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Helping Postdocs Find Their Way at Harvard Medical School

A Q&A with James Gould of the Office for Postdoctoral Fellows.

Postdoctoral training is challenging for a lot of reasons. Fortunately, the roughly 800 postdoctoral fellows on the Harvard Medical School campus and 4,000 postdocs at HMS-affiliated hospitals have access to resources through the HMS/Harvard School of Dental Medicine Office for Postdoctoral Fellows.

As part of that, fellows can get help from the person who literally wrote the book on how postdocs can make the most of this time in their careers: Jim Gould, director for postdoctoral affairs at HMS since 2011.

In a conversation with Harvard Medicine News, Gould discussed the services his office provides, the challenges postdocs face today, and how his own experience as a postdoc helps him support and advise fellows.

Harvard Medicine News: How does your office assist people who are working as—or seeking to work as—postdoctoral fellows at HMS, either on campus or in our affiliated hospitals?

Gould: For postdocs and administrators, our office is a nexus. It’s a connector, a node of contacts and information. When people have questions, they can ask program coordinator Michaela Tally or me. We advise on subjects such as career development, compensation, and mentoring best practices. If we don’t have the information, we refer them to other experts.

“Our office is a nexus. It’s a connector, a node of contacts and information.”

Part of what we do is serve as the career center for postdocs. We accumulate a robust list of quad and non-quad job opportunities. Michaela does a fantastic job of keeping our website updated with curriculum, research, funding, and career information along with work/life and other support resources.

We reach out to all postdocs at least twice a week via email with upcoming events, announcements, job information, and anything relevant and specific to postdocs at HMS. When postdocs get their appointment at HMS, we provide orientation and partner with the HMS Center for Bioethics to run the only required course for postdocs, Responsible Conduct of Research.

We also focus on building community. We offer somewhere between 100 and 150 events each year that provide opportunities for postdocs to meet each other, because they are joining this 5,000-strong community and they might not otherwise have reason or occasion to meet people outside their department. There are also two postdoc associations, the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association and the HMS Black Postdoctoral Association, that are very active and do a great job of building community.

We’re proud to have such an active and supportive postdoc community. It’s a strength that helps us attract the best postdocs to HMS.

HM News: Can you share some examples of how postdocs have successfully worked with your office to make the most of their research experience and careers?

Gould: Recently a postdoc found out they had six months left on their fellowship and signed up for my office hours, which I offer five days a week. I was able to do some myth-busting for them and advise on professional expectations for offboarding. Just this morning, they made another appointment and I helped them figure out what to do now that they have a job offer. It’s great to help people who have a specific burning issue that they can’t just google, like how much notice should they give.

We do a postdoc coffeehouse in our office once a month for everyone on our email list. We have had postdocs meet for the first time there, sit down with coffee and pastries, and form a company.

The coffeehouse is one of the few things we do in person these days. Most of our workshops are still virtual, mostly because that makes them a bit more equitable for people who would have to travel to campus, especially from the further satellite affiliates like the Charlestown Navy Yard or McLean Hospital in Belmont.

HM News: What are the biggest challenges postdocs face these days?

Gould: The biggest challenge is figuring out what the next career step is – academia, industry, a position like mine in administration, or research adjacent and then how to actually transition to it. Postdocs need to develop their skills and values, get materials together, network, and build a reputation. They have to grapple with this being a temporary position. Many have moved across the country or the world to do their postdoc here and they will likely move again after it.

A bit more granularly, challenges include childcare and growing a family. They include pay and cost of living in Boston. They involve balancing the effort required or expected to do research with giving time to be happy and grow in life as well. There is this struggle between life and lab. There’s the expectation of training to run a lab, getting funding, and publishing on top of all that. There are still career-related and personal repercussions from the pandemic. It is all interconnected.

“The biggest challenge is figuring out what the next career step is – academia, industry, a position like mine in administration, or research adjacent and then how to actually transition to it.”

HM News: How do you use your own experience to help postdocs at Harvard and beyond?

Gould: I was a PhD student and a postdoc, so I have a lot of specific experiences to share along with the general practical advice. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of frame-shifting and cheerleading to let postdocs know things are okay. Sometimes I share some of my failures to help them realize failure is okay — and that basically the whole point of science is to fail; to prove the null hypothesis. I tell them all the time that getting new information is a miracle and what they do every day is miraculous.

I shared my story in a book I wrote about the life cycle of the postdoc. I wanted to illuminate some of the darkness and ambiguity around getting a postdoc.

In the middle of my postdoc, I had a rock-bottom feeling of being out of place, not knowing what was going on. Other postdocs may encounter burnout or bullying or both and end up just sort of going through the motions. So in the introduction of the book I told my story of overcoming my mistakes and indecision.

I failed my first qualifying exam as a PhD student. I had to take remedial classes in my third year. I feel like I’ve made every mistake, and I tell people that hopefully the mistakes they make won’t be the ones I made; that they make new and more interesting mistakes.

Eventually I realized the importance of building a team around you, asking for help, understanding there is a path out there for you, and moving through the process. As my postdoc taught me, I can now teach others how important it is to connect with people and make sure you’re not isolated as a trainee. I learned the significance of exiting as gracefully as possible and landing a position that satisfies your skills, interests, and values as well as your needs.

HM News: What more do you think should be done to enhance postdoctoral training in biomedical research?

Gould: I think that while those involved in shaping postdoctoral training at HMS and across the country are making progress, they can do more to consider not just research excellence but also postdocs’ experiences beyond the lab. Another thing I think we can do even more of is diversifying our applicant pool and having more inclusive hiring practices.

Postdocs also need differing levels of mentor engagement at different times during their training, and many faculty need support in meeting those needs, so HMS is moving toward a model of training faculty in mentorship and personnel management, although this is voluntary at the moment.

Finally, there should be development of potential career tracks within postdoc training. I’d like to see a bit more open-mindedness and transparency about what PhD students and postdocs can go on to do in their career development.

HM News: What is the one thing you want postdocs to know?

Gould: They are not alone in their research progress, professional development, or career advancement. My office exists for them. If I or my staff can’t help them, we will find someone who can.

Gould is the author of Making the Most of the Postdoc: Strategically Advancing Your Early Career. 

Originally published in Harvard Medical School News.

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