An environment for postdoctoral success

Quality of training, funding are among leading reasons Fred Hutchinson ranks as one of best places in United States to be postdoc
Drs. Karen Spratt and Michael Manion
Drs. Karen Spratt and Michael Manion are among the 238 postdocs who benefit from the center's excellent environment for research training. Photo by Todd McNaught

The recipe for a successful environment for postdoctoral fellows is simple: encourage collaborative research among colleagues and add to the mix the resources postdocs need to reach their goals.

According to a survey conducted by The Scientist, these ingredients combine to make the atmosphere at Fred Hutchinson one of the best places for a postdoc to work in the United States.

"The center has all these resources around us that foster a great scientific environment," said Dr. Michael Manion, Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee (SPAC) chair and a postdoc in the Hockenbery lab. "Also the atmosphere here is just amazing. Everyone is working together and no one is competing with each other — it is all about collaboration."

Survey criteria

The survey, in which Fred Hutchinson ranked number nine, was intended to help researchers identify the best academic, private and government labs for advancing their research and fairly rewarding their work. The questionnaire reached 48,000 registrants on The Scientist Web site who identified themselves as non-tenure scientists, working at noncommercial research organizations. As one of the magazine's largest surveys to date, it received 3,529 responses from postdoctoral researchers throughout Western Europe, Canada and the United States. The 61 U.S. institutions that received 10 or more responses were included in the rankings.

Respondents assessed their working conditions and environments using 45 criteria in 11 different areas and also indicated which factors were the most important to them. In the survey, postdoctoral fellows evaluated their quality of training, mentoring and communication within the organization. They also assessed the quality of the facilities, funding, networking opportunities, career development and compensation.

Educational opportunities

Postdocs who responded to the questionnaire rated access to a comprehensive collection of journals and books as the most important attribute of an institution. Also, the research facility's efforts to prepare postdocs for a scientific career and offer high quality research tools received high praise.

"There is significant support provided to a postdoc and graduate student at the center through easy access to mentors as well as the Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee," said Dr. Jason O'Neill, a postdoc in the Hockenbery lab. "I also feel that the center does a very good job at promoting scientific interactions through the use of seminars, providing education opportunities and providing social cohesion."

Fred Hutchinson has implemented many programs to ensure that the 238 postdocs at the center receive the best treatment; one of which is the Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee (SPAC). SPAC was formed to represent the interests of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and medical fellows at the center in obtaining the best education possible for their future careers.

"We have a lot of things here that a lot of fellow institutions don't have and I think the main one is the SPAC program," Manion said. "There's a growing movement of postdoc associations in the country, but it seems like Fred Hutchinson is always two steps ahead."

Among the programs SPAC organizes are career development workshops, a Childcare Subsidy Program and scholarships for attending courses and meetings for continuing postdocs' education.

On average, a postdoc at Fred Hutchinson makes $34,200 to $50,808 per year. In 2003, the center received $188.3 million in federal grants, a figure that was higher than half of the organizations rated in the top 15 in the United States.

Mentor program

Aside from the funding and SPAC, postdocs also benefit from a mentor program. Mentors at the center provide graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with training in conceptual and technical skills necessary for a successful career. Included in the mentor program is an annual self-evaluation, where the mentor and the postdoc meet to evaluate their work throughout the year and their future goals.

"Postdocs want to come here and work because the principal investigators here are outstanding," Manion said. "The work that's been done here is amazing. It is just really good science because of the center's facilities, the money that we've got, the connections we have here with other institutions and the collaboration among colleagues."

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