Monday, April 30, 2012

Slides from Workshops at the National Postdoctoral Association meeting

The National Postdoc Association (NPA)'s ( mission is to advance the U.S. research enterprise by maximizing the effectiveness of the research community and enhancing the quality of the postdoctoral experience for all participants. The University of Chicago is a sustaining member, which means that any UofC postdoc can apply to be a affiliate member. 

The NPA 10th Annual Meeting was held March 16-18, 2012, at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, California. More than 300 postdoctoral scholars, postdoctoral administrators and faculty participated in the event including our PDA president, the interim postdoc administrator and the founder of our Public Affairs Committee. We found the meeting incredibly informative. The slides from several of the talks and workshops are available online and we highly recommend you take a look. The link to download slides is: 

Topics include: 
Becoming a More Effective Research Mentor 
Advancing Women’s Careers in Science 
Health Science Administrators at NIH: Insight Into This Exciting Career Choice 
Effective Strategies to Diversify Your Institution’s Postdoctoral Population 
My Career or My Visa: How International Postdocs Must Balance Career Advancement with Visa Issues 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Anyone interested in teaching should read the recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (, which focuses on the need to retain and prepare one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Recommendation 1 in that report is to “catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices” with the goal of improving the first two years of STEM education and improving retention of majors. (One of the most common reasons cited by students who leave STEM majors is poor teaching by STEM faculty.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Restore Tax Exempt Status of Graduate and Postdoc Stipends

Please find below information about making student and postdoc stipends tax exempt.  This information was taken from an email received from a graduate student at Drexel University.  The deadline to sign the petition is April 16, 2012. 

Do you feel that graduate student and post-doctorate stipends should be federally tax exempt?  A graduate student at Drexel University has created a petition to tell the white house that this change should be implemented to encourage more students to pursue PhDs and other higher educational goals.  The first attempt at this petition fell just 2,500 signatures short of the required 25,000 signatures in a 30 day window.  It is his hope that the second effort at this petition will succeed.  The petition can be found at  Please sign this petition by 11PM on Tax Day (April 16th, 2012) if you support this cause.  Graduate students and post-docs work long hours, perform world changing and live saving research, teach classes, grade assignments, and are compensated quite meagerly for their efforts.  Removing federal taxes would allow students and post-docs to keep more of that money in their pocket and possibly even eat non-raman food for a change.  Additional information can be found at the Facebook event set up for this petition, Some of you may have received a similar notice several months ago, but that petition fell 2,500 signatures of the 25,000 needed signatures within 30 days, so we are trying one more time.   If you signed the last petition, please sign this new one, as the previous petition was taken down and all signatures erased.  Thank you very much for supporting this petition and please pass it along to as many people as possible, remembering that anyone can sign this petition, provided they are over 13 and reside within the United States.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Boilerplate language for RCR/Ethics requirements

The NIH requires detailed information on an Ethics training plan for any postdoc, training or career grant. Below you can find example boilerplate language that we recommend you edit to fit your training/research plan.


A regular quarterly series of interactive workshops on the “Ethical Conduct of Research” is held on Friday afternoons throughout the year and is hosted by the Postdoctoral Association (PDA) and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs in the Biological Sciences Division at The University of Chicago. These workshops cover the NIH-required topics including authorship and data ownership, fraud and misconduct, ethics of animal research, human subjects research, and conflicts of interest, and are presented by the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel, the Director of Academic Affairs, the Associate Dean and Director of Postdoctoral Affairs and University Faculty. Case studies from the University of Chicago or elsewhere will be featured while maintaining confidentiality. In addition, other aspects of ethical behavior are discussed; for instance, a session on “Identifying Methods to Recognize and Respond to Ethical Dilemmas”, was recently presented by the Director of Employee Relations, an interactive video experience "The Lab: Avoiding Research Misconduct " developed by the Office of Research Integrity at the US Department of Health and Human Services was presented and most recently, Terrie Vasilopoulos, the PDA vice-president presented topics discussed at the “Quest for Research Excellence Conference” hosted by the Office of Research Integrity. The seminar was interactive and ethics responses from the 2012 PDA survey were also presented. At present, the ethics series is required of all postdoc trainees on T32, F32 and K-awards and strongly recommended for other postdocs. Attendance is recorded. This RCR series is specifically designed for postdocs, and presented with an assumption of more experience than the graduate student courses.

In addition the “Summer Series on Scientific Integrity and the Ethical Conduct of Research” sponsored by Dr. Julian Solway through the Institute for Translational Medicine is available every year and is open to postdoctoral scholars and fellows. These seminars are held every Tuesday afternoon, July – August, and cover topics relevant to translational and clinical research such as humane treatment of animals, ethics of human experimentation and vulnerable populations and group risks.

Public Affairs Announcements April 9th 2012

National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), including its founders and member institutions, have been in the news
Science Careers' staff writer Michael Price wrote about the NPA founders in the article "NPA Founders Find Success." The article begins: "Postdocs who are interested in advocacy activities typically receive the same advice from postdoc advisers, so-called experts, and even their peers: Stay away." Fortunately, for postdocs,  the founders ignored that advice, as Price notes: "At its annual meeting in San Francisco in early March, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) celebrated its 10th anniversary with a panel discussion featuring six of the organization's seven founders -- all of whom ignored the conventional wisdom a decade ago and spent lots of time on a cause they thought was important: improving working conditions and expanding job options for postdocs."

President Obama mentions the R03 award
Yesterday, in a speech that the media are calling the de facto start of his reelection campaign, President Barack Obama offered up a bit of research arcana, the R03 award given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It popped up (without its name attached) in his attack on a Republican proposal to lower tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. Read more at the weblink below.

NIH’s Regional Seminar in Indianapolis
Each year, the Office of Extramural Research (OER) sponsors two NIH Regional Seminars on Program Funding and Grants. These seminars are intended to help demystify the application and review process, clarify Federal regulations and policies, and highlight current areas of special interest or concern. The seminars serve the NIH mission of providing education and training for the next generation of biomedical and behavioral scientist. Read more at the weblink below.

Strategic Planning for the NIH Common Fund
The NIH is hosting a public meeting in Chicago, IL, to gather input from the broad community on the biggest obstacles to progress in biomedical research or the greatest opportunities in biomedical science that are ripe for exploration. Input gathered from this meeting will help inform potential new program ideas for the NIH Common Fund. To sign up to be a participant in this discussion, use the weblink below.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Take Command and OWN Your Postdoc for Career Success

-A Recap of a Recent NIH Postdoc Professional Development Workshop

I’ve never written a blog post for anything before, but I figured that other postdocs might benefit from my experience so here goes….

This month I attended the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Postdoctoral Workshop at the NIH in Bethesda, MD.  This theme of this workshop was to give postdocs that attended a leg up in the hiring process by giving them information and tools to help them better focus on their goals while postdocs and to succeed in the job search whether they choose academia or another option. 

It was a great workshop and I highly recommend that others from UC apply (they give scholarships to go!) and attend in the future.  I received a scholarship so it won’t end up costing me or my PI anything (well once I receive that refund check…) Check back at the website below in January to see if this program is running again next year.  We will also make sure that it is included in the BSD-PDA newsletter so that you get some notice about it. 

In the meantime all of the sessions from this year’s workshop are available free of charge as webcasts at the following website  I highly recommend that you watch the sessions on Interviews and on Negotiating!  They were fabulous.

One nice thing about this workshop was that it wasn’t only geared to postdocs with one foot out the door (There’s some info for you guys below too! Don’t stop reading here if you’ve already gotten a job offer).  There was plenty of excellent information for us newbies (less than 2 yrs). One of the things suggested for postdocs early in the process was an Individual Development Plan (IDP) which sounds really painful but is really just a great tool to help you take control of your postdoc.  The BSD-PDA has an IDP online that you can use   I’ll be filling out mine in a few weeks (after AACR) to help me find my way and I’ll try to let you all know how it went when I am done.  According to the presenters at the NIGMS, only 42% of us will stay in academia in ANY capacity.  Therefore, the majority of us are NOT going to become professors so finding out what other opportunities we are interested in and identifying the skills we need to develop during our postdoc to make these possible as well, is essential.  To make ourselves competitive in tomorrow’s job markets we need to use our postdoctoral experiences effectively. 

Another important thing to do is to NETWORK!!! At the meeting they couldn’t stress this enough.  I know many of you are not doing enough of this because I don’t know who almost any of you are.  Watch the Networking session online if you are shy, you don’t have confidence, or you are simply anti-social.  Then PRACTICE.  Practice with us, your fellow postdocs by coming to BSD-PDA events. More than likely the rest of us are as shy and awkward as you are. Then, get to know your department.  Get to know the PIs, learn who the other postdocs are, chat with the grad students (who knows they might be the ones to hire you someday!)  Also go to meetings: regional meetings, national meetings, or even (if you can get funding) that much admired International Meeting.  Smaller meetings like Gordon Conferences can be among the BEST networking opportunities.  Networking will get you collaborations, networking will get you more papers, networking will get you stuff for experiments that you need, networking might get you more lifelong friends, and FINALLY!!! Networking will probably get you your job.  I will quote Elaine Ostrander from the NHGRI and say “Everyone you meet has the potential to affect your career.”

For postdocs in later stages of their appointment there was tons of great advice.  I was particularly struck by the section of the Networking session about cultivating a relationship with the NIH and NSF program officers who covers your scientific interests.  Before this I only had a vague idea of what a program officer did.  I had NO idea they wielded so much power as advocates for your science. For a small number of special NSF awards if they hear a great idea from you they can simply decide to fund it.  No study session, no grant review.  You are just funded.  It is rare, but if you don’t communicate with them your chance of this is ZERO.  Someday mine is totally getting homemade cookies. If you already have a program officer with whom you have started developing a relationship, they want to hear from you.  They want you to send them info about presentations you are doing and about manuscripts that have been accepted.  If they think that it is cool enough science, they’ll do a press release.  And popular media is powerful!!

Why you ask???  Because not all funding comes from the NIH and the NSF!  Private grants make up a small but significant proportion of the research dollars.  The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and Robert Wood Johnson, and HOWARD HUGHES!!! are among the many charities named after dead guys that could give you money.  Susan G. Komen, however, might have a bit of trouble coming up with the funds to pay you in the future… Others are related to professional organizations like AACR or ACS.  Many are public organizations. Some of these funds are reliant on donations from the public. If your face got on TV or in an internet article then it is easier for them to take you on because they can sell your “public” accomplishments to their donors. 

Grants are your future employment insurance in this day and age so we’ve got to get them and they had tons of great tips at this meeting.  I’ll only give you one as a teaser.  The surest way to fail to get funded is to put forth an idea that’s already been done or funded.  After you do your literature searches make sure there isn’t already a NIH funded group working on your idea.  Go to and use the RePORTER to search funded grants in your topic area. It could save you A LOT OF TIME….

Well I’ve got publications to write and experiments to plan, an IDP to complete and perhaps also (somehow) a life to make.  So I’ll bid you goodnight and wish you all well.  May your grants get funded and may your PCRs all work.  Until we network at future events, sleep tight my friends and may dreams of Nature and Science papers or $120K per year industry jobs dance in your heads. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lessons from a grants workshop

Lessons from a grants workshop
By Kolla Kristjansdottir and Tuba Sural
December 3, 2010

Finding grants:
Half the battle is finding the right funding source for your idea.

1-    Find the right program for you and your idea. If it doesn’t fit, can you spin it without compromising your idea?
2-    NIH: Good idea to look for Request for Applications (RFA). A RFA invites grant applications in a well-defined scientific area to accomplish specific program objectives. Specific funds are set aside and a special panel reviews. 
3-    Other foundations/grant agencies. Look up abstracts online of what they have funded in the last couple of years. Look up mission statement.

Funding resources:
Private (foundations, corporations etc) and Public (26 federal agencies, state and local agencies). Good websites for finding opportunities:

2-    Community of science website (accessible through URA at U of Chicago)
4-  Foreign postdocs can use this site to identify grants for non-residents and non-citizens
5-    Google:  “grants” “for” “xxx”
6-    Office of research administration at Tufts university

Writing grants:

Writing good grants is a formula; it takes work and time
1-    Your grant should tell a story; walk reviewers step by step, from beginning to end
2-    Grant should flow, be well-written and to the point
3-    You can have a good idea but you need to tell it well. Start with a good idea and package it well.
4-    Know who you are and what you want to accomplish, make it into manageable pieces. Most new investigator and fellowship grants get rejected because they are over-ambitious.
5-    What’s the innovation? What’s new? What are you bringing to the literature? Never go by the negative.
6-    Follow the instructions. Each agency has their own (30% of grants get rejected because of technical issues, missing signatures etc.). If the guidelines request something, do it.
7-    Submit at least 5 days in advance (those who do so have a 37% higher chance of being funded, since they have not rushed and carefully planned the proposal)
8-    Get good letters of recommendations from people in your field (they should promote you)
9-    Understand the criteria used to evaluate proposals, know where to put your efforts. Typical criteria:
·      Scientific merit or need (is it innovative?)
·      Relevance to program priorities
·      Qualifications of project personnel (if your project needs a statistician and you don’t list one, you’ll be rejected)
·      Planning and administration of the project (don’t be overambitious!!)
10- Fill out forms completely and correctly
11- Allow time for intramural administrative requirements
12- For NIH grants, even though future directions are not required, include them

Developing a timeline:

  • 12 - 6 months before : Generate preliminary data
  • 6 - 3 months before : Create initial draft of proposal
  • 3 - 2 months before : Obtain comments from colleagues, revise accordingly
  • 2-1 months before: Prepare budget and “non-science” parts. Request recommendation letters (fellowships)
  • 1 month before: Have draft of “final version”. Obtain additional comments from colleagues on the “whole package”.
  • 2 - 1 weeks before: Final version proofreading (by someone who has not seen it before) and then proofread again!
  • 3 - 2 days before:  Submit proposal

Obtain critical input from experienced and successful colleagues:
1-    One with significant experience
2-    One with only passing familiarity with the subject
3-    A good writer

Find someone who is blunt, has little sympathy for your ego, smart and crafty and who has success in obtaining grants.

The review process:
Understand the review process and the reviewers. Each reviewer may be assigned 10-25 proposals so make it understandable and follow rules. Make it easy for them to find what they are looking for. You can look up the review panels for federal grants. There are experts and general audience in review panels, so when you write find the middle ground.

For the NIH review, even if you are famous and have written an excellent proposal, if it is not novel methodology, you will not get funding. But if you are a new investigator with a novel approach and a well-written grant, you have a chance.

NIH center for scientific review:

What constitutes winning proposals?
1-    Clear need and data demonstrating that need
2-    Present material in a logical manner
3-    Written in positive terms
4-    Don’t overuse jargon
5-    Detailed budget (your department grant administrator will likely help you with this or do this for you)
6-    Give something back: who will benefit from this? What is the innovation? What are you contributing to the literature?
7-    Follow all guidelines
8-    Make it professional looking and textbook quality (no typos!)
9-    Make it not too long, not too short

Factors considered when awarding grants:
1-    Capacity of the applicant and the organization
2-    Extent of the need to the problem
3-    Balanced/clear approach
4-    Utilizing available resources
5-    Results

Most common criticisms:
1-    Poorly written
2-    Not well-justified; scientific problem, experimental model lacks convincing preliminary data
3-    No or poor hypothesis
4-    Objectives lack focus, too general
5-    Lack of detail in methods
6-    Investigator lacks expertise in given approach
7-    Pitfalls not addressed, alternative solution not presented
8-    Overly ambitious, timeline not realistic
9-    Resubmitted proposal didn’t address concerns identified during previous review

Most important section of your proposal is your Specific Aims and/or technical abstract! It’s the first thing they see; make it a work of art. Abstract should be the last section to be written and it should contain:
  • Identification of applicant/credibility
  • Issue/problem to be met
  • Objectives to be achieved (i.e. specific aims, they should be smart: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound)
  • Activities to be conducted to achieve objective

Additional helpful hints:
1-    Big part of being funded is being persistent: 15% get funded the first time, 30% after revise-resubmit
2-    Don’t use anything less than 12pt font
3-    Minimize author-defined acronyms, it’s OK as long as you define them
4-    Clarity is everything, proofread, proofread, proofread!