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Supporting postdoc career development

Caught between the training-focussed PhD and becoming an independent researcher, the role of ‘postdoc’ has many challenges, not least the temporary nature of most postdoctoral contracts. 

Understanding your role as their manager and the barriers that postdocs face can help you support your postdoc to engage with their own career development. Supporting your postdocs career development also benefits you, as they’ll feel valued, which can lead to a better working relationship and a more motivated researcher (to discover more of the benefits of supporting postdoc career development, read our 'Why Use Prosper' page.

The role of a manager

A key aspect of a manager’s role is the recruitment, management and development of their staff.

Support from their manager can make or break a postdoc’s career development opportunities, with some suggesting that managers of researchers may be the biggest influence on a postdoc’s career path (Charlwood and McBride 2020; Hayter and Parker 2019; Menard and Shinton 2022; Watts et al. 2019).

67% of postdocs turn to their principle investigators for career advice (Woolston 2020)


You aren't expected to know everything about the many possible career paths open to your postdoc(s), and trying to do so would add yet more pressure to your already busy role as a PI.

However, little things can make a huge difference, including listening, supporting, having an awareness of your own knowledge gaps, and knowing where to signpost postdocs to for career development resources (including Prosper!).

To discover more about the expectations on managers of researchers, watch this brief video.

Download the slides from this workshop

Barriers to engaging with career development

There are many reasons why postdocs might not engage with career development or explore their full range of options. These barriers can be:

  • Self-imposed due to a postdoc's own previous experience, confidence and feelings
  • Due to a lack of knowledge about careers within and beyond academia
  • Imposed upon a postdoc by the expectations of those around them
  • Influenced by the employment landscape they find themselves in

Expand the headings below to discover some of the reasons we’ve heard and tips for helping your postdoc breakdown their barriers:

A problem shared

In working with over 120 postdocs across our two pilot cohorts, Prosper has found that whilst many of these barriers are common, few postdocs realise that their peers may be facing similar challenges. By speaking with other postdocs, your postdoc can normalise the feelings of difficulty presented by these barriers.

What peer-to-peer buddy or mentoring schemes exist for postdocs at your institution, allowing them to share and discuss the challenges that they face? If nothing exists, could you set one up? If they felt it would be beneficial for their own development, could your postdoc set one up, empowered by you, helping to build their skills and experience?

Having your own supportive and diverse network of mentors or peers may also help you in understanding how you can best enable the career development of your postdocs, as well as supporting your own development and needs (Heidt, 2023). What mentoring schemes or networks are there for managers of researchers at your institution? If there aren’t any, could you start one yourself? Prosper’s PI Network may also be able to provide a form of peer support through the events it organises – see more details here.

Challenging career assumptions

Everyone makes assumptions about careers, both their own and careers of which they’ve no direct experience. Sometimes these assumptions are not correct, and their perpetuation can negatively impact postdoc career development.

Below are some common assumptions we’ve heard postdocs and PIs making about careers within and beyond academia:

  • ‘Once you’ve left academia you can’t go back’
  • ‘No other career is as flexible as academia’
  • ‘To obtain an academic career, postdocs should move between universities’
  • ‘I’m not good enough to have an academic career’
  • ‘Leaving academia is a waste of a postdoc’s PhD and training’
  • ‘Leaving academia is a failure for the postdoc’
  • ‘A postdoc leaving academia is reflected as a failure for their PI’
  • ‘It’s too late to change career’
  • ‘None of my postdocs leave academia’
  • ‘Employers beyond academia don’t value academic experience’
  • ‘The next job must be the perfect job’
  • ‘I need to plan out my entire career to know what to do next’
  • ‘All I’ve done is academic research, I won’t be good at anything else’‘If I change career then the last 10 years will have been a waste of time’
  • ‘I don’t want to have to start again from the bottom’
  • ‘I don’t want to take a pay cut’
  • ‘I won’t feel as important if I’m not an academic’
  • ‘I don’t want to work in industry because it’s unethical’
  • ‘I won’t be able to find a career I enjoy as much’
  • ‘I need to finish my current grant before I can move to another job’
  • ‘If I leave midway through a contract I will get a bad reference’
  • ‘I’m too busy to explore what careers I might like’
  • ‘I’m afraid of what other people will think or say about me leaving academia’
  • ‘I’m a world expert in my subject, leaving academia will mean I’m not as important or valued’

None of these assumptions are true, but each one can derail a postdocs career development.

Statistically, most postdocs won’t gain tenured academic positions even if they want to – but that doesn’t mean your postdoc who dreams of an academic position won’t achieve their goal. Support your postdoc to better understand the career paths open to them so that they can make informed decisions about their future and proactively work to develop the skills and experiences they need to get there. Incorrect assumptions help no one.

Try to recognise what assumptions you might be making and avoid them, for yourself and for your postdoc. Ask your postdoc(s) what assumptions they’ve noticed and encourage them to look for evidence of these assumptions.

To discover more about challenging assumptions, watch this brief video:

Download slides from 'Challenging career assumptions' video

Helping your postdoc when they feel stuck

With so many potential barriers, it's easy for postdocs to stall with their career development. Helping your postdoc, however, isn’t about giving them advice and expecting them to follow it. Your postdoc needs to find their own solutions and discover for themselves what they want to do next.

As their PI there are plenty of things you can do to empower your postdoc to move forwards with their career development, including encouraging them to engage with the wider early career researcher community, to participate in public engagement, or to write pros and cons lists. Support them to set career development goals and then check in with them about those goals after agreed intervals.

When discussing careers, ask your postdoc open-ended questions about their careers so far and their aspirations. What are they proud of? What are their career values? What would they do if Universities didn’t exist?

Be alert and empathetic to your postdoc’s inner critic. Sharing your own failures (grants, publications, jobs and so on) can help your postdoc normalise the regular setbacks that being an academic often entails. It can also help them develop their own resilience.

To discover more about helping your staff when they feel stuck, watch this brief video:

Download slides from 'Helping Your research Staff'

What next?

The following resources for managers of researchers may help you if your postdoc is finding it difficult to engage with career development or is feeling stuck:


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

Guccione, K. 2016. More than one reason why your supervisor is not thrilled you’re leaving academia. University of Sheffield Think Ahead Blog, accessed 05/06/2023: https://thinkaheadsheffield.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/more-than-one-reason-why-your-supervisor-is-not-thrilled-youre-leaving-academia/

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.

Heidt, A. 2023. Heeding the happiness call: why academia needs to take faculty mental health more seriously. Nature, accessed 05/06/2023: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-00419-0

Levine, A.G. 2021. How to stop self-sabotaging your career. Science, accessed 05/06/2023: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.abl8001

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  

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

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   

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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