Helping postdocs find their own path

'So much more than just the science'

| Postdoctoral researchers have a lot of specialized scientific knowledge. But transitioning into the next phase of life can be daunting.

With that challenge in mind, nearly 70 National Science Foundation geoscience postdocs from around the country received tailored career development services last week at a first-of-its-kind workshop hosted by NCAR/UCAR.

The 2 1/2-day workshop included expert-led sessions on career management, work-life balance, proposal writing, communication, job interviewing, and salary negotiation.

"The full experience of being a postdoc is about so much more than just the science," said Carolyn Brinkworth, NCAR's director for diversity, education, and outreach.

NSF postdocs
The National Science Foundation geoscience postdocs who attended last week's career development workshop hosted by NCAR/UCAR.  (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

Brinkworth said she had wanted to do this kind of training for NCAR postdocs and then learned that NSF "already was thinking along the same lines for their other fellows too." So NSF and NCAR joined forces with UCAR's SOARS Center for Higher Education, with support from the Joint Office for Science Support and Colorado State University.

Amanda Adams, program director of education and cross-discipline activities for NSF's Atmospheric and Geosciences Division, said NSF takes the professional development of its postdoctoral fellows "very seriously" and that all funding proposals asking for a postdoc require a postdoc mentoring plan.

Rebecca Haacker, director of NCAR's Advanced Study Program and UCAR's Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program, welcomed the participants at the beginning of the workshop, telling them that NSF and NCAR want to do more than just "train you to become the fantastic scientists you are." She said the workshop topics reflected results from a survey asking postdocs what professional development issues are most difficult for them to manage.

Jennifer Kay, a former NCAR postdoc who is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado and also works part-time in NCAR's Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory (CGD), advised the participants to be honest with themselves about what they want, spend time doing the things they love, and "learn how to really tell your story."

Postdocs found the workshop very useful, saying they learned important insights about proposal writing, communicating their science, teaching methods, and finding good jobs.

"The topics they've selected have all been topics we don't get much direct training on in our research world," said Sierra Petersen, a paleoclimatology research fellow at the University of Michigan.

The postdocs said they especially were keen to learn more about job interviewing and negotiating.

"All other things rely on actually getting a job," observed Clay Tabor, a first year postdoc at NCAR's CGD.

If some postdocs were still anxious about not having a definite career path -- after all, the survey found that postdocs want to learn how to let go of perfectionism -- they might have been reassured by opening remarks two days earlier by NCAR Director Jim Hurrell.

Hurrell told the group that he took a "curvy road" to NCAR and "I think that's OK as well." He said he had an internship with the National Weather Service in Indiana and was set on becoming a weathercaster when a professor at Purdue University persuaded him to stay and get his Ph.D. The professor then helped him get a postdoc fellowship at NCAR and the rest, as they say, is history.

"The bottom line," Hurrell said, "is that I was never certain of what was going to happen next, but good opportunities did arise and they gave me exciting career options to pursue." 

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer