Environmental Factor, November 2007, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Trainees Welcome National Postdoctoral Association Director
By Eddy Ball
Some twenty NIEHS trainees took advantage of Executive Director Alyson Reed's visit to the Institute on September 27 to learn what the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) can do for them and their careers. The reception and informal talk took place in the Executive Conference Room and was hosted by the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) and NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development (OFCD) .
Reed assumed her position as the NPA Executive Director in 2003 and has worked closely for several years with OFCD Acting Director Diane Klotz, Ph.D. Klotz has been a member of the NPA since 2004, a member of the NPA Policy Committee prior to becoming a Board of Directors member in 2006 and chair of the NPA Board of Directors for 2007.
During her tenure at NPA, Reed has taken the organization from a struggling, all-volunteer organization to a proactive force in postdoctoral training with a staff of full-time professionals (see text box). The NPA has a comprehensive agenda, Reed pointed out, for "essentially changing the climate for postdoctoral training in the United States."
NIEHS Summers of Discovery and Special Programs Coordinator Charle League also attended the meeting. As Klotz explained, there will be more collaboration between OFCD and Summers of Discovery programs in the future, improved long-term scheduling of training programs and greater structure for the curriculum and career development opportunities for fellows at every level.
"There will be a better integration of scientific training with career development," Klotz continued, "[to] actually bring you as fellows into a more formal mentoring of the Summers of Discovery participants, ...[which could include] participating in the seminar series and gaining teaching experience you can include on a CV."
During an informal interchange between Reed and the trainees, questions and comments tended to focus on career issues, such as the importance of expressing trainee and principal investigator expectations. Reed emphasized the value of creating a structured Individual Development Plan at the beginning of the apprenticeship.
Placement patterns are changing, she noted, with fewer trainees moving on to traditional tenure-track positions. Several trainees at the reception expressed concerns about the return on their investment of time and money in graduate school and advanced scientific training.
Reed readily conceded that neither the national association nor individual institutions have access to sufficient data for analyzing employment trends, market-focused training needs, earning trajectories and the influence of different kinds of training on outcomes. She pledged to continue efforts to improve the situation. "We want an evidence-based policy arena," she observed, "instead of relying on anecdotes."
However, Reed also underscored the opportunities that trainees already have for gaining more control over their training. "Your principal investigators can't cover every base," she concluded. "The idea is to articulate what your interests are and map out a plan for how you are going to get the exposure to those environments where you might want to work."
Overview of the NPA
Advocacy - Both at the national level and at the level of individual institutions, the organization lobbies to establish standards and procedures to ensure that fellowships are in fact a temporary period of mentored apprenticeship, rather than an extended holding pattern with postdocs providing inexpensive, talented labor. In addition to issues of compensation, the NPA has called for policies to promote quality mentoring and measures to encourage both the fellows and their mentors to emphasize this component of the training experience. Since 2003, over 130 institutions have adopted at least some of the group's Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices.
Resource Development - Data collection and analysis are important services provided by the NPA. There are enormous gaps in the information available to trainees and their institutions, including exactly how many fellows are in training, what their demographics and working conditions are, and how their careers unfold after they transition from training. This information is relevant to trainees both in their current positions and later when they become trainers and mentors themselves.
In addition to its newsletter and e-mail updates, the NPA helps trainees with a host of practical matters with such resources as the International Postdoc Survival Guide and Job Bank, and it provides models for institutions, including sample text in the publication on Developing a Postdoctoral Fellows Handbook.
Community Building - Before the NPA, there was no nucleus for the people and institutions involved in postdoctoral training. Currently, the organization has 150 sustaining institutional members, representing over 40,000 trainees, and thousands of individual, affiliate and friends-of-NPA members. This continually expanding network helps to keep postdocs and their employers informed and communicating, and it is a driving force in ongoing efforts by the NPA to maintain the momentum of positive change in the climate of postdoc training and to give trainees a greater sense of empowerment.