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Jenny Baker
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Experts Insights on I-O’s Best-Kept Career Secret: A Two-Part Reflection on Postdoctoral Work

Chelsea LeNoble, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Danielle Wald, Baruch College & The Graduate Center, CUNY; & Dana C. Verhoeven, National Cancer Institute

The U.S. scientific enterprise has become increasingly dependent upon postdocs to conduct research and maintain its position in the global research enterprise. 

— Cathee Johnson Phillips, Executive Director of the National Postdoctoral Association

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we introduced the importance and potential of postdoctoral (postdoc) work for industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology. We introduced the role of postdoctoral work broadly and its importance in I-O in particular. Then, we offered insights and direct advice from our panel of postdoc experts with whom we presented on postdoctoral work during virtual SIOP 2020. In Part 2, we offer insights for researchers in academia and industry who are interested in or actively mentoring postdoctoral fellows (postdocs). We conclude with resources that would benefit multiple postdoc stakeholders. As a whole, we hope this series provides you with new insights into the world of postdoctoral work and its potential to advance our field. 

Mentors and organizations who hire postdocs (e.g., academics, government agencies) may consider doing so for many reasons (Ehm & Phillips, 2019). Although the focus on postdoctoral work is often its contribution to one’s career path, postdoc positions also convey considerable benefits to postdoc mentors, organizations in which postdocs work, and the science and practice of I-O and related fields. For instance, postdoc mentors may wish to gain support for their research from scholars who have fewer obligations competing for their time and attention. Organizations wanting to enhance research efforts may not have the capacity or resources to bring on a permanent employee (such as a research scientist) but are looking for a specific set of scholarly skills. A postdoc often works with more independence, employs more advanced technical knowledge and skills, and exhibits stronger teamwork abilities than a graduate student. Some employers may require the knowledge, skills, and abilities of a PhD but be interested in providing training and mentorship. As funding agencies such as NSF emphasize trainee development and do not often provide substantive personnel support, principal investigators on large grants may look toward writing in a postdoc position to strengthen their research team. In some cases, organizations may use the postdoc position as a realistic job preview to assess competence and fit before extending a more permanent offer.

Advantages of Mentoring a Postdoc

Each motivation above highlights the many advantages of postdoctoral work from the perspective of those hiring and mentoring postdocs. Broadly speaking, postdocs are hired to enhance research productivity; therefore, the main advantage of mentoring a postdoc is the effects on the mentor’s research program (Åkerlind, 2005). A postdoc can contribute an additional perspective, new methods or skills, and complementary expertise—all of which may strengthen the quality of the mentor’s research. According to Ruth Kanfer, postdocs have “cutting-edge knowledge, resource access, time, and motivation to shape and pursue organizationally relevant problems.” They require limited supervision, allowing a mentor to make substantial progress on completing work while meeting other goals such as starting new data collections and submitting grant proposals. Robert Sinclair highlighted this, mentioning the benefit of being able to rely on the postdoc to manage data collection with a high level of expertise and rigor. Postdocs can oversee projects being conducted by students, helping to train them with the most up-to-date research methods, as well as pick up projects that have not received as much attention as the mentor may have wanted to give due to time constraints.

Finally, there are strong reciprocal benefits of postdoctoral work for postdocs and their mentors. For mentors, it can be rewarding to help a more junior scholar develop and pursue their career goals. Greg Ruark described it as watching postdocs have the “aha” moment of gaining a deeper understanding of “the complexity surrounding the balance of life and career” beyond the development of technical knowledge and skills. According to Marissa Shuffler

Postdocs gain new knowledge and skillsets while also bringing their prior experiences to their new mentor’s research program. The integration can result in some really novel ideas that can be disseminated through publication as well as through the continued development of the postdoc’s own future program of research.

In many cases, a lasting partnership is formed that can boost the mentor’s research productivity in both the short and long term. For example, Dr. Sinclair recalled the importance of their postdoctoral fellows leaving with “multiple publications and projects in progress” to “help them establish their academic career” and, subsequently, allow mentors to “expand the impact of [their] research through ongoing publication.” To summarize, he said, “The successful postdoc would be a successful member of our research teams while here and continue to collaborate beyond the period of the postdoc.”

Panelist Insights Into Key Strengths to Seek in Postdoc Candidates

  • Initiative/independence: Willingness to identify high-impact topics and generate plans to successfully complete the project with little oversight
  • Intellectual curiosity/proactivity: Willingness to explore unfamiliar topics and engage in new research with no prior experience
  • Fit with the larger organizational culture/social system
  • A match between research interests with the project teams(s) at the organization
  • A repertoire of strong analytic skills and competent writing
  • Professional qualities of maturity, resourcefulness, interpersonal skills, and career passion

 

Challenges When Mentoring a Postdoc

Despite the many advantages for a mentor, hosting a postdoc is not without its challenges. Crafting the developmental opportunities necessary for a postdoc to develop as a research trainee (Nowell et al., 2018) may require additional effort, particularly if a mentor already faces a heavy workload. Indeed, Drs. Sinclair, Shuffler, and Ruark each noted that a significant amount of time and energy was required to successfully mentor their postdocs. Further, some mentors may have less experience with the differing roles of pre- and postdoc scholars, making it challenging to provide the appropriate opportunities. Dr. Ruark equated these challenges to those that arise when hiring a new employee: 

Postdocs take a considerable amount of resources—time and energy—to provide the one-on-one coaching and mentoring to develop all aspects of the postdoc, not just technical knowledge and skills but also what it means to be a professional on and off the job.

Similarly, common challenges involved in mentoring a postdoc equate to the experience of challenges involved in mentoring someone under one’s supervision. A postdoc may have difficulty transitioning to the new social environment or organizational culture. They may want to continue research on the topics they pursued in graduate school, demonstrating a difficulty in stretching beyond their comfort zone. It may be difficult for a mentor to connect with a postdoc, leading to more friction than synergy. In cases where these challenges are especially salient, the postdoc may fail to develop essential work–life skills. However, mentors like Dr. Sinclair noted that “the benefits [of mentoring a postdoc] far outweigh the costs.”

Mentor Roles and Responsibilities

Because the nature of postdoctoral work can vary across settings, the ideal configuration of mentor traits, attitudes, and behavior is likely to similarly vary. However, a mentor is generally responsible for supervision and oversight of the postdoc’s work and professional development (National Academy of Sciences, 2000). In many cases, the mentor will designate the scope of work, especially when the postdoc is hired via research funding. Ideally, a mentor will help the postdoc learn how to navigate nontechnical aspects of their career as well. A skilled mentor will help the postdoc to outline and pursue research and career goals by identifying areas of improvement and providing opportunities to learn and practice relevant skills. For instance, a mentor of a postdoc interested in an academic career may provide opportunities to practice critical academic skills not always acquired in graduate school, such as reviewing for a journal. One important task for the mentor is to help the postdoc expand their professional network, which not only broadens their own research collaborations but also enhances their networking skills. 

Dr. Sinclair explained that postdocs serve a unique role in academic departments that falls somewhere between a graduate student and tenure-track faculty. He stated:

You are really looking for someone who can add value to your project/research agenda on Day 1 or shortly thereafter, whereas with students for example, you might expect them to take a year before they are really strong contributors, and with faculty you are looking for them to be able to carve their own path.

As a result, it may be helpful to consider one’s role as an academic postdoc mentor in terms of the ability to facilitate the training necessary to help a scholar make the transition from new PhD graduate to tenure-track faculty. Similarly, mentors of government or industry postdocs may focus on ways to increase the postdoc’s confidence with conducting applied research, translating findings for nonacademic audiences, and mastering new and emerging software that will make them stronger practitioners.

Best Practices for Mentor Success

Mentoring a postdoc can be a fulfilling experience for individuals in academia and industry. One of the first steps in ensuring success of a postdoctoral appointment is to ensure that logistical considerations have been solidified. Specifically, Dr. Ruark emphasized the importance of careful attention to detail about funding:

Position funding should cover the entire fellowship (e.g., 3 years of funding programmed for a 3-year fellowship). All opportunities to include postdoctoral fellowships require funding; without programmed funds, the fellowship will be continuously at risk, which strains the employer, mentor, and postdoc. I would not encourage anyone to pursue a fellowship without funding in place.

Second, mentors should focus on selecting the best candidate. As recruitment and selection of a postdoctoral fellow can contribute to the level of success for both the postdoc and the mentor, it’s important to identify the qualities and characteristics necessary for the postdoc to be successful in the role you’ve designed for them. Dr. Shuffler encouraged mentors to draw from their own expertise in this regard:

Use best practices from I-O selection! Incorporate a structured-interview approach, recruit widely for a diverse applicant pool, provide a realistic job preview, set clear expectations of the job responsibilities and performance. Identify the KSAOs that are needed immediately but also the KSAOs that will be developed over time to benefit the postdoc and the organization.

When funding is secured, Dr. Ruark echoed Dr. Shuffer’s thoughts on recruitment. He emphasized the overall strategic approach of aligning the position with organizational goals and leveraging one’s network:

Recruitment starts with the position description to disseminate across professional societies. [The] position should be developed around the organization’s mission to ensure accurate description of topics, activities, and expectations for the postdoc position. It also involves engaging the broad academic network to identify those exhibiting high potential who are also seeking a postdoc opportunity who can then be engaged either at a professional conference or potentially a site visit to their university.

Once a postdoc has been hired, the mentors on the panel agreed that effectively onboarding and involving the postdoc in research activities early on would help them succeed throughout their appointment. Similar to Dr. Shuffler’s call to rely on I-O best practices for selection, the same should be done when it comes to effective supervision as well as training and developing the postdoc. Working with the postdoc to identify a successful career trajectory and pursue goals toward that end will encourage success in not only the postdoc’s performance but also the mentor’s.

 

Best Practices to Help Postdoc Mentors Succeed

  • Create a mentoring agreement that establishes both the postdoc’s and the mentor’s overarching roles and responsibilities as well as expectations for communication
  • Encourage postdocs to publish dissertation work and provide time to do so
  • Focus on helping the postdoc transition from graduate student to independent researcher
  • Help to fill in gaps with experiences they may not have received in grad school (e.g., grant writing, reviewing, presenting to a range of audiences)
  • Provide postdocs with resources, training in new tools, and opportunities to develop an effective social network of colleagues in the field
  • Promote research teams and collaborative work led by the postdoc, and provide feedback on their project management skills in addition to their technical research skills
  • For each project that a postdoc leads, set expectations ahead of time and debrief once the work is completed
  • Regularly meet with the postdoc to discuss career development goals and progress

 

Conclusion

Although the success of a postdoctoral fellowship lies in the eyes of the beholder, our panelists noted several factors that helped contribute to a mutually beneficial experience for mentees, mentors, and the broader field of I-O psychology. However, as Dr. Sinclair noted, there needs to be “greater awareness among I-O faculty and students about the potential benefits of postdocs, and better communication about what postdoctoral positions are available” within our field. This paper aims to address this gap and promote postdoctoral work in I-O by providing a set of resources and best practices for those seeking to become or hire a postdoctoral fellow.

We hope this resource facilitates not only postdoctoral opportunities in I-O but also encourages current graduate students to consider this fruitful career opportunity. With fellowship opportunities available across academia and government agencies, such as the National Cancer Institute and the Army Research Institute, there is an opportunity to not only expand one’s I-O network but also promote interdisciplinary research across otherwise unaffiliated disciplines. 

It is clear postdoctoral work benefits postdocs, mentors, and the field by creating more in-depth training opportunities in the I-O workforce and providing a greater volume of in-depth research productivity. Given the continually changing context of today’s work, we need both a highly trained workforce and more dedicated research now more than ever. Therefore, as we look to the future of I-O psychology, we call SIOP to help promote this fruitful career and research avenue to advance the science and practice of our field.

 

References

Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development24(1), 21–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/0729436052000318550

Ehm, K. F. & Phillips, C. J. (2019). Institutional guide to postdoc mentorship. National Postdoctoral Association. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.nationalpostdoc.org/resource/resmgr/2019_launch/resources/
instmentoring/institutional_guide_to_postd.pdf

National Academy of Sciences (2000). The postdoc and the adviser. Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers: A guide for postdoctoral scholars, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547066/

Nowell, L., Ovie, G., Berenson, C., Kenny, N., & Hayden, K. A. (2018). Professional learning and development of postdoctoral scholars: A systematic review of the literature. Education Research International. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/5950739

Hibel, A. (no date). The current state of the postdoc experience. HigherEdJobs. https://www.higheredjobs.com/HigherEdCareers/interviews.cfm?ID=184

 

Appendix

Biographical Sketches

Dr. Chelsea A. LeNoble is an assistant professor of I-O psychology in the Department of Applied Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University–Worldwide. Her research program focuses on the individual, team-level, and organizational factors related to employee engagement, resilience, and recovery from work stress. Part of a new faculty cluster in the area of human resilience and emergency services, Dr. LeNoble works with communications and emergency management scholars to support high-stress occupations such as healthcare workers and first responders.

Dr. LeNoble earned her PhD in I-O Psychology from Florida Institute of Technology. After graduating, she completed a 2.5-year postdoctoral fellowship at Clemson University and Prisma Health in Greenville, SC. As an embedded scholar within the health system, she led interdisciplinary research projects on burnout and resilience, employee well-being and engagement, and leadership and team development.

Danielle Wald, MS, is a senior consultant at APTMetrics, where she provides consulting services in the field of I-O psychology across a range of industries. This includes conducting job analyses, developing competency models, and creating selection and development assessments. Danielle is also a doctoral candidate studying I-O psychology at The Graduate Center and Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY). Her primary research interests lie within the occupational health psychology domain, with a specific focus on stress and well-being in the workplace. Her current research focuses on the daily experience of work stressors and the impact that they have on employee self-esteem, emotions, health, and behaviors. 

Dr. Dana Verhoeven is a postdoctoral Cancer Research Training Award fellow in the Health Systems and Interventions Research Branch of the Healthcare Delivery Research Program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dana’s research focuses on bridging the scientist–practitioner gap in healthcare by evaluating organizational factors that impact healthcare team functioning and developing interventions to enhance care delivery and patient outcomes. At NCI, she supports the NCI Multilevel Intervention Training Institute (MLTI) to develop a training-evaluation program and will also assist in defining the scope of organizational measures being assessed across NCORP projects.

Dana earned her MS and PhD in I-O Psychology from Clemson University, where she conducted research supported by numerous funding agencies, such as NASA, NSF, the U.S. Army Research Institute, and Prisma Health. Her work applies both quantitative and qualitative methods to assess barriers that inhibit care coordination both within and between care teams. Leveraging a multiteam-systems perspective, she strives to implement evidence-based practices to enhance team processes and effectiveness across high-stress contexts, such as healthcare. Given her experience conducting research across a range of contexts and her newly awarded fellowship, Verhoeven offers unique insight into the postdoctoral application, interview, and selection process.

Dr. Christopher W. Wiese is an assistant professor of I-O psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology. Following earning his PhD from the University of Central Florida, he was a postdoctoral fellow simultaneously at Purdue University and the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as the student lead on several federally funded projects (Office of Naval Research, Army Research Laboratory, NASA). He has also recently served as a consultant whereby he provided his expertise in the areas of team performance, well-being, and quantitative methods on an army-funded grant on team and leader resilience. His current research interest focuses on worker well-being, team dynamics in extreme contexts, and commuting.

Dr. Marissa Shuffler is an associate professor at Clemson University and the current chair for SIOP’s Education & Training Committee. Her expertise includes team and leader training and development with an emphasis on high-risk, complex environments. She has conducted research for government and industry, with over $6 million in grant funding, including a prestigious 5-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant for her research exploring the use of team profiles for designing better team development interventions.

Dr. Shuffler has unique experience in the postdoctoral advising domain, serving as the academic lead for an embedded postdoctoral fellow co-advising team at Prisma Health. In 2017, she helped to establish the first I-O postdoctoral embedded scholar position within the applied organizational research program at the healthcare system. Co-advising a postdoctoral fellow with executive leadership, Dr. Shuffler has experienced the opportunities and benefits of the embedded-scholar structure, a less traditional postdoctoral fellow model. Furthermore, as chair of SIOP’s Education & Training Committee, she is dedicated to ensuring that all SIOP members, and especially I-O graduate students, are aware of the opportunities afforded by postdoctoral fellowships.

Dr. Gregory Ruark is the chief of the Foundational Science Research Unit at the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. As chief, he shapes, develops, and executes two programs of research: (a) applied program of research focused on team composition, processes, and measurement; and (b) ARI’s basic research program covering the domains of personnel assessment and measurement; team and organizational dynamics; leadership development, processes, and measurement; and learning in formal and informal contexts. Dr. Ruark’s research interests include leadership of teams, emotions in the workplace, creativity, and entrepreneurship. He holds a PhD in I-O Psychology from the University of Oklahoma.

Dr. Ruark has brought on and mentored four postdoctoral fellows since 2015 through the Consortium Research Fellows Program. Under his mentoring, postdocs develop a research program based on career selection that lends itself to producing manuscripts to be submitted to peer-reviewed journals, contributions to edited books, and presenting at conferences. Dr. Ruark’s postdocs develop an increased understanding of the external funding cycle, specifically how to competitively respond to a call for proposals.

Dr. Bob Sinclair is a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Clemson University where he also serves as the graduate program coordinator for the department’s MS and PhD programs. Bob received his PhD from Wayne State University in 1995 and has previously been on the faculty at the University of Tulsa and Portland State University.  He is a founding member and past president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology and currently is the founding editor-in-chief of Occupational Health Science and an associate editor of the Journal of Business and Psychology.  He has published four edited volumes and over 80 articles and book chapters in outlets such as the Journal of Applied PsychologyJournal of Organizational Behavior, and the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.  His research interests generally focus on employee occupational safety, health, and well-being with specific research topics currently including safety and health climate, economic stress, and healthcare applications. He has mentored a postdoctoral student in the past and is a strong advocate of postdoctoral experiences for his own students.

Dr. Ruth Kanfer is professor of psychology and director of the Work Science Center at Georgia Institute of Technology. She credits her success in transitioning to I-O psychology from clinical psychology to her 2-year postdoctoral NIH Fellowship in Quantitative Psychology at the University of Illinois.  At Illinois, while taking advanced quantitative courses, she also worked with I-O faculty to reposition her motivation research into the areas of work motivation/goal setting, skill learning, and organizational justice. Throughout her career she has supported and mentored pre- and postdoctoral students, including many women who have progressed to careers in both academia and industry.

Dr. Kanfer’s research interests continue to focus on motivation in the context of job search, work, and employment.  She has published over 120 articles and chapters, coauthored four SIOP volumes, served on 11 journal editorial boards, and served as the AoM OB Division Chair and on the AoM Board of Governors. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Society for Human Resource Management, the Spencer Foundation, the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE USA), and private organizations.  As director of the Work Science Center, she participates in and facilitates multidisciplinary research on the effects of technology on work identity, engagement, future time perspective, learning and career outcomes.

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