March 5, 2004

Postdocs vote Vanderbilt among best places to work

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Postdocs vote Vanderbilt among best places to work

One of the most important hidden assets of Vanderbilt’s biomedical research programs is its postdoctoral researchers. They they are the minds and bodies behind a large portion of the medical center’s research. Vanderbilt has worked to make postdocs feel more like part of the family, and a recent survey proves these efforts have been successful.

Vanderbilt was the second highest ranked medical school and the Medical Center was 14th in The Scientist’s annual survey, “Best Places for Postdocs.” More than 3,000 postdoctoral researchers ranked the most important working conditions and environments, and then sized up their workplace based on these standards. “This survey shows that we’ve been on the right track the past five to six years,” said Roger Chalkley, D. Phil., senior associate dean of Biomedical Research Education and Training, who heads up Postdoctoral Affairs. “We’ve been addressing what postdocs need and providing support for those needs.”

“The ranking of our postdoctoral program in The Scientist is a tribute to Roger’s efforts and public acknowledgement of what he has done to create not only a superb training environment for our postdoctoral students, but a climate that supports their needs outside the lab,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine.

Those surveyed agreed that needs outside the lab were important, putting comprehensive resource materials at the top of their list of needs.

“With the enormous amount of science published today and the busy schedules of postdocs, staying current with the literature is a major challenge,” said Jerod Denton, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow and co-chair of Vanderbilt’s Postdoctoral Association. “Online access to Vanderbilt’s comprehensive collection of science journals allows me to keep up with the literature without having to leave my PC. This is a great and necessary timesaver.”

Scientific career preparation, high quality research tools, smooth communication in the lab and quality research followed in importance. Having supportive colleagues was also essential.

Wrapping up the top 10 criteria of a good work environment are: well-maintained buildings, scientific mentoring from principle investigators, lab technical support and university services.

Vanderbilt postdocs can rely on Susan McMillen, administrative manager for Postdoctoral Affairs, and Melanie Coey, program coordinator for Postdoctoral Affairs, to help them with their service needs. McMillen’s been the heart of Postdoctoral Affairs since it opened.

“I have at least one postdoc in here every day,” she said.

McMillen answers questions about “health insurance, benefits, housing, transportation, or any other aspect of living in Nashville and working at Vanderbilt. Additionally, Coey meets with each new postdoc during their first 24 hours on campus.

“The postdoctoral office has been a wonderful resource of information, as well as administrative support for the postdoctoral fellows at Vanderbilt. The office is very involved in helping new fellows fit into the Vanderbilt community,” said Brenda Irvin, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow and co-chair of Vanderbilt’s Postdoctoral Association.

The office first began getting a handle on the situation by simply creating a database; tracking what labs they were in and for how long. They also created a web page to provide answers to questions postdocs may have.

“Before this, it was up to the labs to give information to the postdocs. If the lab didn’t know, oftentimes the postdoc didn’t receive help,” Chalkley said. “Now the labs and the postdocs have resources available to them.”

Even more, the office has added English as second language classes, to help those with language barriers.

“Our postdocs come from all over the world,” Chalkley said. “Of the 425 on the research side of the School of Medicine, only 180 are U.S. citizens.”

The office also understood the need to have visa information readily available.

“We want to make it easy for researchers to stay, and to provide an environment in which they can hone their skills and make significant contributions to the research community,” Chalkley said.

“Vanderbilt has done a superior job of establishing a critical mass of outstanding scientists, investing in core facilities and instituting interdepartmental programs that promote interaction among expert scientists in diverse fields,” Denton said. “With these resources, I’ve experienced very few barriers to doing the best possible science.”

Vanderbilt University Medical Center postdoctoral researchers published 5,918 papers over the past 10 years, which were cited an average of 25 times each.