How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

In this post, I want to talk a bit about the excellent transition I had from a PhD candidate to a Postdoctoral Fellow. There are far too many horror stories of postdocs not being comfortable in their position, with their advisor, or at their university. Here, I’ll outline some of the things that my mentor and the faculty at Binghamton University have done that are stellar. I hope this post will serve as a short guide for postdoctoral advisors.

My office door leading into my lab. My office is in the back through another door.

First, some background. I met my current postdoc mentor while I was a PhD student at UMass Amherst. She was doing her postdoc there, and we overlapped by a year. She was then hired at Binghamton as a professor. Binghamton University, which is part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system, is located in the Southern Tier of New York, and is home to a large majority of first generation undergraduate students (students whose parents did not pursue higher education). Recently, Binghamton implemented a new postdoctoral fellowship program to retain and hire more women and folks from marginalized backgrounds into faculty positions, called the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF).

When the applications for 2019’s PDPF were open, my now-mentor contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying. She and I overlap in several research areas, and not only that, Binghamton has been without a paleontologist on campus for over 20 years! So it made sense that I apply: I could collaborate with my mentor, but I would also fill a much-needed research and teaching gap at the university. There were several applicants that applied for the position through the Geology department, but mine was the one chosen to be put into the final pool of applicants from many departments on campus. I was one of 82 applicants at the university level, and was awarded one of the two coveted PDPF positions.

My office, where I finished writing the large majority of my dissertation and where I live part-time (I’m kidding, sort of). My windows overlook the campus garden, so in my opinion, I have the best office on campus!

OK enough background. Onto what you came here to really read. The PDPF is an excellent postdoc by itself, as it provides me with a stipend (living expense, it’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life), as well as an additional $13,000 per year for travel and research expenses.  The position is for 2 years, with (hopefully) the option to transition to a tenure-track professor position.  But during my postdoc, I’ll also have access to health insurance for myself  and my husband, as well as retirement options, etc. In short, the PDPF allows me the money to succeed and pursue the research that I’m interested in. That alone is stellar!

But the way the faculty and entire department have treated me has been even better. When I arrived at Binghamton a full 4 months before my position began (so my spouse could find work sooner), they already had an office and lab set aside for me (and my name was already on the door)! Having my own space allowed me the room to really dig into and finish my dissertation, and now that I’m officially a postdoc, I have the space set up to have students work with me.

As soon as I arrived at Binghamton, I was made to feel like one of the faculty (remember, I was still a graduate student still when I arrived, still working on my dissertation). I was invited to and attended faculty meetings, which have really allowed me to grasp onto the inner workings of the department and university. During one meeting, our department head asked me what my opinion was on a matter of importance. It was strange, being the only woman in a room full of men, being asked what my opinion was and being listened to. But it was AMAZING! Being valued as a contributing member of the faculty has really helped me feel at ease and valued here.

From the start of my postdoc, I have also been given advice by the faculty on how to succeed and become competitive for a tenure-track position. Part of the PDPF is that the postdocs are trained to be competitive for tenture-track professor jobs, and will hopefully be hired into the SUNY system. My department head has given me a ton of advice already, and we have talked several times about ways in which I can stay on as a professor after my postdoc position ends. Tenure-track jobs are competitive, especially in STEM fields, but knowing that the faculty here are rooting for my position to turn permanent and coaching me along the way has been amazing. Especially since I am no longer considered a student, I feel hesitant about the future and unsure of what I should do, so having this tutelage and mentoring from my peers is incredible.

Brachiopod fossils from the fossil collections stored in my lab. All of the specimens have detailed location information and labels, which will make digitally cataloging them later much easier!

One thing I can’t help but mention is that Binghamton also has a very well-kept secret: they have a superb fossil collection that is not cataloged. And guess where this collection is? That’s right; IN MY LAB! When I arrived, I was told the eight wooden cabinets that lined one wall of my lab contained old specimens, and they were planning to be donated. One weekend, I looked through every drawer, and realized how amazing the collections were! Brachiopods, trilobites, eurypterids, mollusks, microfossils, they were all there and untouched for likely decades. I asked if I could keep them, and our department head said ‘Sure!’. So I’m also now a curator of the Binghamton University Fossil Collection (it’s not an official research museum collection yet, but I plan to get it to that point one day with the help of students).

My mentor is also especially amazing. She has been nothing but supportive since I arrived, and I hear from her at least once a week that she’s so glad I’m here. She has also included me on research meetings with her PhD student, and will add me as a coauthor on their publications (I have expertise on their project and have given input). Likewise, I will include her and her PhD student on my projects. We are in total agreement that science should be collaborative, and we will help our students succeed in whatever way we can.

These are just the major examples of how I’ve been included into the Binghamton University campus community. But I can’t help but think how STEM fields would be different if all postdocs, and graduate students, were treated the way I have been. Would we have higher retention of marginalized folks? Would more students pursue STEM degrees if the pay was more competitive and they had access to health insurance? What if all universities created postdoctoral fellowship programs like Binghamton? If they did, within a few years how many more women and people from marginalized groups would be in professor positions? Imagine.

My hope is that more postdoctoral fellowships like mine are adopted by other universities in the near future, and that a more sound and secure structure is created for graduate students as well.

Links to learn more about Binghamton’s program & other similar programs:

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