Working with PIs

A guide to working with PIs to support their postdoc’s career development 

In this article we cover what we consider to be the key points and approaches around working with PIs/Managers of researchers (MoRs) as a staff group. The article is aimed at getting you up to speed quickly if you’ve not worked with PIs/MoRs before, and sharing tips and our experiences even if you’re experienced with this staff group.

What are PIs or managers of researchers? 

A Principal Investigator (PI) is the holder of a research grant and the lead researcher on the grant. Their responsibilities generally involve the management and leadership of the funded research project and any staff or students working on it.  

Within higher education institutions, PIs are generally employed formally as academic staff (for example as fellows, lecturers or readers) who are expected to apply for research grants as part of their role. They may be PIs on several grants at the same time and also might have periods of time when they aren’t a PI on any grants at all.  

Managers of researchers (MoRs) are individuals who line manage a member of research staff, generally a postdoctoral researcher. 

An academic can be a MoR without being a PI and similarly a PI might not be managing any postdocs if the grant they’re leading did not include funding for a postdoctoral position. Despite this, the terms are often used interchangeably. 

A PIs/MoRs role generally consists of a mix of three broad areas: research, teaching and administration. However, within these areas are dozens of sub-tasks and PIs/MoRs are often time-poor and juggling many different things at once. 

Being time-poor, you may need to provide reasons for why your PIs/MoRs would benefit from supporting their postdoc’s career development. We’ve covered this in our resource Get buy-in from PIs and managers of researchers

Communicating with PIs/managers of researchers 

Communication routes can be very different between institutions so consider how you are going to contact PIs/MoRs to raise awareness of any development activities you’re providing. Take the time to consider the best modes of communication. We’ve highlighted some key approaches below:

Email

Whilst email can be very effective, PIs/MoRs tend to receive a high number of emails daily. Ensure that the essential information you’re seeking to convey is clear and concise and that you monitor the frequency with which you send out emails so you aren’t seen as bombarding your audience. 

Is there an up-to-date institutional mailing list of academics you could use? Could you work with your HR or IT departments to create and maintain one? Ideally, if your HR or IT department can create a mailing list for you that updates automatically, adding new staff and removing ones that have left that would be the goal. 

Staff events

Engaging with staff directly at departmental meetings provides an opportunity for two-way communication with multiple PIs/MoRs at once. Staff meetings can help raise awareness of both you and the support you’re offering, putting a human face to the otherwise semi-anonymous emails.  

Staff news articles and notice boards

Use existing communications methods within your organisation to reach as many people in your target audience as possible. Staff news feeds and notice boards can receive a lot of traffic – particularly if your audience is greeted by an institutional news feed every time they open a web browser – so use these formats to your advantage and write titles that tell your audience this is for them and will benefit them.  

Inductions

Most institutions require that new academic staff complete an induction process. This might consist of in-person training, online modules and/or information packs. Work with those at your organisation who develop the induction process to find a way to include or signpost to the development support you offer. 

Local networks

Most PIs/MoRs belong to a number of different groups – for example, they might also be a postgraduate student supervisor. Find out about any networks across your organisation that may have an overlapping audience – for example supervisor networks – and work with the organisers to cross-promote your communications. 

Social networks

Social media can help you engage with PIs/MoRs at your institution, particularly if you encourage them to follow your team in your other communications. Whilst some networking platforms are open to the wider world, others such as LinkedIn or Mastodon allow you to set up invite-only groups for more directed communications. 

Remember that PIs/MoRs are human. Most are friendly, interested and care deeply about doing the best for their postdocs. They will often freely acknowledge (and underestimate) the limitations of their management or leadership skills and they’re keen to develop their own abilities. Help them understand what you are offering and how it will benefit them, regardless of their discipline. 

Some PIs/MoRs, however, are less receptive and a few can be very negative. Do not allow a vocal negative minority to dictate what you are offering or to make you feel bad about it. It’s not pleasant to be talked down to or spoken to rudely so focus your energies on the PIs/MoRs who want to develop themselves. Our advice would be to work with the willing. 

How Prosper did it

During the first three years of Prosper the team employed a variety of routes of communication with PIs/MoR: 

  • We sought buy-in from senior management to create top-down encouragement through senior management communications (for example, direct emails and staff meetings). 
  • We published regular staff news articles that featured on the staff home page and weekly news summary bulletin. Click here for an example. 
  • We went to as many staff meetings with each faculty/school/institute as possible, particularly those meetings where the head of faculty and all heads of school attended. 
  • We sent direct emails to regularly updated institutional lists of all managers of researchers at the three partner institutions. Click here for an example. 
  • We established a dedicated PI Network mailing list. This was kept distinct from the more generic institution-wide emails that were sent out (so that no one received multiple emails about the same thing). A specific mailing list for those known to be interested in supporting postdoc career development allowed us to tweak the style of communication and solicit more engagement from the audience (for example, asking for suggestions for future events, volunteers for focus groups and to complete surveys). Click here for an example. 
  • We worked with our organisational development team at the University of Liverpool to ensure that Prosper is highlighted in institution-wide staff inductions. 
  • We provided guidance for our postdocs, including suggested wordings and email templates, when they needed or wanted to discuss their careers or participation in one of our cohorts. Click here for an example. 
  • We provided our PIs/MoRs with clear information about what the cohorts involved. Click here for an example. 
  • We provided updates for the PIs/MoRs of postdocs participating in our year long cohorts about development opportunities their postdocs may have participated in and what they might do in the coming weeks. During these updates we encouraged the PIs/MoRs to discuss career development and cohort activities with their postdocs if both parties felt comfortable to do so. Click here for an example. 

Create resources and events for PIs/MoRs 

The PIs/MoRs at your organisation are already likely to have a large range of experiences of managing postdocs. Even early-stage academics will have learned a lot from managing their first postdoc. 

Find out what they need to know, where there are gaps in their knowledge that gaining experience of managing postdocs won’t necessarily provide the answers to. What are their priorities? What development activities do they need to support their postdocs effectively? And what development activities do they think their postdocs need? 

Consider what types of resources, activities and events would benefit your PIs/MoRs, and what resources you have available to deliver to them. 

If you work across disciplines, ensure that the topics are suitable for PIs/MoRs from all subject areas. Supporting postdoc career development is an important part of the PI/MoR role, and postdocs who decide to move beyond academia should not be constrained by their subject area.

How Prosper did it

PIs/MoRs often place a great deal of pressure on themselves to do a good job in supporting their research staff. We set-up a PI Network, initially open to all PIs/MoRs/aspiring MoRs at the three partner institutions and subsequently open to PIs/MoRs/aspiring MoRs across the UK. Through the PI Network structure we designed and commissioned events with the aim to help them alleviate the self-imposed pressures they put on themselves. We made it a priority not to add to their workload or expect them to become career guidance experts. 

Expand the sections to discover Prosper’s approach to creating resources and events:

Evaluation

Being time-poor and pulled in many directions, plenty of PIs/MoRs will tell you bluntly what they do and do not like about a development activity (although as with any group of people, levels of tact, patience and understanding vary wildly). The difficulty in evaluating PI/MoR development activity success comes in getting them to commit time to actually provide feedback. 

Short and simple approaches such as quick online surveys are likely to have the most success, although if you can persuade PIs/MoRs to attend a focus group for an hour these can be very effective and produce plenty of information. Just try not to duplicate evaluation requests to the same people, as they’ll either be ignored or you may receive some particularly unimpressed feedback. 

Getting constructive feedback from busy people can be difficult. Online feedback forms (especially if anonymous) can often result in extremes – with those taking the time to complete them doing so because they’ve got something especially positive or negative to say. Consider other ways to collect feedback, including from focus groups, polls, word clouds or other mechanisms during events themselves, or one-to-one interviews. 

Focus groups present an opportunity to hear in detail from your target audience and to ask further questions. As a group, however, PIs/MoRs have a reputation for talking a lot, going off on tangents and reverting the conversation back to their research. An effective focus group with PIs/MoRs may require fairly robust facilitation to keep the session on track. Set the expectations at the start and then if you have to cut someone off in the interests of time this will be received with understanding. Effective chairing can be particularly important to ensure all voices are heard. 

Be aware that the expectations or agenda of a PI/MoR at an event may be different from what you’re trying to achieve. Negative feedback may not be due to you or your work but because the respondent’s agenda is different from what you’re trying to achieve. 

How Prosper did it

Prosper’s evaluation of PI/MoR activities occurred across three main areas: evaluation of PI Network events, evaluation of the PI/MoR experience of the postdoc cohorts, and more general benchmarking-style evaluations to find out what PIs/MoRs think about postdoc career development and what support they feel they need. Read the following sections to find out more, or discover more information about evaluation with Prosper resources on How to evaluate your Prosper offering and How to run a focus group:

PI Network event evaluation

Following each PI Network event, those registered for the event received an email inviting them to complete a very short evaluation form about their experience of the event. The primary aim of the form was to discover whether the event met their expectations, and what they liked and didn’t like about the event. 

  • Click here for an example of a post-event email. 
  • Click here for an example of a post-event survey. 

Cohort experience evaluation

Following the completion of each of Prosper’s two pilot cohorts, the PIs/MoRs of all the postdocs participating in that cohort received an email inviting them to complete a survey about their experience as a manager and from observing their postdoc(s). The primary purpose of the survey was to reveal whether their postdoc’s participation in the pilot had inconvenienced the PIs/MoRs at all and whether from their interactions with and observations of their postdoc, they’d noticed any differences in attitudes towards career development. 

  • Click here for an example of the survey invitation email. 
  • Click here for an example of the cohort PI/MoR survey. 

Benchmarking-style evaluation

At points throughout the first three years of Prosper, PIs/MoRs were invited to complete evaluation forms or attend focus groups to provide the Prosper team with information about how PIs/MoRs feel about postdoc career development and their own development needs. This information gave the team insights into the types of development opportunities that would be most useful for PIs/MoRs. 

  • Click here for an email invitation to take part in a benchmarking exercise. 
  • Click here for an example of a benchmarking survey. 
  • Click here for an email invitation to feedback about the impact the PI Network has had. 
  • Click here for an example of a survey evaluating the PI Network’s impact. 
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