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February 1998

Postdocs from a distance: the Visiting Scientists Program

Aiguo Dai (left, with Meg Austin) is one of the rare VSP visitors who's housed at the Mesa Lab. Aiguo has been working in CGD with Kevin Trenberth and other collaborators on trends in global precipitation and hydrology.

A sizeable chunk of UCAR's employees never set foot in the Mesa or Foothills Labs--or any Boulder-area facilities, for that matter. In fact, it's entirely possible to work for UCAR while spending years at another laboratory. The Visiting Scientist Programs make this happen for about 100 people a year, mainly postdocs.

Meg Austin has run VSP, a part of UCAR's Office of Programs, for the past 12 years. She's a matchmaker for young scientists who need jobs and research centers who need people. Through VSP, Meg helps a number of agencies to find the best and brightest candidates for short- and long-term visitor positions. Then VSP takes care of the financial and other logistics to keep the visitors happy and productive, whether they be at NOAA, the Air Force, or NCAR.

Why don't these agencies handle their own visitors programs? Many do, but according to Meg, UCAR's unique role as a bridge between academia and research labs makes us a natural for placing visitors and guiding their budding careers. "We have all the pieces in place and we do a really efficient job. Each visitor program we handle is tailored to the needs of the agency. And we're flexible." For example, UCAR's nonprofit corporate status allows us to carry over visitor funds from one fiscal year to another that might otherwise evaporate in a federal setting.

VSP is a lean (but not mean) operation. There are only five full-time staff to sift through hundreds of applications and place about 75 new people each year. Meg works with federal agencies to tailor their visitor programs and develop recruitment strategies, while the other VSP staff--Susan Baltuch, Ellen Martinez, Julie Bowers, and Teresa Harris-- handle the (sometimes unique) administrative details associated with each appointment. Much of this work is done at a distance, through e-mail, phone calls, and the Web. In December, Julie put an on-line VSP application form on the Web; it's already gotten several nibbles, she says.

It all began in 1985, when NOAA's National Meteorological Center (now part of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, or NCEP) and the Naval Environmental Prediction and Research Facility asked UCAR to manage a joint visitor program that would enhance the research partnerships between federal agencies and the academic community. Twenty or so VSP visitors are now stationed at NCEP--either at its headquarters in Camp Springs, Maryland, or at one of its specialized sites scattered around the country, such as the Tropical Prediction Center in Miami or the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The NCEP program recruits a wide range of people: graduate students, postdocs, and senior scientists. The latter get a change of pace from academia and a chance to pursue a research interest in depth over several years, while NCEP gets the benefit of fresh perspectives from a nongovernment environment.

In 1990, thanks to UCAR's unique position in the community and the success of other UCAR visitor programs, NOAA asked UCAR to administer a program to train postdocs in the evolving discipline of climate and global change. There are now 16 to 18 postdocs who work at NOAA labs or at universities on a variety of global change issues for periods of two years. "It's a very strong program," says Meg. "We're coming up on the annual deadline and getting many top-quality applications."

Another big employer of VSP folks is NOAA's Office of Hydrology, in Silver Spring, Maryland, which hosts about 15 visitors at any one time. "OH is one location with very specialized recruitments," says Meg. For instance, the office is now seeking a distributed hydrological modeler, a snow expert, a GIS applications programmer, and a scientist for land-surface process modeling.

For a typical search, VSP starts by posting recruitment ads to their Web page and other appropriate sites on the Internet. They also do mass mailings to universities and labs and place ads in various scientific publications. The host agency also is expected to help drum up interest. Once enough applications are in, a selection committee assembled by VSP and the host agency looks them over. These committees are reluctant to settle for less than best, says Meg. "If there's nobody of the caliber they want, then we don't make an appointment." VSP's recruiting skill has given it an additional role: putting together working groups and review panels. For example, a UCAR-based advisory panel reviews each NCEP center on a rotating basis, much like the Scientific Programs Evaluation Committee (SPEC) reviews that outsiders conduct for NCAR.

With whom do VSP's visitors most identify: UCAR, or the place they hang their hats? "We are in such close contact with the visitors throughout their appointments," says Meg, "that they fully realize they're UCAR employees." For instance, "We try hard to keep the salaries comparable to the hosting lab and the part of the country they're in, but we also rely on UCAR survey information to guide us in setting appropriate salaries." One of the quirks of a typical VSP job is that it seems federal, and yet it really isn't. "If it's a federal holiday and the doors are closed, then the person has to work at home or take the day as vacation," Meg notes.

As one way to build camaraderie among its most dispersed group, the NOAA postdocs in climate and global change, VSP started a summer institute in 1994. The week-long meeting is held every other June in Steamboat Springs and supported by the NOAA Office of Global Programs (OGP). "These postdocs are all working toward a common goal, but they might never [otherwise] see each other in one place," says Meg. This summer's institute will focus on the human dimensions of global change. After several days of lectures and group discussion (with an afternoon off for hiking, biking, or whatever), participants write up the results for a summary volume. Meg says the institute has been "very successful in creating a feeling of cohesiveness and community. The hard part is getting a sponsor to realize the benefit of something like this, but OGP agreed to try it and it went so well that they've continued." In fact, there may be a 10-year reunion in 2001 of postdoc alumni from the program.

That would be a treat for Meg, who finds great satisfaction in watching careers ascend with a boost from VSP. "It's enjoyable to see people become successful and to see VSP obtain a reputation for being high quality." •BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall