Guest post by Adriana Bankston and Sonia Hall

Postdocs often lack the professional development opportunities they need. Many stakeholders are working to address this critical gap, including the academic, non-profit, private, and government sectors. While postdocs benefit from the great variety of resources and providers, it is important to minimize duplication of efforts. To maximize the contributions of all invested groups, the Genetics Society of America and the Future of Research collaborated to organize a workshop for the 2017 National Postdoctoral Association Annual Meeting: “Enhancing the Connections Between Institutions and Professional Societies in Advancing Postdoctoral Training.” Our goal was to bring together the various stakeholders to map out a collaborative framework to provide the best professional development for trainees. The session included a panel discussion and five concurrent breakout sessions.

The panel discussion revealed how different groups are currently enhancing postdoctoral training. Career development professionals have carefully developed, tested, and evaluated a variety of programs. They have invested substantial time and effort in understanding the needs and interests of their local communities. At the same time, professional organizations are increasingly offering career and professional development training at regional and national conferences, as well as through online webinars.

The overlap between these groups provides an opportunity to begin working together to maximize the investment that career development professionals have made in developing quality programming. Because professional societies work at the intersection of the academic, private, government, and non-profit sectors, they are uniquely poised to support national and international dissemination of programming developed within institutional offices. Partnerships between professional societies and career development groups to broadly disseminate career development content will provide better opportunities to postdocs who do not have access to professional development on their campus. Professional organizations can have a particularly significant impact on this underserved population of scholars.

Attendees worked together to develop a roadmap outlining how the various stakeholders can best complement each other’s activities to:

  •  Identify roles for enhancing postdoctoral training
  •  Test a partnership model for collaboration
  •  Define & measure career preparedness
  •  Develop methods for assessment and dissemination
  •  Identify challenges to dissemination of programming and training data

Identify roles for enhancing postdoctoral training

The participants in this breakout session worked to identify what various stakeholders can do to improve training for postdocs. They recommended:

  • Institutions host multi-institution training events and increase connectivity among trainees and alumni;
  • Professional organizations  advertise resources and opportunities available to trainees, visit local campuses, and develop webinars for topics of interest to multiple disciplines;
  • Postdocs join professional organizations, volunteer for committees, and use available resources.

Testing a partnership model for collaboration

The group was primarily composed of professionals working in academia. They identified a number of services that professional organizations could provide, including: field-specific resources; data on common needs and resources; services and memberships for postdoc offices in addition to individuals; subscription-based access to a portal that contains career development content.

Together, the participants identified a number of resources that could be further developed through collaboration: negotiation training, a career development speakers bureau, a faculty training bootcamp, and resources to support international scholars.

Define & measure career preparedness

Considering the variety of career outcomes for postdocs, it becomes difficult to find consensus on the definition of career preparedness. Discipline and department specific requirements for graduation typically define the academic training experience. But, as many of us are aware, these requirements often do not include the development of professional skills that are critical for success outside of a research-intensive role in academia. To begin defining career preparedness, the attendees suggested using existing resources, such as the National Postdoctoral Association’s core competencies. Because the research experience is of critical importance, they reinforced the need to use the scholar’s research project, publications, and presentations to evaluate discipline-specific career preparation. Collecting data on the competencies of graduating PhD students and postdocs transitioning into various careers will be very important in shaping our understanding of their current level of expertise. Six months from each scholar’s transition from training into their new career path, additional data should be collected to understand the challenges that were encountered by the scholar and the skills they lacked to efficiently overcome the challenges.

Develop methods for assessment & dissemination

In this session, participants discussed assessment in general, as well as specific methods of data collection, particularly for longitudinal data. One example was collecting behavioral outcomes data (for example whether people make significant changes to their CVs shortly after taking a CV workshop, with a follow-up 3-6 months later). They also discussed what was meant by “dissemination” and how to do it effectively, as summarized below.

Some very interesting ideas were put forth in terms of data collection:  

1) Have attendees swipe ID cards. This method would allow the linking of data of participation in career development sessions to the university’s online systems, and would also allow the downloading of a list of professional development sessions. The latter could then be used to track attendance but would require IRB approval.

2) Using a unique identifier. This method would not allow data collection of the participants in the session but would allow tracking if people fill out the session surveys without being linked to an email address. This method would allow the collection of data without requiring IRB approval.

3) Use sign-in list email addresses followed by an anonymous survey. This method does not require IRB approval and would make it difficult to link pre- and post-session data for specific individuals.

In addition to the above solutions, another important recurring theme during the entire workshop was the need for establishing a central web portal by universities and societies.

Identify challenges to dissemination of programming and training data

This group identified the challenges postdocs encounter that prevent them from participating in career development programming. Often, postdocs do not attend workshops or utilize existing professional development tools. Not surprisingly, many postdocs do not read the emails that advertise these opportunities. Additionally, many postdocs report that they do not see enough value in the programs to participate. Taken together, this suggests that we need to reach our audience using other mechanisms and better communicate the utility of the programming. The group suggested using social media, online forums, email list-servs, newsletters, and posters to communicate success stories from previous participants.

Various stakeholders working together to improve postdoc training will benefit the scientific enterprise, both for academics and non-academics. This session highlighted many similarities between the needs of various stakeholders, while showing how they can work together and complement each other to improve training. Future studies should examine practical aspects of how these groups can effectively work together (for example through an online centralized platform) to foster change in postdoctoral training for a variety of career paths.  

Adriana Bankston is a Policy Activist at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization representing junior scientists, through grassroots advocacy, to promote positive systemic change to the way we do science. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system.

Adriana Bankston

Sonia Hall is Program Director for Early Career Scientist Engagement at the Genetics Society of America. She is committed to supporting career and professional development of graduate students and postdocs as they navigate careers in the scientific enterprise.

Sonia Hall. Photo by Earl Richardson.

GSA's Director for Engagement and Development – Committed to supporting career and professional development of graduate students and postdocs as they navigate careers in the scientific enterprise.

View all posts by Sonia Hall »