Career Skills Focus of ASM Institute for Postdocs

"This was truly an extraordinary learning experience. The faculty and staff worked hard and were tremendously enthusiastic. I came here unsure about my future-- now I have a plan," wrote one of the participants at the 1st Summer Institute in Preparation for Careers in Microbiology. Twenty-one scientists-in-training, both postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, spent 6 days in August, from early morning to evening, immersed in learning about topics key to microbiology careers.

"Grantsmanship--from proposal writing to the research grant review process," "scientific presentation and communication," "effective teaching techniques," "issues of professional and ethical behavior," and "opportunities and preparation for diverse careers" are five topics that postdocs rarely have a chance to think about. Yet, they are integral to choosing and succeeding in a scientific career. Postdocs in microbiology had an opportunity to learn about these subjects, which were the content focus of the summer institute, jointly sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the department of bacteriology, at the University of Wisconsin, where the institute was held.

Rajesh Nayak, a first-year postdoc at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicology Research, said that "this ASM program is a must attend. You never know where life will take you. At the end of your doctoral studies, you do not have a clue about where to go. Owing to the socialization process, you simply think you have to do a postdoc and then obtain a faculty position in an R1 institution. This summer institute opened up a world of opportunities."

As with many science and technical fields, microbiology is host to myriad career pathways and professions. However, "most postdoctoral fellows and graduate students are so focused on completion of their research projects and acquiring the skills to perform independent scientific research [that] they have little opportunity to talk with scientists in careers different from ... their own advisors." That's the word from Robert Kadner of the University of Virginia and past chair of ASM's Committee on Graduate Education, which was charged with creating this ASM initiative (see sidebar).

Most scientific professional societies have educational missions to provide professional development services and programs to their members. Not many societies have established programs specifically for postdocs. ASM is one of the exceptions.

But it's not all altruism. A few years ago, ASM's Employment Outlook Survey found employers were concerned that although the Ph.D. graduate's technical background met most expectations for successful employment, the graduate remained underdeveloped in other skills critical to the workplace. In response, ASM's Committee on Graduate Education held a strategic planning retreat in Spring 1999; the summer institute grew out of that. ASM intends to sponsor the institute again in August 2002 at the University of Wisconsin. Watch for details on the organization's Web page, Member Services for Postdocs.

To fill this void, said Kadner, "microbiologists, high-powered experts from all walks of life, were invited to Madison for the sole purpose of helping the postdocs and doctoral students in developing their careers." Speakers from 4-year and minority-serving institutions, comprehensive and research universities, medical schools, clinical laboratories, the biotechnology industry, research administration in government, and patent law shared their life experiences. They described how they got to where they are, the "whys" and the "why-nots" for making the decisions they made, and the consequences of those decisions. They outlined the benefits and challenges of their career choices, salary ranges, possible mobility, and the estimated numbers for entry-level positions. The practical information was brought home to each postdoc and graduate student when the invited microbiologists and faculty discussed what features of a résumé are helpful in obtaining a job interview and a job offer.

Amy Chang, ASM's education department director, noted that offering a wide range of career presentations served to underscore that identifying one's "calling" is dependent on self-knowledge. "You must find a career that fits your style, your values, your aspirations, and that makes you happy," Chang advised. Accordingly, one institute participant wrote that "[o]ne of my favorite aspects of the institute was the career talks. There was no prejudice by the speakers or faculty about one career being superior to another. Rather, the emphasis was on enjoying the career that each person chooses."

In the short term, the postdocs are sure to reap the benefits of the summer program. The institute's activities on written scientific communication focused on describing the results of research and applying for grant support--major activities for many postdoctoral fellows. "The best training for grant preparation is to actually write a proposal, and then to review someone else's", explained Kadner. Each participant came to the institute with a brief research proposal based on her/his own research activities. Institute faculty, with extensive experience in the proposal submission and grant-review process, reviewed and critiqued these proposals with the participants; they learned what was and wasn't effective in their writing by assessing the strength of the scientific project proposed, the presentation style, and the clarity and persuasiveness of the proposal.

Thoughtful questioning and open, frank discussion characterized institute sessions on professionalism in microbiology. Regulations and best practices for running laboratories and classrooms, the ethics and use of humans and animals in research, intellectual property, and expectations for an employer versus a mentor versus a trainee were a few of the provocative subjects covered. One participant commented, "I found that the best thing about the institute was the ability to openly discuss and interact with the faculty and students, without the fear that what I said could somehow affect my future."

In a similarly interactive experience, the postdocs and graduate students made brief oral presentations of their own research results, which were reviewed by and discussed among all at the institute. The participants learned that success in oral communication also requires practice. Another important factor in developing this skill set was receiving feedback to evaluate the logic and clarity of the presentation, as well as its effectiveness in maintaining the target audience's interest and comprehension. " 'How people learn' and 'how to help people learn,' " said postdoc Nayak, "were two institute topics that honed my skills and gave me tremendous insight into the art of public speaking."

Postdocs and doctoral students were not the only ones to give the institute favorable reviews. Owing to the enthusiasm and positive evaluations generated by this first institute, Jorge Escalante-Semerena of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the current chair of ASM's Committee on Graduate Education, encourages the development of similar programs throughout the country. "This activity complements the traditional postdoctoral and doctoral programs," he said. "It is career development at its best."

The institute experience may prove to be an effective investment and efficacious teaching/learning strategy for all involved parties--the postdocs and graduate students, the faculty, employers, and mentors, as well as the discipline and the professional society. Escalante foresees that the institute's Certificate of Participant Attendance may one day hold cache among employers. Even in today's market, participation in ASM's 1st Summer Institute in Preparation for Careers in Microbiology distinguishes newly minted professionals whose enterprise, daring, and initiative led them to pursue the lifelong habit of learning and building professional skills.

ASM's Chang claims that "the postdocs and graduate students came to the institute for skill development but walked away with much more." Rajesh Nayak believes that the summer institute experience confirmed that the American Society for Microbiology is a welcoming and supportive professional home. Nayak concluded, "It is good to see my scientific society specifically reaching out in personal ways to assist my colleagues and me in becoming the best microbiologists that the profession has to offer."

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