to get ideas and advice about future careers. As she pointed out, the lack of a formal network seemed a bit odd because there are approximately 2000 fellows in the clinical and basic science tracks at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

Fellows Committee Co-Chair Christine Brennan asked if anyone was interested in starting up an alumni jobs database for fellows to use. "I will," I said, and with encouragement from the committee I embarked on a project to build a Job/Alumni Network, or JobNET, for short.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. We wanted the Job Network to be online, for easy access. I knew nothing about Web programming. After consulting a local bookstore, however, I quickly found out that learning basic HTML code and putting together a Web page is not difficult. Based on my experience, I recommend Elizabeth Castro's HTML 4 for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide and the coding reference for HTML 4.01 found in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Technical Reports and Publications. Additionally, members of the FELCOM Web subcommittee sent me useful pointers on getting started with writing and troubleshooting HTML code. When the pages were completed, I uploaded the HTML code onto the Fellows Committee Web page. The Web committee (skilled programmers, unlike myself!) constructed templates with colorful graphics and instructive menus enhancing each page of the FELCOM Web site, including the JobNET.

So now that the framework was in place, what about the content of the pages? I decided to break down the site into two areas: One area for those who wished to serve as volunteer contacts or "advertisers" for a job field, and the second area for those who were seeking jobs. The "advertiser" page contains a form for the volunteer to fill out. The volunteer's information is sent to me via e-mail and in an editable form. (Technical note: To create the online form, I used Simpletext, using "hand coding" and following Castro's suggestions. My code was slightly modified by the Web team.) I can then add the information to the appropriate page of contacts in the second area, the "job seeker" page. This page contains an alphabetical list of key words that link to several pages of volunteer contacts. (Please note: this resource of "advertiser" contacts is for NIH use only.)

Both the "advertiser" and "job seeker" pages contain "scientific" and "nonscientific" categories. The "scientific" category key words are derived from categories from the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) Web page, which has a fairly comprehensive list of terms. (FARE is an annual NIH-wide competition that recognizes the outstanding scientific research performed by intramural postdoctoral fellows.) The "nonscientific" category key words are compiled from a list of alternative careers that I generated after attending several workshops sponsored by the Fellows Committee. The key words are selected from drop-down menus on the "advertiser" page, and they can be searched from a list of links on the "job seeker" page.

Who will volunteer the actual job contact information on the advertiser pages? This is the most challenging aspect of the project. A handful of fellows leaving NIH have volunteered their information from our Fellows listserv, where I post a message periodically to the 1000-plus members. But this is not enough. Unfortunately, each institute at the NIH has no mandatory "exit" interview for its fellows, which would be the best way to catch fellows as they depart NIH for their next career step.

I brainstormed on how to get volunteer fellow input and advertised in NIH publications, electronic bulletin boards, and job and information fairs. I found a stream of contacts through permanent NIH employees who act as advisors on the Fellows Committee. Additionally, I expanded the advertisers to include current and past NIH employees and alumni. To help with our promotion to the alumni, the NIH Alumni Association's Web site now has a link to the pages. All of these activities have helped get the word out about JobNET, but much more still needs to be done. If you are a former or current postdoc or employee at NIH and would like to volunteer, please take a couple of minutes to enter your information today!

I found starting JobNET to be fun and easy. The site launched only in September 2000, but I see the resource continuing to grow and expand as more and more postdocs seek career advice, both inside and outside academics. However, advertising the site and getting people to volunteer their wisdom remains the biggest challenge. But, I guess that's what the "work" in networking is all about.

Dr. Yvonne Szymko is a research fellow at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. She is a Fellows Committee Representative and a licensed research audiologist. She works in the areas of speech perception in cochlear implant patients and in the genetics of hearing loss.

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