Successful career conversations

This page explores how PIs can prepare and conduct career conversations with their postdoc. We’ve also created guidance for postdocs. 

Your feedback is greatly valued as we continue to improve it. We also invite you to join our PI network to assist you in sharing best practise amongst your peers. 

It’s really critical to discuss career aspirations to help shape that postdoc into a career or profession that they are really interested in going into.”

Prof Bavik Patel, Prof of Clinical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, University of Brighton

What is a career conversation?

Whilst annual professional development review (PDR) discussions with your postdoc provides the opportunity to discuss their career ambitions, this is not always the ideal setting for a more in-depth career conversation. 

Having distinct and frequent career conversations can be beneficial to both your postdoc and yourself, particularly given the short-term nature of the majority of postdoctoral contracts. These conversations offer a chance to consider aspirations and possible pathways, and to plan development in a directed way. We’ve also co-created a resource on career conversations for postdocs themselves. 

“Organizations and in particular direct managers, often assume that a little “career talk” can be dropped into a performance review process and that is sufficient for facilitating critical Career Conversations between a manager and employee. But when asked, the majority of employees are looking for more information and advice about a wide range of topics”. 

(Right Management, 2016, p. 7) 

Best practice is to keep PDRs and career conversations separate. A career conversation is: 

  • Future-facing - what do you want to do? where do you want to go? 
  • Exploratory - may have an agenda of points to cover but can expand. 
  • No specific outcomes attributable to it, although actions could arise from it such as making an introduction and so on. 

Having career conversations with your postdoc(s) benefits you: 

The Global Career Conversation Study of 4402 employees, across 15 countries aged 25 to 55 found that if career conversations were held more regularly 82% of employees would be more engaged in their current work and 78% would be more likely to share their ideas (Right Management, 2016, p. 5). Career conversations boost productivity.

Make time 

Your postdoc needs time to prepare ahead of the meeting, so let them know when you are available ahead of time (a good rule of thumb is that they will need double the duration of the meeting to prepare). 

Provide structure 

Ahead of the conversation, it may be a good idea to suggest that your postdoc considers three broad areas: 

1. Who am I?

A reflective conversation about the postdoc’s current skills, motivations and values. Encourage your postdoc to use the resources in our Reflect section to prepare. 

2. What should I develop and how?

A conversation about growth in their current role but with an eye to the future. What new skills should they develop? Is there any training that could be beneficial? How might this development activity be undertaken during the course of the research project? 

3. What's next for my career?

A conversation focusing on the postdoc’s future and the careers options available to them. This is an opportunity to discuss a range of different career pathways and perhaps draw attention to roles that the postdoc may not have considered before. 

You do not need to be the person they have all of these conversations with, but it may be a useful way to approach these conversations (adapted from Squiggly Careers podcast episode 109: How to have a career conversation). 

Challenge your expectations around career conversations

“not to see it as a negative conversation you’re going to have, but a really fruitful and exciting one – that you’re creating a collaborative partnership with this person, that you might be able to stay connected with and can feed back into what you’re doing and can create really exciting collaborations down the line”. 

Dr Ruth Nugent, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, University of Liverpool. 

PIs report a lack of familiarity with careers beyond academia and feel they aren’t careers advisors. Postdocs may not feel secure in discussing their career aspirations honestly. As a PI you’re not expected to be a careers advisor, it’s more about listening to your postdoc and posing questions to help them find their own answers. Emphasise explicitly that you’re keen to hear about their career plans and ideas. Don’t expect that postdocs understand the academic career pathways open to them, if they are interested in this pathway perhaps share your own career journey. 

The following questions may help evaluate some career development support you could offer your postdoc: 

  • Who do I know that I could put my postdoc in touch with? 
  • What opportunities exist within my group/department which could allow my postdoc to develop skills and experiences relevant to their career interests? 
  • What training and development opportunities do I know of which sound relevant to their career interests? 
  • How can I ensure that my postdoc knows I’m taking on board their interests, regardless of whether they are inside or beyond academia? 

“I support my postdocs by giving them…freedom to explore the avenues they want to explore”. 

Dr Raechelle D’Sa 
Senior Lecturer in Antimicrobial Biomaterials, University of Liverpool 

Show encouragement 

Only 30% of employees feel confident about starting a career conversation (Right Management, 2016, p. 13) so your postdoc is likely to feel at least a little apprehensive about asking for a career conversation and the actual conversation itself. 

“I’d encourage a lot of listening, I’d encourage a lot of encouragement, and to really emphasise that this is a really credible and exciting way to think about their career”. 

Dr Ruth Nugent, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, University of Liverpool. 

Requesting a career conversation may have been a big step in itself for your postdoc. Maintaining a positive attitude to the career conversation and prompting your postdoc with open questions if they require it, will help the career conversation to flow. It’s possible that your postdoc isn’t fully aware of all of their strengths and skills. You can assist them by highlighting what you see their strengths are and when you see them working and performing at their best. 

Avoid a bias toward academia 

Be aware that your postdoc may have concerns about how you view careers beyond academia. This may make them apprehensive about broaching the subject of alternative career pathways. 

“be very conscious about giving off any signals about what careers are better or worse”. 

Dr Tom Hasell 
Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Liverpool 

Be an active listener

Active listening is a real skill. Consider exactly how you pose your questions, elicit further information and check your understanding of what your postdoc is trying to communicate. 

This article provides a concise overview of how to be an active listener. 

“listening is not the same as hearing…you want to iteratively improve your understanding of the individual’s aspirations but also be able to articulate the things you know about and the connections that you might have both directly and indirectly, to support them achieving what they want, almost irrespective of whether that helps you, but coincidentally, helping them will help you”.

Prof Simon Maskell 
Professor of Autonomous Systems, University of Liverpool 

Be aware of the benefits

The impact of having a career conversation results in employees being more engaged, happier in their work and more likely to share ideas (Right Management, 2015, p. 6) 

“I think it’s really important to remember that it’s not just about your research, but it’s also about everybody having a home life and other lives and priorities. That’ll give you a really happy morale within the team, which really is not something money can buy”. 

Dr Ruth Nugent 
UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, University of Liverpool 

However, the Global Career Conversation Study (Right Management, 2016, p. 6) revealed that the three main reasons that managers avoided career conversations were: 

  1. Concern that it will lead to expectations that they can’t satisfy. 
  2. Most managers have not been trained on how to support career development. 
  3. Most managers don’t appreciate the cost-benefit of having career conversations and are also not given recognition or incentive for having them.

As a PI you have many competing pressures and it is unlikely you will be able to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity your postdocs may wish to take. However, you can explain your reasons, which will increase understanding and transparency in the group and make it clear to your postdoc that whilst you may not be able to say ‘yes’ to this particular thing now, you may be able to do so in future, for example. 

A reasonable expectation

As PIs, you are in prime position to discuss career aspirations with the people you manage. This has been recognised as part of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and in the League of European Research Universities’ (LERU) vision on multiple pathways for the careers of researchers, which states the expectation that: 

“Supervisors and principal investigators do not solely focus on the perspectives within academia for their staff but adopt a broader view on pathways. Supervisors and principal investigators openly discuss career options in career talks with their staff. Those who seem unlikely to pursue an academic career (for whatever reason) receive clear and timely advice”. 

(2018, p. 23) 

We recognise the time pressures PIs are facing and no-one expects PIs to become a part-time career coach. As identified in the Researcher Development Concordat, it is not all on you, since managers of researchers “Support researchers in exploring and preparing for a diversity of careers” but this can be “through the use of mentors and careers professionals, training, and secondments” (Vitae, 2019, p. 7). 

Career conversations in academia

In the recent Wellcome report, ‘What researchers think about the culture they work in’ (2020), of 3885 research staff surveyed, only the following had received inputs relating to career conversations from their supervisor/manager/PI in the last 12 months:

  • Had a career conversation with you about your career aspirations – 44%. 
  • Connected you to others within or outside your field – 34%. 
  • Provided career advice and guidance – 34%. 
  • Offered you training to support your skill development – 31%. 
  • (2020, p. 24) 

Crucially for Prosper, only 9% of researchers discussed alternative career options with their supervisor/manager/PI. 

Recommendations

  • Hold annual PDRs and career conversations separately 
  • Acknowledge that your postdoc may have been brave to even ask to have a career conversation with you 
  • Encourage your postdoc to consider their career development early in your working relationship 
  • Make it explicitly clear to your researchers that you value all career outcomes, not just ones within academia 
  • Don’t assume that postdocs know the routes to securing a tenured role within academia, talk to them through the details if they’re interested in this career path 
  • Signpost your postdocs, you’ve got lots of knowledge and a network of people that you may be able to signpost your postdocs to as appropriate 
  • Bear in mind that career development isn’t just about getting a new job, consider the development opportunities you are aware of that you could highlight to your postdoc so they can grow whilst in their role 

References and resources

Active listening resources

Imperial College London’s page on ‘Supporting the skills and career development of your team’, in particular the ‘Careers advice’ section. (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

LERU (2018). Delivering talent: Careers of researchers inside and outside academia.  

LERU position paper. Available at: https://www.leru.org/publications/delivering-talent-careers-of-researchers-inside-and-outside-academia (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

Right Management (2015). The Career Conversation Needs to Change: How a modern approach drives business success. Available at: Right managements' website (Accessed on: 13 October 2023) 

Right Management (2016). Talk The Talk: How Ongoing Career Conversations Drive Business Success. Available at: https://workforce-resources.manpowergroup.com/white-papers/talk-the-talk-how-ongoing-career-conversations-drive-business-success  (Accessed on: 11 October 2023). 

Vitae (2019). The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (commonly known as the Researcher Development Concordat). Available at:  https://researcherdevelopmentconcordat.ac.uk/ (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

Wellcome (2020). What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In. Available at: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/what-researchers-think-about-the-culture-they-work-in.pdf (Accessed on: 22 May 2020). 

A podcast episode which covers how to have a career conversation: it is mostly presented from an employee’s point of view but there are some tips for managers. (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

A paper which highlights the importance of PIs assisting postdocs career development. (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

A report which covers general tips on how to run your research group (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

To explore goal-setting further listen to episode 72 of the Squiggly Careers podcast ‘ Goal setting that works’. (Accessed on: 13 October 2023). 

Tools for aiding self-assessment and reflection on personal values, motivations and skills are provided in the Reflect section of this site. myIDP / ImaginePhD are a good place to start. 

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