Making the Most of Your Postdoc

Core Competencies

The postdoc experience is designed as a training program to instill certain skills, techniques, tools and tactics for pursuing advanced research. Ideally, a postdoc should sharpen their innovative problem-solving abilities and learn to manage research group resources, such as employees and grant money.

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has established a list of six core competencies that postdoctoral scholars may expect to have developed by the end of their postdoc appointment. As you move through your postdoc experience, it may be useful for you to ask yourself if you are on the right track to gain these skills before you finish. If not, reach out to your mentor and/or seek out university resources to help you achieve these basic competencies.

The Six Core Competencies

Discipline-Specific Conceptual Knowledge 

Postdoctoral scholars are expected to demonstrate a broad base of established and evolving knowledge within their discipline and detailed knowledge of their specific research area. They should understand the gaps, conflicts, limits and challenges within their research area in order to develop testable hypotheses.

Research Skill Development

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

Communication Skills

In any professional environment, the ability to communicate your thoughts in a way that others will readily understand you is critical. Communication is more than preparing and sending a message; it is making every effort to be sure that the message is heard and understood by the appropriate audience.


Postdoctoral scholars are expected to adhere to accepted professional standards and practices within their immediate workplace (e.g., laboratory, office), institution and discipline. They are also expected to reflect and advance the values of their profession in the wider community.

Leadership and Management Skills

Postdoctoral scholars should have the skills and techniques needed to facilitate effective teamwork, manage day-to-day operations in their workplace, and pursue leadership opportunities at the local, institutional, regional and national levels. These skills will also help you to mentor others more successfully.

Responsible Conduct of Research

Postdoctoral scholars should receive training in the responsible conduct of research to improve their abilities to make ethical and legal choices. This training should provide them with an appreciation of the range of accepted research practices; familiarize them with the relevant regulations, policies, statutes and guidelines governing the conduct of their research; and make them aware of the resources to which they can turn when ethical questions and concerns arise.

This guide has been adapted from the website of the National Postdoctoral Association, where you can read more about the core competencies and how they were conceived and developed. You can also download the list of competencies there. The NPA is a great resource for postdocs! The Postdoc Office encourages all Weill Cornell postdocs to get involved with the NPA and our own Postdoctoral Scholars' Association.

Postdoc-Mentor Compact

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has set forth guiding principles to support the development of a positive mentoring relationship between the postdoctoral trainee and their research adviser. A successful postdoc-mentor relationship requires commitment from the trainee, mentor, graduate program and institution. This document offers a set of broad guidelines which are meant to initiate discussions at the local and national levels about the postdoc-mentor relationship. According to this Compact, core tenets of postdoctoral training include:

  • Institutional Commitment
  • Quality Postdoctoral Training
  • Importance of Mentoring in Postdoctoral Training
  • Foster Breadth and Flexibility in Career Choices

The Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and their Mentors details necessary commitments of both postdoctoral appointees and mentors.

Individual Development Plan

In 2012, a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the NIH issued a report looking at the current state of the biomedical workforce and the current training model. The working group formulated a series of recommendations aimed at addressing areas in need of improvement. One of the recommendations was a call for all NIH-funded graduate students and postdocs to develop and utilize Individual Development Plans (IDPs).

An IDP is a written plan for goals and actions for the next year. Like a personal strategic plan, an IDP helps early-career researchers set long- and short-term goals and establish an action plan for achieving these goals. Studies have shown that by writing down the plan and revisiting it annually, trainees are more likely to accomplish those goals and tend to have greater success and satisfaction. Completing an IDP can also foster communication and feedback between trainees and mentors, as well as assist trainees in carving out time for career exploration, professional development and work-life balance.

Building on earlier work by FASEB, Science Careers, FASEB, AAAS, and several other organizations came together and created a free online career planning tool specifically for graduate students and postdocs: ‘myIDP’. Trainees go through four steps 1) self-evaluation of skills, values, and interests, 2) exploring and evaluating career opportunities and identifying career options, 3) setting career development goals & 4) implementing a plan of action in myIDP. myIDP also allows users to share their IDP or portions of their IDP with their mentors.

Access myIDP here. please go to: . To learn more about myIDP please read “You Need a Game Plan,” which is the first in a series of articles regarding myIDP that is published in Science Careers.

Professional Development at WCM


eCornell is a subsidiary of Cornell University and provides online professional and executive development to students around the world. eCornell offers more than 20 award-winning online certificate programs in a wide variety of disciplines:

  • Leadership & Strategic Management
  • Management & Supervisory Skills
  • Human Resources Management
  • Healthcare Management
  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Project Leadership & Systems Design

Cornell University employees - including all faculty and staff at Weill Cornell Medical College - are eligible for special tuition rates for eCornell courses through an arrangement with the Office of Human Resources. Courses are available for $100.00 each (regularly priced at $699) and may be purchased with a credit card. Course enrollments are accepted until two calendar days prior to the course start date. Your registration will be confirmed by email two days before the course starts.

eCornell courses range in length from six to 12 hours and unfold across a period of two to four weeks. During that time, you will use email and online discussion to interact with your fellow learners and with an eCornell instructor who is an expert in the subject matter. Following the formal end of the course, you will have access to the course material for an additional four weeks. 

To register for a course, please visit the eCornell site

Clinical and Translational Science Center

The Clinical and Translational Science Center (CSTC) offers postdoctoral training awards to ensure protected time for young investigators, as well as seminar series and a didactic training program leading to either an Advanced Certificate or Master of Science degree in Clinical and Translational Research.

Center for Technology Licensing

The Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) facilitates the translation of academic research into practical applications and supports research, education and teaching by generating funding for the University and facilitating partnerships with industry where appropriate. They also educate and serve as a resource for the Cornell community on matters relating to entrepreneurship, intellectual property, and technology commercialization. Events hosted by CTL are open to the Cornell community.

CTL's Volunteer Internship Program offers a unique opportunity for Cornell postdocs to attain valuable experience in a university technology transfer setting. Interns work closely with professionals at CTL on a part-time basis, providing support in various aspects of technology management including invention assessments and technology marketing. Training is provided. Click here to learn more.

Transitioning to Research Independence Seminar Series

After securing a faculty position, a principal investigator must establish their labs, hire staff, secure funding, publish, mentor trainees, serve on committees and form collaborations, all whilst preparing for tenure. Making the transition from postdoc to principal investigator can thus be a daunting process. Even the first steps in this endeavor, applying and interviewing for faculty positions and negotiating an offer may be unfamiliar to many postdocs. With these considerations in mind, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs developed a seminar series on transitioning to research independence.

The seminar series includes eight sessions and covers topics such as the nuts and bolts of seeking a faculty position, considerations for establishing a lab, strategies for leading and managing a research group, securing funding and mentoring trainees.  The course has been modeled after the Making the Right Moves, A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty manual by Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The course is geared towards advanced postdoctoral researchers and fellows who plan to set up their own laboratory and develop their own research program at an academic institution. This course is open to all postdocs and students at Rockefeller University, Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering. Seminars include:

 Applying for a Faculty Position

Interviewing for a Faculty Position

The Art of the Chalk Talk

Negotiating the Job Offer and Start-up Package

Staffing and Managing a Lab

Funding Strategies for Junior Faculty Room

Time and Project Management

Effective Mentoring


The Mentor’s Responsibility

Your faculty mentor or PI is responsible for guiding and monitoring your training and progress as a postdoc. He or she must set clear expectations and ensure that you know what your responsibilities are as a postdoc. Your mentor must regularly and frequently communicate with you, provide regular and timely assessments of your performance and provide career advice. Faculty should be aware that written annual progress assessments are preferred. Your PI also should help you build the network of connections you will need to take the next step in your career when you finish your postdoc.

The Postdoc’s Responsibility

As the National Postdoc Association advises, “The most successful mentoring relationships are those in which the mentee takes initiative and truly drives the mentoring partnership. It is important that the mentee helps determine the pace, route and destination of the partnership. This will allow the mentor to offer insights and counsel that are customized to the mentee's objectives. Moreover, the mentee must realize that the mentor is a guide and not the one responsible for the mentee's actions. The mentor can only open the doors and introduce the mentee to the right situations. The mentee also needs to be proactive in searching for secondary mentors and other opportunities that will allow the growth and development of their own professional network.”

Ideas for Getting the Most From Your Mentor

Make time to meet regularly with your PI. Don’t wait around for your mentor to schedule meetings with you; you will probably need to ask for their time. Your mentor is a very busy person and mentoring you may not be his/her top priority, but if you take the initiative, most PIs will respond and do their best to help you. After all, your success is also their success. When you do meet with your mentor, be prepared with questions and have your career goals in mind. Preparing an Individual Development Plan is an excellent way to get your thoughts together for these important conversations.

Get started on your IDP early! Research by Sigma Xi has shown that postdocs who complete an Individual Development Plan, a tool for setting and marking progress toward personal and research goals, are more productive, have less conflict with their mentors, and are more satisfied with their postdoc experience. Postdocs at WCM are strongly encouraged to complete an IDP with their mentor early in their postdoc appointment, and using an IDP may even soon be a required exercise for postdocs on certain types of grant support.

Listen and be willing to take criticism. Your mentor may not always have exclusively positive things to say about where your research is going or your progress in the lab, but this is not intended to deflate your ego. Learn from your mistakes and be open to your mentor’s guidance.

Take advantage of opportunities for career planning/development activities. Attending professional conferences and seminars as well as workshops hosted by the Postdoc Office and other campus organizations is essential for building your knowledge base and professional network. Your mentor should be able to recommend which conferences and seminars will benefit you the most.

Find a second or even a third mentor if you aren’t getting everything you need from your PI. Other, more senior postdocs in your lab can be great second mentors. Look also to other faculty members and colleagues who are doing work you are interested in on or off campus. The mentor-mentee relationship does not need to be exclusive. If you are not getting all the guidance you need from your PI, seek out others who can advise you and help you achieve your goals.

Mentoring Resources

Office of Postdoctoral Affairs 1300 York Ave, Suite A-139 New York, NY 10065 Phone: