How many postdocs leave their positions able to say they helped plan a 2-day scientific symposium that attracted world-renowned scientists?

On 26 June 2001, a group of postdocs in the Center for Cancer Research (CCR), part of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), gathered to discuss an event we had spent almost a year planning: the first annual Postdoctoral and Trainees Assembly Retreat, held 12 to 13 June 2001 in Frederick, Maryland. Among the topics discussed by this steering committee of the CCR Trainees Assembly during the 2-hour meeting were attendee evaluations. In retrospect, that discussion turned out to be the key step in planning the next annual retreat, as well as one of the most important learning experiences for the organizers.

A retreat organized the previous year by the NCI Division of Basic Sciences had served as our model for the 2001 retreat. The greatest challenge was to cater to wide interests and needs. This was especially relevant for us, because the NCI divisions of Basic and Clinical Sciences had recently been combined to form CCR, under the directorship of J. Carl Barrett. The former Division of Basic Sciences had already started planning for a postdoc retreat for 2001, but Barrett challenged the fellows to become more actively involved in the planning process. A small group of postdocs took on the challenge.

A retreat involves many key tasks (see sidebar). The most important lesson is not to do things just for the sake of doing them, but because they are relevant and useful. First, we identified postdocs from the former divisions who might be interested in helping plan and organize the retreat. Then, we organized an event that would bring together the close to 800 postdocs within CCR, who are spread out in multiple buildings on two Maryland sites: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Bethesda campus and the Frederick Cancer Research Facility.

Key Aspects of Postdoc Retreat

Keynote Presentations:

  • Invite speakers who are role models and are sensitive to postdoc issues.

  • Highlight cutting-edge technology and interdisciplinary research.

Postdoc Oral Presentations:

  • Select based on merit and diversity.

  • Request presenters to submit electronic versions of presentations before the meeting.

  • Group presentations so as to create a story.

  • Use moderators who can link presentations and ask relevant questions.

Postdoc Poster Presentations:

  • Hold poster sessions when sessions will be well attended (not at the end of the day or overlapping with other sessions).

Career Development Seminars:

  • Focus on relevant career needs.

  • Cater to a wide variety of interests.

  • Address the evolving needs of postdocs.

Informal interaction to meet colleagues:

  • Create an environment that promotes and fosters interaction.

Evaluation/Debriefing Session:

  • Create an evaluation form that asks questions useful for future planning.

  • Include questions that provide useful and relevant feedback.

  • Focus on changes that can be implemented.

  • Be open minded and accepting of changes and criticisms.

Postdocs had responsibility for the science portions of the event and were assisted by CCR staff members, who handled the logistics. Postdocs recommended and selected speakers who were involved in cutting-edge technology or translational research or both. The retreat included presentations by CCR director J. Carl Barrett; NCI head Richard Klausner; J. Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Inc.; and Suzanne Ilstad, director of the Institute for Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

To highlight research by the CCR Fellows, we featured poster sessions and oral presentations. Postdoc committee members solicited and judged abstracts for these presentations. In addition, we organized career development workshops focused on interviewing skills, résumé and CV writing, grant writing, scientific publishing, and a panel on how to set up a lab. Representatives from industry, government, and academia participated.

What did we learn? Overall, the feedback from the postdocs, technicians, and graduate students who attended the retreat was very positive. We found that the high-profile keynote speakers attracted a lot of participation, as did oral presentations by the postdocs. Fellows were happy to have had this unique opportunity to present their work to their peers, to network with people at the same stage of their careers, and to discuss potential collaborations.

Planning the retreat effectively brought together postdoc committees from the two former divisions of CCR as we worked toward a common goal. Individuals were prompted to play a more active role in their development as scientists. And the fellows involved in planning the event gained valuable experience in administration and logistics.

Further, the debriefing session enabled us to plan a bigger and better retreat for 2002. This retreat will be held far away from the NCI facilities so that postdocs can focus on the retreat rather than their experiments. The heightened enthusiasm for the retreat is evident in the increased number of registrants and abstract submissions--both of which are up almost 50% over last year.

To place more emphasis on research by the fellows, we have planned oral presentations by postdocs on both days, and the poster sessions are scheduled at a time that will attract greater attendance. Career workshops will be targeted to immediate postdoc concerns: immigration law, interviewing skills, presentation skills, and how to set up a lab in academia or industry.

Since the time of the first retreat, the Postdoctoral and Trainees Assembly has become the CCR Fellows and Young Investigators Association (CCR-FYI). We are much more than just a planning committee for the retreat. The membership of the association includes all CCR trainees in clinical and basic science, post- and predoctorals, fellows, and technicians. We represent countries from around the world. The steering committee has 25 to 30 individuals who have volunteered to help plan the annual retreat.

We are also excited about our "Big Sibs" program, in which incoming fellows are matched with senior fellows who will act as guides through the maze that is the NIH postdoctoral experience. Also in the works is an online newsletter. We are coordinating other activities and events for CCR-FYI in partnership with the NIH Fellows Committee.

A favorite part of the retreats has been the opportunity to spend more time with other postdocs. It is so easy, when you're working hard to move a project along, to forget that you are surrounded by other scientists. Some have important skills that can advance your research. Some have unique insights into problems you are dealing with and can significantly improve the science you are doing. In addition, the opportunity to work with so many people from so many countries is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a scientist. To be able to interact with such a diverse group on a regular basis, and perhaps gain some insight into other cultures, is an important benefit of working at any world-class institution.

By challenging the fellows to participate actively in planning the annual retreat and encouraging the principal investigators to support it, Barrett has made the postdoc experience here at CCR uniquely rewarding.

*The authors are chair and past chair of the CCR Fellows and Young Investigators Association (formerly the Postdoctoral and Trainees Assembly).