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When Old Training Models Require Reevaluation:  Transforming postdoctoral training

Postdoctoral training in the U.S. has long relied on individual professors training his or her postdocs, often in the same manner in which they themselves were trained. This tradition for preparing the next generation of researchers has encountered challenging times. Research has become highly specialized, training time has increased, academic career opportunities have stagnated, and research funding has declined. Postdocs have reacted to these factors with career dissatisfaction and exodus.

To address this trend and to increase diversity in the biomedical research field, we created Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE), an experimental National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) postdoc training program, while at UNC Chapel Hill. The project explored alternative/additional training that would overcome the challenges of postdoctoral training. To that end, SPIRE postdocs receive broad professional development, including teaching at historically minority universities to promote diversity, in addition to their research.

Seven years later, research data reveals that SPIRE postdocs flourish under a more demanding and diverse training regimen. Their acquired skills at teaching, communication, negotiation, organizational change, and facilitating diversity—coupled with their research accomplishments—have made them attractive to universities of all types. Over 70% have accepted tenure-track faculty positions versus 20% to 25% for traditionally trained postdocs. The success of this, and comparable programs we have created, is rooted in taking a research-based approach to building highly integrated, multidisciplinary initiatives—using tools and practices from diverse fields, such as science, business, social sciences, and education.