New office supports the Penn postdoc experience

The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs was established this past spring as a boost to the general postdoc community, providing centralized resources, information, and events.

postdocs sitting at tables, raising hands
The new Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and the Office of Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs hosted an orientation at Houston Hall in July, part of a revamped onboarding opportunity for postdocs across Penn. 

Penn has close to 1,400 postdocs, with the majority—about 900—housed in the biomedical sciences. Working closely alongside the already-established Perelman School of Medicine’s Office of Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP), the University launched in Spring 2023 the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA).

“The OPA seeks to intentionally build a stronger, more connected postdoc community at Penn,” says Senior Vice Provost for Research Dawn Bonnell, whose Office oversees the OPA. “Our postdoctoral researchers, who span all 12 of our schools, are exceptional, and play an essential role in our University’s mission. We want to make sure they have access to each other, and to the best resources, information, networking, and events at the institution.”

People choose to pursue postdoctoral research for a variety of reasons. For instance, Arthur Wang, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow, is spending three years at the Annenberg School for Communication diving deep—with the guidance of Annenberg Dean Sarah Banet-Weiser, his faculty mentor—into his research. Studying how scientific concepts travel across contexts, from science communication and popular media to multiethnic American literature, Wang is also exploring and expanding his interests and skills in ways he doesn’t think would be possible if he went directly into a tenure-track academic position after earning his Ph.D.

postdoc smiles at table with others
postdocs sit at table with food and paperwork
four postdocs with ice cream pose for photo
Liz Magill smiles, chatting with postdocs
During Postdoc Appreciation Week in September, postdocs came together for various events, including a kickoff barbeque and an ice cream social, which featured Penn President Liz Magill.

“We are given a ton of time, resources, and flexibility to focus on our research,” Wang explains. “My research project, which began in an English department, has expanded and morphed in a way that demands other kinds of methods and other kinds of skills. Being here has given me the time to really pursue that.”

Understandably, it’s taken Wang some time to adjust to the new environment, one he and other postdocs describe as “less structured” than graduate school. “It’s looser, it’s more independent,” he says. It can also be a lot lonelier. That’s one important way the OPA comes into play.

OPA Director Marta Bartholomew says the new office and the Senior Vice Provost for Research have collaborated with schools and centers at Penn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as with BPP and the Penn Postdoctoral Association, to strengthen resources and communications, including a deeper onboarding experience accessible to all postdocs.

For example, Bartholomew says, the OPA is holding three separate campus-wide orientations for postdocs, an important focus for the office in its first year. The OPA also hosts regular office hours, in part to provide the many postdocs hailing from other countries with opportunities to raise and address questions and concerns as a community.

“Postdocs at Penn come from all over the country and the world,” says Bartholomew. “We want them to have the chance, at the very beginning, to ask about their benefits, their Visa status, and what to know about living in Philadelphia.”

National Postdoc Appreciation Week, held mid-September, featured a kick-off barbeque, ice cream social with President Liz Magill, visits to resource centers on campus, and specialized presentations, talks, and networking opportunities. Building on a concentrated week of programming, the organizations supporting postdocs on campus hope to establish more frequent gatherings.

“The OPA really wants to make sure that all postdocs at Penn are getting equal access to information, and the same opportunities to engage and participate,” Bartholomew says. “We want to make sure that no one is being left out.”

The OPA is also helping to better connect the Penn Postdoc Association and the Penn administration, collaborating to support postdocs and their success.

“Working with the OPA has been really positive,” says Lindsey Fernandez, who, within School of Engineering and Applied Science, studies how to expand advanced computational modeling research from targeted therapies to more affordable and accessible combination therapies. Fernandez serves as the Penn Postdoc Association co-president (along with Mayassa Bou-Dargham). “We’ve been able to make a lot of progress in getting funding and logistical support that’s allowed us to expand the programming we have for postdocs, and more clarity on what resources are available to postdocs.”

The benefit of working together is twofold. Bartholomew says of the Penn Postdoc Association: “It’s been a wonderful partnership, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Visit the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs webpage for more information and resources, and to see what events are on the horizon.

big group of postdocs pose for a photo, photo taken looking down. Screen in background reads: Penn and BPP
Postdocs gather for the closing reception of Postdoc Appreciation Week at Perry World House. (Image: Ellen Song)