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Postdoctoral program helps new scholars gain competitive edge

by Charli Engelhorn
Associate Professor Ann Marie Yamada chats with postdoc research fellow Andrew Subica. (Photo/Eric Lindberg)
Associate Professor Ann Marie Yamada chats with postdoc research fellow Andrew Subica. (Photo/Eric Lindberg)

A new program at the USC School of Social Work is making postdoctoral scholars part of the school’s long-standing tradition of research excellence.

Six promising scholars have been paired with top researchers and faculty members since last fall. Dean Marilyn L. Flynn said that because research initiatives are becoming increasingly sophisticated and demands on young researchers are complex, it was critical for the school to develop a postdoctoral option.

“The postdoctoral scholars are the engine for research,” Flynn said. “I see the program as being integral to the high-quality research that we want to do, including publications. This experience is really something people need for tenure track, grants development and being part of a research team. We have an emphasis on team-oriented research.”

This year, four of the six research clusters at the school’s Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services are funding postdoctoral fellows to both assist with ongoing research endeavors and provide valuable experience as the scholars move forward in their careers.

A postdoctoral position is advantageous for recent doctoral graduates, faculty mentors said, because it provides greater access to funding as part of an established research program than scholars might receive in other positions. Many graduates may also need more research experience and published articles before they can successfully compete for a tenure-track position.

Cara Pohle, a postdoctoral fellow in the Child Development and Children’s Services cluster, was looking for such an opportunity when she graduated from USC’s doctoral program.

“I had a lot of teaching experience during my PhD work, but I was lacking publications. I needed to build a stronger trajectory, so a postdoc position was a better fit for me,” Pohle said. “I liked the idea of having time to follow my own agenda and focus on my own research and publishing more. And you can’t beat being at USC because of all the research that is happening.”

All postdoctoral students at USC are paired with a doctoral faculty mentor in their specific cluster or topic of interest. The mentors help to shape individual development plans for each scholar and guide them through the process of creating a successful research, grant and publication portfolio.

“It’s a big investment,” said Provost Professor William Vega, executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging. “We spend a lot of time helping to create a process of how to think about science. They all have PhD experience and are assumed to have that basic knowledge, but now can they become concise and efficient in forming their research topic? You have to retrain your neurological system to think about these things.”

In their work with postdoctoral fellows, Vega said faculty mentors emphasize clarity of thought and how to find the balance between their personal career goals and the interests of the field of social work.

“Are they part of an interesting area in the field and committed to it? Can they make a contribution and is there receptivity for funding and publications?” Vega asked. “Their research needs to have legs and forward motion, and it must overlap with the interests of the faculty. The mentor must set expectations to monitor and hold them accountable.”

The relationship between scholar and mentor can prove to be symbiotic, as exemplified by the experience of Andrew Subica, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Serious Mental Illness cluster.

Born and raised in Hawaii by parents with Japanese and Portuguese backgrounds, Subica became interested in racial and cultural disparities after experiencing life as an ethnic minority for the first time when he moved to Pomona, Calif., for his undergraduate studies. He returned to Hawaii to earn his PhD in clinical psychology and began working in clinical practice with people experiencing mental health issues.

His first postdoctoral position was in central Texas at a Veterans Affairs center, where he worked with people with severe mental illness.

“Clinical was rewarding, but it was also very individual-based,” Subica said. “Research reaches a larger population, and you can create interventions. I wanted to try that and decided I did want to follow a tenure track. The university brought me in to look at serious mental illness and culture, two things I had interest and experience in.”

Subica said he was attracted by the mentoring aspect of the postdoctoral program, and his experiences at USC have been valuable as he pursues his research interests. He was paired with Associate Professor Ann Marie Yamada, whose own interests in cultural competence and severe mental illness made for an ideal match.

Together, they recently submitted a grant to develop a spirituality-infused intervention for those with serious mental illness and formed a relationship with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to integrate the intervention’s framework into care.

“Without the program at USC, I wouldn’t have had the spirituality aspect without working with Dr. Yamada,” Subica said. “This is a specialized aspect of cultural practice specific to Los Angeles and gives us the chance to build on each other’s work and contribute to the literature and care of this population. You don’t get better unless you have good supervisors, and I wouldn’t know where to go and where to look on my own to carve out a career. I couldn’t have had this type of mentorship in the clinical setting,” he explained.

The school’s recently formed research clusters are striving to develop a culture of intellectual thought in areas important to the social work profession, Vega said. The postdoctoral program is an excellent foundation on which that culture can grow.

“Maturing the program will require the development of regular scholarly events, such as guest lectures, proposals and presentations by the postdoc scholars,” Vega said. “What people find is commonality across interests. They can learn from each other and have a critical interchange of information that is fostered by the bringing of people together.”

It will take time for the program to mature and build a solid reputation, Vega noted. The school has the resources to make sure that occurs, he said, but how quickly and effectively the infrastructure and training process expand will determine the program’s success.

“We need a growth curve to show that we are progressing nicely and hitting milestones,” he said. “We want our program to be one that assumes uniformity in expectations and what the scholars are getting here. We can build a reputation of good research and publications.”

Flynn said the future of the program will also depend on how much support the school can continue to offer and how successful the postdoctoral scholars are at competing for limited funding.

“We have a core, and the potential for growth is infinite depending on research opportunities,” Flynn said. “But I am tremendously excited. This program is important for the future of the school, and the caliber of our scholars is high, so I am quite proud.”

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