Proceedings of a Workshop
Re-envisioning Postdoctoral Training in Neuroscience
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
“Postdoctoral training is in a state of limbo for many researchers,” said Carol Mason, professor of pathology, cell biology, neuroscience, and ophthalmology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Originally viewed as a few years of apprenticeship and as an opportunity to establish skills and develop ideas in preparation for an independent research career, postdoctoral fellowships have evolved over the years to a system characterized by long training durations with variability in training and mentoring, followed by uncertain career prospects, she said.
These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a high level of uncertainty and stress for postdoctoral researchers. With structural and other barriers, including long-standing inequities within science, often slowing ascent up the academic ladder for neuroscience trainees, “the vision and approach to postdoctoral training is in dire need of modernization,” said Brielle Ferguson, postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.
To address these challenges, the Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a virtual workshop on February 16, 2021, titled Re-envisioning Postdoctoral Training in Neuroscience. This was the fourth workshop in a series, originating from the Forum’s Action Collaborative on Neuroscience Training: Developing a Nimble and Versatile Workforce, designed to illuminate critical issues and catalyze a reconsideration of how neuroscience training could be designed to meet current and future workforce needs across multiple sectors.
Ferguson tasked workshop participants—undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty and department chairs, scientists in industry and the nonprofit sector, and research funders across the neuroscience ecosystem—to envision an evolution of postdoctoral training that better aligns with the demands of the field and the values of the neuroscience community. The goal, she said, is to “strike a balance between the very real criticisms of our shortcomings, optimism about present efforts, and hopefulness for opportunities on the horizon.” See Box 1 for key highlights from the two panel discussions.
Optimizing the Postdoctoral Experience
- When searching for a postdoctoral fellowship, trainees should consider not only the scientific themes being pursued in different labs but also their long-term professional goals, the environment and culture of the lab, and the mentor’s mentoring philosophy and expectations (Hughes, Sabbagh).
BOX 1 CONTINUED
- Contacting current and former postdoctoral researchers and graduate students and talking with mentors and faculty can help a potential trainee determine whether a certain lab will provide an environment in which the trainee can thrive (Williams).
- For trainees who intend to pursue careers in academia, the prestige of the institution is less important than finding a lab that is well respected and will provide excellent training (Hughes).
- For trainees who intend to pursue careers in industry, a postdoctoral fellowship in industry can provide access to knowledge about how it differs from academia (Bell).
- Effective communication and aligning expectations are essential for successful mentor–mentee relationships (Hughes, Williams).
- Maintaining a healthy work–life balance is imperative for both mental health and scientific productivity (Ferguson, Hughes, Williams).
- Establishing postdoctoral advisory committees at the institutional level would help postdoctoral researchers navigate their training and develop the skills needed for their specific career trajectories (Hughes, Sabbagh).
- Postdoctoral candidates are highly skilled scientists who have more value within the scientific enterprise than they may perceive, but they are compensated at a level far below the value they bring (Hughes, Sabbagh).
Strategies for Reforming Postdoctoral Training
- Building mentoring networks and postdoctoral fellowship advisory committees into National Institutes of Health and institutional training programs would help trainees navigate their postdoctoral fellowships successfully and develop the skills needed for the next step of their careers (Bell, Ferguson, Hughes, Sabbagh, Williams).
- Developing mechanisms at the institutional level for evaluating and incentivizing mentoring among faculty would improve training (Bankston, Hughes).
- Developing new models for postdoctoral training that prepare scientists to manage multiple tasks simultaneously, mentor and manage people, manage budgets, and write grants will be important for various career paths (Hughes, Sabbagh).
- Navigating the search for postdoctoral fellowships could be improved through the use of a standardized application system and a self-assessment framework to generate questions to ask of potential mentors (McKinney, Sabbagh).
- Increasing postdoctoral salaries to keep up with inflation and align with the value postdoctoral researchers provide would make science more equitable (Hughes, Sabbagh).
- Establishing parameters and policies that align with the set of core competencies published by the National Postdoctoral Association could help ensure faculty productivity and equitable training (McKinney).
- Rewarding innovative ideas that focus on early career independence, creating training opportunities on topics such as grant writing, and providing postdoctoral researchers with professional development programs and contracts that ensure job security would help empower early career scientists (Bankston).
- Constructing individual development plans can give trainees a roadmap to help them navigate their postdoctoral experience (McKinney).
- Improving mentorship requires coordinated efforts from institutions, funders, and postdoctoral researchers themselves (Bankston, Korn, Vosshall).
- Group mentoring could empower postdoctoral researchers to pursue important scientific questions through collaborations (Korn).
NOTE: These points were made by the individual speakers identified above; they are not intended to reflect a consensus among workshop participants.
PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES ON POSTDOCTORAL NEUROSCIENCE TRAINING
In the first panel, current, former, and soon-to-be postdoctoral researchers, including individuals who recently transitioned to the next step in their careers, reflected on both effective and ineffective aspects of their training and highlighted opportunities for how individuals and institutions might address problems with the current postdoctoral training model and build a better future for training in neuroscience, said Ferguson.
Identifying Postdoctoral Training Opportunities That Will Enable Trainees to Reach Their Goals
As he embarked on his search for a postdoctoral fellowship, Ubadah Sabbagh, a visual neuroscientist completing his doctoral training at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said it was important for him to start by thinking about his long-term professional goals and then “backward plan” from there. “I chose academia as my career path,” he said. “I want to start my own research program, my own lab, so I started to think about what kind of overarching vision and ideas I want to have for that kind of lab and work back from there.”
Even more important than the science itself, when selecting the labs to pursue, Sabbagh prioritized an environment that values postdoctoral researchers and a lab culture where he believed he could thrive. Before interviewing with prospective mentors, he thought about questions he wanted to ask: What is your mentorship philosophy? What are your expectations of postdoctoral researchers in terms of productivity and time commitment? He also brought up issues that were important to him, but might not be well aligned with the mentor’s philosophy. “I knew I wanted to do service and outreach alongside my research work, so I thought that those conversations upfront would be beneficial as well,” he said.
Brittany Williams, postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she also did a lot of research and homework when searching for a postdoctoral position. After identifying labs she was interested in, she contacted current and former postdoctoral researchers and graduate students to get a sense of the lab environment and the type of work being done. She also talked to mentors and faculty members who knew the individuals with whom she was interviewing to hear their perspectives. “You have to make sure the environment is for you,” she said. For example, while some people thrive in a large lab environment, others will be more productive in a small lab.
She added that understanding yourself, what type of scientist you are, and what works best for you is equally important. For example, some people need to be managed closely, while others prefer a more “hands-off” approach. “You do not want to throw yourself into a den of lions when that is not your nature,” she said. “Your postdoc can make or break what you want to do.”
Ethan Hughes, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, agreed with Williams on the value of self-introspection about what motivates you both scientifically and in terms of your work environment. What helped him was thinking about the themes that interested him. “I was trained as a basic scientist, but I really have translational interests,” he said. “Those kinds of themes can help guide your decision making.”
“Doing your homework and asking tough questions of the people you might end up working with is also important,” said Hughes. He added that some of the best advice he got throughout his career came from friends going through or having recently completed the same postdoctoral search process.
Sabbagh added one more point to keep in mind during the interview process: “You have way more value as a postdoc candidate than you think,” he said, noting that although trainees emerge from graduate school as highly skilled scientists, as postdoctoral researchers they will be compensated at a level far below the value they bring.
Hughes also addressed the notion that an institution’s prestige is important in the selection of a postdoc. “If your goal is to stay in the academic track, I would argue that finding the best place to become a scientist who is well trained and well respected is way more important than the actual institution,” he said.
By contrast with Sabbagh, Williams, and Hughes, who sought training in an academic environment, Robert Bell, group leader in gene therapy in the rare disease unit at Pfizer, said that after working as a technician in a small start-up before graduate school, he thought biotech or industry would be a match for his interests. After graduate school, as he explored postdoctoral opportunities, he focused on filling what he saw as gaps in his skill set that would help him regardless of whether he went on to academia, biotech, or big pharma. Non-coding RNAs were emerging at the time as important players in human disease (Esteller, 2011). Bell had previously collaborated with the principal investigator (PI) and other scientists in a lab working in this area and knew the culture and the support structure of the lab, making it an easy choice for a postdoctoral fellowship.
His choice proved beneficial for reasons beyond the scientific knowledge he acquired because he moved from a large, well-funded lab to a much smaller one that had to be more frugal. “We had to have a lot more prioriti-
zation around what we spent our money on, which helped me organizationally in terms of managing a budget and things not as into the weeds of the science,” said Bell. These skills are important for the success of any research group, whether in academia or industry, he said.
Bell added that while the choice of lab matters more than the institution, a postdoctoral fellowship in industry can be advantageous for trainees who want to work in biotech or big pharma because they can help a trainee gain access to knowledge about how industry differs from academia.
The potential to move between academia and industry may also be a concern for some trainees. Hughes noted that in other fields such as engineering, people often move seamlessly between the two multiple times during their career. “I would say those fields are stronger for it and I think this is something we need to fix in our field,” he said. Although trainees may need to acknowledge the potential difficulty of moving between sectors in neuroscience and factor it into their decision making, future leaders of the field may be able to work to change this, said Hughes.
Sometimes the choice of a lab for postdoctoral training fails to meet the trainee’s goals. One potential challenge in this regard is matching the time lines of science with the time lines of a trainee’s career ambitions, said Bell. “You may enter in a lab and start a brand new project, with the ultimate goal of publishing a high-impact paper, but doing that in a short amount of time can be very difficult,” he said. The postdoc program at Pfizer emphasizes making sure a trainee’s goals for the postdoc are pragmatic. “You set a high bar for the long term of your career,” he said, “but this is just a steppingstone to that career.”
Building Mentoring Networks to Help Trainees Achieve Their Goals
Sabbagh noted that the training opportunities and experiences available often are not commensurate with the goals of new postdoctoral researchers. He suggested that departments form postdoctoral advisory committees, akin to the thesis committees that advise graduate students through their doctoral programs. “An advisory committee for a postdoc can be constructed with members of whatever careers or trajectories they are interested in,” he said, noting that these advisors can also help the trainee develop new skills.
Reinforcing Sabbagh’s suggestion to form postdoctoral advisory committees, Hughes argued that these committees could best be built at the institutional rather than the departmental level. “I think postdocs would best benefit from building a network across the field to be able to get perspectives on how to navigate their training as well as how to springboard into the next step as a PI,” he said. He said committees such as these are already built into National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence (K99) awards and suggested as an action item that these committees also be built into other NIH training programs, both for fellowship (F-level) and career development (K-level) awards.
Ferguson noted, however, that trainees who receive K awards tend to be among the best supported trainees already, with access to the widest array of resources. She suggested expanding access to a broader group of trainees by institutionalizing the creation of formalized mentoring networks.
Industry has already adopted some of these approaches, said Bell. At Pfizer, he said, if a mentor wants to hire a postdoctoral researcher but has not been the corresponding author on a primary paper, a more established investigator serves as a co-mentor. Moreover, Bell said the company builds mentoring committees with people from Pfizer as well as experts in other companies or academia. “You are never going to run out of mentors,” he said. “You should always be trying to build your network and have more, because it does not stop after your postdoc.”
Williams agreed that having more than one mentor is important. “The more the better,” she said, noting that a single mentor may not be able to address all of your concerns. “Your PI can be your mentor for science, but even your colleague or lab mate can be a mentor.” What worked for her, she said, was to generate a network consisting of postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and young PIs to share ideas. Sabbagh added that expanding the group of people you talk to (e.g., your friends or colleagues, whether or not you think of them as mentors) can help you understand what the scientific enterprise is like outside of your own bubble.
Bell added that if a mentor does not see the value of multiple mentors, they are not being a great mentor. A potential mentor’s discomfort with a trainee reaching out to additional mentors could also be used as a sort of litmus test during the interview process, said Sabbagh. If a conflict like this arises in the middle of a postdoctoral fellowship, Hughes suggested trying to convince the mentor with data. “We’re all scientists and we usually respond best to data,” he said. “All of the data show that having a broad mentoring network can actually enhance your experience and build skills.” Then, he said, he would enlist allies, including other postdoctoral researchers and faculty in the department who share this view, and use their help to make the case to the mentor.
Bell added that Pfizer’s postdoctoral training program encompasses every department and therapeutic area and provides multiple mechanisms for scientists in different areas to meet, learn from each other, and build out their networks. These mechanisms range from journal clubs to face-to-face symposia, he said. In addition, alumni of the postdoctoral programs often come back to share their experiences with newer trainees.
Effective communication and aligning expectations are essential for successful mentor–mentee relationships, said Hughes. He recommended exploring “mentoring up” resources that are available for trainees entering the research space.1 Mentoring up concepts can help to ensure that trainees will get the most out of their experience by making the mentor–mentee relationship more collaborative, said Hughes.
Williams also re-emphasized the importance of clear communication. In her first meeting with her mentor, they both shared their expectations to ensure they were aligned. “Do not be afraid,” she said. “Be firm and fearless” when asking even uncomfortable questions.
As a step toward improving mentoring, Hughes pointed out that institutions and institutes could improve their methods for evaluating mentoring at the faculty level. For example, he advocated having faculty report on who they have trained and where those trainees ended up, and then using that as a metric to evaluate who is doing good mentoring. He suggested that adding these metrics into faculty evaluations for promotion and tenure could incentivize the effort needed to strengthen mentoring and training for postdoctoral researchers. In addition, Bell noted that in industry, 360° reviews are common practice, in which a person receives feedback from their peers, supervisors, and those who report directly to them. Such reviews can allow a person to become more self-aware and have a better understanding of their leadership style, and emotional intelligence. He added, this could be a potential framework for the faculty evaluation process in academia.
Maintaining a Healthy Work–Life Balance During a Postdoctoral Fellowship
Academia can be incredibly taxing, both mentally and physically, said Ferguson, which makes maintaining a healthy work–life balance critical for overall mental health. “I think it also affects how we show up in the lab on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
The balance is especially difficult because many people suffer from impostor syndrome, said Williams, who recalled the self-doubt she suffered when she first started her postdoctoral training program. “I had to do more. I had to show why I am here, why I am important, not realizing what it took away from the work–life balance,” she said. She realized she could not be at her best in the lab unless she took care of herself outside the lab. She started running and got a dog. Doing things she loved helped her to come back to the lab stronger and better. “We are all going to have doubts,” she said. “But use those doubts as your passion, your flame.”
Trainees taking cues from their environment may further challenge their ability to maintain a healthy work–life balance, for example, when they see everyone else in the lab, including their mentors, working long hours every day, said Ferguson. Hughes, however, noted that a benefit of academic life is its flexibility because experiments can be planned for different times and work can often be done in alternative spaces such as at home or in a coffee shop. He said he works with his trainees to understand that science requires attention every day, but also proceeds in waves, with larger waves of intense time periods, such as when a deadline looms for a paper. “I tell my trainees to keep those moments in time in perspective and balance them by taking off when you do not have those big deadlines and the wave is not really high,” said Hughes. “I try to make sure my trainees take the extra time and space to be able to care for themselves and rejuvenate for the next big push, whether it is experimental or paper deadlines.”
Establishing New Models for Postdoctoral Training
Postdoctoral training in academia provides scientists with the opportunity to focus on their research project intently and for a sustained period, which is something important to protect, said Hughes. However, “the challenges of being a PI are quite different than that. You have a lot more balls up in the air and you are trying to be productive with fragmented time,” he said. “I do not think the postdoc experience really prepares you to be able to effectively manage multiple things at once and do so productively.”
Sabbagh agreed, noting that while current paradigms of postdoctoral training typically focus on producing research publications, they do not adequately prepare trainees for important aspects of subsequent scientific careers. These aspects include how to mentor and manage people, manage interpersonal conflict in the lab, develop and manage a budget, and write grants. He suggested that departments invest money in developing postdoctoral training programs to help trainees become exceptional scientists, not just conduct exceptional science.
Training postdoctoral researchers to be excellent mentors is also needed, said Hughes. He suggested that postdoctoral researchers look for opportunities in their labs to manage technicians or help undergraduates in the lab to build projects.
1 An example of one of these programs can be found at https://theleadershipalliance.org/resource/mentoring-how-be-proactive-mentee-virtual-summer-program (accessed February 23, 2021).
Larger-scale structural aspects of postdoctoral training also need addressing, said Ferguson. For example, a more standardized application system for postdoctoral fellowships could be helpful, particularly for graduate students who have not established a strong network of mentors, said Sabbagh. Although jobs may be posted in journals or online sites such as Nature Careers2 or the Society for Neuroscience’s NeuroJobs,3 many labs do not advertise postdoc openings, he said. Bigger laboratories in particular rely instead on the frequent cold (unsolicited) emails they receive. Yet, Sabbagh said many trainees in search of a postdoctoral position do not know that it is fine to email a lab that has not advertised postdoctoral opportunities to express interest in the work they are doing and ask for a brief conversation. He acknowledged, however, that even if a trainee believes it is appropriate to cold email a lab, they may not have the mentorship or resources to know how to do this most effectively.
Postdoctoral training reforms are also needed beyond the application process, said Sabbagh. For example, he suggested that professional societies and institutions band together and advocate for NIH to increase postdoctoral researchers’ salaries across the board and increase the funding ceiling for modular R01 grants. Although many new PIs apply for modular R01s, Sabbagh said the ceiling of $250,000 in direct funds per year has not changed in more than two decades. He advocated pushing Congress for a statute that would ensure funding of R01s that keeps up with inflation.
Hughes agreed, noting the large disparities between how academic postdoctoral researchers are paid in comparison with those who go into industry or government positions. “I think this is holding back academic science because while current postdoc salaries are inching up slowly, they are not equal to the value postdocs bring to the table,” he said. “As a field, we need to move beyond thinking of the postdoc as an experimental workhorse and think of them more as intellectual leaders.” Valuing postdoctoral researchers for who they are and what they contribute intellectually would help level the playing field and make science more equitable, said Hughes.
Another challenge for neuroscience postdoctoral researchers arises when the research they pursue, although scientifically solid and well executed, yields results contrary to their hypothesis. While such findings probably will not appear in a high-impact journal, mechanisms are needed to celebrate good science regardless of the results “because in the long-run, getting that data out there is important,” said Bell.
INSTITUTIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON POSTDOCTORAL NEUROSCIENCE TRAINING
Continuing on the themes introduced in the first session by postdoctoral researchers and scientists who have transitioned in the past few years to the next stage of their careers, the second panel consisting of leaders from academic institutions and NIH provided institutional perspectives on how to envision a system of postdoctoral training that enables trainees to develop their own distinct science story and scientific expertise that will serve them whether their next step is in academia or other sectors, said Mason.
Addressing the Gaps in Postdoctoral Training
“Postdocs are the engine of innovation in biomedical research,” said Leslie Vosshall, Robin Chemers Neustein Professor, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, and director of the Kavli Neural Systems Institute at The Rockefeller University, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “We need to do better by them, provide more support, more financial support, and more intellectual freedom to allow them to blossom into the next generation [of leaders].”
The “backsliding” in postdoctoral training occurs when these early career scientists are treated more like a workforce that implements the vision of the PI rather than given the intellectual freedom to pursue their interests, said Vosshall. This approach generally does not lead to good mentoring, she said, and leaves the postdoctoral researcher unprepared for a future career. Nonetheless, said Vosshall, “I am optimistic that we can put the whole profession back on track by focusing more on quality mentoring and better outcomes for postdocs.”
The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) published a set of core competencies to help frame the postdoc experience,4 said Caleb McKinney, assistant professor in rehabilitation medicine and assistant dean of graduate and postdoctoral training and development for biomedical graduate education at the Georgetown University Medical Center, and a member of the Board of Directors for NPA. Surveying its community, NPA found that one of the main concerns of postdoctoral researchers was not having protected time to explore experiences and opportunities for career advancement. However, he said, “An elephant in the room is that that can be a direct conflict of interest to some of the productivity needs of their faculty mentors.” McKinney suggested that institutions establish parameters and policies
4 To learn more about the NPA Core Competencies, see https://www.nationalpostdoc.org/page/CoreCompetencies (accessed March 1, 2021).
for the postdoctoral experience to help negotiate that conflict in a way that ensures both faculty productivity and an equitable training environment for their trainees.
Additionally, the Postdoc Academy5 is a comprehensive resource that provides courses for skill development, said Adriana Bankston, principal legislative analyst in the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations.
Postdoctoral researchers also need to take control of their own career development, said Stephen Korn, director of the Office of Training and Workforce Development at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). This goes back to the importance of mentor–mentee communication that was discussed in the first session. Korn also emphasized that it is a two-way street. “The postdoc is providing things for the mentor and the mentor is providing things for the postdoc,” he said.
Fostering Research Independence Among Early Career Scientists
Bankston also serves as co-director of the Policy Taskforce at the Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization that provides evidence-based resources to support and empower early career scientists.6 FoR recently published a paper about the barriers these scientists face in establishing independent research programs and solutions it proposed (Singh et al., 2020). Among the most significant obstacles cited in the paper by early career researchers were (1) lack of agency in leading aspects of their own research programs, (2) lack of access to training opportunities such as grant writing, and (3) job insecurity and the resulting instability in their lives. Proposed solutions included grants that reward innovative early career independence, formalized curricula on topics such as grant writing, systems for evaluating mentors, and improved contracts to provide postdoctoral researchers with job security, said Bankston.
Stakeholders across the entire scientific ecosystem have roles to play in implementing these ideas, said Bankston. For example, she said institutions could provide more professional development programs for early career scientists; faculty should establish clear expectations and transparency in terms of how their labs are run; and funding agencies could provide incentives for innovative projects that reflect independent thinking.
NIH also has a role to play in fostering research independence among trainees, said Korn. For example, all of the specialized training mechanisms at NINDS require trainees to provide explicit evidence that they have some level of intellectual ownership of the research project. In addition, for all NINDS K awards the mentor must confirm in writing that the mentee owns the project and can take it to the next phase of their career, he said.
Developing a Roadmap for the Postdoctoral Experience
From the beginning of the training experience, McKinney suggested that trainees construct an iterative individual development plan to frame their career development goals, prepare for some of the experiences they will need to encounter during their training, and develop skills outside of their direct technical expertise that will enable them to run a lab or transfer their skills to industry. The individual development plan and consultations with mentors and career development professionals at their institution can help trainees keep track of their skill development and set new goals along the way, said McKinney.
Institutions may provide valuable resources to build into such plans. For example, McKinney and colleagues at Georgetown University, with funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, established a program to help postdocs develop important cross-sector experience that provides trainees with the skills needed for managing people and resolving conflicts. This project management training program—the Academy for Transferable Management Skills (ATMS) Course7—incorporates content and curricula developed by industry experts to also teach postdoctoral researchers how to manage projects using validated frameworks for managing budgets, setting scope goals, and more, said McKinney.
Bankston noted that in addition to these general skills that are applicable to both academic and non-academic careers, postdoctoral fellows should be provided with opportunities to talk about their science to non-scientific audiences including policy makers or the public.
Establishing Best Practices to Ensure Positive and Ethical Mentorship
Bankston mentioned that in 2019, FoR held a meeting with early career researchers, experienced researchers studying mentoring, academic administrators, and other stakeholders to discuss the state of mentoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and the steps institutions need to take to improve STEM mentoring (Ruiz et al., 2019). She noted that barriers to improving mentoring in academia include inadequate incentives, rewards,
7 To learn more about ATMS, see https://biomedicalprograms.georgetown.edu/academy-for-transferable-management-skills-atms-course (accessed March 8, 2021).
and metrics for examining what positive mentoring looks like. Some approaches that institutions have embraced to improve mentoring include establishing mentoring circles, having senior faculty mentor junior faculty, and helping postdocs choose the right mentors, she said.
Funders also have an important role to play in encouraging good mentorship, said Vosshall. “They have the carrot and the stick because research is so expensive,” which enables them to both reward good mentorship and punish poor mentorship, she said.
Funders can also incentivize good mentorship. For example, NINDS established the Landis mentoring award, said Korn. Mentors are nominated by their mentees and it has become a very sought-after award with an enormous number of applications in 2021, he said. NINDS also brings mentors together to discuss mentorship issues, which Korn hopes will benefit all mentors rather than singling out those with poorer mentorship skills. In addition, he is suggesting to all T32 PIs that they regularly convene training program faculty to discuss mentorship issues.
Vosshall added that postdoctoral researchers themselves play an important role in ensuring good mentorship. She said her current postdoctoral fellows did extensive due diligence before selecting her lab, calling fellows and former students to obtain an informed opinion and a sense of the culture in her lab. “[The current generation of scientists] has a sense that they are owed good mentorship,” she said. “This is a new and encouraging change in the culture of prospective postdocs, and they factor it strongly into their choice.” Indeed, she said, postdoctoral training is a marketplace where trainees can choose among many labs. She suggested there may be a self-correcting mechanism—if trainees choose good mentors over bad ones, perhaps bad mentoring would disappear. “I love the idea that prospective postdocs are in charge and can choose not to do business with poor mentors. In such a market economy, bad mentors would disappear,” she said. As noted by a few speakers in the first panel, having the opportunity to select from multiple labs with high-quality mentoring might be available to some but not all prospective postdoctoral researchers, depending on an array of factors including the environment, level of resources, and opportunities provided at their respective graduate programs. Several workshop participants noted that efforts to improve mentorship could only be done in conjunction with institutional and structural incentives and accountability measures.
Senior graduate students may also use a self-assessment framework designed at Georgetown University to help them navigate the postdoctoral search and generate questions to ask of potential mentors,8 added McKinney. Based on lessons from the book The Postdoc Landscape: The Invisible Scholars (Jaeger and Dinin, 2017), the worksheet can also help current postdoctoral researchers with misaligned mentorship or conflict with their mentors to reassess their expectations and needs in preparation for possibly uncomfortable conversations, said McKinney.
Empowering Postdoctoral Researchers to Pursue Important Scientific Questions Through Collaborations
Collaborative science projects offer potential new models that could transform postdoctoral training. For example, Korn proposed a group mentoring model, in which a postdoctoral researcher works not for a single primary mentor but with a group of faculty working on similar, but distinct projects to answer big, important scientific questions. This model, for which there are a few successful examples, could enable postdoctoral researchers to choose their own projects based on interest, said Korn. He acknowledged the challenges of running such an operation in the context of how faculty are incentivized to fund their research through R01s. Encouraging faculty to change their approach and pursue bigger science projects could enable postdoctoral researchers to work in collaborative environments, said Korn.
Another model for team science is exemplified by the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative,9 through which U19 grants (Research Program Cooperative Agreements) provide funding for projects that are bigger than a single faculty member could manage, said Korn.
McKinney opined that the team science concept is important for postdoctoral researchers to incorporate into their training especially if they are looking to move into industry, where team science is more common than it can be in academia. Being able to work effectively on teams of scientists with different perspectives and expertise—and leveraging those differences to achieve scientific goals—is important in industry, he said, and developing those cross-sector skills during the postdoc is invaluable.
Making the Transition from Postdoctoral Researcher to Faculty
Evidence of productivity is critical for all early career scientists, including postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty, said Bankston. She suggested that several papers published in smaller, lower impact journals may better demonstrate
8 The self-assessment framework is available at https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/sh506fp03dima0d9niqea9vk44mqai2r (accessed March 8, 2021).
progress in a research program than would a single high-impact publication. Indeed, Korn said that in a study examining what institutions value most in potential new faculty, “quite a number of the people we interviewed said they preferred postdoctoral researchers with a steady stream of important work that shows they can complete a project, start another new project, and do something really interesting rather than spending many years on a big splash project.” Moreover, around 60 percent of newly hired faculty had not been a first author on a paper in a high-impact journal. “You absolutely do not need these things to get a faculty position,” said Korn. “What you need are good ideas, you need to be a good scientist, and you need to be well trained.”
The study also debunked the myth that to get a faculty position a postdoctoral researcher must have been awarded a K99, said Korn. “Considerably less than 10 percent of people hired in faculty positions had a K99,” he said, and over the 10-year period studied, 60 percent had no funding. “What the hirers said is we do not need them to have funding. We can teach them how to get grants. We need them to have good ideas and vision for the research.”
Vosshall concurred with the findings of Korn’s study. Junior faculty at some research institutions in the United States are offered lab start-up budget of $1 million plus construction costs for their space, she said. “An institution would be crazy to base [such expensive hiring] decisions on a single paper [published in a given journal]. At Rockefeller, we look for people who have great ideas, who have done inspiring science, who will continue to do science of this high quality for the next 10 years or more.”
One factor that is important, she said, is having good interviewing skills and knowing how to give a “chalk talk” in which prospective trainees present their research programs and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet. “This is the number one most important thing that postdocs need to know how to do [to get a tenure-track faculty position] and it is the last thing that they learn how to do,” said Vosshall. McKinney added that at Georgetown University, junior faculty deliver mock chalk talks to postdoctoral researchers so that postdoctoral researchers can learn from successful faculty hires who have the interview experience fresh in their mind.
Transitioning to Non-Faculty Careers
Not every trainee will go on to a faculty position. “We stress, and believe at NIH, that there are no second-class jobs,” said Korn. In its training grant funding opportunity announcements, NINDS and other institutes instruct reviewers that any good job that uses the training received is a wonderful outcome, he said. In 2013, NIH announced a new program called “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training” (BEST) awards.10 These awards support the creation of programs that educate trainees about a broad range of career options. “The goal ultimately was not only to educate trainees, but also to change culture so that faculty members do not think there are good and bad outcomes to their training in terms of careers. Your job is to train them well and to be a good scientist. And then they get to do what they want for their career,” said Korn.
Allowing postdoctoral researchers to attend events that showcase different career options can be valuable and help them enrich their professional development, said Bankston. Training postdoctoral researchers to talk about their research outside of academia is also important, she noted. For example, she translates university research to policy makers, showcasing the importance of research findings for policy makers on Capitol Hill. Advocating for research from the bench is especially valuable because it broadens the perspective of scientists and provides expertise, which policy makers can use to make decisions, she said.
Spurring Change During Challenging Times
As was mentioned frequently throughout the workshop, being a postdoctoral researcher can be challenging and stressful. Mason advocated a more active approach. “My advice to postdocs and trainees is that if your institution lacks some of the [support mechanisms] you need, [for example, professional skills training] get together and lobby for them,” she said. In addition to emphasizing the responsibilities of institutions, Vosshall also agreed that collective action can be effective. “[Postdocs] are not asking for much,” said Vosshall. “They are asking for respect. That is where you start.” ◆◆◆
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Jaeger, A., and A. J. Dinin, eds. 2017. The postdoc landscape: The invisible scholars. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
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Singh, H., A. Bankston, and G. McDowell. 2020. Training transitions: From research dependence to independence. Open Science Framework. https://osf.io/qg2e4 (accessed February 23, 2021).
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Lisa Bain, Sheena M. Posey Norris, and Clare Stroud as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteurs or individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Brielle Ferguson, Stanford University; Caleb McKinney, Georgetown University; and Ubadah Sabbagh, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Leslie Sim, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, served as the review coordinator.
SPONSORS: This workshop was partially supported by contracts between the National Academy of Sciences and the Alzheimer’s Association; Cohen Veterans Bioscience; Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (1R13FD005362-06) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) (75N98019F00469 [Under Master Base HHSN263201800029I]) through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Eye Institute, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute on Aging, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, and NIH BRAIN Initiative; Department of Veterans Affairs (36C24E20C0009); Eisai Inc.; Eli Lilly and Company; Foundation for the National Institutes of Health; Gatsby Charitable Foundation; Janssen Research & Development, LLC; Lundbeck Research USA; Merck Research Laboratories; The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research; National Multiple Sclerosis Society; National Science Foundation (DBI-1839674); One Mind; Sanofi; Society for Neuroscience; Takeda Pharmaceuticals International, Inc.; and Wellcome Trust. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
For additional information regarding the workshop, visit https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/02-16-2021/reenvisioning-postdoctoral-training-in-neuroscience-a-virtual-workshop.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Re-envisioning postdoctoral training in neuroscience: Proceedings of a workshop—in brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26169.
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