Credit: G. Grullón/Science

The 'Other' Postdoc Curriculum

Postdocs justly pride themselves on their research expertise. But career advancement requires a lot more than knowing science, says Trevor Penning, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Office of Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs ( BPP). Writing, public speaking, job hunting, and ethical reasoning top his list of essentials. To help Penn's postdocs learn these skills, his nationally recognized office runs an extensive, innovative program of Web-based and traditional courses.

These sessions--the traditional ones--are generally "standing room only," with more than 125 of the university's 800 biomedical postdocs jamming half-day workshops. The curriculum includes both mandatory (core) and optional elements, and it far exceeds the basic federal requirements for training that universities must provide in bioethics, environmental health and radiation safety, and treatment of human and animal subjects. The core program mandates that postdocs demonstrate competence in scientific writing and make at least one public presentation of their research, and the BPP office provides training to help postdocs reach those goals. To accommodate busy schedules, it places much of this material online.

Optional elements include a popular series of workshops in "research success skills" and another in career development. A daylong postdoc research symposium, organized each year by postdocs for postdocs, schedules oral and poster presentations and culminates in faculty-awarded prizes for the best work. And each year a postdoc career fair introduces postdocs to potential employers.

The core curriculum's flagship offering, an online bioethics course, grew out of a federal training requirement for postdocs supported on National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Awards. "But our concept is that all our postdocs are the same," Penning said. "We don't think that one should make a distinction, that one group has to be more bioethical than another." The course consists of faculty lectures on videos and printable PowerPoint slides that examine topics such as "ownership of material and data, ... authorship, [and] conflict of interest," as illustrated by real-life dilemmas.

In one example, a study section member discovers from reading a grant proposal that a lab at another university is far along on the question that one of her own Ph.D. students is researching. The study section member must thus fulfill two conflicting ethical imperatives, preserving the confidentiality of grant applications and preventing her student from wasting his time. "Science is full of these gray areas," Penning says. [Want to know the answer?]

The course's ability to "teach ethical reasoning online" is "really novel," he continues. After the videos comes a series of case studies in which scientists face quandaries and decide how to proceed. The postdoc then expresses agreement or disagreement with the choices made. "Once you've given your answer, you [see] a histogram of all the previous responses"--about a thousand to date--given by the postdocs who have taken the course. "This lets you see how your response lines up to everybody else's," Penning explains. Next comes a bioethicist's explanation of "why that major response has been chosen. You can start thinking why your response was the same or different" from the majority view. For one of the cases studies, he admits, "I actually gave an answer that wasn't ethical. Then I went through the bioethicist's explanation and I said, 'You know, they're right.'"

After completing the case studies, the postdoc takes an online exam and, if successful, can print out a certificate. The BPP office electronically tracks who has done the modules and passed the course. "We have an annual appointment process," Penning says, and "before we reappoint, we'll send out reminders" to those who have not yet met the requirement. BPP asks everyone, even those who believe they have covered similar material at a previous university, to complete the core requirements. This uniformity is important, Penning says, because foreign nationals, who account for half of Penn's postdocs, "may never have been exposed to these things, ... especially ... the bioethics training, where cultural [understandings] can be very different." In some cultures, for example, "plagiarism is considered the right thing to do; ... to plagiarize one's professor is thought to be an accolade to the professor."

Along with cultural differences, "we have a lot of foreign nationals here who really have trouble writing coherent English," observes Susan Shetzline, co-chair of Penn's Biomedical Postdoctoral Council. For them--and for any native English speakers who want to improve their writing--BPP offers two options. A placement exam channels those with "really fundamental issues of grammar and sentence construction" into a course in basic composition. The rest can take a 14-week course in writing for biomedical professionals run in conjunction with the university's English department.

The assignments "might be an introduction letter for yourself, a rebuttal letter for a manuscript, [or] an abstract." Postdocs hand in their work electronically and "the editing is extensive. [The work] goes back and forth as many times as it takes to get it right," he notes. Postdocs can also get help with their writing from the council's editorial club, whose volunteer members accept "manuscripts, posters, [and] abstracts to edit for English content, not scientific content," Shetzline says.

Postdocs have several opportunities to present their research. "Many of our graduate groups and departments have retreats where both graduate students and postdocs talk," Penning says. But the main venue is the annual Postdoctoral Research Symposium. This year, 80 people answered the call for abstracts and "no one was turned away," Shetzline said. Each had a choice of doing a poster or a talk, and "anyone who chose an oral presentation was offered a slot." The council also conducts more informal meetings called "postdoc conversations on research" to provide additional practice in presenting.

Optional elements of the training program further sharpen writing and speaking, "the two most important" skills, in Penning's view. The Research Success Skills Workshop series, consisting of four half-day sessions, offers one morning on scientific writing and another on speaking, at which a communications company hired by BPP demonstrates everything "from how to do an effective 30-second sound bite to how to make a good slide," Penning says. A third workshop covers grantsmanship, and a fourth, on lab management, explores "how to actually set up a lab for the first time: hiring, firing, team building, running your lab as a small business," Penning says. Those unable to attend can use video or digital versions of the workshops.

For its career-development program, "one of the most extensive" in the nation, according to Penning, BPP pays the university's Career Services office specifically to help postdocs. "We have two named individuals over there who work one-on-one with postdocs," he says. BPP also runs a four-part workshop series on career issues. The first half-day lays out the demographics of the postdoc job market. "We deliberately tell them up front that their possibilities of getting a faculty position are few and far between. [Postdocs] need to stretch [their] horizons," Penning says.

The program then proceeds to help them do so by explaining "how to put together an effective job search," he added. "A headhunter comes in to tell what they look for." Real-life advice on how to prepare for the interview includes making a practice trip to the interview site to avoid getting lost on the big day and, "believe it or not, [washing] your hands before you meet the first person because most of you are going to be sweating."

The three subsequent workshops explore career options, beginning with academic careers at universities and at undergraduate colleges, "because the criteria for those jobs are quite different," Penning says. Other sessions cover industrial careers and "nontraditional careers [that] no longer involve doing bench work," such as grant management, science writing, public policy, and patent law. The biomedical career fair brings to campus some 20 companies of various sizes and industries. Postdocs can have Career Services check over their résumés beforehand, because "we don't want these firms to come on campus and see résumés that are full of typos," Penning says.

The large turnout at BPP events demonstrates more than postdocs' enthusiasm for this practical training; Penning believes it also speaks well of the faculty, many of whom have no problem with allowing their postdocs time off to attend. Like the young investigators they supervise, these mentors see the value of having the apprentice scientists in their labs systematically studying the "other" postdoc curriculum.

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