UW Graduate School

April 19, 2018

National support for the postdoc experience

Earlier this month, the OPA and UWPA traveled to Cleveland, OH for the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) annual meeting. This is always an exciting conference, where leaders from postdoctoral associations and institutional offices gather to share best practices, recent research, and to strategize for future efforts supporting the postdoc experience. Here are a few pearls:

Take a holistic approach to postdoc experience. There was consistent advice across presenters that all postdocs need to explore various career choices. This is part of your postdoc training experience, and should be part of your regular work week. Feeling prepared for your next step is key, and is a purposeful investment. Dr. Rafael Luna, former executive director of the Boston-based National Research Mentoring Network, offers this advice: you must determine what you’re good at, what brings you joy, and what the world needs you to be. These are great questions to reflect upon and then discuss with your mentor as you move towards independence. Are you getting the correct experiences to prepare you for this future?

A number of recent students and reports raise concerns about certain issues within the postdoc experience:

  • The NPA conducted a survey of sexual harassment across postdocs and it is clear from the numbers that too many of you — men and women — have experienced unwanted sexual attention in workplace settings
  • The NPA will be launching a survey of stress, anxiety, and well-being among postdocs this summer, as we know these are key issues of importance and concern for many.
  • A session focusing on needs of international postdocs highlighted challenges with visa renewals, funding eligibility*, and transitioning to working in the U.S.
  • Most institutions have extremely limited information about where postdocs go next, and this limits our abilities to refine training programs, justify additional support efforts, and better prepare you for your futures.

It is clear we have work to do within our institutions, both culturally and structurally. Fortunately, the federal funding agencies are paying attention, highlighted by recent National Academies reports. Drs. Edwards and Mahoney are now on the NPA Advocacy committee, so we will be monitoring and participating in these national efforts in an on-going way and will bring back what we can.

Mentoring Matters. Another recurring theme of several sessions focused on mentorship, and how much having a mentor who is invested in you and your future makes a difference. There was good news from the national survey of postdocs conducted by the University of Chicago (results coming soon) showing that the majority of postdocs were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their faculty mentor. That said, it can take work to get the mentoring you need. Several speakers reflected the idea we promote at the OPA — you need a mentoring team! One person is not enough to guide you through research, career, and personal support. The federal funders are interested in more accountability for faculty and better faculty mentor preparation. More programming and initiatives are coming.

Finally, there is widespread interest in raising the visibility of postdoc contributions to research, teaching, mentorship, service, and community. Throughout the spring, share a highlight or tell your story on social media with the #postdocstory hashtag.

We anticipate expanding upon these sessions and many more through local workshops or future blog posts. Look for additional recaps from the UWPA in their newsletter. And, please review the meeting agenda; if you have any questions about specific sessions, please let us know and we will be happy to share notes with you.

*FYI: International postdocs are eligible for the NIH K99/R00 award that can facilitate your transition to independent research and a faculty position. If you work in the biomedical, public health, or behavioral sciences, check out your NIH institute to see if they offer this funding mechanism. We will be holding a workshop in the future regarding how to prepare a strong application. The OPA will also be updating our resource list to include additional funding mechanisms available to international postdocs.