Biomed Postdocs Represent Penn at the 2014 National Postdoctoral Association Meeting
By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D.
In the U.S., there are tens of thousands of postdocs1 scattered across hundreds of institutions2. How does such a dispersed group form a collective voice to advocate for itself, gain recognition and influence policy? Until relatively recently, this was difficult. However, in 2002 the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was formed. Now at over 2500 members, the NPA has been voicing postdocs’ concerns at the national level for over a decade with the overall aim to enhance the quality of the postdoctoral experience in the U.S.. It accomplishes this aim through three key areas: advocacy, resources, and community building. The NPA’s advocacy goal is to foster beneficial postdoctoral policies at universities across the US. They often work with postdoctoral associations at universities, such as Penn’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC). The association has laid out Recommended Practices that have been adopted by over 150 institutions nationwide. The NPA also works with federal agencies, such as the NIH and NSF to enhance postdoctoral training, benefits, and compensation. For instance, the NPA was among the advocates for NIH’s recent action to increase postdoctoral stipends. In terms of resources, the NPA has developed a number of informational guides for postdocs, available online. These cover topics such as career planning, responsible conduct of research, work-life issues such as maternity leave, a “Survival Guide for International Postdocs,” and financial concerns such as student loans. Finally, their community-building aim is achieved through an annual conference as well as regional meetings that allow postdocs to develop leadership skills and to network.
The NPA’s annual meeting is the nexus of its efforts. The meeting provides a chance for attendees to gather information, network, and exchange ideas about issues relevant to postdocs. This year’s annual meeting, which occurred April 4-6 in St. Louis, included a keynote address, plenaries, workshops, and a poster session. Workshop topics were varied, and included topics ranging from “Communication Tips and Techniques to Enhance Your Leadership Skills” to “Mental Health Issues and the Postdoctoral Training Environment” to “Diversifying Your Career Path.” UPenn was represented at the annual NPA meeting by Laura Butler, Ph.D., a member of Penn’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Council, and by David Busch, a postdoc at CHOP. We caught up with Butler and Busch to get a closer look at this year’s meeting.
NPA Meeting Plenary Speakers Drs. Sesna, Pond and Petsko. Image courtesy of nationalpostdoc.org.
NPA Keynote Address by Susan Fitzpatrick. Image courtesy of nationalpostdoc.org.
A presentation on NIH funding at the NPA Meeting. Image courtesy of nationalpostdoc.org.
A panel on recognizing stress in a postdoc at the NPA Meeting. Image courtesy of nationalpostdoc.org.
A poster session at the NPA Meeting. Photo Credit: Laura Butler.
Butler said that one of the main themes of the meeting was the disparity between the number of postdocs and number of potential faculty positions. Discussions focused on the idea that “alternative careers” (outside of academia) are no longer alternative but more just “career options.” Busch echoed this, citing statistics that only about fifteen percent of current postdocs will succeed in tenure track jobs, and that the tenure track path may not be a reasonable expectation. Busch also summarized some of the NPA Advisory Committee’s recommendations to NIH, including requiring individual development plans (IDPs) on all NIH supported postdoc positions, and expanding National Research Service Award (NRSA) benefits. According to Busch, the NPA also recommended that the number of grants funded via the K99/R00 mechanism be doubled and the success rate brought up to 30%. He also noted that one of the NPA’s ongoing efforts is to boost retention of women postdocs.
Plenary session at the NPA Meeting. Photo Credit: Laura Butler.
Among the workshops and plenary sessions that Butler attended were “Diversifying Your Career Path” and “Post Doc, Ergo Doc?” Butler shared that the former enumerated transferable skills that postdocs possess: problem solving, communication, management, advising, ability to learn quickly, data processing, being detail oriented, and multitasking. The workshop highlighted how these are important in a wide range of careers, and encouraged postdocs to demonstrate to potential employers their skill in these areas. Other issues raised included the importance of networking. Panelists recommended using meetings and online communities (such as LinkedIn) to expand one’s network and gain recognition. “Using LinkedIn to reach out to people, even sending out emails “cold” asking for informational interviews were cited as useful ways of learning about particular career paths and industries,” said Butler. Panelists also emphasized that nurturing these connections, as they may be useful in the future, is important.
In the plenary session “Post Doc, Ergo Doc?” issues were raised regarding the quality of care received by postdocs and low pay. Gregory Petsko from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences advocated a doubling of postdoc pay, suggesting that this would decrease lab sizes and allow better mentoring. Butler explained that “[Petsko] believes that the increased competition for postdoc positions would lead to better quality science, eliminating the perceived need to have large labs in order to produce the quantity of work needed to publish in ‘boutique journals’.” Petsko also suggested that postdoc should not be viewed as a “default next step,” and that in his proposed system, PhDs might reconsider their career options, entering jobs more suited to them than postdoctoral research.
In sum, both attendees described a good variety of talks, workshops and resources and ample opportunities for networking and socializing. The NPA meeting is held each spring; next year’s will be in Baltimore. Registration will open in early 2015 at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/meetings-and-events-4/annual-meeting. If you are interested in representing Penn at future NPA Meetings, please contact the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC).
Snacks at the NPA Meeting. Which was in St. Louis. Not Philadelphia. Despite the abundance of pretzels. Photo Credit: Laura Butler.
(1) National Science Foundation Division of Science Resource Statistics. (January 2010). Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. Arlington, VA: National Science Board.
(2) National Postdoctoral Association Fact Sheet. (December 2013). http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/images/stories/Documents/Other/NPA-fact-sheet-dec-2013.pdf
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