Key items every postdoctoral fellow considers when choosing where to pursue training are the opportunities that will be available when their studies are complete, says Marlene Winkelbauer, Ph.D.

Proud to be here! Postdoctoral fellow Marlene Winkelbauer says career-development opportunities and training and mentoring are areas that often determine those post-educational prospects. She says UAB is strong in those crucial areas, and The Scientist’s newest rankings agree with her.
Winkelbauer, a postdoctoral scholar of cell biology and chair of the UAB Postdoctoral Association, says career-development opportunities and training and mentoring are areas that often determine those post-educational prospects. Winkelbauer says UAB is strong in those crucial areas, and rankings recently published by The Scientist support her assessment.

The magazine recently ranked UAB No. 24 on its Top 40 “Best Places to Work as a Postdoctoral Fellow” list, up from its No. 56 ranking in 2008.

“I am extremely excited to see that we moved up to 24th on the list,” Winkelbauer says. “The postdoctoral experience at UAB affords a great many opportunities upon completion, and the program has benefitted me and others in numerous ways.”

The Office of Postdoctoral Education is under the direction of Associate Dean Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D., and is housed under The Graduate School. Bryan Noe, Ph.D., dean of The Graduate School, says the Office of Postdoctoral Education (OPE) provides an enriching environment for postdoctoral fellows.

“The quality of faculty mentorship and the support services play a key role in making UAB a great place for postdocs to work and get additional training,” Noe says. “One of the interesting observations about the rankings that were published in The Scientist is that of the top 40 institutions listed, 28 are institutes or research organizations that are independent of academic institutions.

“Of the academic institutions listed, only four among the top 24 were ranked higher than UAB, and only two of those are public universities. To me that speaks volumes in terms of our relative competitiveness among peer institutions,” Noe says.

Surveys were sent to postdoctoral fellows throughout the country to gather data for the rankings from September to November 2009. Respondents were asked to assess their environment according to criteria in several different areas by reading positive statements with which the respondent was asked to agree or disagree. Scores for each statement were averaged by organization, and an average importance score was calculated for each factor.

Schwiebert says the OPE together with the UAB Postdoctoral Association spent the past year improving its workshop series as well as on- and off-the-bench opportunities in academics and other endeavors.

“We have started courses to help postdocs learn to write grants, and we had a popular lab-management course that we started this past fall,” Schwiebert says. “It explains of the ins and outs of starting a lab. How do you hire people? How do you mentor? How do you put
together a budget? All of these are skills that postdocs will use in an academic setting or wherever they go. And, pointedly, those are skills that you have to have to be able to walk into a lab, start it up and be successful. I think that’s been well received.”

The grant-writing course in particular paid dividends for Winkelbauer. She participated in the course in fall 2008. Participants were required to submit a grant to be reviewed in a mock review session at the end of the course — something she says was invaluable to her.

“I think this process was pivotal to getting my American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellowship funded,” she says.

The OPE also has a growing number of funding mechanisms that provide career-development courses off site plus grant incentives. In addition, the office has started an internship program that enables postdocs to work outside of their regular labs in industry, a biotech lab or in an administrative setting. The new Mentored Experiences in Research, Instruction and Teaching (MERIT) Program, funded by the NIH, also made an impact.

Benefits for postdocs also were improved in January of this year, giving them access to health, life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance and long-term disability. Previously, postdocs funded by institutional or individual training grants only had access to health insurance while postdocs who were funded directly by a mentor were granted access to all of the insurance options. Schwiebert says UAB President Carol Garrison was instrumental in equating those policies, and Winkelbauer says reducing this inequity will strengthen UAB in the future.

“This is an important step in maintaining UAB’s ability to compete for the best and brightest postdoctoral fellows,” Winkelbauer says.

Winkelbauer says the Postdoctoral Association Executive Board’s goal is to continually improve the postdoc experience at UAB. She says the group is conducting surveys to determine other areas in which the postdoc experience can be enriched.

“We want to take what we have learned from this survey and make even more improvements,” Winkelbauer says. “We hope that next year we’ll have UAB even higher on The Scientist’s list.”