Strengthening the Postdoctoral Training Experience

Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) comprise a large part of the scientific community and have been instrumental in many scientific advances. Unfortunately, there is currently no nationwide standard to guide how they are mentored as they transition to the working world. This needs to change.

Since its inception in the 1920s, postdoc training has gone through several changes, and there are currently many variations in how it is carried out, but the primary objectives remain the same: to give new Ph.D. scientists direct mentorship and hands-on experience as they transition to tenure-track faculty positions, and to free up time for professors to teach, complete administrative tasks and write grants.

Variations in postdoc training arise because of differences in funding sources, different work styles among principal investigators and different institutional cultures. These variations result in diverse experiences, some of which stray far from the original idea of the postdoc fellowship. This underscores the need for standardized training guidelines to ensure the success of postdocs. Some organizations have already taken steps to accomplish this. In 2003, the National Postdoctoral Association began bringing attention to the voices of postdocs on mentoring-related issues. In 2009, the National Science Foundation required that all its grant applications include a postdoctoral mentoring plan, and the National Institutes of Health has programs designed to meet the needs of its intramural postdocs.

Still, a 2014 report from National Academy of Sciences on postdoctoral experience highlighted several shortcomings in many postdoc programs. For example, a lack of mentoring experience among investigators, along with their significant supervisory and managerial duties often limit the amount of time they can dedicate to guiding young scientists.

Mentoring is a joint effort built on good communication between a mentor and a mentee; sharing goals and being open to valuable two-way feedback is crucial. So in addition to meeting mentors’ expectations, postdocs must actively manage their own career goals. Online tools for self-evaluation and career development, such as individual development plans (IDPs) developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are available. IDPs enable postdocs to organize career plans, set goals, identify needs, and track the progress of careers both inside and outside of academia. Another useful document is the Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors, published by Association of American Medical Colleges. This document can be used as a framework for the mentor-mentee relationship.

Dr. Nivedita Sengupta is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. She received her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the Uniformed Services University. Besides research she is interested in science policy and outreach. This blog post is Dr. Nivedita Sengupta’s own and not the opinion of the NIH.

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