Developing the Skills You Need to Succeed: Tales From Association Postdocs, Part 2

As a postdoc looking at your future career plans, you probably are wondering what skills employers are looking for. And once you know the answer to that question, the next one is bound to be "Where the heck do I get those skills?" In this second part of our series, " Developing the Skills You Need to Succeed: Tales From Association Postdocs," we'll hear from a former postdoc and her current boss about how volunteer work with a postdoc association can help you develop the skills employers seek.

When Mary DeLong, director of the Office of Graduate Program Partnerships at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was looking for a Program Coordinator for the GPP, she wanted a candidate with four attributes:

  • Excellent people skills

  • An understanding of the needs of graduate students

  • An ability to multitask, and

  • A proven ability to set and achieve goals.

She found these skills and abilities in Patty McCarthy, who took up the reins several months ago. But what, you may ask, made McCarthy the winning candidate? Easy. Her experiences with Felcom, the postdoctoral fellows association at the NIH.

Below, we'll review McCarthy's Felcom-derived experiences and see how they allowed her to gain and hone the skills that DeLong was looking for at the GPP.

"Excellent People Skills"

The GPP is involved with establishing relationships between NIH and degree-granting colleges and universities, both in the United States and around the world. It also serves as the de facto graduate school office on the NIH campus, addressing the needs of students and providing administrative oversight. So, as the GPP's program coordinator, McCarthy interacts with people at all levels and in a variety of different offices, both inside and outside the NIH. She works with everyone from scientific directors (the heads of the institutes that comprise the NIH) to human resources staff to graduate students. However, as she points out, "scientific training doesn't necessarily train you to learn how to properly interact with individuals." As a member of Felcom, McCarthy served on two committees that helped her develop the people skills she now uses every day in her job.

While organizing Felcom's "Scientific Careers for the New Millennium" seminar series, for example, McCarthy, along with her fellow committee members, needed to determine what kinds of careers NIH postdocs were interested in learning about. Then the committee needed to identify and recruit speakers who could talk about those careers. Working on this seminar series gave McCarthy valuable experience interacting with individuals both by phone and e-mail, and it helped her overcome the inhibition most people feel toward calling people they have not met.

A friendly phone conversation is one thing, but what happens when you disagree with the person on the other end of the phone? Or you are in a meeting and want to voice an opinion that runs counter to what a higher-up is saying? As the Felcom representative on the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics, McCarthy helped with the development of the NIH Guidelines for Investigating Scientific Misconduct. While working on this document, she had the opportunity to interact and discuss the issues with more senior scientists and administrators and learn by their examples. These experiences taught her the valuable skill of being able to convey an opposing opinion in a constructive way.

"An Understanding of the Needs of Graduate Students"

Among McCarthy's responsibilities as program coordinator is creating the infrastructure to manage graduate students and their needs. Because the GPP functions as a de facto graduate school office, it needs to keep track of students and manage details such as their stipend and benefits requirements. One of the GPP's additional tasks is creating a sense of community for these students. There are only about 200 students on the NIH campus, and they can easily get lost in the sea of over 2500 postdocs, 1200 principal investigators, and countless administrators, technicians, and support staff. McCarthy's own experiences as a graduate student and a postdoc allow her to more easily identify the needs of students and empathize with their concerns. Her organizational skills--developed by her experiences helping to organize the Careers seminar series, the Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) competition (see below), and the NIH Job Fair--have proved valuable in handling the details of creating the needed infrastructure.

"An Ability to Multitask"

The GPP is only 8 months old and it has a small staff, so each person in the office needs to be able to work hard and balance multiple projects or tasks at any given time. So, DeLong needed a program coordinator who had a track record of successfully juggling many responsibilities. McCarthy's ability to conduct solid research while working on the various Felcom committees demonstrated to DeLong that she had what it takes to multitask.

"A Proven Ability to Set and Achieve Goals"

Establishing goals is fairly easy, but achieving them can be much more difficult, especially if you need to coordinate and work with others. However, DeLong knew that McCarthy had proven herself through her work with Felcom, especially the FARE competition.

FARE is an annual competition at the NIH in which fellows and students submit abstracts of their research in a competition for travel awards. The competition is a large endeavor and requires that a number of tasks be accomplished. These include publicizing the contest; monitoring the electronic submission process; recruiting fellows and tenured/tenure-track scientists to sit on the study sections that judge the abstracts; presenting reports on FARE to the scientific directors; coordinating the award ceremony; and more. McCarthy served as one of the key organizers of the 1999 and 2000 FARE competitions and worked with her fellow postdocs to make FARE a success. She notes that "scientific training taught me how to identify and construct a timetable of steps necessary in the organization of the FARE competition." She worked to construct a timeline and then identified dependable individuals who could take on various tasks and, importantly, were comfortable working in teams.

But even dependable people can falter, and McCarthy was obliged to call upon her management and people skills to keep things moving. As she puts it, "It is important to recognize whether or not a person will be able to finish an assigned task in a timely manner, and if not, ask how you can help without making the individual feel incompetent."

So what can you learn from McCarthy's experiences? Although understanding the needs of graduate students may not be among the requirements for most jobs, people skills, multitasking, and the ability to set and achieve goals are core competencies that most--if not all--employers are looking for. So, think about getting involved with your postdoc association today to gain the skills you will need tomorrow.

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