When I was a newly minted postdoctoral scholar, my Thanksgiving conversations with my extended family made for awkward dinner table chatter. Everyone was excited that I had a job post-PhD, and a role at an Ivy League institution, no less. But no one could figure out exactly what “postdoc” meant, or what exactly I was doing.
“So, you graduated, but you aren’t a student?” they asked. “But you are still at a school, doing research?”
I tried different ways of explaining it—I had my own project (“another thesis?”), I was learning skills that I didn’t focus on during my PhD work, I was research staff. Finally, I turned to my grandmother and said, “You know how doctors go to medical school, and then become residents? I’m just like that, but with a PhD instead.”
Nothing about that explanation really mapped on to what I did every day, but the reference to something more familiar shifted the dinner conversation back to safer ground, like football.
Like the linear training pathways that exist in many vocations, a postdoc position has for decades been the next logical career step for many PhD students. One of the most exciting things about becoming a postdoc is that there is no set formula for what the role looks like; each person can work with their mentor to tailor the role and its responsibilities to their research interests and career aspirations. But the in-between nature of the postdoc role—no longer a student, but not quite granted the full-fledged independence of a professorship—can make setting initial expectations and defining roles tricky to navigate.
Professional development opportunities are an important part of the postdoc training ecosystem and offer a way for postdocs to self-reflect and overcome some of these challenges. As a principal investigator of the Postdoc Academy, a program that designs professional development courses based on research, my team and I have been searching for solutions to overcome these very problems.
Our Postdoc Academy program is designed to help postdocs have a productive experience and feel prepared for whatever their next career step might be. We offer two online courses—Succeeding as a Postdoc and Building Skills for a Successful Career—and discussion groups. Because our program has reached more than 10,000 postdocs in three years, we used this information to study the postdoctoral experience at large. Our research questions sought to understand postdocs’ motivations and goals, how they define their work, their strategies for seeking professional development opportunities, and the skills they learned while taking the Postdoc Academy courses.
We found that participants enhanced their skills significantly, with the largest effects on career planning and resilience. But perhaps the most striking result is that postdocs specifically sought our course to bridge knowledge gaps that were not fulfilled within their mentoring relationships. It’s clear that supportive and regular mentoring conversations increase their satisfaction and productivity. Competent mentors who can apply skills such as empathy, transparent communication, inclusivity, and career support, also promote their mentees’ overall self-efficacy and career success.
It’s clear that supportive and regular mentoring conversations increase their [postdocs] satisfaction and productivity. Competent mentors who can apply skills such as empathy, transparent communication, inclusivity, and career support, also promote their mentees’ overall self-efficacy and career success.
So, if we know what to do, why are postdocs still enrolling in courses online instead of having conversations with their mentor down the hall? About 40 percent of postdocs nationally are not fully satisfied with the mentoring they receive, and many postdocs in our study report anxiety in having conversations with their mentors. It can be hard to know where to start—for both postdocs and mentors. Other times, the postdoc may want to push boundaries, reset expectations, or establish new norms, which can be difficult to do within a power dynamic.
Our Postdoc Academy team has used what we have learned in our research to create conversation frameworks that can take the guesswork out of setting expectations and alleviate potential anxieties, guiding postdocs and faculty through prompts that can set the stage for these types of meetings. My office at Boston University also offers research mentor training sessions and “mentoring up” workshops tailored to departments and programs, as well as an annual cohort-based program called Provost Mentor Fellows. I hope these resources are useful tools to help postdocs and faculty define what their partnership means to them, both professionally and personally.
I’m a postdoc mentor now, my own postdoc training a decade behind me. With time and experience as a principal investigator, I have developed a clear leadership style and vision for what my work as a mentor can be. But even though I know the intentional steps I need to take to bring a new postdoc colleague on board, it can still feel perplexing when trying to figure out what their postdoc trajectory is going to look like. I find my process of mentoring looks far more like collaboratively putting together a puzzle piece by piece, rather than following a clear roadmap that is already drawn out. We try different connections intellectually based on our goals, until we find the work that fits both for the project and for them. Those initial conversations are exciting, sometimes confusing, and really important.
The postdoc landscape is shifting, with many challenges ahead. A national working group has formed to reimagine NIH-supported postdoctoral training and the types of careers it can lead into. This week is National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week, a time to celebrate the many ways BU’s hundreds of postdocs contribute to our scholarly communities. It’s also the perfect time to share gratitude within mentoring relationships and have these types of meaningful conversations.
Sarah Hokanson (CAS’05) is Boston University’s assistant vice president and assistant provost for research development and PhD and postdoctoral affairs and a principal investigator of the Postdoc Academy program, which was started by a team at BU, Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Northwestern University. The Postdoc Academy is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
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