Unique 'Boot Camp' Offers Insider's Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars

By Robin Hindery

Visiting graduate students get a crash course in finding a postdoctoral research position at UCSF’s third-annual Postdoc Bootcamp.

Nearly three dozen graduate students from around the country gathered at UCSF recently for a two-day event that was part career-building workshop, part behind-the-scenes tour and part therapy session.

The Graduate Division’s annual Postdoc Boot camp, which took place Sept. 21 and 22 at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, offered 35 visiting students a rare insider’s look at the process of researching, applying for and securing a coveted position as a postdoctoral researcher — a process that is highly competitive and, quite often, frustratingly unclear.

“The main purpose of Postdoc Boot camp is to give attendees the tools and information they will need to go out and find a rewarding postdoc position that will, in turn, provide them with the edge they will need to get a great faculty position,” said Jeannine Cuevas, the Graduate Division’s postdoctoral affairs assistant, who helped coordinate the event.

The participants were members of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups and one to two years away from obtaining a PhD in the life sciences, Cuevas said.

The event itself, including the participants’ travel expenses and accommodations, was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, through its Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program. AGEP aims to increase the number of underrepresented minorities obtaining graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to enhance minority scholars’ preparation for careers in academia.

Those goals are closely aligned with the UCSF’s own efforts to promote diversity throughout the campus community — a key component of the UCSF Strategic Plan.

This year’s boot camp event included seminars on putting together a strong application, preparing for interviews and applying for funding.

“Most of this was very much an unknown before two days ago,” said attendee Anlys Olivera, who is pursuing her PhD in neuroscience at Emory University. “Everyone we’ve heard from has been really honest and has given us a lot of really good guidance as we figure out what’s the next step.”

“Before this, I was doing what I thought I needed to do to prepare, but nobody told me if that was the right thing to do,” added Travis Moore, a graduate student in cellular biology at UC Irvine.

Sharing Perspectives

In addition to instructional workshops, two separate panels — one featuring current UCSF postdocs and another comprised of UCSF faculty members — offered perspectives from both sides of the postdoc application process.

“The postdoc period can be a phenomenal time in your life…when you can really figure out, ‘What is it that excites me about science?’” said faculty panelist Jeremy Reiter, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of biochemistry. “Graduate school is learning about how to be a scientist; the postdoc [experience] is about laying the foundation for the rest of your career.”

UCSF faculty members, from left, Tracy Richmond McKnight, Jeremy Reiter and Tejal Desai offer visiting graduate students insight into what labs look for when selecting postdocs.

Attendee Nilsson Holguin said the event encouraged participants to look not only forward but inward as well.

“It was almost like therapy, where you come out of it with a new, better understanding of yourself and your strengths and what might be the best path,” said Holguin, who is currently studying biomedical engineering at Stony Brook University in New York.

In getting to know the students over the course of their visit, Cuevas said she was inspired by their unwavering commitment to their academic and career aspirations, even in the face of significant barriers.

“These students may not have the personal connections that are useful in finding a postdoc position, or they may not have the same understanding of the culture of academia that ‘traditional’ PhDs have,” Cuevas said. “They may be intimidated by or just uncomfortable in academia, where it’s still true that most people don’t look like they do.”

“Hopefully the Postdoc Boot Camp program can offset these disadvantages by building camaraderie and showing them that they are not alone in their quest,” she said. 

This was the third year the Graduate Division has hosted the boot camp, and applications for the limited number of spots doubled from last year, Cuevas said.

All of the students who were ultimately selected expressed interest in applying for postdoc positions at UCSF, and Cuevas said she hoped at least some of them would ultimately find work in one of the University’s labs.

“But wherever they go,” she said, “I hope they will inspire others to live up to their full potential in spite of the things that get in their way.”

Related Links:

UCSF Graduate Division 

Federal Funding Gives Boost to Fellowship Program Aimed at Minority Postdocs
UCSF Today, Sept. 11, 2009

National Science Foundation AGEP Program