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Core Competencies for Postdoctoral Research Fellows



In the current scientific environment, postdoctoral research fellows are encountering a competitive research market, and many will enter into a myriad of science and science-related careers. This requires that fellows develop skills not only specific to their research but also develop broader skills that meet the needs of a diverse scientific workforce and marketplace.

In order to provide a structured training framework for the postdoctoral research fellows, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs assembled a task force and surveyed the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (SOM) research faculty and postdoctoral fellows to identify essential skills that enable postdoctoral fellows to perform at the highest level in their chosen discipline. As a result, a list of Core Competencies was developed that were modified from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Core Competencies.

Intended Use

The Core Competencies are intended to be a list of skills that biomedical research fellows should have acquired by the conclusion of their postdoctoral training to make them competitive and successful in their career aspirations. They should provide fellows, mentors, departments, and the School of Medicine administration with a framework upon which training can be planned and implemented.

For example:

  • Fellows can use these competencies for self-assessment and to seek training relevant to their professional needs.
  • Mentors and fellows can work together to create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) informed by these competencies.
  • Mentors, departments, and the School of Medicine can use these competencies to create new training opportunities and programs.

Although these competencies are designed to fit the needs of the majority of biomedical research fellows, mentors and fellows should prioritize the skills that are most applicable to their own training environments and career aspirations of the postdoctoral research fellow.

Description of Each Competency

I. Discipline-Specific Conceptual Knowledge

Postdoctoral scholars should demonstrate broad knowledge within their discipline and detailed knowledge of their specific research area. They should understand the gaps, limits, and challenges within their research area such that they can develop testable hypotheses.

Associated Skills

  • Analytical approach to defining scientific questions
  • Design of scientifically testable hypotheses
  • Broad-based and cross-disciplinary knowledge acquisition
  • Detailed knowledge of the specific discipline

II. Research Skill Development

Postdoctoral scholars should to be able to design sound research protocols, safely perform the techniques necessary to conduct and analyze the data, and navigate the grant application and scientific publishing processes.

Associated Skills

  • Research techniques
  • Laboratory safety
  • Experimental design
  • Data analysis and interpretation
  • Statistical analysis
  • Searching and evaluating the literature
  • Understanding the manuscript submission and peer review process

III. Communication Skills

Postdoctoral scholars should demonstrate writing, speaking, and listening skills that enable them to communicate effectively with colleagues, students, the general public, and the media.

Associated Skills

  • Writing manuscripts, white papers, and progress reports
  • Writing funding proposals such as grants and fellowships
  • Giving effective verbal presentations in seminars, meetings, and poster sessions
  • Teaching
  • Communicating with a lay audience
  • Communicating through media and social media outlets

IV. Job Market Skills

Postdoctoral scholars should demonstrate proficient skills in identifying and seeking positions in the job market.

Associated Skills

  • Researching and gaining knowledge of available career fields and professional options
  • Identifying relevant transferable skills and aligning those skills with the job market
  • Writing job application materials (CV, resume, cover letter, research statements, teaching statements)
  • Interviewing
  • Networking
  • Presenting job and chalk talks
  • Negotiating job offers

V. Professionalism

Postdoctoral scholars should adhere to accepted professional standards and practices within their immediate workplace, their institution, and their specific discipline. They are expected to reflect and advance the values of their profession in the community at large.

Associated Skills

  • Upholding workplace etiquette and performance standards
  • Complying with institutional rules, regulations, and norms
  • Respecting, evaluating, and enhancing contributions of others
  • Advancing a specific discipline by participating in public and professional service
  • Identifying and managing conflicts of interest, ethics violations, or violations of expected and respectful behavior
  • Maintaining standards of cultural competency, awareness, and respect

VI. Leadership and Management Skills

Postdoctoral scholars should have the skills and techniques needed to facilitate effective team work, manage day-to-day operations within their workplace, and pursue leadership opportunities at the local, institutional, regional, and national levels.

Associated Skills

  • Setting a long-term strategic mission
  • Establishing priorities and setting goals
  • Understanding what leadership styles are appropriate in given situations
  • Managing a team
  • Mentoring trainees and junior members of a team
  • Establishing collaborations
  • Time management

VII. Responsible Conduct of Research

Postdoctoral scholars should be trained in responsible research conduct in order to make ethical and legal choices. Training should provide insight and appreciation of accepted research practices, regulations, policies, statutes, and guidelines as well as awareness of available resources for reporting and seeking guidance for ethical questions and concerns.

Associated Skills

  • Owning and sharing data
  • Conducting research with human subjects and/or animals (where applicable)
  • Identifying and mitigating research misconduct
  • Identifying and mitigating conflicts of interest
  • Keeping accurate records of research activities and findings
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