Last month, the Postdoc Network published an article about the morning session of the recent Postdoc Network National Meeting. This week, we cover the afternoon session, which focused on meeting postdoctoral career and professional development needs.
After networking at lunch, the meeting attendees returned to the auditorium to spend an afternoon focused on how organizations are addressing the career development needs of their postdocs.
The session kicked off with Karen Peterson discussing the efforts at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) to provide career development for postdocs. Their program includes a number of components, such as an interdisciplinary training initiative that is designed to help postdocs cross-train in clinical, epidemiological, or basic research. This initiative includes courses and the opportunity to participate in stem cell transplant rounds. Many of the courses are taught by postdocs, allowing them to gain valuable teaching experience. Beyond interdisciplinary training, the Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee ( SPAC) at FHCRC is developing an alumni database called FredNet, has created scholarships for postdocs to take additional courses, organizes career panel discussions, and has founded a listserv to distribute information about job and training opportunities.
The next speaker was Debbie Swope from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Trainees Assembly ( NTA), who discussed two programs for fellows: the Frontline Forum and Frontline Seminar series. For the Frontline Forum, invited speakers come to discuss their careers and answer postdocs' questions. In recruiting speakers, the NTA invites scientists from NIEHS and from local universities and companies, providing postdocs with a view of traditional and "alternative" careers. This seminar series has been very popular with NIEHS postdocs because it provides an informal setting in which to network and learn valuable career advice. Additionally, the NTA has been able to win over some senior scientists who were skeptical of the need for the NTA by inviting them to be speakers in the Frontline Forum. These scientists found the experience rewarding, and many have offered to participate again.
The Frontline Seminar series was created to offer NTA postdocs the opportunity to practice job talks or meeting presentations. What makes the series particularly valuable is that after a postdoc gives their seminar, the audience offers suggestions on the presentation style, covering topics like slide layout and speaking skills. However, the initial twice-a-month seminar schedule proved to be a problem--although the first year's roster was full, the subsequent years were more sparsely filled, simply because not as many postdocs had reached a point in their careers at which they needed this type of feedback. The NTA is in the process of revamping the series, creating a schedule that offers seminars only once a month--but not during the summer months or the holiday-laden month of December.
Our third presentation was from the Postdoc Council and Office of Postdoctoral Programs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Mary Anne Timmins and Trevor Penning discussed the office's success skills and career development programs. These programs focus on "Research Success Skills" (scientific writing, granstmanship, peer review, lab management, and public speaking) and "Career Development" (basic job search skills, careers in industry, alternative career paths, and pursuing an academic career). Last year, the office presented pilot seminars on writing, grant funding, and management using faculty and other experts from the university. Additionally, they hired an outside group to provide two sessions on communications training. Developing a minicourse model to teach these skills is a priority for the office in 2002, and they are looking to combine their resources with those of other administrative units so that they may offer the career development programs to both postdocs and junior faculty.
Postdoc Council Co-Chair Tom Sweitzer presented a great idea to improve postdocs' writing skills, the Postdoc Editors Club (PEC). PEC is a group of volunteers who review fellow postdocs' manuscripts for grammar, structure, and organization, but not scientific content. The volunteer editors are trained, managed by an editor-in-chief, and have signed confidentiality statements. A volunteer will edit a postdoc's paper and then meet with the postdoc to review the edits. This editing process occurs before the advisor reviews the manuscript, so that when the advisor and postdoc meet to discuss the paper, the conversation can focus on the science, not the writing. In this way, the council hopes the PEC will help to improve relationships between postdocs and their advisors. For information and updates on the progress of this project, check out the Postdoc Council's Web page.
The afternoon session continued with a presentation from Patricia Van Bergen, who spoke about the NIH Fellows Committee's ( Felcom's) own postdoc career development efforts--FARE and JobNet. FARE, which stands for Fellows' Award for Research Excellence, is an annual abstract competition for postdocs at the NIH. Not only does FARE allow postdocs to compete for travel awards and to receive recognition for their work, it also gives them experience in the peer-review process. As Van Bergen elaborated, abstracts--stripped of all identifying information--are reviewed by study section review panels consisting of two postdocs and a tenured/tenure-track NIH scientist. In grading the abstracts, reviewers must consider four criteria--scientific merit, originality, experimental design, and overall presentation. Van Bergen pointed out that although not all institutions will have the funding for numerous travel awards, the concept could be adopted on a smaller scale, thus still providing recognition of postdoctoral research and valuable peer-review experience.
Van Bergen also discussed JobNet, a database of NIH alumni being developed by Felcom. Much of the information she presented about JobNet can be found in a previous Postdoc Network article, NIH Fellows Committee Job/Alumni Network: A Work in Progress.
Our last presentation of the session was by Jerry Peterson from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Peterson focused on organizing a career fair for postdoctoral scientists, a topic that has also been addressed recently in a series of articles offering tips and strategies from postdocs at the NIEHS Trainees Assembly.
To help postdocs learn more about what different companies and labs do, the fair in Boulder provided brief opportunities for each interviewing organization to make an overall presentation at the start of the day. So what is Peterson's advice for organizing a career fair for postdocs? Keep it simple. You do not want to overload yourself and the other organizers. He found that the most difficult aspect of organizing the fair was connecting with industry, where few people in human resources (HR) departments know what a postdoc is. And the career services office on the Boulder campus was also of little help. His suggestion for the future is to find high-level contacts in companies--individuals who can tell HR that having company representation at the career fair is a "must-do." In contrast to industry, working with the national labs was simple and effective, because these institutions have a good history with postdocs in physical sciences and engineering.
Resume Writing Workshop
The meeting concluded with a resume writing workshop. The workshop was offered as an example of what associations and offices could offer at their own institutions and as a personal benefit for the postdoc attendees. It began with a presentation from Alysia Decker, assistant director of career planning and development at Johns Hopkins University, on general techniques for resume and CV writing. After her presentation, CVs and resumes, submitted by attendees prior to the meeting, were critiqued in front of the audience. The critiques, each about 5 to 10 minutes, were performed by Decker, Rita Teutonico (associate professor of biotechnology, James Madison University), and Russell Kitchner (associate director and manager of graduate student career services, University of Notre Dame). The team approach to the critiques proved helpful as each expert could offer their own insights based on their varied experiences.
We hope that the Postdoc Network National Meeting will become an annual event. To keep up-to-date on plans for next year's meeting and on postdoc issues in general, subscribe to the Postdoc Network Listserv. And we'll see you next year!