Celebration of postdocs transitions to virtual platform

By Samantha Black, PhD, ScienceBoard editor in chief

For the first time ever, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) will celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW) from September 21-25 as a virtual, collaborative event among multiple institutions. Executive Director Tom Kimbis discusses how the organization is adapting to meet the challenges of COVID-19 to support and advocate for postdocs.

The NPA was founded in 2002 as an organization to improve the postdoctoral experience by supporting enhanced professional growth and providing an inclusive community that empowers and supports postdocs. One way it achieves this vision is through the annual celebration of NPAW.

Since 2009, the NPA has sponsored NPAW to recognize the significant contributions that postdocs make to research enterprises around the world. Professional development and social events are held by institutions across the U.S. and the world during the five-day celebration.

This year, things are going to be a little different, Kimbis told The Science Advisory Board.

"We want to provide as inclusive an environment as possible during COVID-19 to the entire academic community," he explained in an interview.

New leadership

Fresh to the executive director position, Kimbis has a breadth of experience in organizational leadership. With 20 years in the energy sector, he has plenty of training in running organizations and nonprofits.

"One commonality with my background is that the NPA is a nonprofit entity which understands and serves the needs of the scientific community, but [is] not itself engaged in scientific endeavors," explained Kimbis about his time spent at the U.S. Department of Energy in a variety of roles.

For the past 10 years, Kimbis has worked in the solar industry, first at the charitable Solar Foundations and then at the Solar Energy Industries Association. In both of those instances he was running and growing mission-based nonprofit organizations, experiences that will translate well in his role as executive director of the NPA.

Now, with NPAW quickly approaching, Kimbis expressed how excited he is to help postdocs take advantage of their membership and to provide unique opportunities and resources for their professional development and personal growth. He explains that the focus of this year's event will be mentorship and highlighting its importance through signature events.

"There is no question of the importance of a good, solid, and meaningful mentorship to anyone in their professional career, especially postdocs," Kimbis stated. "Postdocs can feel somewhat isolated, are underrepresented, and part of a more vulnerable group in the academic community."

He believes that strong mentorship is key, given the transient nature of postdoc positions and their imminent moves to more permanent positions.

NPAW has three signature events this year:

  • A keynote address titled "Mentoring Matters," given by Christine Pfund, PhD, and John Beacom, PhD
  • A virtual tour of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN)
  • A leadership skills development workshop hosted by the Postdoc Academy

Outside of these featured events, universities and institutions will hold local events to show their appreciation for postdocs.

In parallel to NPAW, the NPA has also launched new online communities to enable postdocs to form mentor/mentee relationships beyond their own institutions and to share best practices on a virtual platform. Any postdoc or mentor who wants to join an online community simply needs to log on to their free member account on the NPA website and take advantage of this new member benefit.

Outside of NPAW, the organization remains committed to enriching the mentor experience for postdocs. These include the "Postdoc's Guide to Mentorship," an online resource to help postdocs get the most out of their mentor relationships and the annual NPA Gallagher Mentor award for the recognition of outstanding mentors, won this year by John Beacom, PhD, of Ohio State University.

Postdocs and COVID-19

Lastly, Kimbis explained that the NPA has several resources to help postdocs navigate this difficult time. He notes that many postdocs are concerned about the stability of their funding, mental and physical health, and family matters (such as spouses who may have lost their jobs or who do not have access to child care).

Perhaps more importantly, one Nature article describes how COVID-19 has hampered the ability of eight out of 10 postdocs to conduct their research.

To support postdocs, the NPA has created a new space on social media using the #NPAeverymember to provide an outlet for postdocs to express their concerns and share their stories with the community.

"Stories are powerful outlets for postdocs to share their COVID-19 experiences with other postdocs and communities across the world," Kimbis explained. "The NPA wants to hear, understand, and share the difficulties in all aspects of their lives that our members are going through."

The group has created a dedicated page on its website that houses COVID-19 resources tailored specifically for postdocs. In May, the organization's publication, the Postdocket, produced a special issue dedicated to COVID-19. The issue covered topics such as strategies for working from home and building a sense of community during the pandemic.

Kimbis urges all postdocs to visit the site and take advantage of all the benefits of NPA affiliate membership, which is free for nearly all postdocs. Leveraging his past experience in managing large organizations, he explains that the NPA is a membership organization, and is only as strong as its membership.

"For all the postdocs out there and the organizations that support them, we want to know what we are doing well and what we can do better," Kimbis appealed. "As they confront issues, we want to be right there with them."

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