Creating a Productive Postdoctoral Experience, Part 2: Combining Mentored Research Opportunities with Professional Development

Part 2 in a series on the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Division of Cancer Prevention's Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program (CPFP). Part 1 of this series described the application process, the diverse background of the applicants, and public health training aspects of the postdoctoral training program. Here, we assess the CPFP's goals and outcomes.

The mission of the CPFP is to provide mentored research opportunities, professional development, and leadership training in cancer prevention and control. The program directors--Douglas Weed, Stephen Hursting, and Shine Chang--work to ensure that each fellow's experience embodies excellence in each of these three components. In our experience, they have succeeded!

Mentored Research

After completion of their master of public health (M.P.H.) degree (see Part 1), Cancer Prevention Fellows start the research component of the fellowship. The first step is to select a primary preceptor based on mutual research interests; owing to the cross-disciplinary nature of their research project, though, fellows often choose to work with more than one preceptor. Fellows submit a written project proposal to the CPFP directors that describes their research hypothesis and the studies they plan to pursue. The project results from a research question that the fellow has posed, and the ensuing plan is made in conjunction with the preceptor's guidance and expertise. The CPFP directors then meet with each fellow and primary preceptor to discuss research goals and expectations.

Twice yearly, fellows submit reports summarizing their research progress and meet with the CPFP directors to review accomplishments, setbacks, and future plans. Additionally, the directors encourage fellows to take advantage of their "open door" policy to address any problems that may arise. However, you can also drop by their offices to discuss research, theater, recipes ... and even just to say "hello!" Doug, Steve, and Shine are congenial and affable individuals--it's refreshing!

Indeed, every fellow is guaranteed a mentored research experience, and this goal is met without fail. With this guarantee in place, the expectation is that each fellow will exhibit scientific productivity, an essential element in launching a successful career. Not surprisingly, over 99% of the fellows who enter the CPFP complete the program.

Former Cancer Prevention Fellow Lisa Colbert, currently at the National Institute on Aging and soon to assume a position as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, states: "I am now one of a very small number of exercise physiologists who also have an M.P.H. This made me very marketable in my job search. I also gained numerous skills during my mentored experiences that clearly broadened my knowledge base and have helped me on my career path." Ann O'Mara, an assistant professor of nursing who was making a mid-career change when she applied for the fellowship, notes: "I could not have done this without the experience of the CPFP. Prior to the CPFP, I felt I wasn't adequately using the skills and knowledge that I gained from my doctoral studies in my job. The CPFP allowed me the opportunity to use, refine, and build on my research skills." O'Mara is now program director in the Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, NCI.

Professional Development

Professional development encompasses scientific growth and skills that are infrequently taught in the classroom but are vital for success in launching a postdoc's independent career. In fact, given the diversity of research interests and collaborations, we find that the fellows themselves provide the basis for one of the richest sources of professional development during the weekly Fellows' Research Meetings. Weekly colloquia similarly broaden the fellows' exposure to various topics in cancer prevention and control. Additionally, fellows are encouraged to invite and host scientists to present leading research for the Colloquia Series.

The NCI Summer Curriculum in Cancer Prevention, which consists of the "Principles and Practice of Cancer Prevention and Control" course, the "Molecular Prevention" course, and the "Molecular Prevention Laboratory" practicum, allows fellows to expand their knowledge in the multidisciplinary aspects of cancer prevention and control. These courses are of particular importance when new fellows are deciding on their research plans, but they are also valuable for senior fellows who may choose to attend particular lectures.

Career development activities are tailored for cancer prevention fellows. The "Effective Presentations" course covers the key components of scientific oral presentations. Organizational skills needed to balance multiple concurrent activities at work and home are taught in time management training. Scientific writing groups meet on a regular basis. In the "Grants and Grantsmanship" workshop, fellows learn about different research funding mechanisms, grant writing, and grant review. Each fellow prepares an abbreviated research proposal that is formally reviewed in a mock peer-review session facilitated by a retired scientific review administrator. In the biweekly Grants Club, under the guidance of the CPFP directors, fellows present, discuss, and prepare proposals for submission. Eighty-two percent of the grants prepared with the help of the Grants Club have been successfully funded--proof that this system works.

In 2002, the Annual Cancer Prevention Fellows' Scientific Symposium was established. This event is a day dedicated to formal scientific exchange among Cancer Prevention Fellows and CPFP scientific staff. With oral and poster presentations throughout the day, it's also an opportune time to practice and sharpen the skills we learned in the "Effective Presentations" course! Furthermore, fellows take the lead role and use their creativity in the planning and organization of the symposium.

Sheila Prindiville, a former Cancer Prevention Fellow and currently a medical oncologist in the Clinical Genetics Branch, Naval Hospital, NCI, comments: "The CPFP provided me a unique opportunity to combine training in medical oncology and cancer prevention. It also provided me the opportunity to interact with leaders in the field." Comparing the CPFP to her previous medical oncology fellowship, she states it was "unique--more emphasis on career development, formal M.P.H. training, and epidemiology." Ernest Hawk, who came to the CPFP after completing his clinical fellowship in hematology and medical oncology, remarks: "The CPFP broadened my vision of cancer beyond that of a traditional medical oncologist." Hawk is currently chief of the Gastrointestinal and Other Cancers Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, NCI.

Not to be forgotten is the one-on-one coaching and counseling provided by Doug, Steve, and Shine in important areas of professional development that are often overlooked: finding a job, interviewing for a job, negotiating, writing a CV, maintaining productivity, and handling authorship issues, to list a few.

Leadership Training

It takes hard work, motivation, and dedication to develop an effective research agenda. In our experience, the CPFP can help cultivate these traits and offers the opportunity to form a solid foundation. By building on the skills they brought to the program and acquiring new ones during M.P.H. training and mentored research, fellows have the opportunity and the freedom to develop and pursue their own original ideas in the field of cancer prevention and control. With the presentation of research results at meetings and through publications, fellows begin to build scientific networks with peers and colleagues and cultivate collaborations. This is leadership "by doing." Terryl Hartman, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, notes: "The contacts that I made and the collaborations that I established during the CPFP have continued to serve me very well. Several years after my move to Pennsylvania State University, I continue to collaborate with NCI colleagues."

You'll also discover that Cancer Prevention Fellows learn by example. Seemingly taken for granted, because of their habitual presence in fellowship activities, easy accessibility, and unassuming manners, Doug, Steve, and Shine are model leaders. Clearly it's the supportive and nurturing environment they create that fosters the unity and commitment to cancer prevention and control that exists among current and former Cancer Prevention Fellows.

The Stats

Between its inception in September 1986 and September 2002, nearly 150 individuals have entered the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program. The cohort of fellows comprises approximately 25% physicians and dentists and 75% Ph.D.s and other postdoctorates. Forty percent entered the program soon after completing their doctoral degree, and the others came to the CPFP with career experience. Initial postfellowship jobs include positions in the government (56%), universities (18%), cancer centers (11%), private industry (9%), and medical practice (6%).

A Passing Grade?

Former fellows agree that the CPFP fulfilled its objectives of providing scientific mentoring, leadership training, and professional development. "All objectives were met," states Colbert. "We could select our mentor(s) and were given many chances to expand our training." According to O'Mara, the CPFP fulfilled all of its objectives "by identifying the many avenues the fellow could pursue, by encouraging fellows to 'think outside of the box,' and by providing the resources found nowhere else to pursue these avenues."

A passing grade? In our opinion, the answer is "yes." However, we encourage all those with an interest in cancer prevention and control research and a strong desire to help move the field forward to come and see for themselves! Check out the CPFP at

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