DiverseScholar Conference Preps Underrepresented Postdocs for Faculty Jobs

By Barba A. Rodriguez and Alberto I. Roca

At a July gathering of researchers in Houston, TX, a postdoctoral fellow from Johns Hopkins shared with new friends how disorienting it was to be from a family of non-scientists during graduate school. “It felt like there was this whole world that other people knew about because their dad was a professor or their mom was a doctor or whatever,” said the neuroimmunologist, who is African-American.

To overcome that isolation, she said, “I worked very hard to be referred to as ‘that very good grad student,’ even if people didn’t know my name.” For her postdoc, she also selected a subfield related to her graduate studies, inspired by a love of her field and the desire to surmount networking and other challenges as an underrepresented minority.

A 2015 NSF survey bears out the need for extra career hustling by underrepresented postdocs like her who recently attended the first DiverseScholar conference to prep postdocs for faculty position interviews come fall. See below for a photo slideshow and Storify archive of the #DivSch17 conference tweets [Roca 2017].

Of the 63,861 postdocs nationally in science and engineering [NSF 2015], 2.4% were Hispanic or Latino. The fraction is 1.7% for Black or African-American postdocs and only 0.26% for those who are American Indian, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiian or Pacific islanders. And, although females comprise 40% of U.S. fellows overall, they represent only 20% of postdocs in engineering.

“You know you’re smart and capable, but that’s not enough,” the Johns Hopkins postdoc noted at the two-day DiverseScholar Postdoctoral Conference held at the University of Houston (UH). “You need to have advice.”

You know you’re smart but…you need to have advice

Strategically, she had joined the online Doctoral Directory published by DiverseScholar that connects underrepresented scholars with hiring recruiters. In 2012, Alberto Roca, a former postdoc, established the non-profit DiverseScholar to provide training and recruiting opportunities to support the goal of doctoral workforce diversity. “Postdocs often cannot access their campus career centers and don’t necessarily get career advice from their supervisor,” Roca noted. “So then they’re left on their own unless someone steps up.”

DiverseScholar did just that by providing full travel awards to Doctoral Directory members attending the July conference supported by the generous sponsorship of the UH Office of Equal Opportunity Services as well as other sponsors solicited by Roca.

The conference featured unique career talks that included hands-on learning activities, and one-on-one career guidance from experienced advisors. The goal? To give underrepresented postdocs in-depth insight on how to approach a faculty job search by capitalizing on the versatility that they learned during their research training.

Enhancing Science Communication Skills

Throughout the interactive Postdoctoral Conference, attendees were prompted by Roca to stand up and give impromptu “elevator pitches” about themselves and their research. “They need to be prepared at any time to talk about their work,” Roca said. “Especially at an event, because you never know what opportunities might arise for you to educate the public or potentially solicit a job or career advice.”

Structured opportunities to improve speaking skills also occurred at the conference. On the first day, UH postdoc Odochi Nwoko gave an oral research presentation to be critiqued by the audience. Dr. Nwoko was a former co-chair of the UH Postdoctoral Association and worked with Roca to arrange cross-participation through a concurrent UH Postdoc Symposium on the second day of the DiverseScholar conference.

Dr. Ankit Mahendra, the current co-chair of the UH Postdoctoral Association alongside Dr. Ayeswarya Ravikumar, said of Roca’s role in the process, “We were really amazed to see his passion for postdocs, and thrilled about him making the event available for University of Houston postdocs.”

The session about polishing oral presentations was led by Bill Lindstaedt, assistant vice chancellor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He taught the audience about how to give detailed, constructive advice by having them critique a short video of a faculty member’s talk. Lindstaedt shared an oral presentation rubric developed by his UCSF Office of Career & Professional Development. The rubric includes 20-plus areas that attendees used to provide specific feedback about factors such as audience engagement through eye contact and presentation structure.

On the second conference day, the DiverseScholar attendees also gave 3-minute “flash” presentations about their projects using only markers and a paper flip chart to illustrate their work. These flash (or chalk) talks can be part of faculty interviews and a way for candidates to convey future research plans. Attendees were evaluated by each other, and speaker Edward Krug, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina. “When we say an abstract should be about 30 lines, a chalk talk of 3 minutes is about that same content,” Krug noted, while asking speakers to consider advice such as starting their talk with a project overview, and playing up research accomplishments.

A Baylor College of Medicine postdoc in molecular and developmental biology admitted she had trouble getting many job interviews last fall. She also struggles with being animated during presentations, so was glad to watch her colleagues in action. “What’s most helpful is seeing how everybody else approaches things,” she said.

Krug also led a session about navigating postdoctoral training strategically such as through successful grant writing. To make the most of a fellowship, he recommended using self-evaluations such as the core competencies check list of the National Postdoctoral Association and the myIDP individual development plan published by AAAS. The latter highlights a scientist’s values which can become touchstones for revising a career over time. He also suggested creating a chronology of career milestones to complete a postdoc on time, and tapping into a diverse team of mentors for career guidance. “You want the person who pushes you to the limit and challenges you in a productive way,” Krug advised.

To obtain grants that boost hiring opportunities, he recommended learning the vocabulary and focus of funding agencies. After recapping their approaches, Krug suggested using resources such as the NIH Reporter database to study abstracts of funded scientists. He also shared a list of grant-writing resources and covered how quickly reviewers like him can take when considering proposals. That means a clear, convincing abstract and specific aims are essential, he noted, before he outlined the details of developing these. Among his tips: using cartoons to explain your specific aims when possible.

You want [a mentor] who pushes you to the limit

As part of his session, audience members paired up for 20 minutes to pitch and to rate each others’ projects based on 10 prompts about their specific aims.

The Baylor postdoc noted that she had tapped into career resources at her home institution. However, she said, “They don’t do these one-on-one exercises, which are really great. It gives you more of a real-life experience.”

Faculty Job Application Strategies

Postdocs also benefited from a Lindstaedt session about optimizing their curriculum vitae (CV) to obtain faculty candidate interviews. Being flexible about what institutions they considered was a cornerstone of his recommendations as he shared overview statistics. For instance, only about 8% of the nearly 4,000 higher education institutions nationally are top-tier (R1) research ones. “If you’re eliminating all the others,” Linstaedt said, “you’re wiping out a lot of opportunities.”

Among other “misfires” he noted was not tailoring the cover letter and CV to a specific faculty position. He shared resources for understanding how different institutions emphasize teaching versus research to help with tailoring decisions, and covered how to organize application content. “The best ‘real estate’ is on the first page of your CV,” Lindstaedt pointed out.

He asked attendees to then form groups to review two faculty job candidates’ content in 3 minutes (which he found is typical for a selection committee), and to select one candidate to hire in 6 more minutes to emphasize how quickly decisions can be made. Linstaedt noted that the favored candidate tailored their CV to the position, did a better job selling themself, and showed passion.

Wise First-Position Decisions

Strategic thinking also came up during a lunch panel, which included women faculty, about the best approaches to finding a faculty position.

Maia Larios-Sanz, an associate professor of biology at the University of St. Thomas-Houston, recommended doing due diligence on learning a university’s mission, which you don’t have to match exactly (for instance, she is not Catholic, but teaches at a Catholic institution). While preparing to interview, also consider how a deparment’s activities mirror yours. “Find your niche,” Larios said. “Bring something they need and don’t try to shape shift.”

Making sure your own needs are met once on faculty was also highlighted, whether by the questions asked during a second-round interview or once there. “Every place you go you should think about leaving in 5 years,” said panel speaker Krug. “So ask, ‘what are they going to do to promote you?’ “

Panelists also emphasized not trying to accomplish everything full-tilt as a new hire. Thamar Solario, a UH associate professor of computer science, noted that the time demands “blew her away” initially in relation to balancing teaching, research, scholarship, and being on committees. “Get your oxygen mask on,” Krug quipped, “and remember what your ultimate goal is.”

Supporting Diverse Opportunities for All

Conference attendees benefited from advice about matching their passion and skills during evening banquets in which educational leaders shared their career stories. Dr. Dorothy Caram, whose degrees include a UH doctorate in education, spoke about establishing its affirmative action policies in the 1990s as an administrator there. She also co-founded the Houston Hispanic Forum, which hosts a career-day event annually that some 15,000 children and parents attend. Among her advice was taking time to communicate science with the public. “All of you are experts, PhDs with 15, 20 years of education. But if the public doesn’t understand, we’re going to have all kinds of issues.”

Roca recommended attendees find ways to develop active science activities that engage underrepresented children in their communities. “They need to see themselves reflected among scientists,” he said, while pointing out that DiverseScholar includes members of all backgrounds who care about diversifying science. “Scientists who promote diversity are the type of faculty we need for all of our students.”

Scientists who promote diversity are [who] we need for all our students

DiverseScholar members also dined with Dr. Richard Baker, assistant vice chancellor of Equal Opportunity Services at the University of Houston. Baker spoke about his career focused on helping remove discriminatory barriers to getting an education. His passion came from being given new opportunities after moving to Texas from Compton, CA, where one of his best friends died in his arms from gun violence. Baker worked his way through a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and then earned a Texas Tech University law degree, master’s, and a doctorate. “You are in a unique place,” Baker said. “What I want for you is to get tenure, to take care of yourself, and to get the professional credentials so you can do what you need to do.”

Based on comments by attendees of DiverseScholar’s inaugural conference, they have taken a big step along that path. “Knowledge of the process is 80 percent of the struggle,” the Johns Hopkins postdoc said. “If you know how it works, you can prepare for it.”


National Science Foundation (2015) Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, Tables 42 & 43

A.I. Roca (2017) DiverseScholar #DivSch17 Postdoctoral Conference, Storify, July 14

Photos (from top)

1. DiverseScholar conference attendees.
2. University of Houston postdoc Odochi Nwoko.
3. Speaker Bill Lindstaedt of UCSF.
4. Flash talk by a Johns Hopkins postdoc.
5. Academic Jobs panel (from left): Alberto Roca, Ed Krug, Maia Larios-Sanz, & Thamar Solario.
Photo credits: Bread & Water Productions

The citation for this article is:
B.A. Rodriguez & A.I. Roca (2017) DiverseScholar Conference Preps Underrepresented Postdocs for Faculty Jobs. DiverseScholar 8:2

Barbra A. Rodriguez is an award-winning writer with 20 years of experience covering the life sciences, health, sustainability, engineering, and other areas. Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. is the Founder and Editor of MinorityPostdoc.org. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.

Editor’s note: DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at .

Published 23-Aug-2017