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The right stuff for success

Center ranks second in survey of best places for postdocs to work
Dr. Sara Georges
'When I come to work each day, I know I am going to be working with world-class researchers and have access to state-of-the-art shared resources,' said Dr. Sara Georges. Photo by Todd McNaught

Universities produce thousands of doctoral students, but once they bestow the degrees, they aren't necessarily prime places to do postdoctoral work. The best work environments for life science postdoctoral fellows, according to the third annual survey by The Scientist magazine, are private and government institutions. This year, Fred Hutchinson ranked No. 2 among the 125 institutions evaluated by the magazine.

The more than 3,500 postdocs who responded to The Scientist survey said a valuable training experience, access to research equipment and library resources, and a good mentoring relationship are key. Twelve of the top 15 institutions have a postdoc office, association or adviser to help raise awareness of postdocs' needs and facilitate dialogue between postdocs and administrators, the magazine said.

These ingredients are "absolutely" in the mix at Fred Hutchinson, said Dr. Sara Georges, a postdoc in Dr. Steve Tapscott's lab in the Human Biology Division who studies the molecular basis of myotonic dystrophy, an inherited form of muscular dystrophy.

"I love being part of a center where, when I come to work each day, I know I am going to be working with world-class researchers and a pool of talented investigators and mentors; have access to state-of-the-art shared resources; and have the overall support of the center leadership in a culture that values research above everything else," Georges said.

That Fred Hutchinson also offers its postdocs a child-care subsidy and health benefits also make it a great place to work, she said.

"I think that the single most important factor that makes the Hutch a great place to work is the high quality of research going on here," said Dr. Michael Schlador, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Barbara Trask's lab in the Human Biology Division. "The Hutch has top quality scientists asking really good questions. In addition, there seems to be camaraderie among the faculty and a willingness to help each other that promotes cross-disciplinary collaborations among all divisions. Combine that with a talented and motivated support staff and the result is an institution that really provides everything scientists need to perform their research at the highest level."

"Institutional support of the postdocs also makes the center a great place to work," Schlador said. "The scientists here seem to understand that the postdoctoral period is really a time when we are learning to be independent scientists and that we can be more productive when we are taken care of," he said. "It is like there is an institutional mindset that starts at the highest levels of the administration and filters down through the faculty. As a result, postdocs are provided with a number of services that postdocs at other institutions often don't receive. This includes benefits such as medical and dental plans, participation in the retirement plan and child-care subsidies."

The child-care subsidy was proposed by center administration; guidelines were developed by the Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee (SPAC), a unique group formed to represent the interests of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and medical fellows at the center. SPAC is funded at a very high level, relative to similar organizations (most commonly referred to as postdoctoral associations or PDAs) at other institutions.

"This allows us to provide a number of services that enhance the postdoctoral experience," said Schlador, who is the SPAC chair. "While a large fraction of our budget goes to the child-care subsidy, we have plenty left over to offer services like travel awards to scientific meetings, educational awards to take courses, career-development workshops and a career day. We periodically subsidize workshops that are designed to enhance the training component of the postdoctoral fellowship."

The Scientist survey ranked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C., first. Government and private institutions landed in 11 of the top 15 places.

Respondents to the survey represented nearly 770 institutions. The Scientist evaluated 125 U.S. institutions that had five or more responses. The full text of the article and survey methodology is available online to The Scientist subscribers.

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