Resources and support highlight postdoctoral community
For many postdoctoral associates, the experience begins a whole new academic adventure.
"In a postdoc role, it can be challenging to multitask and juggle between many new responsibilities,” said Priyanka Sinha, a postdoc with a research focus on cybersecurity.
Luckily, Virginia Tech’s Office for Postdoctoral Affairs specializes in assisting postdocs navigate this transition from student to professional at the university.
“Just having that community to help you through the learning curve and navigate adjusting your life so you can do your best professionally and personally is super beneficial,” Sinha said.
The creation of such a supportive environment was at the core of Chris Smith’s mission when he was hired to establish the office, which is housed in the Office for Research and Innovation, in early 2022.
“We want to help individuals leverage the resources around them to really take ownership of their careers,” said Smith, the postdoctoral affairs program administrator. “We want to give them agency to build skills, make this a value-added experience, and hopefully also give them the sense they are more than just their research.”
The work done during that past year to achieve that goal, as well as the vision and strategic plan for the future, will be shared during a Postdoctoral Affairs Town Hall on April 10 from 3-4 p.m. Postdocs, faculty, and administrators are encouraged to RSVP for either the in-person session in 310 Kelly Hall or the virtual option.
Currently, Virginia Tech has more than 200 postdocs, each of which is encouraged to share the experience via an annual Postdoc Climate Survey. The 2023 version of the survey launched in early April.
With a goal of growing the university’s reputation as a top-tier destination for postdoc talent, two themes of Smith’s work have been engagement and information. His earliest actions to cultivate relevant resources for both included the establishment of a diverse Postdoctoral Affairs Advisory Board, networking with the postdoc-run Virginia Tech Postdoctoral Association, and hosting a variety of town halls, both in person and online in spring 2022.
“From the beginning, I really wanted get the word out that we have a vision for what we’re trying to do and that includes listening and responding,” Smith said.
Part of that response included the curation of training experiences and workshops. From grant writing and portfolio planning to navigating the job market and the value of important transferrable skills, the workshops aim to connect individuals with resources that exist both through Virginia Tech and other organizations, such as the National Postdoctoral Association.
“We know that postdocs are extremely busy, so we want to make it as easy possible to engage with a wide variety of opportunities to round out their experience at Virginia Tech,” Smith said.
Mychele Batista da Silva, a postdoc researcher at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Suffolk, said she found the career development courses very helpful and especially appreciated them being available online.
“It was very valuable to me,” said Batista da Silva, who is researching plant diseases. “It can help when you’re doing your resume and how to best prepare to apply for a job. If you have just a little bit of that knowledge that can really help you build your research career and your research program in the future.”
The professional development has also been helpful to fellow postdoc Mars Mason, but the personal connections he’s made have been his favorite part of the community.
“Most importantly to myself, I have made friends,” said Mason, who is researching theoretical chemistry. “Isolation is heavy. I've already found more of a home here than I did in five years of grad school, and that is a direct consequence of the programs and services that exist here for postdocs.”
Along with opportunities for engagement and information, Virginia Tech is also helping to bolster the support for postdocs. This includes the Postdoc Travel Award program, which launched in January to help defray travels costs for those presenting research and scholarship at upcoming scientific meetings and conferences.
The university also is working to support the recruitment of postdoctoral talent to the institution through the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Launched in spring 2022, the fellowship provides a two-year appointment with nationally competitive salaries and benefits and $10,000 for training and professional development expenses. The university welcomed its first cohort in late 2022 and early 2023.
Sinha said she first learned about the fellowship when she reached out to Walid Saad, a Virginia Tech researcher with whom she’d long wanted to work. Saad is an electrical and computer engineering professor and the Wireless Next-G faculty lead at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia.
“I really wanted to do my postdoc with someone I admire, so I reached out to Walid,” Sinha said. “He thought very highly of the fellowship and said it had the added advantage of having a lot of benefits through the postdoc community, such as workshops about research and writing grants, as well as Chris [Smith] being there to give you advice.”
Just a few months into her fellowship, Sinha said she’s already seeing the benefits of the support and access to information that have come from connecting with the postdoc community.
“Just being informed and knowing the resources is half the game,” she said. “This community is great in terms of that.”
Sinha said she would strongly encourage other postdocs to tap into the benefits available through the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.
“Being alone is a disadvantage,” Sinha said. “When you have a community of somewhat like-minded people that are working toward the same thing, you should really take advantage of that.”