Professionalizing the Postdoc through FIMMPOD

The postdoctoral research period is one rich in scientific growth and discovery. Moving from a PhD student position into postdoctoral research is a time filled with excitement and anticipation (and usually a higher salary), but is there a downside?

What happens when you Google “postdoc”?  Aside from the basic definition of a postdoctoral researcher, you also find precarious sounding article titles: 

·         “The future of the postdoc” (Kendall Powell, April 7, 2015, Nature News & Comment)

·         “The Postdoc:  A Special Kind of Hell” (Adam Ruben, November 21, 2013, Science Careers)

·         “The postdoc experience:  hopes and fears” (July 2, 2015, Times Higher Education)

·         “The Postdoc Survival Guide” (2014, New Scientist Jobs)

·         “The postdoc problem” (Keith Micoli, August 31, 2015, Chemistry World)

 

The concerns highlighted in these articles are numerous and encompass career progression, job opportunities and security, funding, mentoring, training and support for researchers embarking on independent careers.  With these concerns at the forefront, the postdoctoral research experience has been under intense discussion and scrutiny for the last 10-15 years, worldwide.  As research funding has decreased, it has become more and more difficult for postdoctoral researchers to move into independent research careers in academia.  In addition, the preferences for high-level careers of various types has widened immensely. 

The issues surrounding postdoctoral researchers can be generalized into how to 1) keep postdocs competitive for their best career options and 2) professionalize the postdoc experience.  Keeping postdocs competitive translates into training postdocs appropriately both for success in their current position as well as for the career they wish to pursue.  Today, more than ever, it is essential to gain the right transferrable skills during the postdoc period.  The need to professionalize the postdoc period arises out of heterogeneity in experiences.  These two factors have resulted in the development of postdoc programs throughout the United States and central Europe.  While there are currently postdoc training programs, and a number of self-organized postdoctoral associations, at many major research universities and institutes in the US and central Europe, in Finland there is a lack of programmatic guidance and support for postdoctoral and senior researchers to develop the skills they need to undertake independent careers. 

In late 2013, on the advice of FIMM’s Scientific Advisory Board and in light of the institute’s research direction in collaborative and translational projects, such as personalized medicine, we set out to map the need for such a postdoctoral training program at FIMM.  To this end, we designed and executed a survey of postdoctoral and senior researchers, as well as PhD-degree holding coordinator staff, at the institute.  The results of the survey gave an array of findings ranging from detailed requests for events and specific training to determination of the goals of the program.  In addition, the survey results indicated a variety of interests in career paths.  While 40% of the respondents indicated an interest in an independent academic research career, many of the other career areas received a higher number of votes.  In particular, career options of “senior-level research position other than group leader in an academic or industrial setting”, as well as “coordinator in a research community”, scored the highest in the poll.  These positions are likely to involve dynamic and multidisciplinary projects, often with an international component, and require a professional with diverse skills.  Of note, the FIMM community of researchers is diverse in research background, gender, and nationality, thus is likely to represent the sentiments of similarly trained persons working outside of FIMM or currently unemployed.  

We developed FIMMPOD, a professional development program for postdocs, senior researchers and coordinators within the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) to address the documented concerns of the postdoctoral period, the outcomes of our initial survey, a growth in multidisciplinary, collaborative translational research at FIMM, and a desire to keep our researchers competitive for their best career options. FIMMPOD aims to enhance research experiences and career opportunities by organizing and providing training and activities for the postdoctoral and senior researcher community at FIMM, supporting this community of researchers as well as the group leaders.  A unique effort in postdoctoral development and training in Finland, FIMMPOD has five core aims:

  • To organize and formalize the postdoc and senior researcher community at FIMM.  Empowered workers are the most productive, and giving this community a voice to express their needs is one of the most important goals of the FIMMPOD program.  Thus, FIMMPOD surveys the postdoc and senior researcher community regularly on the goals and activities and seeks advice and guidance not only from the FIMMPOD community, but also from group leaders, institute administration and director, and external experts. 
  • To provide opportunities for career development, training and guidance.  To succeed as a postdoctoral researcher, as well as to be highly competitive for the next career step, postdocs should be proactive in developing skills in a range of areas. Specifically, FIMMPOD focuses on training for success in collaborative projects through courses, for example, in project management, teamwork, organizational behavior, negotiation and leadership.  In a strong effort to improve both knowledge of different career paths and employment opportunities, we regularly provide the FIMMPOD community with exposure to professionals from a wide variety of careers.
  • To increase and enhance scientific and career mentoring.  The commonly quoted “postdoc phenotype” is one of running in circles without clear research, career and future orientation.  This phenotype is one of the biggest contributors to unemployment and lack of motivation at work.  By increasing and enhancing individual research and career mentoring, as has been done for postdocs at high level research organizations such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, EMBL, postdocs are much more likely to gain a clear focus on their research and career tracks, and thus pursue their work in a positive and highly motivated manner.  To this end, we have implemented a 2nd Mentor Program as part of FIMMPOD. 
  • To build community, awareness and networking opportunities.  Networking is one of the most talked about skills that researchers know they need to develop.  Especially in highly collaborative and multidisciplinary areas, scientists must expand their networks.  The first step is learning how. Thus, we encourage, design and provide opportunities for both internal and external networking, for example, through activities such as FIMM Meets Pharma, external site visits, mentoring, and community social events. 
  • To ease the path of postdoc recruitment.  One of the biggest challenges in building an effective research team is getting the right people.  Group and team leaders often struggle to find the best match for their projects.  On the other hand, for the pool of highly qualified postdoc candidates it can be a daunting task to find the right team in which to launch a career.  Thus, based on feedback from group leaders, FIMMPOD has a targeted and intentional recruitment strategy.   Recruitment of postdoctoral and senior researchers to FIMM occurs annually through the FIMMPOD Annual Call in October and FIMMPOD Call for Expressions of Interest in April, or on an individual basis by group leader, if needed.  Postdoctoral researchers can also be selected to a FIMM group through the EMBL EI3POD program, in which FIMM group leaders can partner with EMBL group leaders.  These internationally advertised calls raise the visibility of the research groups and institute. 

“I have been very pleased with these calls, since they make the recruitment effort much easier for a PI, and also improve significantly the visibility of the call, compared to having my own call open,” says Tero Aittokallio, FIMM-EMBL Group Leader, Professor. 

 

In addition to the facilitated selection process, one of the benefits of joint recruitment of postdocs and senior researchers is that it is easy to ensure an efficient and smooth introduction to FIMM and the University of Helsinki and get help in practical relocation arrangements.  Newly recruited postdoctoral and senior researchers are enrolled in the FIMMPOD program upon joining FIMM. 

As the key concepts of the program, these five core aims above provide the framework for new activities. When met, these objectives result in 1) improvement of the quality and quantity of training available, 2) unique opportunities to sharpen skills and define career paths, 3) facilitation of networking in a variety of sectors, 4) mentoring in research and careers, 5) a supportive community of colleagues and empowerment through a unifying voice and camaraderie, and 6) visibility of the institute and research areas.  

FIMMPOD kicked off in 2014 and has since received exceptionally positive feedback from the postdoctoral and senior researcher and coordinator community, group leaders, administration, and Scientific Advisory Board at FIMM.  Anonymous feedback on FIMMPOD goals and activities was collected from the FIMMPOD community by survey in May 2015.  The overwhelmingly positive feedback underscores the importance of attention to career development and mentoring.  A selection of quotes from the feedback is provided below.

I have gained more self-confidence since the speakers have made me understand that my expertise and knowledge are valued and I could actually work in many positions that I hadn't even considered before. Anonymous feedback survey, May 2015

The writing workshop was very helpful and I'm positive that so will the project management course be. [These] events help people get to know each other personally, which makes work communication & collaborations much easier.  Anonymous feedback survey, May 2015

This is a very much needed initiative which gives senior researchers and postdocs the feeling that they are valued and motivates them. It also improves the chances of senior researchers to be employed outside of academia and to understand their own strengths.  Anonymous feedback survey, May 2015

FIMMPOD definitely seems to provide a unique environment for people at the postdoc level and up -- helping expand out-of-the-box kind of professional network & knowledge, in a friendly and social setting.  Anonymous feedback survey, May 2015

It is an excellent program - wonderful that FIMM sees the career development and well-being of seniors, postdocs and coordinators as something to invest in.  Anonymous feedback survey, May 2015

 

Based on the positive feedback and institute support, we aim for FIMMPOD to continue to develop and evolve as the needs of the community at FIMM evolve.  Translational research, and personalized medicine, in particular, are changing the way healthcare and medical research are conducted.  With the nature of these new research areas being highly collaborative and multidisciplinary, we need a new type of highly-skilled professional who can succeed in the highly dynamic and multidisciplinary environment created by translational research programs.  Even the best-trained, most successful doctoral candidate can struggle upon transition to this kind of research environment.  The postdoctoral researcher who will succeed in a collaborative research realm is one who has strong scientific expertise as well as pinpointed training in range of soft and transferrable skills as well as new technical and scientific areas that stretch beyond their doctoral training or prior research expertise.  While the research programs themselves will provide the training in new scientific expertise, structured soft, transferrable, and technical skills training program in the context of the highly important and influential research area of personalized medicine is essential.  In short, it is not enough to have the funding and facilities to do the research.  It is also essential to have the resources to train the next generation of independent professionals to work within this highly dynamic and collaborative arena set forth by key national players, such as the TEM, Academy of Finland, and Tekes as a main strategy for Finland to be on the global leading edge of personalized medicine research and implementation.

 

Information about the FIMMPOD Professional Development Program for Postdocs and Senior Researchers can be found on the FIMMPOD webpages:  https://www.fimm.fi/en/training/fimmpod.

FIMMPOD, Career development, Training, Mentoring, Recruitment
Last updated: 14.06.2016 - 14:33

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