March 3, 2006

Survey touts VU’s postdoc programs

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Survey touts VU’s postdoc programs

Vanderbilt University is one of the Best Places to Work for Postdocs, according to a survey published in the March issue of The Scientist, a magazine for life science professionals.

Vanderbilt ranked 15th among institutions in North America, up 13 spots compared to 2005.

“Improving the postdoctoral research experience at Vanderbilt has been a priority, and this survey shows that we're on the right track,” said Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training.

Under Chalkley's leadership, Vanderbilt established the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, which “offers a careful accounting of all the postdocs and gives a personal one-on-one orientation to each new postdoc who arrives on campus,” Chalkley said.

The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs negotiated medical insurance coverage for all trainees, acts as a counselor to postdocs and mentors if there is conflict, and advises on postdoc training grant submission. The office also established a clinical psychologist position to advise postdocs on time management, personal interactions, family issues, depression and other issues.

This office, along with an established Postdoctoral Association, chaired by postdoctoral fellows Amy C. Moore, Ph.D., and Shane R. Cunha, Ph.D., is part of Vanderbilt's strength in creating a valuable postdoc experience, Moore said.

“Many institutions across the country either have no postdoctoral association, or are still in the beginning stages of creating their own associations, and in this respect, Vanderbilt is a leader,” Moore said.

The Scientist posted a Web-based questionnaire and invited its readers who identified themselves as non-tenured life scientists working in academia or other non-commercial research organizations to respond.

Survey respondents were asked to assess their working conditions and environments by indicating their level of agreement with 46 criteria in 11 different areas including quality of training and mentoring, career development opportunities, quality of facilities and infrastructure, and value of the postdoctoral experience.

Vanderbilt scored an overall 3.94 out of a possible 5, which ranks in the 87th percentile. Last year's overall score was 3.81 and in the 78th percentile.

Vanderbilt's strengths, based on the percentile rankings, were in the categories of funding, which included criteria related to access to training grants, travel grants and other independent postdoctoral research funding, and career development opportunities.

These strengths make sense, Moore said. She noted that Vanderbilt has recently established the Office of Career Development and Outcomes Analysis, headed by Kim Petrie, Ph.D., to assist postdoctoral fellows in multiple aspects of career development.

A career opportunities symposium this week is one facet of the office's efforts.

Categories considered Vanderbilt's weaknesses were equity, which included statements related to discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and country of origin, and quality of training and mentoring.

The Postdoctoral Association, with the support of Chalkley and Ann Richmond, Ph.D., assistant dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training, is working to open the lines of communication between postdocs and their mentors by having postdocs create an Individual Development Plan (IDP).

This document, a recommendation of the National Postdoctoral Association, would be drafted by the postdoc to outline the goals and expectations for the postdoc's tenure at Vanderbilt.

“Ideally, an IDP will make the mentor/mentee relationship as productive as possible for both parties,” Moore said. “We are committed to making changes so that Vanderbilt continues to shine and even to rise in the rankings.”

The Scientist invited more than 40,000 individual readers to complete the survey. From 2,983 usable responses, the magazine identified 114 North American institutions and 37 institutions from elsewhere with four or more responses. Vanderbilt had 80 respondents. The magazine ranked the top 35 institutions in and outside North America.

Now in its 20th year, The Scientist is a monthly magazine offering information on research, technology, careers and biobusiness. It is available online at