by Cobretti D. Williams
Earlier this year, I sat down with Dr. Alberto I. Roca, founder of MinorityPostdoc.org, a resource for professional development and career resources for minority postdoctoral scholars and fellows. During our conversation, Dr. Roca speaks about the nature of the role, tips for success in the job market, and how he and his organization are working to close the gap between postdocs and their future careers.
Cobretti Williams (CW): Hello Dr. Roca, pleasure to speak with you. To start, can you give me some insight on the beginnings of MinorityPostdoc.org and what your purpose was in creating this organization?
Albert Roca (AR): So I was a postdoc at Rice University in Houston, Texas when I started doing volunteer work with a Hispanic undergraduate program called HACER. I was trying to give back to the local community while I was juggling my biochemistry postdoc, but who was going to be helping me as a postdoc? I hadn’t really received any type of mentoring or participated in any diversity activities. The National Postdoctoral Association was being formed in 2013. They were an advocacy organization trying to help postdocs and kind of knew all the ins and outs of the job market, however they weren’t doing anything about diversity. So two other postdocs and created the diversity committee. In 2010 is when I decided to start working on this organization full-time and in 2012 is when MinorityPostdoc.org officially became a nonprofit, now functioning as a professional society of multicultural, multidisciplinary professional society, trying to help our young trainees with their career needs.
CW: That’s quite a journey! From your perspective as someone who went through this process, what is the purpose of a postdoctoral position and what benefit do you think it has for postdoctoral fellows and candidates that are on the job market?
AR: For any recent graduate, the postdoc is different than just being hired as an administrator or a staff person or definitely a faculty professional, but it sort of steps in between being faculty and a research career. Historically, postdocs started at Johns Hopkins in the late 1800s and the idea was that recent graduates would take a year to pursue their own research ideas and transition into a faculty position and started implementing that idea as your tenure track project. You should look for that postdoc supervisor who does want to mentor you and train you to leave, where you can stand on your own with your own new skills and new ideas and so on.
CW: Do you find that most postdocs tend to become faculty or go into private research enterprise? Are there pros and cons to either pathway?
AR: I try not to pigeonhole people into what careers they should do. Instead, I try to assess like an ad hoc career coach, figure out what are your goals, what skills you have, and then give you advice about what you could do. If you’re a graduate student working for a faculty member, that becomes a model for your career goals. And then those who decide on another career, hopefully that decision allows them to finish their Ph.D. and then pursue that other career in private or non-profit organizations. But if they’re still interested in the faculty position, then they are told, “Well, then you must do a postdoc.” Because again, the doctoral level institutions that are training graduate students, especially the research-intensive ones, also are looking for postdoctoral candidates as the future faculty. So, there’s that almost indoctrination that ‘you still need to do my career path to get my job.’ And so…post-docs, most of them start with this idea that they could still be faculty, but then the reality hits because the postdoc funding isn’t as secure as graduate school. It’s a precarious path, but a very important one for the faculty training pipeline. And in my organization’s role of trying to hope we can make a difference in faculty diversity, we do need to encourage graduate students to take that chance, if they want a research career. I try to give them as much information as possible so that they’re hopefully making a careful choice.
CW: Speaking of diversity, do you find that underrepresented students and minorities are prepared to go into postdoc positions?
AR: Generally, I would say postdocs aren’t really trained well in terms of their career needs. The focus is always more about their technical skills and their subject matter expertise. But just in general, postdocs aren’t, as a formality, as part of the training as well cared for as I’d say graduate students are. Things have improved a lot for graduate students. So then underrepresented minorities, they can fall through the cracks, because the environment still isn’t sensitive to their needs. And so that can be an issue. But luckily, there are some exceptions, specifically for postdoctoral training. One that I champion is the NIH IRACDA training program. Each university that gets one of these training grants creates their own title for them. The oldest of this program is University of North Carolina. They have the SPIRE program and it is set up to be a professional development training program for both research and teaching outcomes. So, there are some examples of programs that are doing it. Those should be the models for how all postdocs are trained.
CW: For graduate students that are seeking a postdoc position, what do you think is important to consider within the application and interview process?
AR: Whatever outcome you want, a faculty job at a research-intensive university or faculty job at a teaching-intensive university, you have to assess what your strengths and weaknesses are for that. For a research career, do you have enough quality publications and is your tenure track project idea exciting? For a teaching-intensive career, do you have enough of that experience as an instructor on record? For faculty careers, it’s a little more amorphous, but that’s what I think is really important. Since you have a limited window, you don’t have too many opportunities to try, as opposed to any other career you can work within weeks or less after you’ve interviewed. For the faculty career, the graduate student and young postdocs, junior postdocs, really have to plan out their training and sometimes it has to be exactly in sync. Faculty hiring traditionally happens once a year in the fall to start the following fall. And so if you’re off register with that, then there could be a professional or financial gap.
CW: What resources are available to postdocs seeking careers and mentorship or guidance that may not be at their home institution? Are there any external resources available?
AR: Yes, for resources focused on underrepresented minorities and postdocs, I definitely recommend MinorityPostdoc.org. For post-doctoral needs in general, I do champion the National Postdoctoral Association. In particular, they have a core competencies document that can be very helpful. It can be difficult for postdocs because you’re not exactly a student or staff member, so ideally your supervisor should be helping you with your career needs. I also recommend utilizing your professional society in your discipline, somewhere you can meet potential mentors and role models that you can pattern, if you want a career similar to theirs.
CW: Last thoughts, based on what is happening in the world globally and economically, how should postdocs navigate this current environment?
AR: Yeah. It’s a game-changer, not just for those on the market but anyone who is part of the academic enterprise. Certainly, universities are figuring out what cuts they’re going to be making, what offers they might have, both for undergrads who matriculate as well as faculty that they’re going to hire. It is a whole new world, but I think it’s important then for our safety systems or support networks for trainees to persist and to exist. Because we’re going to be the ones helping the students and postdocs figure out what they can do. And as far as diversity outcomes are concerned, my organization is all about trying to connect the talent pool with the diversity champions in institutions. They are often chief diversity officers, equal employment opportunity officers, or just the individuals committed to diversity within the institution. They are often wondering where the talent pool is and don’t have the network or time to go and find the small numbers that are out there in the nation. I’m bringing the talent pool together and trying to connect them. So that networking aspect is just what I think is the main benefit of my organization persisting, even if hiring doesn’t happen, because then the safety net is there. In the future, I hope to bring faculty, administrators, and diversity stakeholders together to have a conversation that answers, “How do we protect diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice values and ideals in times like these where hiring may be slow?” During this time of decreasing resources, we have to protect our values, and we have to keep the support systems in place.
CW: I absolutely agree. Thank you again for your helpful perspective, Dr. Roca.