Why is it important to engage directly with PIs and MoRs? 

Managers of researchers are one of the main sources of career development support for postdocs, with 67% of postdocs turning to their PI for career advice (the second most popular source after other postdocs (Woolston, 2020). 

PIs as gatekeepers 

'Managers of researchers can have so much control and influence over the time, support and opportunities that postdocs receive that buy-in from managers can make or break postdoc career development'.

Charlwood and McBride 2020; Watts et al. 2019.

Poor management, a lack of awareness of their impact or responsibility, or even a conflict of interest between the needs of the research project and the career development needs of their postdoc can lead to postdocs feeling unsupported, unimportant and that their loyalty to their PI and project isn’t reciprocated (Herschberg 2018; Pain 2018; Woolston 2020). 

PIs are rarely trained to be effective managers and many seek out management training opportunities themselves (Baas et al. 2020; Baker 2020; Charlwood and McBride 2020; Kwok 2018; Loissel 2019; Watts et al. 2019). 

Engaging with PIs can also help prevent them from overestimating the number of postdocs that go onto academic careers. Only between 10% and 15% of postdocs in the UK and globally go on to become permanent academic staff but many PIs believe that their postdocs are more likely to ‘succeed’ than the statistics suggest (McConnell et al. 2018; Menard and Shinton 2022; Sauermann and Roach 2016; Vitae 2021; Woolston, 2020). As a result they may: 

  • Put less/no effort into encouraging their postdocs to explore their full range of career options. 
  • Foster false impressions of the likelihood of achieving an academic career amongst their postdocs. 
  • Enable a culture that implies to their postdocs that any career that isn’t within academia a ‘failure’. 

In addition to the influence they have over their own staff, PIs and managers of researchers have a huge impact on the culture and practices across your entire organisation. 

PIs as advocates 

Engaging with managers of researchers can help them to recognise their role as leaders in your institution and to spread the word. PIs listen to other PIs: advocacy by managers of researchers can be far more effective than pressure from you in persuading PIs to support the career development of their postdocs. 

“I feel like as a PI I’ve grown a bit of a reputation of being supportive and supporting others.” 

Prof Melissa Gladstone, Professor in Neurodevelopmental Paediatrics and International Child Health, University of Liverpool. 

Finally, engaging directly with PIs and managers can help them to develop their own managerial and leadership skills (leading to higher productivity within their teams), whilst also supporting the career development needs of their postdocs – win-win! 

How can you convince PIs/MoRs that career development is a good/valuable use of their postdocs time? 

Whilst many PIs recognise the importance of supporting postdoc career development, some are unaware of their responsibilities as managers whilst others worry that the time and resources spent on career development, particularly career development that considers careers beyond academia, takes away from the time their postdoc should be working on their research project.  

Both the direction and content of communications to PIs about postdoc career development matter. Read more about these below, or go to the resource for managers of researchers covering the reasons and benefits of supporting postdoc career development

Direction of messaging

Your own efforts to persuade managers of researchers to promote career development to their postdocs can be complimented by stakeholders within your organisation at different levels. 

Top-down messaging: Securing senior-level buy-in can ensure that as an institution the expectations are that career development is a valuable use of postdoc time. Your institution may have even signed up to the to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and formally stipulated that researchers are entitled to a minimum of 10 days career development per year (Vitae 2019). 

Peer-to-peer messaging: Getting advocates among your academic staff can help to demonstrate to other managers of researchers the value and impact that career development has for postdocs, that supporting postdocs doesn’t take away from their research and can even be beneficial to the managers themselves.  

Bottom-up messaging: Ensuring that postdocs are aware of the role they play in their own career development journey means they are more likely to ask their managers for support and opportunities, and to know what support they are entitled to.

Content of messaging

As with anything that involves some degree of time investment with obvious immediate gain, the messaging for PIs as to why career development is a good use of their own and their postdoc’s time is crucial. 

“It’s important to recognise that a person that is happy and feels engaged with their position will deliver a better job, so I do think that experiments are probably going to run better if they feel motivated and they feel they are developing.”

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Senior Lecturer and Group Leader, Lancaster University.

What you could do to engage with PIs/MoRs and get them supporting postdoc career development 

There is no single channel for engaging all PIs about the importance of postdoc career development, and communication routes will vary between institutions: what works in one institution may not work in another. One thing that we’ve found to be effective across many channels is the inclusion of testimonials or quotes from other managers of researchers. 

Below we’ve listed a few approaches you could consider when trying to engage PIs/MoRs with postdoc career development.

Digital communications

There are plenty of digital communication routes, including staff news articles, staff boards, blog posts, case studies, social media networks and, of course, emails. No single communications medium will hit all PIs/MoRs within your organisation but a mix of approaches can do wonders.  

Emails – Whilst many PIs/MoRs feel like they receive too many emails as it is, email remains a very effective method of communication within research institutions. Brief periodic emails collating development opportunities for PIs/MoRs themselves and for their postdocs can help PIs to appreciate the variety of opportunities that exist for themselves and their postdocs.  

If you’re running regular postdoc development events, then quick recaps of what their postdocs may have been engaged in during the previous month or quarter raises awareness of such activities and their goals. 

Social media networks – Social media can be a very effective method of engaging with your PIs/MoRs; you may, for example, already use X (formerly Twitter), Mastodon or Threads. Some platforms are open to the wider world and, as a result, can make specifically targeting staff at your own institution a little trickier. Other platforms, like LinkedIn, can allow you to set up groups which may allow you to produce more directed communications.  

MoR networks

Prosper’s PI Network launched in September 2020 and is open to PIs and managers of researchers based at research institutions across the UK. Whilst we’d love for you to signpost your PIs/MoRs towards PI Network events, you may find that establishing your own institutional network for managers of researchers can be beneficial. 

Our experience of working with managers of researchers repeatedly highlighted that many find peer-to-peer learning and sharing of best practice to be incredibly beneficial. A local network or event series targeted around management and leadership of research staff may help increase awareness and interest in supporting postdoc career development. 

Cross-promotion

You’re unlikely to be working in a communications vacuum within your institution. What other messaging is being sent out to managers of researchers at your institution? For instance, are there mailing lists that go out to supervisors of doctoral students? Many managers of researchers are also doctoral supervisors so linking up with those sending out supervisor communications can allow for cross-promotion of messaging.  

If you are based within a faculty that’s focused on a broad disciplinary area, don’t forget that many of the challenges that PIs/MoRs within your faculty face will be the same as PIs/MoRs in other disciplinary areas are facing.  

Career development champions / steering groups

Regardless of whether you have a team or are the only person working on research development within your organisation, you aren’t alone. You could look to create departmental career development champions, drafting willing academics to help promote and support postdoc career development within their department. You could also form a PI/MoR steering group who could help you to direct your efforts and engage other PIs/MoRs with postdoc career development. 

See here for an example email invitation to be part of a steering group.

Speak at school / institute / department staff meetings

Engaging with managers of researchers directly at staff meetings is a very powerful method of raising awareness. Staff meetings provide an opportunity to talk to multiple PIs/MoRs at once and provide a chance for PIs/MoRs to ask questions about what support you’re offering and for you to present the most relevant arguments for supporting postdoc career development. And if you have one or two PI/MoR advocates or champions in the audience then all the better. Having the head of school/faculty/institute/department recommend or promote the importance of postdoc career development can be persuasive to other staff members at the meeting. 

Invite to be speakers

PIs and managers of researchers can make excellent guest speakers at events you're running for other academic staff or even for postdocs. Many PIs/MoRs have decades of experience of managing and supporting researchers and are often willing to share that knowledge with other PIs/MoRs. Regardless of their level they’re likely to have some valuable experience that can help other PIs/MoRs. For events aimed at academic staff your PI/MoR speaker can act as an advocate for supporting postdoc career development. For events aimed at postdocs your PI/MoR speaker can demonstrate the role that PIs/MoRs should play in supporting postdoc career development and suggest from their experience ways in which postdocs can ask for opportunities or support. 

Normalise the value of postdocs across your institution

Postdocs are an often-underappreciated group within research institutions. Their responsibilities can include research, teaching, supervision and administration. Normalising the value of postdocs within your institution can help reinforce the importance of supporting those same postdocs with their careers. Does your institution take the time to celebrate their postdocs and recognise their achievements, through internal awards or appreciation walls? Such initiatives could even be linked to activities around National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW), which happens annually at the end of September. 

Embed manager training and the importance of researcher development

Normalising the importance of postdoc career development can only occur if your institution as a whole demonstrates its importance at every level. Is researcher development included in new academic staff inductions, recruitment processes or in your institution’s promotion policy? If not, what could you do to change this? 

Focus groups

Focus groups can be an effective way to hear directly from PIs/MoRs about their thoughts and experiences of researcher development, and get them to feed into any researcher development activities you’re planning. If you’re planning on developing a Prosper programme for your institution, focus groups can help you customise it for the needs and resources of your institution. Focus groups can also be an opportunity to promote the benefits of supporting postdoc career development and of Prosper. 

Visit Prosper’s resources on how to run a focus group. You can also see an example of an email inviting PIs/MoRs to attend a focus group here

Feedback

Feedback and evaluation can provide you with information about how PIs/MoRs feel about supporting postdoc career development, allowing you to adjust your approach and target the concerns or needs of your PIs/MoRs.  

Whilst surveys can be used to collect valuable insights into what PIs/MoRs do and do not want, persuading them to complete online surveys is easier said than done. That being said, whilst engagement might be low, the information gained can be worth the effort. 

Below are some examples of surveys and email invitation to complete surveys that Prosper has used: 

Evaluating impact of events 

Evaluating impact of cohort 

Recommendations

  • Don’t be afraid to directly engage with your PIs – many want to help their postdocs more and just need a little support. 
  • Don’t get hung up on any negatives, push-back or lack of engagement. There will always be some managers (often vocal) who think they know best and won’t listen to you out of principal. Work with the willing to change the culture around those who aren’t interested. 
  • Do regularly highlight the benefit to the managers themselves of supporting the career development of their postdocs. 
  • Do work with postdocs to help them recognise their own agency in asking their managers for support and opportunities. 
  • Do be aware of the common PI/MoR stereotypes; that more experienced PIs/MoRs are more ‘stuck’ in their ways and less open to changing their practice than ‘fresh’ PIs/MoRs. This isn’t true! Don’t inadvertently treat your PI/MoR audience like it is! 
  • Do challenge your own (and the PIs/MoRs) unhelpful narratives around disciplinary differences as an excuse for not implementing best practice around postdoc career development. 
  • Do keep your PIs/MoRs updated on what you’re doing with respect to postdoc career development but don’t bombard them with too many communications. 
  • Do recruit PI/MoR advocates, to signpost Prosper to their postdocs, recommend it to other PIs/MoRs, and champion their postdocs. 
  • Do support PI/MoRs to celebrate their postdocs, particularly when their postdoc has secured a new role, whether it be in academia or beyond. 
  • Do offer PIs and MoRs management and leadership training where possible to develop their own skills. 

References

Baas, T., Dewhurst, S., and Peyre, S. 2020. “Leadership and Management for Scientists”, Lara, L.I., et al. (Eds.), Best: Implementing Career Development Activities for Biomedical Research Trainees, Elsevier, London, pp. 87-101. 

Baker, S. 2020. Academics ‘not best’ to advise postdocs on leaving academia. Times Higher Education, available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-not-best-advise-postdocs-leaving-academia (accessed 21/04/2023). 

Charlwood C., McBride F. 2020. Helping PIs to Prosper: What Might be Learned from PhD Supervision. Research Education and Development Scholarship Conference 2020. 

Davis, G. 2009. Improving the postdoctoral experience: An empirical approach. In R. Freeman & D. Goroff (Eds.), Science and engineering careers in the United States: An analysis of markets and employment (pp. 99–130). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Hayter, C.S. & Parker, M.A. 2019. Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study. Research Policy, 48, 556-570. 

Herschberg, C., Benschop, Y., & van den Brink, M. 2018. Precarious postdocs: A comparative study on recruitment and selection of early-career researchers, Scandinavian Journal of Management, 34, 303-310, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scaman.2018.10.001  

Kwok, S. 2018. “Learn to Lead”, Nature, Vol. 557, pp. 457-459. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05156-3 (accessed 21/04/2023). 

Loissel E. 2019. “A question of support”, eLife, 8, e52881. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.52881. 

McConnell, S.C., Westerman, E.L., Pierre, J.F., Heckler, E.J. and Schwartz, N.B. 2018. United States National Postdoc Survey results and the interaction of gender, career choice and mentor impact. eLife, 7, e40189. 

Menard C.B., Shinton S. 2022. The career paths of researchers in long-term employment on short-term contracts: Case study from a UK university. PLoS ONE 17(9): e0274486. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274486  

Nicholson, N. 2003. How to motivate your problem people. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2003/01/how-to-motivate-your-problem-people (accessed 15/07/2023) 

Pain, E. 2018. PIs need to help postdocs develop their careers, available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/07/pis-need-help-postdocs-develop-their-careers (accessed 21/04/2023) 

Sauermann, H. and Roach, M. 2016. Why pursue the postdoc path? Science, 352, 663-664. 

Scaffidi, A.K. and Berman, J.E. 2011. A positive postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education 62:685–698, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-011-9407-1  

UKRI. 2023. People and Teams UKRI Action Plan March 2023 https://www.ukri.org/publications/ukri-people-and-teams-action-plan/  

Vitae. 2019. “The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.” https://researcherdevelopmentconcordat.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Researcher-Development-Concordat_Sept2019-1.pdf  

Vitae. 2021. The Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (CEDARS) https://www.vitae.ac.uk/impact-and-evaluation/cedars  

Watts S.W., Chatterjee D., Rojewski J.W., Shoshkes Reiss C., Baas T., Gould K.L., et al. 2019. Faculty perceptions and knowledge of career development of trainees in biomedical science: What do we (think we) know? PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210189. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210189  

Woolston, C. 2020. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers, Nature, 588, 181-184, doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03381-3  

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