What skills and experience have postdocs brought to your organisation, above that of a PhD graduate?
Mainly their experience. If someone comes straight from a PhD, they may have no experience of a work environment, and it’s a longer job to move them from being PhD students to being IBM Researchers – getting them engaged in being employees as well as researchers.
If somebody’s been a postdoc, they’ve been employed before, whether that’s at university, or a research institute, hence they have an idea about the ‘world of work’.
In addition to research skills, postdocs also come with other abilities, such as planning their time around doing multiple projects. A PhD is very focused: you’re aiming to do this one big piece of research and while you have to plan your time, you’re only planning it for yourself.
I appreciate that some PhD students get teaching responsibilities, but planning multiple projects and putting in bids for funding – postdocs have more to do. Writing the impact case, i.e. explaining the impact of the research to, say, the UK economy is also really valuable.
Postdocs will have also done a little bit of supervision of other people, they may have had a PhD or MSc student working for them, or co-ordinating others, so that’s also valuable experience.
Some postdocs have supervisory skills, they’ve done some planning of their own time around multiple projects and broadly have more interpersonal skills.
The other key skill is being able to communicate to a varied audience, verbally and on paper. You obtain some of this from writing impact statements (where it might be read by someone outside of your specialism), or from putting in funding bids where there’s a section to explain your research to a lay audience.
Would a postdoc progress more quickly through the organisation?
It’s difficult to generalise, because some of it is about personality. You might have someone come in straight from their PhD who just has that natural ability to pick all of those things up and moves up very quickly.
However, I would say that – as a generalisation – a postdoc would be better equipped to progress more quickly. So if I took a PhD student joining today and a postdoc joining today, in two years’ time I would expect the postdoc to be further in their career at IBM than the PhD student. [I would also say this is probably universally true for other organisations].
In general, you have to show leadership qualities and lead people who are not physically located where you are. For example, someone in the UK may find researchers in several other Labs who are interested in the same research as them.
They could contact the researchers in those Labs, agree an area of research to work on together and end up leading a new initiative at IBM where they have pulled a team together from across the globe including multiple researchers from multiple Labs.
This has happened to a number of the team at Daresbury and in the space of 8 weeks they’ve gone from a group of people who knew they were all interested in the same thing to a fully-formed global team working on an initiative that is being recognised at the highest level and included a presentations to the Head of IBM Research.
Which skills are vital to your future success?
AI and Machine Learning, Modelling & Simulation but also domain expertise so we can communicate with our clients. Increasingly, companies come to us with big data sets that need cleaning, so people who can clean data – understanding which bits of the data they can trust, and which bits have come from less solid sources – are really valuable.
Social scientists, data scientists, come with those kinds of skills. And then there’s all the AI knowledge on top of that – both experience with software and being able to use High Performance Computers (HPC).
Those are the things that are going to be of interest to us in the next 5 years or so. Having people that have got AI, Machine Learning experience in a particular area – so they might be chemists, or physicists – but also having additional skills in those areas.
If someone is the world’s leading authority on something and they’ve no AI, or software, or HPC skills, but we can see that we could train them, then we’ll bring them in. That said, it’s more likely that we will start having an expectation that people come in having done some of these things and have some experience in these areas.
The kinds of softer skills would be presentation skills, communication skills (including awareness of audience) and leadership skills.
When I say leadership I don’t necessarily mean people who can or do manage/lead a team, manage people. It’s about taking a problem, taking ownership and responsibility for that problem, and getting done whatever needs to be done in order to solve that problem (whether it’s by your own efforts or by delegating to other people, delegation up or down). It’s about taking ownership.
If you’ve done a PhD, you’ve kind of led yourself – which books to read, what you need to reference – you’ve pulled together a large piece of work and delivered it. However, a work project is much bigger and you couldn’t do it by yourself: it’s about how you can pull it together with other people.
IBM is great on giveback, both internally and giving back to community. The number of IBMers around the world who volunteer is astonishing. So another string to your bow is what you do for the community or for other people either in University or School.