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The Postdoc Journey: A Developmental Approach to Independence

Submitted by Lori Conlan September 23, 2010
In continued recognition of Postdoc Appreciation Week, I share a developmental model I crafted for a presentation to the National Academies some years ago. My argument is that postdocs move through four developmental stages as they progress toward independence, both scientifically and professionally. These stages are fluid, and postdocs may move back and forth among stages throughout their tenure as trainees. Below is my model, subsequently published in Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research, with programs offered at the NIH inserted as examples of developmental opportunities.

Developmental Model


A postdoctoral scholar typically moves through the following four stages: (1) adjustment (year 1); (2) skill enhancement (years 2 and 3); (3) search for positions (years 4 and 5); (4) and transition to independence (by year 5). Again, these stages are fluid, and the amount of time actually spent in each stage depends on the individual’s specific skills, discipline, work environment, and mentor.

Stage 1:

During the first stage, postdocs need to develop healthy patterns of behavior that will continue to serve them throughout their tenure. In order to adjust to the training period, postdocs should attend orientation sessions offered through OITE and any offered through their IC. Below are other programs offered to assist postdocs with adjusting effectively:

Stage 2:

During the second stage, postdocs might attend workshops and seminars such as those below to build skills as independent researchers, teachers, and mentors. They might also consider seeking individual grant reviews through PIs or senior staff at OITE.

Stage 3:

Stage 3 focuses on the development of job search related skills, such as writing effective resumes and CVs, interviewing, negotiating, and so on. OITE offers many programs and services in a variety of formats designed to meet the needs of trainees regardless of the type of career they are pursuing:

Stage 4:

Finally, postdocs in the 4th or transition stage should be preparing to move into their chosen career. OITE offers informative programs for all postdocs in leading teams effectively, resolving conflict, and more: When applied during my tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this model proved successful in that UNC saw job success in its postdoctoral population and positive outcomes in terms of skill development through its program evaluations. Take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to you through OITE and the NIH. Enjoy the journey!

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