School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Core Competencies for Postdoctoral Fellows

Postdoctoral fellows in the professional environment of today and the near future have multiple career pathways including academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government.  In addition to the unique skill sets and experience required for each of these broad career choices, each career path has multiple career options such as research-intensive versus teaching-based academic positions with unique experience demands.

To meet the diverse career development needs of postdoctoral fellows, the National Postdoctoral Association has established six core competencies to facilitate and enhance postdoctoral training experiences for success in career choices.  The competencies are intended to provide guidance to postdoctoral fellows, their mentors, and institutions through self-evaluation and assessment of training opportunities.

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The six core competencies are:

1. Discipline-specific Conceptual Knowledge

Postdoctoral scholars are expected to demonstrate a broad base of established and evolving knowledge within their discipline and detailed knowledge of their specific research area. They should understand the gaps, conflicts, limits, and challenges within their research area such that they can develop testable hypotheses.

   Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Analytical approach to defining scientific questions
    • Design of scientifically testable hypotheses
    • Broad based and cross-disciplinary knowledge acquisition
    • Detailed knowledge of specific research area

2. Research Skill Development

Postdoctoral scholars are expected to be able to design sound research protocols, safely perform the techniques necessary to conduct and analyze this research, and navigate the grant application and scientific publishing processes.

   Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Research techniques and laboratory safety
    • Experimental design
    • Data analysis and interpretation
    • Effective search strategies and critical evaluation of the literature
    • Grant application and scientific publishing processes

3. Communication Skills

In any professional environment, the ability to communicate one's thoughts in a way that people readily understand is critical. Although postdoctoral scholars learn many communication skills throughout their educational lifespan, these skills take time to master. Communication is more than preparing and sending a message; it is making every effort to be sure that the message is heard and understood by the appropriate audience.

Postdoctoral scholars are expected to demonstrate interpersonal and other communication skills that enable them to communicate effectively with colleagues at all levels. They must also be prepared to communicate with students, media, and society at large. They need to develop writing, speaking, and listening skills.

   Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Writing
      • Scientific publications
      • Grants/applications
      • Career, including curriculum vitae, resume, cover letters, and teaching statements
      • Research and teaching statements or portfolio
      • Letters of recommendation or collaboration
    • Speaking
      • Presenting research to scientific and lay audiences
      • Conference and seminar presentations, including posters and PowerPoint
      • Job interviews and job talks
    • Teaching and Mentoring
    • Interpersonal Communication Skills
      • Style, tone, and non-verbal cues
      • Negotiation, e.g., in difficult economic times, formal conversations with PIs/mentors about continued funding of the postdoc position
      • Performance reviews/feedback
      • Conflict resolution, including difficult conversations/minimizing conflict
    • Special Situations
    • Networking
    • Managing the news media

4. Professionalism

Postdoctoral scholars are expected to adhere to accepted professional standards and practices within their immediate workplace (e.g., laboratory, office), institution, and discipline. They are also expected to reflect and advance the values of their profession in the community at large.

One's professionalism is relevant indifferent contexts that govern and define the potential interactions the scholar engages with his/her environment. A proper discussion of professionalism should integrate concepts of:

  • Workplace professionalism, connecting with the immediate working team
  • Institutional professionalism, connecting with the research infrastructure
  • Collegial professionalism, connecting with the discipline of expertise
  • Universal professionalism:, connecting with society in representing an expertise.

  Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Assess and uphold workplace etiquette, performance standards, and project goals
    • Comply with rules, regulations, and institutional norms
    • Respect, evaluate, and enhance the intellectual contributions of others
    • Advance and promote the discipline by participating in public and professional service activities, such as professional societies, editorial and advisory boards, peer review panels, and institutional committees.
    • Advance and promote the discipline by participating in partnerships with government agencies, foundations, and/or non-profit organizations, such as funding agency grant panels or other advocacy/advisory boards to contribute to the advancement and promotion of the discipline.
    • Identify and manage apparent and actual conflicts of interest, ethical violations, and violations of expected professional behavior

5. Leadership and Management Skills

Postdoctoral scholars should have the skills and techniques needed to facilitate effective team work, manage day today operations within their workplace, and pursue leadership opportunities at the local, institutional, regional, and national levels. These skills will also help the person to mentor others more successfully.

   Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Personnel Management
      • Recruiting, hiring, and terminating personnel
      • Mentoring and retaining personnel
      • Conducting performance reviews and providing feedback
      • Working with individuals of diverse backgrounds
      • Managing conflict/having difficult conversations
    • Project Management
      • Establishing priorities
      • Short and long-term planning
      • Time management
      • Establishing/maintaining effective collaborations
      • Developing/managing budgets
      • Tracking use of and ordering supplies and equipment
      • Recordkeeping in print and electronic media; establishing data back up protocols
      • Running a meeting
      • Delegating responsibilities
    • Leadership Skills
    • Identifying and clarifying goals
    • Motivating/inspiring others
      • Understanding the long-term strategic vision and helping others to
        see where their work/roles fit in this picture
      • Understanding how to use appropriate leadership styles in any
        given situation
    • Serving as a role model

6. Responsible Conduct of Research

Postdoctoral scholars should receive training in responsible conduct of research so as to improve their ability to make ethical and legal choices. This training should provide them with an appreciation for the range of accepted research practices; familiarize them with the relevant regulations, policies, statutes, and guidelines governing the conduct of their research; and make them aware of the resources to which they can turn when ethical questions and concerns arise.

Postdoctoral scholars would be expected to:

  • Improve their ability to make ethical and legal choices.
  • Develop appreciation for the range of accepted practices for conducting research.
  • Be familiar with the regulations, policies, statutes, and guidelines that govern the
    conduct of government-funded research, as appropriate.
  • Be aware of the available tools and resources to which they can turn when ethical
    questions and concerns arise.

  Delineation of Specific Skills

    • Data ownership and sharing
      • Sharing of data with collaborators, including industry-specific concerns as appropriate
      • Ownership and access to data, particularly once a postdoc's appointment ends
      • Understanding and respect for intellectual property rights, patents, and copyrights
      • Understanding criteria for authorship and the elements of responsible publication
    • Research with human subjects (where applicable)
      • Ethical principles for conducting human subjects research, including informed consent and subject confidentiality
      • Federal, state, and local regulations/guidelines for conducting human subjects research
      • Institutional Review Board (IRB) processes and procedures
      • Requirements for reporting clinical trials
    • Research involving animals (where applicable)
      • Ethical principles for conducting research with animals
      • Federal, state, and local regulations/guidelines for use of animals in research
      • Understanding the Three Rs: Replace, reduce and refine animal use in research
      • Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) processes and procedures
    • Identifying and mitigating research misconduct
      • Applicable definitions of misconduct (federal, ORI/PHS, NASA, NEH, NSF, etc.)
      • Reporting procedures
      • The role and risks of being a whistleblower.
    • Conflicts of interest
    • Personal and intellectual conflicts
    • Conflicts of commitment
    • Financial conflicts
    • Confidentiality and bias in peer review
    • Conflicts and potential competition between mentor and trainee.
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