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A Conversation with Belinda Huang: Postdocs and Women in Academe

By Anna De Cheke Qualls

Belinda Jung-Lee HuangHow did Belinda Jung-Lee Huang (’12 PhD) who studied women of color leaders in higher education end up as the Executive Director of the National Postdoctoral Association?  She probably asked herself the same question. When she discusses her academic journey, the answer is self-evident. She enjoys new and formidable adventures, and is a consummate learner.

Huang grew up in an interesting time.  Her parents emigrated from China in the 1950s and, as in many immigrant families, reinforced the value of education in their children.  When she was in 6th grade, her family lived in Taiwan for a year and she attended the local school despite her limited language skills. This, and growing up in Los Angeles as an Asian American, informed her interests in culture, identity, race and ethnicity.

From there, the twists and turns of her path bumped her into these very same issues.  She decided to study Humanities at UC Berkeley and, at the time, was one of five Asian Americans in the program. She also worked with a TRIO program in the area, where Huang came to understand the issues faced by low-income and first-generation students.  She spent years working as a higher education administrator, and teaching courses on Asian American Studies. “But,” says Huang, “like the women of color I studied later on, being the ‘first and only’ was often a theme in my career.”

And then another fierce move, to the Education Policy doctoral program at the University of Maryland. In 2013, Huang was offered the Executive Director position at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), a role she held for almost 3 years before deciding to take a visiting faculty position at George Washington University.  During her tenure at NPA, it was her ethos to recruit diverse individuals to leadership roles, incorporate diversity into annual goals and conversations, and recruit inclusive sessions for the Annual Meeting. Huang also developed postdoctoral networking events that involved industry, non-profits and government while also editing the Advancing Postdoc Women Guidebook. Huang was a  co-author on the Institutional Policy Report 2014 – an important publication that offered data on office structure, postdoctoral demographics, professional and career development training, and benefits.

Here, we arrive at the present moment, sitting with Dr. Belinda Huang, at her kitchen table on a warm summer morning – grateful for the opportunity to question her about her expertise in postdoctoral issues and women in academe.

Your research on leadership and diversity in academe continues to resonate, does it not? 

My research interest in women of color leaders came from my work experiences as an administrator at an R1 institution. I was working in the Undergraduate Division where I created and led a student affairs program and developed co-curricular programs such as leadership retreats, club leadership training, and faculty/first-year mentoring. While there, I noticed that there were no women of color in the university’s senior leadership. I also observed that, in various meetings, some of the women who seemed to advance into senior roles had more political skills than others. Thus, I began to wonder whether power and politics were a factor in women of color attaining senior level positions. My doctoral study focused on nine women of color – 7 presidents, 1 provost, and 1 vice-provost – who navigated power and politics to attain the college presidency and provostial positions. There was tremendous diversity in these women, three African Americans, two American Indians, two Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and two Latinas; five of the nine led Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges, so I was able to see the unique challenges of leading a minority-serving institution. Today, there is a great need for senior leaders in academe, who are diverse in all areas of difference. One of the findings from my study was that the women of color had diverse, collaborative, entrepreneurial, and inclusive leadership styles, and this can serve as a role model for future leaders.

What about research on postdoctoral services and outcomes?

I agree with many in the postdoctoral community that there needs to be much more research on postdoctoral scholars (postdocs). The National Academies of Science (NAS) The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (2014) and the National Postdoctoral Association’s Institutional Policy Report 2014 showed that there is the a dearth of research about postdocs. It is difficult to gather outcome data on postdocs because roughly 60% are international and return to their home countries after completing their appointments or fellowships. However, from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) report, we do have information about institutional demographics and the postdoc population, as well as policies, compensation and benefits, and career and professional services that are offered.  Also, the Early Career Doctorates Survey (ECDS) sponsored by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation and by the National Institutes of Health, indicates that 228,700 for persons receiving their doctorates within the past 10 years are employed in academic institutions (96%), with the majority earning their first doctoral degree in the sciences (70%).

About 8-9 years ago, institutions of higher education became acutely interested in serving postdoctoral fellows.  People started to recognize this "unseen" population of individuals on campuses. Almost a decade later, do you think creating postdoctoral services/offices have changed? What are our challenges and opportunities?

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was started in 2003 to improve the U.S. scientific enterprise, advocate for benefits/services, and to support postdoctoral training. In the early 2000s, there were less than 25 postdoctoral offices nationwide, but the NPA’s Institutional Policy Report 2014 showed there were 167 Institutional Sustaining Members, serving 79,000 postdocs. As Executive Director, I would hear stories of offices operating with zero budgets, and that was verified by the NPA’s 2014 report which showed that close to 40% of postdoc offices were operating without a budget.

Even now, many people have no idea what postdoctoral office directors do. One of the challenges of postdoctoral administrators and leaders is they have to be a jack of all trades and simultaneously specialized in their knowledge: helping postdocs with visa issues, handling mediation between the PI and postdoc, developing mentoring programs, teaching courses on professional development, and learning about and implementing changes in applicable government legislation.

Ideally postdocs ought to be trainees with all the associated benefits and professional/career development opportunities. I think developing a postdoctoral community on campuses would be very beneficial in supporting postdocs who are helping their principal investigators (PIs) make important discoveries. We take for granted many breakthroughs in science, arts, and humanities often come from postdoctoral research. I often say to postdocs if there is a medical breakthrough in cancer, Alzheimer’s, coronary artery disease, or autism, chances are there is a postdoc that contributed to that scientific discovery.

What do you think a working postdoctoral office should look like? What are the fundamentals and what are additional desirable features?  How should outcomes be measured?

Every campus is different, so one has to look at the institution’s structure when planning what a postdoctoral office should look like. The NPA Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices is a useful place to start. Whether all functions are performed by the postdoctoral office varies, but it should be the locus of coordination.

How career outcomes should be measured is a difficult question. I have sat in meetings with the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and discussed this with university deans and association directors. CGS has launched an Understanding Career Pathways study to examine outcomes for doctoral students in the sciences and humanities; this will help analyze Ph.D. preferences and career outcomes at the program level and assist faculty and university leaders to strengthen career services, professional development opportunities, and mentoring in doctoral programs.  How do we measure success? Is it by the position someone has attained, or their satisfaction (and how do you measure that), or the number of papers they have written? Needless to say, it’s complicated.

To measure career outcomes of postdocs after their appointment, has been a challenge since the role of the postdoctoral fellows was conceived. We know from the NPA Institutional Policy Report 2014 that there are upwards of 79,000 postdocs studying in the U.S.  The numbers of postdocs vary by who is counting them (NIH, NSF) but the range is somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000. We know most postdocs are in the biomedical area, though the numbers in Engineering, Humanities, and Social Science are growing. So, to measure outcomes you would need to be able to track them after they leave the university. And unlike graduate students who graduate in either the winter or spring, a postdocs’ appointment with their PI can end or start anytime of the year. Also, many go back to their home country therefore we lose the ability to use mechanisms we have here to track them internationally.

What are some things graduate students should know before becoming a postdoc?  What kind of professional development/training do they need in order to prepare for the postdoctoral path?  (Of course, some of this depends on their disciplinary area.)

Graduate students really need to consider whether their career path would be enhanced by spending 2-5 years, depending on whether they are in the Social Sciences, Arts, Humanities, or STEM as a postdoc. Getting a Ph.D. opens doors to many opportunities, and not all of them require a postdoc. So, in an ideal scenario, a graduate student would be preparing for a career path, but also developing the skills to be successful in multiple arenas. I taught my M.A. and Ed.D. students at George Washington University to refine their research skills, hone their arguments when writing a paper, practice making presentations, and submit papers to conferences. Generally, graduate students need to complete their studies and develop public speaking, team work, analytical, problem solving, writing, and project management skills. When I was a graduate student, I admit that I was too focused on my dissertation topic and advancing to candidacy to take advantage of the great professional development workshops offered by the UMD Graduate School.

 It is not enough in 2017 to graduate with your technical abilities or specialized dissertation topic. As you join the workforce, you will inevitably advance to leadership. In this role, you will need to be able to manage a budget, lead meetings, write briefs or reports, do fundraising, and persuade a funding agency to fund your research. One of the comments I learned from interviewing a woman of color president, was that she found it very helpful to have practiced debating when she was younger – as women we are seldom schooled in this. I found that my dissertation defense, though challenging, served me well when I was the Executive Director, because I had situations where I was grilled by senior leaders; thus, your ability to think on your feet and answer questions en pointe is critical.

I would recommend that if a graduate student is thinking about a postdoc, they should do their research on the career outcomes of the program they are interested in. Is it really necessary to do a postdoc to achieve your desired career results? I have met many people who tell me that they did the postdoc because they didn’t know what else to do after the PhD. As you are researching this, explore whether the PI will serve as a mentor and what are the outcomes of his/her postdocs. The NPA gives a Mentor Award each year, and some letters speak of a PI as a role model, someone who is generous with their data, and helps them navigate their professional and personal life, and even secures their first NIH grant. I think an exceptional postdoc experience has a PI that is concerned about your well-being, your professional success, and flexible about giving you the opportunities to pursue career and professional development. They see your success as reflecting on their success as a PI.  I also think it is vitally important to talk to the postdocs in the lab (science) or in the department (social science/humanities/arts) about their experiences. Is there money to attend professional conferences, flexibility in the schedule to attend career and professional development, and possibly teach and/or do an internship?

What does a working postdoctoral appointment look like? What should be some expected outcomes?  How can they measure success?

A postdoc in STEM looks very different from Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities - but all have the goal of publishing their research. The NPA has established six core competencies to guide postdoctoral scholars who are seeking training. I think these competencies can be applied to any field. These competencies serve as postdoctoral self-evaluation and develop possible training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors.

They are: (1) Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge, (2) Research skill development, (3) Communication skills, (4) Professionalism, (5) Leadership and management skills and (6) Responsible conduct of research. The six core competencies are not intended to be prescriptive or limiting, but as a resource to be used and adapted in a variety of ways by the many stakeholders involved in the training experience of postdocs. In addition to these competencies, expected outcomes should really be dependent on the individual’s goals. But, in general: publishing your work, being competitive for external funding, and building a network that will help you transition to your next position are the key results we hope postdocs experience.

Some companies/organizations also work with postdocs?  Is their experience different from the university setting?  Are there things to be learned from both environments?

At NPA, I worked with several biotech/pharmaceutical companies (AstraZeneca/MedImmuneNovartis, and Pfizer) that have their own postdoctoral offices. Their programs tend to be shorter—3-years as opposed to 5 years—smaller—ranging from 30-150 postdocs—with a focus on training postdocs for careers in industry. With a placement rate of nearly 100%, some companies maintain a database of all their alumni, which can have myriad benefits. If you are a graduate student interested in working in industry, you should talk with a postdoctoral director at your company of interest.

My biotech/pharmaceutical colleagues have commented to me that a postdoc in industry can see how basic science can be turned to applied sciences directly or indirectly. There is also greater exposure to cross-functional team work, project and timeline management in industry, and the collaborative environment enables access to a broad range of experts and technology. Also, depending on the size of the program, postdocs may have fewer peers to interact with, therefore building a strong community is critical.

Related to this, how can a program or faculty member prepare for hosting/sponsoring a postdoc?  On a broader scale an institution?

The American Association of Medical Colleges’ Compact Between Biomedical Graduate Students And Their Research Advisors discusses the importance of a faculty member’s role. It states that faculty members who are advising graduate students are expected to fulfill the role of a mentor, which includes providing scientific training, guidance, instruction in the responsible conduct of research and research ethics, and financial support. According to postdoctoral affairs thought-leader and Assistant Dean, the NYU School of Medicine’s, Dr. Keith Micoli, "A faculty member can prepare by laying out clear expectations, work with the postdoc to create both a research plan and a career plan (see myIDP) and create and maintain clear communication. Regular review of progress, and being open to multiple outcomes for postdocs will help make for a successful experience.  Institutions can provide clear policies and procedures regarding postdocs, and provide resources to supplement the individual mentoring given by the faculty."

At Maryland we are keenly interested in diversifying the professoriate (through such projects as CIRTL/AGEP).  What role can a postdoctoral fellowship play in the diversity pipeline? Do we gain/lose potential faculty through postdoctoral training?  If so, how?

Before I answer this question, I would like to reference research by Gibbs et al. (2014). Their study of 1500 biomedical Ph.D.s found that 54% underrepresented men, 36% white and Asian/Asian American women, and 54% underrepresented women were less likely to express high interest in faculty careers at research universities after completing their PhDs s compared to white and Asian American men. The authors concluded that efforts to diversify the professoriate should consider the influences of broader dynamics and reward structures operating at the institutional and systemic levels and how these facets may be exerting pressures across social identity. In order to enhance the diversity of the NIH-funded research workforce, NIH has funded the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) to provide all trainees in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences with evidence-based mentorship and professional development programming. For all populations, whether underrepresented or underserved, a postdoc provides an opportunity to be exposed to research training, professional development, career development, and networks.

Do we gain or lose potential faculty through postdoctoral training? I think so. For individuals who do not want to spend another five years going through postdoctoral training, there are opportunity costs. They may see taking an industry job as much more profitable and less demanding than doing a postdoc. The Survey of Earned Doctorates states that new PhDs can command a starting salary that is 40 to 200 percent more than postdocs, depending on their field and sector of employment. However, in most STEM fields (less so of math), if one wants to be a faculty member, you will not be competitive without postdoctoral training.

What does research show about the postdoctoral experience of men vs women?  Different ethnicities?   Or more generally, what does research show about the experience of different race/ethnicities higher education?

A significant challenge for women is they are in their childbearing years as they complete their postdocs (age 30-40). A recent report by The Center for Worklife Law and the NPA, Parents in the Pipeline Retaining Postdoctoral Researchers with Families, pointed to the precarious position of postdocs who are on grants and report to one PI. Postdocs of color were discouraged from taking leave at nearly twice the rate of white postdocs. Postdoc mothers were afraid to ask for accommodations, and many had short paid leave and returned to work before recovering from giving birth. A challenge for postdoc mothers was that requesting leave could result in hostility from their PI for being pregnant or needing time off. With mothers and fathers having no access to paid or unpaid leave, some returned to their postdoctoral work because they could not afford to be without their stipend or benefits. Institutions who want to improve the postdoc parents’ experience should develop a formal family leave policy so that postdocs do not experience discrimination from their PI.

Research on race and ethnicity in higher education reveals unique challenges for women of color. My research on women of color senior leaders, indicates that all experienced racism and sexism as they progressed from junior faculty to senior leadership. They spoke of resisting being seeing seen as token affirmative action hires or as eye candy. Each president or provost observed that they were seen first as a member of a minority group and secondly as a president (who was also a woman). To combat these attitudes, they highlighted the importance of self-care, using their intellectual capabilities to demonstrate they are not be defined by race. What I would like to do in the future is use my knowledge from this study to teach women graduate students, postdocs, faculty about how to understand the organizational structure of universities and navigate power and politics in academe. I would also like to help women of color construct strategies to counter racism and sexism - things they will experience as they advance to senior leadership.

 Where do we go from here?  In general, what can institutions be doing to improve postdoctoral training?

There are many recommendations in the Postdoctoral Experience Revisited and the NPA Institutional Policy Report 2014 and Parents in the Pipeline so I will highlight a few areas that are important:

  1. A higher stipend to make the postdoc position attractive and competitive with industry.
  2. A robust training program that has excellent research training, career and professional development.  This will also help to continuously attract postdocs.
  3. Institutions should use the ’postdoctoral scholar’ terminology to enable institutional research offices to identify data on postdocs and use this comparatively through schools and divisions. Also, using one term makes it easier to track postdocs after they leave the institution. A 2011 survey by the NPA revealed that there were 37 titles assigned to postdoctoral scholars.
  4. Provide paid leave to postdoc parents separate from, or in addition to, paid sick or vacation leave; provide on-campus childcare or other childcare supports.
  5. Institutions should provide resources to postdoctoral offices such that they can offer an exit survey. Seventy-seven percent of postdoctoral offices in the NPA 2014 Report said they did not have a mechanism and resources to track postdocs. The benefit of an exit survey would be to refine postdoctoral programs and to define career outcomes.

For more information on Dr. Belinda Huang go here.

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