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Spotlight: University of Pittsburgh's Career Development Program for Postdoctoral Scientists

by Valarie Clark

How does a major academic medical research center support 400 postdoctoral scholars in six different health science schools? The University of Pittsburgh's Office of Academic Career Development (OACD) supports career development of these valuable scientists by addressing not only their professional development but also their employment status. Pittsburgh’s medical school leaders spearheaded the creation of a comprehensive postdoctoral professional development program. These efforts of policy support, career development resources, and mentoring pay off. The Scientist magazine ranked Pitt among the top 15 Best Places to Work in its 2004 survey of postdocs.

Historical Perspective of Postdoctoral Training

The history of postdoctoral training:

1876    Johns Hopkins University was the first to support postdoctoral fellows

1920s   Rockefeller Foundation establishes fellowships for PhD graduates in the physical sciences

1950s   Federal spending for science and demand for scientists increases during the Cold War

1970s   Economic recession in the U.S. reduces federal support of graduate fellows

1990s   A sluggish economy reduces hiring for full time faculty scientists

1998 Association of American Universities issues a report on postdoctoral trainee dissatisfaction

Although postdoctoral training plays a prominent role in national research, it is only recently that these positions have been incorporated into the overall academic enterprise. One of the major challenges has been a lack of consistent standards and expectations for postdoctoral appointments. Universities are now addressing this through initiatives to standardize policies and expectations for these valuable scientists.

The University of Pittsburgh creates a comprehensive system to support career development

Early on in his tenure, Dr. Arthur Levine, Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, expressed his firm commitment to the institution’s success and reputation by developing its human resources. He recognized that students, postdoctoral trainees, fellows, residents, and faculty had very specific career needs that were not being adequately addressed. In particular, he recognized the need to improve support of the numerous scientists in postdoctoral positions in Pittsburgh’s laboratories. 

“While developing their own professional skills, postdoctoral appointees provide significant contributions to the research enterprise here at Pittsburgh.”

Dr. Levine’s vision led to the creation of the Office of Academic Career Development External Link (OACD) to oversee resources and programs in career counseling and training, as well as mentoring for medical students, residents, postdoctoral trainees, and faculty.

Dr. Joan Lakoski, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Career Development, created the office that serves students and faculty from all six of the health professions schools: dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and rehabilitation.

This office has a special focus on postdoctoral scholars.

The Office of Academic Career Development supports postdoctoral scholars

The OACD is organized around guiding principles that acknowledge the unique challenges of each stage of one’s career. It recognizes that new information and skill sets are needed for successful career navigation. The task of initially identifying and developing supportive policies for Pittsburgh’s 400 postdocs was especially challenging.

Ms. Mary Beth Bawden, Administrator of Operations and Postdoctoral Affairs, was charged with the task to visit each department in the six health science schools to obtain an accurate count of all current postdocs. She created a database with relevant information on the number of postdocs, their locations, and approximate length of appointment. 

With this information in hand, Dr. Lakoski, along with Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs, Dr. Andrew Blair, headed a series of three committees to classify, categorize and recognize the institution’s postdocs. Dr. Blair reports, “with research a huge part of what we do at Pittsburgh, we wanted to make this a place that is attractive for postdocs.” Each of the committees used the findings of an institution wide postdoc survey as background to define and categorize postdoctoral positions in accordance with the AAU Committee on Postdoctoral Education Report. In addition, the committees were able to:

1. Create a standard letter of offer that clearly spells out roles and responsibilities for both the postdoctoral fellow and the supervisor.

2. Update the grievance policy by detailing specific examples of unfair treatment, early termination, and research integrity.

3. Standardize salary and benefits including health coverage, vacation leave, sick leave and maternity leave, retirement, life insurance, and tuition reimbursement.

The findings of the three committees also revealed postdocs’ need for strategic career planning, career counseling services, and mentoring. In response, OACD launched the Postdoctoral Professionalism Series of workshops on career development issues specifically designed for postdocs. The office also assists with the development of effective mentoring relationships.

Mentoring Partnerships

When advisers become effective mentors and assume responsibility for guiding, challenging, and championing their postdocs, they can have a powerful and enduring effect on the careers of junior investigators. Creating a productive mentoring relationship takes considerable time and effort on both sides. With that in mind, Pittsburgh outlines expectations for both the postdoc and mentor in the appointment letter. Faculty mentors are expected to move junior scientists toward an independent, productive, and satisfying career by fostering intellectual, technical, and professional development.

Dr. Charleen Chu, Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology, takes her role as mentor to Dr. Jian-hui Zhu seriously. Dr. Chu is both advisor and “coach” drawing out the best in her advisee. For example, she stresses the importance of honing communication skills. “Once you’ve done the science you still must present it. The key is to be able to communicate your findings.” International postdocs may also encounter special challenges in comprehending a new language, navigating a new academic system, and applying for grants. (Many federal grants require U.S. citizenship). Mentors are instrumental in guiding their mentees in the funding process and completing grant applications.

Dr. Steven Wendell, Assistant Director of Postdoctoral Affairs believes that, “postdocs are the engine behind the research and represent a pool of future leadership for the scientific enterprise.” He himself is a testament of how postdoctoral appointments can prepare a scientist for a faculty and leadership position. He recently made the transition from postdoc to new faculty member, and is a member of the executive board member for the National Postdoctoral Association External Link.

Excellent postdoctoral experiences for new scientists are critical to the health and productivity of current and future research. With new policies in place, Pittsburgh sits poised and ready to offer prospective young researchers an ideal environment to thrive with direction from distinguished researchers. Pittsburgh offers an excellent model for others. 

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine offers these recommendations:   

What institutions can do to organize their Postdoc community:

  • Identify the local chapter for the National Postdoctoral Association and meet with leadership to learn concerns, challenges, needs.
  • Develop and distribute a survey asking for postdoc interests and any existing barriers. 
  • Create a database of information on postdocs, including date and institution of terminal degree, discipline, research specialty, publications, and visa status.
  • Appoint a small committee to investigate postdoc appointments from definition of classification, grievance procedures, and length of tenure.
  • Seek counsel and guidance from the National Postdoctoral Association

What committees can do to implement postdoctoral policies and programs: 

  • Identify an office or central location and a leader/team to provide guidance, logistical support and, information on postdoctoral policies.
  • Design a template for an appointment/offer/contract letter that accompanies the statement of goals, policies and responsibilities applicable to postdoctoral education
  • Standardize postdoctoral appointment procedure and employment policies to include uniform health benefits, six-week parental leave policy and stipends based on the National Institute of Health National Research Service Award.
  • Review existing employment policies/programs and make adjustments as appropriate for greater equity in benefits. 
  • Enlist other offices for ideas and support –Faculty Development/Affairs offices and Human Resources.

Dr. Lakoski offers these tips for launching an effective mentoring relationship:

  • Begin an initial meeting of the mentoring pair (mentee and mentor) by allowing time for each party to discuss individual goals and expectations for the relationship.
  • Establish a plan for frequency, time and location of regularly scheduled meetings.
  • Strive for the highest degree of professional integrity in this relationship, including respect for each other’s time, perspective and ideas.
  • Articulate ethical considerations and responsibilities inherent in the mentoring relationship, including trust, respect and confidentiality.
  • Plan ahead in order to maximize and achieve the full potential of mentoring relationship.
  • Enjoy this opportunity to learn from each other how to address the complexities, frustrations, nuances, rewards, and challenges of a professional career.

Additional Postdoctoral Resources:

AAMC Group on Graduate Research, Education and Training (GREAT) This group functions as the national forum to help Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs.

Association of American Universities Committee on Postdoctoral Education Report and Recommendation, March 1998.

National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) External Link

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Science Policy Committee, Individual Development Plan for Postdoctoral Fellows, September 2002. External Link

Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience For Science and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations and Disciplinary Societies. External Link National Academy Press, 2000.

Association of American Universities (AAU) Postdoctoral Education Survey Results External Link, October 2005. External Link

On Being a Savvy Mentor and Mentee: Ethical Responsibilities in a Mentoring Relationship, J. Lakoski. Endocrine News, December 2004.




Faculty Vitae

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To inquire about updates to information published in Faculty Vitae, please e-mail Valarie Clark at

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