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Annual reviews

Professional Development Reviews, Performance and Development Reviews, Personal Development Reviews – whatever the wording your institution uses, PDRs are a common requirement of staff across higher education. 

For some postdocs and their managers the annual PDR is the only time they formally dedicate to discussing career development. For others it’s an inconvenient requirement of institutional administration. 

But PDRs are far more than a box-ticking exercise. Done correctly they can improve staff working relationships and performance, and act as another tool in the manager’s arsenal for supporting the career development of their staff. Even if your organisation doesn’t formally require you to have regular PDRs with your postdoc, the process can greatly benefit you both. 

Components of annual reviews

PDRs occur between an employee and their line manager to formally assess progress and performance since the previous PDR and consider the development needs for the future. The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers recommends making a clear distinction between: 

  • Progress against the aims and objectives of the research project as well as the development needs of the postdoc to achieve the goals of the project 
  • Development needs of the postdoc for the next steps in their career 

These elements are distinct and it’s important to ensure that a PDR adequately covers each part. This is especially important for postdocs, as the short-term pressures of research projects mean that wider career development needs can become neglected.  

Vitae recommend holding two separate meetings to discuss these elements. Some higher education institutions even formally separate out project and personal development reviews. 

PDRs complement other regular career development discussions 

PDRs are not intended to be the only career development discussion. See the Career Conversations page designed for managers of researchers for resources to help you hold regular career discussions with your postdoc. 

Making the most of PDRs 

Preparation: Ensure that you and your postdoc are prepared for the PDR meeting and are both aware of the expectations for each other. The location can make a difference – if your office isn’t appropriate then book a quiet room where you aren’t going to be disturbed. Make sure your postdoc is aware of what they are being assessed against. Many Universities in the UK are signatories of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which recommends the broad range of outputs and contributions found in research rather than restricting measuring research productivity using journal-based metrics. 

Attitude: How you treat the PDR process impacts how your postdoc will view it. To get the most out of the PDR your postdoc should feel comfortable, welcome and ready to engage with the process with the right mindset. Demonstrating frustration, reluctance or telling your postdoc that it’s a pointless box-ticking exercise will not achieve that. Consider your body language as well as what you say – be welcoming and relaxed. 

Balance: As stated above, PDRs cover both performance and development. Too often the focus becomes the reviewee’s outputs but PDRs are about the person themselves: what you need from them and what they need from you. If you find a PDR meeting has focussed too much on one aspect, schedule a second PDR meeting to ensure both elements are covered. As reviewer you are aiming for a balance of compassion and accountability. 

Open dialogue: PDRs work best when both reviewer and and reviewee feel comfortable to be honest and open. Adequate preparation from both sides should help with this but make sure you ask open questions that invite self-appraisal and reflection. Such questions might begin ‘Tell me about...’, ‘Explain how...’ or ‘Describe...’. 

Listen: The PDR process is an opportunity for your postdoc to reflect on their performance and their future plans. If you as their manager are talking too much then this can’t happen. Practice active listening and acknowledge and empathise what they are saying rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak. Don’t assume you know what the answer to a question is until you have listened to what your postdoc has to say. 

Feedback: Offer constructive feedback using specific examples of your postdoc’s work. Be specific and honest, providing feedback on positives as well as any dips in performance. Nothing in a PDR should be a surprise for either you or your postdoc and you shouldn’t be saving feedback for the PDR as feedback that isn’t timely isn’t especially useful. Remember that a PDR is also an opportunity for your postdoc to feedback to you as well – ask their opinion on how you can work together more effectively. For resources on providing feedback, visit the Management page. 

Avoid biases: It’s easy to go into a PDR assuming that you know everything about your postdoc if you’ve worked closely with them. Challenge your own assumptions about their performance and listen to what they say. Other PDR biases include recency bias (where your perception of performance is based on just the last few weeks) and spillover bias (ignoring recent changes based on your knowledge of their previous performance; Maier 2016). 

Set goals: A major frustration with PDRs for reviewers and reviewees alike is that whilst much can be discussed in a PDR meeting, its meaningless unless it’s acted upon. During the whole PDR process ensure that you and your postdoc set goals to achieve the decisions made during the PDR. The SMART framework is useful: the goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. 

Plan: Before or as a result of their PDR, your postdoc could write a Personal Development Plan (PDP), “a framework that allows an individual employee and their manager to identify learning needs, set objectives to meet them, and pinpoint the resources necessary to do so” (Sayed 2022). Your institution may already have a template that your postdoc could follow, however the essential elements that should be covered are: 

  • What is the development need?  
  • What is the development category? For example, is it a legal requirement, part of faculty plans or important for the postdoc’s next career step? 
  • How urgent is it and when could it take place? 
  • How can the development be achieved? Are there opportunities within your institution or would it need to be external. 
  • What is the resource cost and what other impacts might it have on the project whilst the development activity is taking place? 
  • What is the benefit to the postdoc, project and/or institution? How could that benefit be measured? 

Finish on a positive note: Regardless of what was discussed in the PDR meeting, try to ensure that your postdoc leaves the meeting feeling positive about the future.  

Ensuring your postdoc is as prepared as you 

PDRs are only effective if both parties are prepared. Yet often postdocs receive little guidance for their role as a reviewee during the PDR. 

If your institution has guidance for reviewees, then make sure to signpost your postdoc to them well in advance of your scheduled PDR. They will need enough time to review the guidance and then prepare for the PDR meeting itself. 

Discuss the PDR process with your postdoc in advance of meeting with them to ensure that they understand the process and the purpose of the exercise. It is as much in their interest to have an effective PDR as it is in yours. 

Once is not enough – ongoing performance processes 

For many research institutions, PDRs are an annual requirement. But restricting discussions of performance and development to once a year has a number of limitations: 

  • Recency bias – The reviewer’s knowledge of their staff’s performance and outputs tends to be limited to the proceeding month or two, rather than a fair appraisal across the year (Maier, 2016). 
  • Timeliness – Challenges or development needs can occur at any time throughout the year. Waiting for an annual performance review can mean that productivity is stalled or staff become frustrated. 

Many companies beyond Higher Education use review processes that are more regular, avoiding the pitfalls of a single point of time. Each meeting may not be as intensive as a single annual PDR but they allow for frequent discussions between manager and staff member to monitor performance and development needs. Importantly, these meetings are still more formal and focussed than a weekly progress catch up, where discussion of day-to-day tasks can dominate the conversation. 

More regular performance review meetings could be carried out on a bi-annual, quarterly or even monthly basis. Expand the drop-down menu below to see an example of a monthly performance review schedule. 

Reflection points

Whether you choose to meet monthly, quarterly, bi-annually or even annually, structured and regular meetings dedicated to performance and development provide clarity, helping you and your postdoc feel that your working relationship is fair, objective and transparent.  

  1. How could such a structure help your postdoc’s career development? 
  2. Would more regular meetings formally dedicated to their development needs or career aspirations help them to better prepare for the next step(s) of their career? 
  3. Would such meetings help you balance the needs of your research project with the needs of your postdoc and their development? 

Further resources

For a great guide on how to give feedback (including a downloadable difficult conversation planning tool) check out Feedback that doesn't sting from The Auditorium.


Maier, S. 2016. 4 unconscious biases that distort performance reviews. Entrepreneur, accessed 09/06/2023: https://www.entrepreneur.com/leadership/4-unconscious-biases-that-distort-performance-reviews/281919  

Sayed, Z. 2022. A guide to personal development plans for employees. HRForecast, accessed 09/06/2023: https://hrforecast.com/a-guide-to-personal-development-plans-for-employees/  

Vitae. 2019. “The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.” https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat/Download_Concordat_PDF 

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

Vitae. 2023. Professional development review, accessed 09/06/2023: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/research-staff/practicalities-of-being-research-staff/professional-development-review  

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