At the National Institutes of Health, postdoctoral fellows have well-defined titles, a set pay scale, and the same benefits across the board. What more could they want?
For starters, they want programs designed to further their careers and inform them about the career opportunities available to Ph.D.-level scientists. Requests like this led to creation of the Office of Fellows' Career Development at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Over the last decade, it has become evident that the competition for quality positions after postdoctoral training is fierce, especially for academic positions, and that there are more interested fellows than positions. Scientific competence is no longer sufficient to obtain a solid position in the current market. In response to these issues, postdoctoral and predoctoral scientists developed the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA), a grassroots organization, in the mid-1990s. NTA's mission is to "foster the professional advancement of postdocs, visiting fellows, graduate students, and other non-tenured, non-permanent scientists training at the NIEHS." (The still-evolving NTA Web site can be found at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/nta .)
NTA has been engaged in many projects over the years, and it currently serves as an advocacy group and service committee to meet the needs of about 300 postdoctoral, predoctoral, and postbaccalaureate scientists at NIEHS. Its ongoing career development activities have included brown-bag lunches with senior scientists to discuss a variety of career paths, practice seminars to prepare for job interviews, and a very successful and well-attended annual career fair. However, with a transient population leading this organization, it has been subject to ups and downs in its ability to support such programs. The Steering Committee therefore proposed in the late 1990s that an NIEHS office be formed to support the professional development of the institute's fellows and graduate students. High on the office's list of duties were these: providing orientation and informational services for the fellows; helping recruit new fellows to the institute; providing information and workshops related to career opportunities in the sciences; and making available for principal investigators (PIs) information and resources on fellowship and mentoring issues.
In response to this request, the Office of Fellows' Career Development (OFCD) was recently established within the Office of the Director, NIEHS, to provide continuity to NTA and help organize and maintain a more regular schedule of workshops--something difficult for young scientists to do on their own while putting in 40+ hours at the bench. OFCD will offer a number of programs to help trainees prepare their CVs, interview well, and learn about various career options (both academic and nontraditional). It will provide information about local job opportunities, as well as host events to enhance the fellows' networking skills. Additionally, many of the programs offered on the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, are currently inaccessible to fellows in North Carolina except by videoconferencing or by videotapes of the sessions. Some of these programs will now be offered at the NIEHS campus through the OFCD. Plans for this office also include establishing a Web site that will provide this information electronically, as well as orientation for new fellows.
In addition, OFCD supports NTA administratively and provides ready access to the organizational "history" of the NTA, so that the fellows serving on the NTA Steering Committee are not burdened with this task. It works closely with postdoc offices and associations at local institutions in order to share resources, information, and invitations to workshops. It also serves as an advocate for NTA and the fellows by interacting at a number of levels with administrators of NIEHS and NIH. Currently, the office is staffed half-time by me, with the rest of my time spent in the laboratory. As a (recent) former NIEHS postdoctoral fellow, as well as a former chair of NTA, I all too easily identify with the fellows and their issues. I also still have close ties with the NTA Steering Committee members, a number of whom started their service during my tenure as chair. I am hopeful that together with the NTA, other administrators at NIEHS, the fellows, and the PIs, my office will enhance the quality of training at NIEHS and allow the institute to offer a more complete training package to its fellows.
Deborah Swope graduated in 1997 with a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from St. Louis University. She did her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. She previously served as chair of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly and is a long-standing member of the NTA Steering Committee. She assumed the position of Director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows' Career Development in the spring of 2003.