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Making it Great for Everyone

When institutions try to improve conditions for their postdocs, the initiative often comes from the top administrative echelons of graduate or medical schools, universities or even multi-university state systems. But, as one pioneering department is showing, efforts at the departmental level can also make a big difference for postdocs.

In the University of Minnesota's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB), postdocs work in conditions that would make counterparts at many other universities--and even other UMN departments--drool. Unlike a great many postdocs, those at BMBB follow a clear career ladder that allows them to gain advancement, recognition, and teaching experience and even to get started as independent researchers.

They also have opportunities to present their work at an annual postdoc symposium, get grants for travel to out-of-town meetings, and attend departmental career-education programs and social events. These activities, all run within the department, unfold under the watchful eye of the department's own postdoc director, an influential senior faculty member who has even more innovative ideas up his sleeve.

Climbing the Ladder
A large department that spans the university's graduate and medical schools as well as several campuses in the Twin Cities area, BMBB has some 40 tenured and tenure-track faculty and about 60 postdocs--or, more precisely, about 60 scientists who other departments would lump together as postdocs. But at BMBB, Ph.D. researchers not in tenure-track jobs fall into four well-defined categories. During their first three years at UMN, until they hit the university's mandatory term limit, they are usually considered postdoctoral associates and hold temporary positions.

Then, "at the recommendation of your mentor," says Joseph M. "Mike" Autry, who chairs the university-wide Postdoctoral Association and also serves on BMBB's own departmental postdoc steering committee, scientists interested in staying on at BMBB may be granted the status of research associate. This soft-money staff position, a "kind of senior postdoc" has "retirement benefits and expanded health care" but no time limit, he says.

Research associates who do well can next be promoted to the rank of research assistant professor, "an honorary title that is given ... by the department," says John Lipscomb, a professor of biochemistry and former BMBB department head who a year ago became the department's first postdoctoral director. Research assistant professor status is "an award that you earn [by] having been a research associate, having done a good job, [and by] being on the way to being an independent scientist," but does not carry the possibility of entering the tenure track, he continues. Still, adds Autry, "some research assistant professors can stay long term" and all are eligible to teach, although "they can't be course director and they can't have their own postdocs or graduate students."

Most crucially, research associate professors are allowed to write their own grants, Lispcomb says. The status "demonstrates our confidence in them and, if they are successful in getting a grant, they can go [into the job market] with a very strong position. We've found that it really helps in securing a tenure-track job." Having their own grants, however, "doesn't give them independent space" which always depends on "a tenured or tenure-track professor who agrees to let them use the space for their research." But professors gladly oblige, generally, for "the benefit of having someone that skilled in your lab," Lipscomb adds. Research associate professor is another honorary title that is sometimes awarded, "one level up from the research assistant professor," but "these are pretty rare" and generally go to advanced scientists hired to run departmental facilities, Lipscomb continues.

This ladder of categories serves several useful purposes, in Lipscomb's opinion. "It keeps people straight ... in terms of where their role is in the department [and] also gives [the faculty] a way to treat each individual group" appropriately and recognize their different levels of accomplishment and responsibilities. The BMBB departmental roster currently lists 26 postdoctoral associates, 18 research associates, 17 research assistant professors and 2 research associate professors.

New Ideas
In his own part-time role as postdoc director, Lipscomb manages departmental awards and activities and "serves as liaison for postdocs with faculty," Autry says. "When I took this position, director of postdocs," says Lipscomb, "there really wasn't any uniform planning [for postdocs.] Each laboratory was kind of handling things in their own way. So we've established a few things that are useful to the postdocs," including the travel awards, which come out of a departmental fund established by an alumnus.

Another recent effort has been the department's first annual postdoc retreat, or "at least we called it the first annual," Autry notes. Planned and organized by postdocs and held in June, it attracted 35 postdocs of all ranks to a nearby state park conference center for two days of scientific symposia, kayaking, hiking, a family-style Italian dinner, and a roundtable discussion with Lipscomb and department head David Bernlohr on ways to make the postdoc experience even better. Ideas that emerged include regular scientific-cum-social meetings, a possible departmental postdoc association, a dedicated postdoc section on the departmental Web site and an effort to develop the department's substantial postdoc alumni network into a job-hunting resource.

But Lipscomb has even bigger plans. "Our main target ... is [for] the postdocs being trained to go out and get jobs of their own," he says. "There are so many different types of jobs that it's hard to provide a good training environment that's right for everybody. So we're trying to figure out what types of things people would like to have."

First among his top three ideas is an independent development plan for each postdoc. "It's something that now is just left entirely up to the lab, but everybody seemed to like that idea, so I think it will probably go." Second, he believes that each postdoc should have "a committee similar to the one we have for our graduate students ... three or four faculty who track their progress all the way through their career. ... This also gives them sources for letters of recommendation. ... It's a good plan that we could implement without too much resistance and the faculty would buy into that."

Third would be "some mechanism for getting ready to get a job," such as help preparing for the all-important seminar and chalk talk presentations required for many academic appointments. For example, the postdoc's "committee could also perform that function, listening to the seminar, listening to the chalk-talk practice," and helping the scientist gather and focus his or her data into an effective presentation.

The university-wide Postdoctoral Association and Postdoc Office already provide a number of career-training and social activities, Autry notes, but these tend to "more general, like how to write a CV." With more than a thousand postdocs university-wide, the association "is great, but it serves so many fields. It's hard to tailor everything for a thousand postdocs."

Department-level activities, he and Lipscomb agree, can better hone in on some of the postdocs' particular needs. "Some labs have a great record of moving people on to jobs and others are not so great," says Lipscomb. "My goal [is] to try to even that out. ... [Postdocs] would come into a broad department in any of several laboratories and have the expectation of going out well trained and well prepared to get a position. The goal is to look and see what went right in those labs and how to make things great for everybody."