Wednesday, October 4, 2017

How to train a postdoc? - by Uschi Symmons

- by Uschi Symmons


A couple of weeks ago I was roped into a twitter discussion about postdoc training, which seemed to rapidly develop into a stalemate between the parties: postdocs, who felt they weren't getting the support and training they wanted and needed, and PIs, who felt their often substantial efforts were being ignored. Many of the arguments sounded familiar: over the past two years I’ve been actively involved in our postdoc community, and have found that when it comes to postdocs, often every side feels misunderstood. This can lead to a real impasse for improvements, so in this blog post I’ve put together a couple of points summarizing problems and some efforts we've made to work around these to improve training and support.

First off, here some of the problems we encountered:
1. postdocs are a difficult group to cater for, because they are a very diverse group in almost every aspect:
- work/lab experience and goals: ranging from college-into-grad-school-straight-into-postdoc to people who have multi-year work experience outside academia to scientists who might be on their second or third postdoc. This diversity typically also translates into future ambitions: many wish to continue in academic research, but industry/teaching/consulting/science communication are also part of the repertoire.
- training: Some postdocs come from colleges and grad schools with ample opportunity for soft-skill training. Others might never have had a formal course in even such trivial things, like paper writing or how to give a talk.
- postdoc duration: there is a fair amount of variation in how long postdocs stay, depending on both personality and field of research. In our department postdocs, for example, postdoc positions vary widely, ranging from 1-2 years (eg computational sciences, chemistry) to 5-7 years (biomedical sciences).
- nationality: I don’t know if postdocs are actually more internationally diverse than grad students, but the implications of that diversity are often greater. Some postdocs might be preparing for a career in the current country, others might want to return to their home country, which makes it difficult to offer them the same kind of support. Some postdocs may have stayed in the same country for a long time and know the funding system inside-out, others may have moved country repeatedly and have only a vague idea about grant opportunities.
- family status: when I was in grad school three people in my year (<5%) had kids. In our postdoc group that percentage is way higher (I don’t have numbers, but would put it around 30-40%), and many more are in serious long-term relationships, some of which require long commutes (think two-body problem). Thus, organising postdoc events means dealing with people on very diverse schedules.

2. In addition postdocs are also often a smaller group than grad students. For example, at UPenn, we have as many postdocs in the School of Engineering as we have grad students in a single department of the school (Bioengineering). If fact, I have often heard disappointed faculty argue that postdocs “don’t make use of available resources”, because of low turnout at events. In my experience this is not the case: organising as a grad student and a postdoc I have found that turnout is typically around 30-40% - postdoc events simply seem less attended, because the base is so much smaller.

3. Finally, Postdocs frequently have lower visibility: whereas grad students are typically seen by many faculty during the recruitment process or during classes, it is not unusual for postdocs to encounter only their immediate working group. And unlike grad students, postdocs do not come in as part of a cohort, but at different times during the year, making it also difficult to plan things like orientation meetings, where postdocs are introduced to the department in a timely manner.

Seeing all of the above, it is a no-brainer why training postdocs can be difficult. On one hand problems are conceptual: Do you try to cater to everyone’s needs or just the majority? Do you try to help the “weakest link” (the people with least prior training) or advance people who are already at the front of the field? On the other hand, there are also plenty of practical issues: Do you adjust events to the term calendar, even if postdocs arrive and leave at different times? Do you organise the same events annually or every couple of years? Is it OK to have evening/weekend events? But these are not unsolvable dilemmas. Based on our experiences during the past two years, here are some practical suggestions*:

  1. Pool resources/training opportunities with the grad school and/or other postdoc programmes close-by: for a single small postdoc program, it is impossible to cater to all needs. But more cross-talk between programs means more ground can be covered. Such cross-talk is most likely going to be a win-win situation, both because it bolsters participant numbers and because postdocs can contribute with their diverse experiences (eg in a “how to write a paper” seminar; even postdocs who want more formal training will have written at least one paper). Our postdoc programme certainly benefits from access to the events from UPenn’s Biomedical Programme, as well as a growing collaboration with GABE, our department’s graduate association.

  2. Have a well(!)-written, up-to-date wiki/resource page AND make sure you tell incoming postdocs about this. As a postdoc looking for information about pretty much anything (taxes, health insurance, funding opportunities) I often feel like Arthur in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:


    Once you know where to look and what you’re looking for, it can be easy to find, but occasionally I am completely blindsided by things I should have known. This can be especially problematic for foreign postdocs (I’ve written more about that here), and so telling postdocs ahead of time about resources can avoid a lot of frustration. A good time for this could be when the offer letter is sent or when postdocs deal with their initial admin. Our department still doesn’t have a streamlined process for this, but I often get personal enquiries, and I typically refer postdocs to either the National Postdoc Association's Survival Guide for more general advice or the aforementioned Biomedical Postdoc Program for more UPenn-related information.

  3. Have an open dialogue with postdocs and listen to their needs: More often than not, I encounter PIs and admin who want to help postdocs. They provide training in areas they have identified as problematic, and given the diversity of the postdoc group most likely that training is genuinely needed by some. But often postdocs would like more: more diversity, other types of training or maybe they even completely different pressing issues. Yet, without open dialogue between departmental organisers and the postdoc community it’s hard to find out about these needs and wishes. Frustratingly, one tactic I encounter frequently is departmental organisers justifying the continuation or repetition of an event based on it's success, without ever asking the people who did not attend, or wondering if a different event would be equally well received. To build a good postdoc program, universities and departments need to get better at gauging needs and interests, even if this might mean re-thinking some events, or how current events are integrated into a bigger framework.
    This can be difficult. As a case in point, Arjun, my PI, likes to point out that, when asked, the vast majority of postdocs request training in how to get a faculty position. So departments organise events about getting faculty positions. In fact, I am swamped with opportunities to attend panel discussions on “How to get a job in academia”: we have an annual one in our School, multiple other departments at the university host such discussions and it’s a much-favored trainee event at conferences. But after seeing two or three such panels, there’s little additional information to be gained. This does not mean that departments should do away with such panels, but coordinating with other departments (see point 1) or mixing it up with other events (eg by rotating events in two to three year cycles) would provide the opportunity to cater to the additional interests of postdocs.
    Frequent topics I’ve heard postdocs ask for are management skills, teaching skills, grant writing and external feedback/mentoring by faculty. For us, successful new programs included participation in a Junior Investigators Symposium on campus, which included two most positively received sessions about writing K/R awards and a “speed mentoring” session, where faculty provided career feedback in a 10-minute, one-on-one setting. Similarly, postdocs at our school who are interested in teaching can partake in training opportunities by UPenn’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and those interested in industry and the business side of science can make use of a paid internship program by Penn’s Center for Innovation to learn about IP and commercialization. While only a small number of postdocs make use of these opportunities per year, the provide a very valuable complement to the programs offered by the school/department. 

  4. Make a little bit of money go a long way: Many fledgling postdoc programs, such as ours, operate on a shoestring. Obviously, in an ideal world neither PIs nor administrative bodies should shy away from spending money on postdoc training - after all, postdocs are hired as trainees. But in reality it is often difficult to get substantial monetary support: individual PIs might not want to pay for events that are not of interest for their own postdocs (and not every event will cater for every postdoc) and admin may not see the return on investment for activities not directly related to research. However, you may have noticed that many of the above suggestions involved little or no additional financial resources: faculty are often more than willing to donate their time to postdoc events, postdocs themselves can contribute to resources such as wikis, and collaborations with other programs on campus can help cover smaller costs. In addition, individual postdocs may have grants or fellowships with money earmarked for training. Encouraging them to use those resources can be of great value, especially if they are willing to share some of the knowledge they gained. My EMBO postdoctoral fellowship paid for an amazing 3-day lab management course, and I am currently discussing with our graduate association to implement some of the training exercises that we were taught.

As my final point I’d like to say that I personally very rarely encounter faculty who consider postdocs  cheap labor. If anything, most PIs I talk to have their postdocs best interest at heart. Similarly, postdocs are often more than willing to organize events and mediate the needs of their fellows. However, in the long run the efforts of individual PIs and postdocs cannot replace a well-organized institutional program, which I think likely will require taking on board some of my above suggestions and building them into a more systematic training program.
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*The National Postdoc Association has a much more elaborate toolkit for setting up and maintaining a postdoc association and there's also a great article about initiating and maintaining a postdoc organisation by Bruckman and Sebestyen. However, not all postdoc groups have the manpower or momentum to directly dive into such an program, so the tips listed here are more to get postdocs involved initially and create that sense of community and momentum to build an association.


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