April 5, 2007

Sandia Professional Development Program begins for postdoctoral students

Aim is improve the experience of under-recognized group of researchers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Sandia physicist remembers all too vividly how difficult the transition from postdoc to technical staff at Sandia can be.

So Gayle Thayer 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,” she says.

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory.

At the first meeting in late March of the Post-Doctoral Professional Development Program (PD) ²P, the principal speaker was, fittingly enough, Sandia vice president Rick Stulen, who had hired his first postdoc in the early 1980s before the practice became formal policy at Sandia.

Stulen, speaking to about 100 postdocs and mentors in Albuquerque and 25 via videoconferencing at Livermore, said, “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 said, 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.”

Among items under discussion are courses for advisors on how to mentor, opportunities for learning and advancement provided to mentees, and more comprehensive definitions of the terms of engagement.

Asked about differences between Sandia and the other two defense labs, which recently set up education programs for postdocs, Stulen 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.

“[But] 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. “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 (PD)²P mission statement is “to become a preeminent postdoctoral springboard for the scientific leaders of tomorrow.” Its goal is “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.”

Also included are development workshops and technical seminars, and an intent to track postdocs after they leave Sandia and keep the names available for future collaborations and networking.

Workshops include “How to package yourself for jobs in industry,” “The successful postdoc,” and, later, how to obtain academic positions, mentorship and grant writing.

More information can be found at the group’s website,

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer,, (505) 845-7078