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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment