“Find a postdoc that adds VALUE to your career trajectory.”
This statement, by Dr. Marcos J. Ramos-Benitez, summarized his advice during a session about postdoctoral training to an audience of PhD graduate students. The session titled "Postdoc Fundamentals: Selecting a Training Experience to Match Your Career Goals" was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the 2022 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference (#2022NDiSTEM; Find at end the #PostdocFun Tweets.). The panel imparted their knowledge on the 1) different postdoc types, 2) advisor & project selection considerations, 3) sources of funding, and 4) resources for professional development such as MinorityPostdoc.org and the Yale Ciencia Academy. Besides Dr. Ramos-Benitez (Assistant Professor at Ponce Health Sciences University), the panel included Dr. Yaihara Fortis Santiago, Associate Director of Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and Trainee Diversity Initiatives at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Dr. Alberto Roca, Executive Director of the non-profit DiverseScholar.
What is a postdoc?
The panel started off by answering the question: “What is a postdoc?” Dr. Fortis Santiago emphasized that a postdoc position should not be a last resort, but a chance to develop your skills. A “postdoc should not be the default” is a poignant statement made by Dr. Fortis Santiago. Postdoc jobs are meant to be stepping stones to the next step. It’s a position to gain mentoring and training for transitioning into the career you desire. Dr. Roca also pointed out that postdoc positions are not just for and within the academic field. There are many opportunities in industry; and, postdoc positions can have different formats such as varying in the amount of teaching expected. All panelists emphasized thinking about what kind of career that you want and pursuing postdoc option that will help you get there.
Adding value to a career trajectory
A big component of Dr. Ramos-Benitez’s talk was about finding a postdoc that “adds VALUE to your career trajectory.” How will the training make you more competitive in the workforce? What new skills will you gain? How does this help expand your network? Will it help you grow as a researcher and scientist? Dr. Ramos-Benitez illustrated this with a hypothetical equation: Your Skills x Employer Need = Hiring Value.
You cannot change an employer's need; but, you can increase the Your Skills part of the equation by refining or gaining new skills that are either key in your field or that few have. Thus, you can raise your overall Hiring Value. That’s where your postdoctoral experience comes in! Ideally, the postdoctoral training should be complementary to your PhD thesis work to maximize your overall Hiring Value.
Balancing a challenge versus support
Dr. Ramos-Benitez said, “Challenge yourself!” However, both Dr. Ramos-Benitez and Dr. Fortis Santiago also highlight that you need a solid professional support system including good mentors and a network of colleagues. The following are factors that you should consider when searching for a postdoc position according to Dr. Fortis Santiago: the supervisor (Principal Investigator or P.I.), the science, the institution, what skills are needed for the science, the lab and institution culture, the location, and if there are any professional development opportunities. In particular, she spotlighted the need to find a good fit between you and the potential postdoc supervisor. She commented about such research group leaders: “There are mentors, and there are TOR-mentors.” Finally, Fortis Santiago described looking for a program that provides health insurance, housing, retirement, mental health resources, and an office dedicated to career development. These important employment aspects of a postdoctoral position can be overlooked in the rush of a graduate student to find a new research project.
Dr. Roca has been organizing a postdoctoral-themed session at the SACNAS annual conference almost continuously since 2004. He co-founded the Postdoc Committee of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) to bring postdoctoral-related content to this conference which typically caters to a large undergraduate student population [Roca 2005a]. The #PostDocFun session usually attracts around 30 PhD graduate students who learn from the invited speakers as well as Dr. Roca’s own expertise. He has presented about diversity postdoctoral fellowships [Roca 2009] and also promotes supportive organizations such as the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). Dr. Roca was also a co-founder of the NPA’s Diversity Committee; and, in the early 2000s, he would coordinate joint activities between the two committees [Roca 2005b]. Dr. Roca’s non-profit maintains the MinorityPostdoc.org career portal that serves as a clearinghouse of relevant information for PhD graduate students such as the Resources page of diversity funding options.
Because the 2022 SACNAS annual conference was in Puerto Rico for the first time, Dr. Roca made sure to invite Puerto Rican co-presenters. At the #PostDocFun session, Drs. Ramos-Benitez and Fortis Santiago could draw from their own personal experience navigating academia and also bring attention to unique opportunities such as the Yale Ciencia Academy. That program, coordinated by Ciencia Puerto Rico, prepares biomedical PhD graduate students for post-PhD positions.
In summary, the insights and reflections from the #PostDocFun panelists are sure to help the SACNAS community. Sessions like these will empower students of diverse backgrounds to find their way into careers that they love and, ultimately, increase diversity in the doctoral workforce.
A.I. Roca (2005a) 20/20 Foresight: the new postdoc programs at SACNAS. SACNAS News newsletter, Summer
A.I. Roca (2005b) Diversity as a Life Skill: Collaborations between SACNAS and the NPA. NPA POSTDOCket newsletter, Summer
A.I. Roca (2009) Diversity Funding for Your Postdoctoral Research: Advice for a Successful Experience. SACNAS News newsletter, Summer/Fall
(top) Postdoc Fundamentals session speakers (left to right) Ramos-Benitez and Fortis Santiago. (Credit: Roca)
(bottom) #PostdocFun panel of (left to right) Alberto Roca, Marcos Ramos-Benitez, and Yaihara Fortis Santiago. (Credit: Roca)
H.R. Waite & A.I. Roca (2022) Learning about Postdoc Fundamentals at SACNAS. DiverseScholar 13:2
Heidi Waite, BS, MS is currently finishing her doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with an emphasis in marine ecology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Ms. Waite was the former president of the UCI SACNAS Chapter and a Ford Fellow. 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.