How do you define a postdoc? What is the purpose of the postdoctoral position? What do postdocs need to prepare for their professional careers, especially in a non-academic area? How should postdocs be compensated? These are the types of questions that led to the formation of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). The NPA was established with the goal of fostering necessary improvements to the postdoctoral environment in the United States. Since its founding in 2003, the NPA has continued to work toward that goal and has expanded its mission to help postdocs around the world.
The mission and vision of the NPA is based on several core beliefs: 1) postdocs are invaluable for the success of the research enterprise and share personal responsibility for their careers, 2) inequities must be corrected as much as possible within the unique framework at each institution, and 3) the U.S. research community should make every effort to attract the best and brightest men and women from ALL groups. Tireless work by NPA volunteers to make the NPA’s vision, “Working in collaboration with the entire research community to change the culture of those individuals and institutions engaged in the U.S. research enterprise so that the contributions of postdoctoral scholars are fully valued and recognized,” a reality has led to great accomplishments.
The NPA played a significant role in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) formalizing the definition of “postdoctoral scholar” as “an individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.” The NPA also helped secure five consecutive years of increases in the entry stipend for the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) trainees after several years of stagnation, raising the entry-level stipends by 7% in 2014 to $42,000. However, a healthy postdoctoral environment requires not only support at the federal level, but also local, institution-based resources to support, train, and advocate for postdoctoral scholars. Knowing this, the NPA developed Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices in 2005 outlining actions that institutions should take to provide the best training environment for their postdocs.
The NPA also provides toolkits to provide clear guidance for starting a postdoctoral office (PDO) or a postdoctoral association (PDA). According to the best available data, the number of postdoc offices at U.S. research institutions has more than doubled since the NPA’s founding, from approximately less than 25 to 167, and the NPA continues to work to establish PDOs and PDAs across the nation. Perhaps an even bigger focus of the NPA is providing postdocs with resources to help them guide their own careers.
Chief among NPA’s career resources is its list of Core Competencies that serve as a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors. NPA’s career planning resources give postdocs the tools needed to evaluate, choose, and prepare for their career path. These include tools to define their goals and interests as well as information on potential career paths for PhDs.
Perhaps the most invaluable career tool is good mentoring. Mentoring can have a profound influence on the relative satisfaction and success of postdoctoral scholars. Mentoring resources provided by the NPA contain strategies for finding good mentors and/or developing a mentoring plan that provides a roadmap for both the mentor and the postdoc of the activities that will be undertaken to further the postdoc’s professional and career development.
Part of the NPA’s work to promote diversity within the postdoc community has been to support all postdocs through the many challenges they face during their postdoctoral years. The postdoctoral period is often a time when postdocs start a family. Many struggle to balance the responsibilities of a growing family with the long hours often required to complete the work. Unfortunately, the strain to meet the responsibilities of work and home seems to disproportionately affect the careers of bright young women. The NPA’s Family Friendly Resources for Postdocs were created to help postdocs achieve success at work and home. Some of these resources were developed as part of NPA ADVANCE, an NSF-funded project to foster the advancement of postdoc women into faculty careers. Information on working in a lab while pregnant, maternity/paternity leave, child-related tax credits for postdocs with fellowship funding, and dual career couples are just some of the resources available. The NPA has also created childcare awards to help postdocs with children attend its annual meeting.
International postdocs also face unique challenges, from visa issues to finding funding sources. Being an international postdoc in the U.S. can be a daunting experience. There is the initial decision to move thousands of miles away from home; the possible language barrier, the culture shock, and the other challenges one may face on arrival; acclimatizing to life as a scientist in the U.S., and the periodic visa difficulties that have to be negotiated when traveling in and out of the country. The NPA has compiled a list of resources for International Postdocs, including a guide to visas, a list of fellowships and grants available to international postdocs, a beginner’s guide to income taxes for international postdocs, and a comprehensive survival guide for international postdocs.
The NPA has five committees (Resource Development, Advocacy, Meetings, Outreach, and POSTDOCket Committees) and two officers (Diversity and International Officers) working together to advance the vision of the NPA. Many of the resources mentioned were created or are maintained by the Resource Development Committee. This committee has opportunities to develop and maintain the NPA website and resources for the postdoctoral community, serving as a resource for PDOs and PDAs through implementation of NPA-sponsored surveys. The Advocacy Committee advocates for implementation of NPA policy recommendations, monitors policy issues, and maintains relationships with federal agencies.
Creation of the Diversity and International Officer positions were the manifestation of the NPA’s ongoing commitment to create opportunity and support the success of ALL groups within the postdoctoral community. These officers create and maintain resources related to diversity and international matters within the postdoc community, advocate for the interests of postdocs facing these issues, monitor policies and changes related to these topics, and address public inquiries about the NPA’s policies and recommended practices regarding diversity and international questions within the postdoc community.
Many of these concerns were the focus of sessions and deep discussions at the recent NPA annual meeting. Gary McDowell wrote a great summary of the NPA annual meeting for the ASCB COMPASS blog last month. Organizing each annual meeting is a year-long effort by the Meetings Committee that includes developing the programmatic content, fundraising, networking events, award recipients, and post-meeting evaluations and debriefings. Often, it takes coordination among many committees to meet the evolving challenges facing the postdoctoral community. For example, the Resource Development Committee might be called upon to develop new resources for international postdocs with the International Officer, or propose new policy recommendations with the Advocacy Committee. The Outreach Committee works with the Meetings Committee to promote the upcoming annual meeting or solicit sponsors, announces new resources on behalf of the Resource Development Committee, and works with the Advocacy Committee to generate meaningful discussions on postdoctoral issues. The Outreach Committee also promotes the public image, mission, values, goals, and business objectives of the NPA by developing an annual marketing plan, implementing an outreach plan to increase membership, and cultivating relationships with news media, professional societies, and industry.
The POSTDOCket is the quarterly NPA newsletter covering news items and features of interest to the postdoctoral community, including updates on the current work of the NPA. The coordinated efforts of the Advocacy, Outreach, and Resource Development Committees helped make National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW) a reality. After a tremendous NPA effort, the U.S. House of Representatives officially recognized National Postdoc Appreciation Week as the week beginning the third Monday of September annually by passing H. Res. 1545 on September 23, 2010. Importantly, this effort increased awareness among lawmakers about postdocs, their issues and contributions, and the NPA. NPAW continues to grow each year with 303 events held at 98 institutions in 35 states in 2014. Thanks to all those who participated!
Are you interested in getting more involved with the NPA? The NPA’s successes are fueled by the hard work and dedication of highly motivated volunteers. If you would like to get involved in helping to improve the postdoctoral experience, contact the NPA! You can also join the NPA to benefit from the complete list of resources it provides. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to help improve postdoc training, gain leadership skills, network, and learn about the policies that affect postdocs on an institutional and federal level.