Expanding the Scope of Your Postdoctoral Education--Organize a Career Skills Workshop, Part 1

We are taught chemistry, biology, and genetics. We are often (but not always!) taught how to read a journal article, write a science paper, and put together a curriculum vitae (CV). These are all valuable skills, but they are directed toward academia or research in industry. Unfortunately, postdocs are undereducated in the skills needed to forge a career in other disciplines, especially business. Career skills workshops are a good way to bridge this educational gap and gain proficiency in resume writing, networking, and interviewing. Workshops can also serve as a good introduction to the distinct culture of the business world.

Last year, the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association ( JHPDA) organized a series of career workshops. We had planned for three topics: career assessment, resumes, and interview skills. We succeeded in conducting the career assessment and resume workshops, both of which received an enthusiastic response from the attendees. I will describe the workshops that we did at Hopkins, and then go over the various issues related to workshop planning:

  • Finding someone to run the workshop

  • Logistics: when, where, and how

  • Publicity and registration

  • Follow-up

  • Money matters

This week, I'll cover the first two topics--finding someone and logistics. In an upcoming article I'll discuss the next three topics.

The Workshops at Johns Hopkins

"Great Resumes"

This workshop covered the basics of what a resume is and isn't, what role it plays in the hiring process, composing and formatting issues, and how to build your own best resume. It also included a resume critique session, for which a few brave attendees submitted their resumes ahead of time for constructive criticism during the workshop. Finally, we also provided the option for attendees to have one-on-one critique sessions (for a $25 fee) with the workshop presenter.

This 1.5-hour workshop was limited to 40 participants and was conducted by a member of the Johns Hopkins undergraduate career office (which normally doesn't service the postdocs) for a $200 honorarium. We also provided sandwiches, chips, and soda as the workshop took place from 4 to 6 p.m.

"Doing What You Love by Discovering What You Like"

This career assessment workshop was aimed at helping people explore what career alternatives may be a good match for them. In advance of the workshop, each attendee completed two standardized personality assessment tests, the Strong Interest Inventory (SII) and the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey (CISS), which were scored and returned to the postdocs at the workshop. The workshop then helped each attendee to use their test results to examine different career options as they relate to their interests, skills, values, and personality preferences.

Because of the personalized nature of this workshop, we offered two sessions of 20 people each. These 2.5-hour workshops were conducted for free by two members of the career development arm of the Johns Hopkins Human Resources Department (which also normally doesn't service the postdoctoral community). The JHPDA covered the cost of scoring the assessment tests. As with the resume workshop, we also provided sandwiches, chips, and sodas.

Organizing Your Own Career Skills Workshop

Find Someone to Run the Workshop

The first place to look is within your own institution. Start with the undergraduate or graduate career offices as well as the human resources departments. These individuals have the advantage of being local and are often very experienced career workshop speakers. They may also be willing to do the workshops for free or for a small fee. They may not be familiar with the needs of advanced degree holders, but that is usually not a major disadvantage. In many cases, all you will need to do is educate the presenter about the training the average postdoc has received, the typical scientific career arc, and the general concerns of those postdocs seeking alternative careers.

Another potential problem with institutional presenters is that politics and/or funding issues may interfere with their willingness to help. Sometimes it helps if the presenters can conduct the workshops in their "free time," that is, after normal work hours. For these reasons, you may want to offer to keep their participation on a low profile (i.e., don't name names or offices on the posters, in e-mails, or on other advertisements).

If you cannot find someone at your own institution, consider approaching the human resources (HR) staff or management at a local biotech firm or other relevant business. These individuals are likely to do career skills presentations for free as part of their company's community outreach efforts, and they are certainly experienced at evaluating scientific resumes from the hiring perspective. Inviting them to participate in career workshops also creates an opportunity to forge a relationship between your postdoctoral organization and a company. This relationship could benefit your organization in the future, with companies perhaps providing speakers for other workshops, participating in career fairs, or offering funding for events.

You might also seek out professional help in the form of career consultants. These career consultants are out there, but they are not so easy to find. Search the Internet, your local yellow pages, and consult with local biotech firms (who might be able to recommend a consultant they have used in the past). Professional career consultants can be highly versed in all of the major workshop subject matters, as well as experienced in career assessment and career planning. Although they may not necessarily be familiar with the particular needs of scientists, as mentioned above, you can educate them about postdoctoral career needs. The downside is that professional consultants will cost money, but perhaps not as much as you might expect. In fact, you may be able to negotiate a discounted educational rate.

In the absence of any experienced external advice, your organization could take a self-help approach, by getting books on your topic of choice and forming a working group (possibly including interested faculty) to critique each other's resumes and cover letters or to practice interviewing and networking skills. A slightly more sophisticated approach is for some of your members to attend career development workshops organized by scientific societies and organizations (e.g., FASEB, AWIS, ASCB, etc.), take copious notes, and then share their newfound knowledge with their fellow postdocs. Albeit cheap, this method has the downside of having the blind lead the blind, as it were. In the absence of other alternatives, this approach can at least serve as a means of getting acquainted with various career skills and acquiring some objective feedback.

If your organization is interested in career assessment and planning workshops involving standardized assessment tests (such as the CISS and SII mentioned above), be aware that your presenter should be trained in the interpretation of those tests and their uses in career planning. Most career offices or HR departments have personnel trained in the use of these tests, and many professional career consultants have the necessary expertise. One additional place to look for people qualified to conduct this kind career assessment workshop is the National Board for Certified Counselors Inc., though like consultants, they will probably charge a fee.

Logistics: When, Where, and How

Once you have identified a presenter, officially invite him or her. This invitation can be as informal as an e-mail or as formal as a mailed letter on institutional letterhead, although you should probably formally invite anyone not affiliated with your institution. State in the letter the nature of the workshop, the time and date (if already agreed upon), and any other arrangements you've made--particularly the financial details. Once you send the invitation, it is a good time to begin to make arrangements for the presenter's honorarium or fee. Finally, provide maps and directions so the presenter can locate the site of the workshop.

As mentioned above, the time of the workshop may depend upon what works best for your speaker. Work with the presenter to determine the number of people per workshop, the program's length, and your speaker's audiovisual requirements, as these details will determine the type of room that is required. Be generous when scheduling the space, as the program may run over.

As these workshops tend to be more dynamic if everyone's blood sugar is up, think about providing refreshments or encouraging the attendants to "brown bag" the session, especially if the workshop coincides with a mealtime. Remember, nothing works to attract scientists like free food!

Some career workshops may have special logistical issues, and it is best to discuss with your speakers the timeframes associated with different workshops. For example, for the Hopkins resume workshop, we asked for volunteers to submit their CVs or resumes by e-mail about a week before the workshop. The submissions were passed along to the presenter for inclusion in a critique session during the workshop. In addition, we coordinated the half-hour one-on-one resume consultations conducted by our resume speaker, handling the consultation sign-up by e-mail and arranging for a quiet room.

Even more complex logistics surrounded the career assessment workshop. The two assessment tests were distributed to each workshop participant, the completed tests were returned, and then all of the tests were sent to the company for scoring. The JHPDA paid for these scoring costs. The workshop attendees took the tests well in advance of the workshop date (8 weeks), to allow enough turnaround time for test scoring. This long lead-time led to an unexpected problem: There were a few "no-shows." Although some absences were unavoidable (people moved, a car accident), the absences not only cost the JHPDA money, but deprived someone else on our rather long waitlist the chance to participate. Thus, it may be a good idea for the more involved workshops to have some built-in incentive to participate. One way may be to charge the postdocs a fee to cover the cost of the tests, which could be refunded the day of the workshop.

Next month, we'll cover the remaining topics of publicity, registration, money, and follow-up. Stay tuned!

Kimberly Paul got her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton in 1998, and is now a postdoctoral fellow in the department of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she is studying fatty acid synthesis in African trypanosomes. As the current co-vice president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, she has been active in organizing career-related events for the postdocs at the School of Medicine, so that she and her fellow postdocs can all get jobs and be happy.

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