How to develop my own skills and competencies

It can be easy to overlook your own career development when you’re focusing on developing others. In this article we’ve brought together the tips we’ve learned about becoming researcher developers, suggestions for development opportunities and we signpost to a range of useful external information.

Who is this article for?

Anyone who’s role includes organising, commissioning and/or delivering career development for postdocs.

What is a postdoc?

A postdoc is someone who has a PhD, and is now working as a researcher, most typically in a university setting. They are a member of staff (not a student) employed on a fixed-term contract (some are employed on a permanent contract with insecure funding).

For more information on what a postdoc is see our blog part 1 and part 2. For more information on working with postdocs see our dedicated page.

What is a researcher developer?

We’ve found the role differs in scope, remit, title and location within each HEI we’ve spoken to. The role (broadly) entails organising career development for researchers. This can be limited to a particular subset of researchers (PGR students, postdocs, ECRs, more senior academics), or could cover all researchers from students to all academic staff.

The development can be a whole role or it may just be one part of an individual's role. Developers may design and facilitate sessions from scratch, co-create them or commission them from suppliers. Some developers may also be trained career coaches, career consultants or mentors, and this may be part of their role.

We’ve found people doing this role within a range of different departments; careers service/office, research and innovation function, organisational development, human resources or professional services, or local to a particular faculty or department.

Skills, competencies and development

Challenges you may encounter as a researcher developer

The following are challenges we’ve come across as researcher developers.

Cautious or sceptical attitude towards career development

Researchers are trained to be professionally critical. This can be tricky to manage in career development which is very personal and subjective. Researchers are often detail focussed, so we recommend using language and terms that speak to your audience. For example, if your audience is postdocs ensure that you never refer to them as students, as this is likely to make them disengage and may lead them to assume you don’t understand them as an audience and their needs.

Often they don’t see the value in “generic” skills. For example, if you held a session called ‘communication skills’ it would probably be less well attended than if you called it ‘communication skills for grant writing’ or ‘communication skills for effective networking’. We recommend emphasising the postdocs ownership of their own career development, that they can tailor a ‘generic’ offering to their own personal needs by selecting what’s relevant for them.

Some practical challenges

  • Understand academic career pathways because many researchers may only understand this career route or may want guidance on this career pathway.
  • Work with Human Resources at your institution to find out who your postdocs/research staff are, where are they based, get access or create mailing list/s, and to monitor new starters and leavers/ exit interviews.
  • Find out if your institution has centralised or local induction sessions for new staff and if you can be involved (or signpost your career development offer).
  • Work with your marketing and communications staff at your institution to identify how you can best communicate with your audience/s.
  • Find out about procurement processes at your institution. You may need to get quotes, raise purchase orders and so on for suppliers, refreshments or materials. Find out if there is a list of approved suppliers or suppliers your colleagues particularly recommend.

Collecting feedback can be tricky (or contrary to observed behaviour)

Collecting constructive feedback can be difficult. Time-pressed researchers may not have the capacity to complete a long survey (or even a short one!). Feedback can also be unactionable, off-topic or beyond the scope of your role. We suggest triaging collected feedback to identify what you can act on and pass on anything that is actionable, but not by you, to the appropriate colleague/s.

You may collect actionable feedback that turns out to be contrary to the behaviour you then observe! For example, we’ve anecdotally heard of feedback being received requesting lots of social and face to face sessions, which were then very poorly attended. This is just human behaviour and happens sometimes.

We also suggest as an alternative (or combined with surveys) holding focus groups to collect feedback. In a focus group you get the opportunity to gently steer the conversation to keep it on topic/within scope and if something is suggested that you’re unsure of how it will work in reality, you can ask for more details.

Real, perceived and sometimes self-imposed isolation

Postdocs, in particular, are prone to working in isolation. They are highly skilled experts, working in a research niche, often meaning they’ve little overlap with researchers even within their broader disciplinary umbrella. The competition for academic roles can also lead to postdocs being reluctant to be open with their peers. As the culture in HEIs commonly holds securing an academic role in higher regard than other career paths, those considering something besides academia can feel that they are alone in considering this or reluctant to share these thoughts/plans.

We’ve found that all of this can result in postdocs feeling that they are the only postdoc to be going through this and that no other postdoc peer can understand or help them. Some postdocs can feel that only postdocs in their discipline or their precise research niche could understand or help them consider their career development.

We’ve tried to address this by providing a range of opportunities for postdocs to share and communicate their career development plans with each other. We did this by having mixed discipline career coaching groups, randomly assigned buddy schemes and other social events. You may wish to consider how you can encourage the research staff you work with to see the similarities they share and the shared challenges they face, rather than focus on their differences.

Handy information about the sector

Universities (HEIs) in the UK sit within a number of groups

HEIs are not the only place postdocs work

There are a large number of research organisations – the UK government lists many of them here

Sector organisations

Sector wide initiatives, concordats and agreements

The concordat most relevant for research staff is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers including the Researcher Development Platform of Practice

Listen to Research Culture Uncovered podcast episode S1 Bonus 1 The Researcher Development Concordat - as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4....

Other concordats and agreements include: Concordat to Support Research Integrity, Concordat on Open Research Data, Technician Commitment, Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research, Concordat for the Advancement of Knowledge Exchange in Higher Education, Guidance for Safeguarding in International Development Research, San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), Leiden Manifesto on Research Metrics, Athena Swan Charter, Race Equality Charter.

UUK have reviewed all of the concordats and agreements, you can find the published reports here.

Sector networks

Funders

There are many sources of research funding in the UK, the main source of government funding is managed via UKRI.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

Other useful groups/organisations/institutes

Handy reference resources

Books

HEI focused books

  • A jobseeker’s diary: unlocking employment secrets (2021) - Fawzi Abou-Chahine
  • So What Are You Going to Do with That? – Finding Careers Outside Academia Revised Edition (2007) – Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
  • What Is out There for Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks (2019) -  Natalia Bielczyk
  • Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Skills for Scholars) (2020) -  Christopher L. Caterine
  • Doctoring: Building a Life With a PhD (2020) -  Christopher Cornthwaite
  • 53 Ways to Enhance Researcher Development (2017) – Robert Daley, Kay Guccione, Steve Hutchinson
  • Success in Academic Writing (2023) – Trevor Day
  • What every postdoc needs to know (2017) – Liz Elvidge, Carol Spencely, Emma Williams
  • Succeeding Outside the Academy: Career Paths beyond the Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM (2018) - by Joseph Fruscione (editor) & Kelly J. Baker (editor)
  • Research Impact and the Early Career Researcher (2019) – Kieran Funby-Hulse
  • Coaching and mentoring for academic development (2021) – Kay Guccione and Steve Hutchinson
  • The Power of a PhD: How Anyone Can Use Their PhD to Get Hired in Industry (2022) - Dr. Isaiah Hankel (founder of Cheeky Scientist)
  • Measuring and improving research impact – crafting your career in academia (2023) – Anne-Wil Harzing
  • Black Hole Focus (2014) – Isiah Henkel
  • The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (2015) – Karen Kelsky
  • Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers (2020) – Kathryn E Linder, Kevin Kelly and Thomas J Tobin
  • The PhD Career Coaching Guide: Job Search Strategies, Interview Techniques, and Life Lessons for Achieving Success (2020) – Tina Persson PhD
  • The Research Impact Handbook (2nd Ed., 2018) – Mark S Reed
  • ‘Making It’ as a contract researcher – a pragmatic look at precarious work (2020) – Nerida Spina
  • How to Keep your Doctorate on Track (2020) – Eds: Keith Townsend, Mark N.K. Saunders, Rebecca Loudoun, and Emily A. Morrison (available to download online)
  • Survive and thrive in academia (2018) – Kate Woodthorpe

Books for a general audience (not HEI specific)

  • The Get Productive Grid (2016) – Magdalena Bak-Maier
  • What color is your parachute (revised annually) – Richard N Bolles
  • Dare to Lead (2018) – Brené Brown
  • Designing your work life (2020) – Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Quiet (2012) – Susan Cain
  • The artist’s way (1995) - Julia Cameron
  • Atomic Habits (2018) – James Clear
  • The seven habits of highly effective people (1989) – Stephen R Covey
  • Meditation for fidgeting skeptics (2018) – Dan Harris
  • How to get a job you love (2021-2022 edition) – John Lees
  • Find your f*ckyeah:Stop censoring who you are and discover what you really want (2020) – Alexis Rockley
  • Start with why (2011) – Simon Sinek
  • Stretch (2017) – Scottt Sonenshein
  • The psychological manager (2017) – Peter Storr
  • The Squiggly Career (2020) – Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis
  • You Coach you (2022) - Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis
  • How to be everything (2018) – Emilie Wapnick
  • The Extraordinary Leader (2019) – John Zenger and Joseph Folkman

Useful websites and blogs

Podcasts

Archived podcasts

Skills taxonomies

Facilitation ideas

Accessibility tools and links

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