The postdoc experience is all about training for science careers, and, as reports, convocations, panels, and online publications have been proclaiming for years, postdocs need to learn about much more than science. Management, project planning, grantsmanship, and teaching rank high on the fields considered useful--even essential--for aspiring scientists. Few postdocs, however, receive systematic training in such non-lab skills, which can make or break their careers.
That may finally have begun to change. Last month the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund (BWF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) teamed up to launch an initiative that they believe will soon start bringing training in these and other career skills to postdocs and junior faculty across the country. The two private funding agencies jointly presented a "Course in Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty," a revised version of a program held in 2002 that led to the widely used book Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. From 6 to 10 June, about a hundred young scientists, including Ph.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s, senior postdocs and junior faculty members, gathered on the HHMI campus in Chevy Chase, Maryland, for lectures and discussions about the nuts and bolts of running a lab, applying for grants, dealing with staff, planning and executing projects, and generally making the transition from working in a mentor's lab to running a lab of their own.
But these young researchers weren't the only attendees. Also taking copious notes were twenty staff and senior faculty members from universities and scientific societies. Dubbed Partners in Scientific Training by BWF and HHMI, these individuals represented institutions that have agreed to cooperate with BWF and HHMI in the effort to increase and improve career training for postdocs. HHMI and BWF are counting on these Partners to spark a wave of new learning opportunities for postdocs across the country.
New Learning Opportunities
The score of partner institutions--including the Society for Developmental Biology, the American Physiological Society, the American Society of Plant Biologists, Sigma Xi, the Scripps Research Institute, and universities spanning the continent from New York University to University of California, Riverside--have promised that, in exchange for the privilege of sending a representative to attend the course free of charge, they will each design and present their own programs for postdocs based on the material covered in the BWF-HHMI course. The Partners also participated in planning the course and attended nightly follow-up meetings in Chevy Chase to discuss what had and hadn't worked during each day. The partners are also involved in preparing the new instructional materials that will be prepared from the course's contents.
These materials will include new chapters for Making the Right Moves and a comprehensive guide for the Partners providing "detailed information for developing courses," said BWF president Enriqueta Bond. Like Making the Right Moves, which is available on the HHMI Web site--the electronic version has been downloaded some 75,000 times--the new materials will be posted on the Internet for free use by any interested individual.
BWF and HHMI, however, will neither run nor directly support the efforts that the partner institutions will put together, The two agencies aim, rather, to inspire and assist in the development of a wide range of new educational opportunities, among their formal partners and among other universities and societies. "The best way for us to be effective is to be catalytic and provide resources for the people who will" actually design and run their own programs, said William Galey, HHMI's Director of Graduate Science Education and Medical Research Training.
Partner institutions are not expected to duplicate the full "4 1/2 day gold-plated version" presented in Chevy Chase, said Peter Bruns, HHMI's Vice President for Grants and Special Programs. Instead, each organization will adapt material and methods used in the course to their own constituencies, circumstances, and resources. Universities and research institutions, for example, could offer lectures or seminar series. Scientific societies could hold special sessions at their annual meetings. The full-scale HHMI-BWF course was planned as a "template" that would provide ideas about what works. HHMI and BWF, said Bruns, do not intend to run the full-scale version again. The postdocs and new faculty in attendance at this course--and the previous one in 2002--thus enjoyed a unique opportunity to learn in person from national experts and to make connections with counterparts and institutional partners from across the nation.
A Reality-based Curriculum
The course's content was highly pragmatic. A young scientist's ability to succeed "will depend on ... things rather distinct from research skills," especially the "ability to guide, lead, and direct other people," HHMI president Thomas Cech told the group. Much of the week's emphasis was on what Edward O'Neil, professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, termed "soft skills." Young scientists tend to assume that the scientific culture is rational, he said in a lecture, but the "world that surrounds natural facts is surrounded by social facts." These social facts are no less real; indeed, in O'Neil's estimation, "at least half of success" depends on understanding the "world of social facts."
To help the participants learn to avoid what O'Neil called "dumb, nerdy mistakes" in dealing with other people, the course paid considerable attention to the wide variety of management and personality styles encountered in working situations. Course participants received individualized assessments of their personality types and style of relating to others based on the Myers-Briggs psychological test and other measures. They also learned about the importance of these factors in work relationships and applied these insights to practical management issues and situations.
Grantsmanship, departmental politics, team building, gender and family issues, teaching, mentoring, and working toward tenure also received close scrutiny. In addition, participants heard lectures by representatives of federal funding agencies and watched a mock study session conducted by senior researchers to demonstrate how funding decisions are actually made. Although a handful of the course participants hold jobs in industry rather than academic institutions, the presentations concentrated heavily on issues related to academe.
This emphasis on academia may be well suited to the 100 postdocs and new faculty who attended the course; their academic strength and the support of BWF and HHMI certify them as among the "best and brightest young scientists," as Bond put it, and therefore likely to land faculty jobs. But will a course like this, more broadly deployed, be useful to the many other postdocs with less flashy resumes and poorer odds of becoming faculty members running labs of their own?
If the material is handled right, it certainly will. Though the course emphasized a few issues that are unique to academia, many of the subjects covered--general management, project planning, time management, and interpersonal principles--are crucial to all professionals, no matter what career they ultimately choose to pursue. Many of the practical problems that participants wrestled with during the course--gender and family issues, team building, supervising subordinates, leadership techniques--will arise wherever a postdoc works. If partner institutions and others who use the course materials keep in mind that their postdocs will find themselves working not only in academe but in a broad range of careers that require scientific training, much in the BWF-HHMI effort can be used to benefit just about every postdoc.