Sandia LabNews

Professional Development Program begins for postdoctoral students


A Sandia physicist remembers all too vividly how difficult the transition from postdoc to technical staff at Sandia can be. So she has helped start an organization to enable current postdocs to network, learn about research going on outside their own cubbyholed areas, and develop professional techniques to help their careers blossom.

“There’s no reason that the career skills I learned about at the last minute should not be available to appointees throughout their postdoc experience,” says Gayle Thayer (5711).

At the first meeting last Tuesday of the PostDoctoral Professional Development Program (PD)2P, the principal speaker was, fittingly enough, 1000 VP Rick Stulen, who had hired his first postdoc in the early ’80s before the practice became formal policy at Sandia.

Rick, speaking to about 75 postdocs and mentors in Albuquerque and about 50 videoconferenced at Livermore, says, “I saw the impact [of postdocs hired] at Lawrence Livermore National Labs and latched on to the concept. The level of work was good, and the enthusiasm was personally enriching.”

The expectations of a Sandia postdoc, he says, should be “to have a solid mentor who is well-connected to what you care about technically, who connects you to other parts of the lab, who cares about your career goals, and who helps access facilities you can’t find elsewhere. You’re losing a little bit of the Labs experience if you don’t take advantage of those facilities.”

An open question remained as to whether Sandia should follow the recent leads of its sister labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, by formalizing the relationship between postdocs and the Laboratories, with courses for advisors on how to mentor, opportunities for learning and advancement provided to mentees, and more comprehensive definitions of the terms of engagement. Other issues raised included whether postdocs should fill out PMFs (Performance Management Forms) and be able to participate in the LDRD (Laboratory Directed Research and Development) office’s call for proposals.

Peter Feibelman (1130) said that “because Sandia has no formalized program, the work has been ad hoc, with responsibilities not clear. At LANL, they have an organization charged with improving the experience of postdocs. It’s nice that some people [here] have decided to start an organization like this, but really it’s the Labs’ responsibility.”

The Lab News asked Rick why Sandia seemed to be following other labs in this effort rather than leading.

“First,” he said, “both LLNL and LANL are run by a university. They tend to think more about education. We’re a corporate-run engineering lab whose existence is based on deliverables. It’s a different outlook. For LANL, providing a good experience to postdocs is a method of keeping up the flow of new hires from that group.

“In my view,” he said, “a healthy postdoc program is critical to Sandia. It keeps us intellectually healthy and challenged. There’s an injection of new ideas that contribute to laboratory vitality. We have a responsibility to the nation to be part of this channel. And students from industry and universities help us form a network we can rely on in our later work.”

The new organization may help further these ends.

“Currently, there’s no easy pathway to find out what’s going on in a large laboratory,” said postdoc Justin Serrano (1513). “If you don’t have a way to talk to other people, you’d never know what’s happening beyond your building or center.” The Lab News, he said, shows only high-profile work that helps him less than personal communication would.

The (PD)2P mission statement — “to become a preeminent postdoctoral springboard for the scientific leaders of tomorrow” — and its goal — “to facilitate postdocs transitioning into careers as outstanding independent researchers by providing resources for professional development, and to formalize a visible program to organize and network postdocs and highlight postdoc work” — were backed by a calendar listing career development workshops for postdocs and technical seminars by postdocs, as well as the stated intent to track postdocs after they leave Sandia to see where they went and keep the names available for future collaborations and networking.

Workshops included “How to package yourself for jobs in industry,” to be led by Rochelle Lari; “The successful postdoc,” by Peter Feibelman; and, later, how to obtain academic positions, mentorship, and grant writing.

More information can be found at the group’s website, www.sandia.gov/pd2p.

Current team members include Linda Canaan (8524), Erica Corral (1815), Anna Gorman (1815), Lisa Gray (8350), Bernadette Hernandez-Sanchez (1815), Tom Hinklin (1815), Wontae Hwang (8362), Sebastian Kaiser (8351), Gayle Thayer (5711), and Dominique Foley Wilson (1012).

The (PD)2P is supported by Wendy Cieslak (1010) in the Science, Technology, and Engineering Strategic Management Unit’s Strategic Initiatives Office, with funding from the Nuclear Weapons (NW) People Readiness Portfolio that nurtures NW-critical capabilities for the future of Sandia.