Faculty network gives postdoctoral fellows needed support
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The pathway to higher education eventually culminates in advanced degrees, giving students the opportunity to work in a field they’ve spent the majority of their lives studying.
Many look to postdoctoral fellowships as a transition between school and the job market. But in the past, these “postdocs” often have been left to their own devices, missing out on opportunities to hone their marketable skills, socialize, and share their research among fellow researchers.
Enter Dr. Lique Coolen, a professor of physiology, neurobiology and anatomical sciences, who wanted to give the some-100 postdoctoral fellows at the University of Mississippi Medical Center the opportunity to grow in their fields.
Coolen oversees the Office of Postdoctoral Studies in her role as an associate dean in the School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences. The office serves as a safety network of support for postdoctoral fellows who come from across the globe to further their research at UMMC.
“Postdocs are very different from graduate students,” said Coolen. “When graduate students come here to campus, they are recruited into graduate programs and stay in those programs for typically five years.
“Postdocs are totally different,” she said. “They typically come from other universities to do two or three years of additional research training. They are no longer students. They are employees.”
Coolen said postdoctoral fellows at UMMC work with a specific research mentor on their journey to the next stage of their career. It’s their final stage of training to become an independent faculty member.
“The postdocs were very much by themselves in the laboratories, sometimes isolated and sometimes not,” explained Coolen. “They historically kind of fell between the cracks.”
After years of working toward a doctorate, these researchers are suddenly existing in a world without advisory committees or structured mentorship. “Yet, they are expected to, within a very short time, move into independent research positions,” Coolen said.
Through the work of the Office of Postdoctoral Studies, these fellows can attend monthly workshops and annual research days to hone their presentation skills or to hear from people who have taken alternative career routes after completing advanced degrees.
Dr. Krishna Vallabhaneni, a postdoctoral fellow at the UMMC Cancer Institute, began his fellowship before the postdoctoral office was created.
“Once Dr. Coolen started it up, there’s been a lot of differences I can see,” said Vallabhaneni, in the second year of his fellowship.
Among the biggest benefits for Vallabhaneni were the connections he’s been able to make with other departments.
And the help with professional speaking, specifically limiting an initial research pitch to five minutes or less, has been crucial in his career path, said Vallabhaneni.
“Researchers … You know we take a lot of time to explain anything,” he joked. “But having to limit the speech to five minutes helped me be more concise with my thoughts, and helped me make the presentation crisp.”
Dr. Ana Palei, an instructor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, came to UMMC nearly four years ago as a postdoctoral fellow.
Palei said she relied mainly on her mentors to help her develop professional skills required for job searches. “But now, we have more opportunities to get training in career development, responsible conduct of research, speaking, teaching, networking and business,” said Palei.
Coolen said one of the opportunities from the office is a competition for fellowships to receive business training courses through Millsaps College.
“This past fall, two of our postdocs received full fellowships for the business training course,” she said. “We are trying to create different opportunities and advanced training for the postdocs that they otherwise would not receive.”
Coolen has also opened her own home to postdoctoral fellows so that they can socialize and reach across different departmental divides.
“Dr. Coolen has started having postdoctoral appreciation week, and we all gather for a dinner at her house,” said Dr. Denise Cornelius, a postdoctoral research fellow in pharmacology and toxicology.
“It was there I’ve connected with postdocs in biochemistry and the Cancer Institute,” Cornelius said. “Our research doesn’t overlap, so this gives us the chance to learn from each other’s work and form relationships, those networks that are important to have in your career.
“We can have that connection with these people, not only all over the country, but all over the world,” Cornelius said.
Coolen is the first to point out the Office of Postdoctoral Studies isn’t a one-person show, but instead is aided by the Postdoctoral Advisory Committee, of which Vallabhaneni, Palei and Cornelius are all members, together with Dr. Sally Huskinson, an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry. Also serving are Dr. Alejandro Chade, associate professor of physiology and biophysics; and Dr. Jennifer Sasser, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.
“I have had the chance to interact with postdocs throughout the campus and bring their concerns and suggestions up for discussion in our meetings,” said Palei.
“For instance, it was challenging for an international postdoc to understand and meet all the visa requirements to work and study in the U.S.,” she said. “The office, together with the Office for International Services, also tries to help postdocs understand the retirement plan, health insurance and tax issues.”
Coolen helps potential candidates understand the hiring and application process. “I’m an advocate for the postdocs,” she said. “If they have issues, I am there to help them out.”