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Developing postdoc skills

The skills your postdocs develop during their time with you can help them to make that next step successfully. 

By reflecting on their current skills and the requirements of careers that interest them, postdocs can work with their managers to develop skills in their current roles that will benefit them in future roles within or beyond academia.

Postdoc skills

In working with postdocs and managers of researchers, Prosper has found some common traits that postdocs have or develop in their roles, beyond the subject-specific skills that their individual research projects require.

These include:

  • Project management
  • Time management
  • Adaptability and resilience
  • Presentation skills
  • Networking
  • Supervision and teaching
  • Independent working

“There’s a level of management that comes with the postdoc position that is not inherent in the PhD to the same degree, because you’re not being supervised now. So this ability to manage very large bodies of research and the level of autonomy and responsibility that you have as a postdoc, is so sought after, in so many professions, within and outside of academia.

Dr Ruth Nugent, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, University of Liverpool

However, an individual postdoc’s skills and experience differs depending on:

  • How long they have been in their current role
  • How many postdoctoral positions they have had
  • What development opportunities they had before beginning their postdoctoral position with you (before, during and after their PhD)
  • Their own interests and proficiencies

As a result, there is no single guide to the skills that postdocs have, and as a manager there is no one-size-fits-all approach you can take. Developing postdoc skills involves:

  1. Supporting your postdoc to identify their existing skills.
  2. Encouraging your postdoc to identity the skills and experience they might need in future roles
  3. Working together to find ways for them to develop those skills during their time with you.

Identifying existing skills

Many postdocs are unaware of their own skills and capabilities, especially for those skills that aren’t tied to their specific research project.

“A lot of these things postdocs do without really even thinking that they’re doing. Independent working, how you structure a programme on a project, how you meet targets and keep to time and keep to resources available, communicating your research. It can be quite difficult to see those skills because everyone around you has them as well, whereas if you move into an environment where not everyone has that background, actually these skills are really, really valuable.”

Dr Edward Latter, Earth Observatory Policy Lead, Defra

Not recognising their own skills can lead to postdocs limiting themselves and their options, both within and beyond academia.

“One thing that’s really shocked me is when I’m speaking to academics [is that] they have no idea about the depth of transferable skills they’ve got and how really important they are... and so don’t apply for these kinds of jobs, or they don’t sell themselves well.”

Dr Kate Whelan, Chief Operating Officer, Notch Scandinavia

As their manager you can support your postdoc to recognise their skills.

A skills inventory (or personal skills audit) is a comprehensive document or list containing all of an individual's educational qualifications and professional skills. This should also capture professional abilities and attributes. Ideally a skills inventory will also include examples of where the individual demonstrated those skills, allowing them to refer back to during the job application process.

You can encourage your postdoc to create their own skills inventory by signposting them to Prosper’s postdoc skills resources.

You can also work with them to create a skills inventory by suggesting they carry out one or more of Prosper’s easy ways to create a skills inventory:

  • Time breakdown
  • Reframing research outputs
  • Real-time skill spotting

To discover how to encourage your postdoc to do these, watch the video below or download Prosper's Skills briefing

Encourage your postdoc to share their skills inventory with you (if they feel comfortable to do so) and compare their assessment to your own knowledge of their skills that you’ve gained from working with them. What have they missed?

Download Prosper Skills Briefing

Download slides for skills inventory video below

Identifying skills to develop

The skills your postdoc may wish to develop will depend on their interests and the future career(s) they’re considering.

If they are unsure of a career path then suggest they look at an existing skills framework such as Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework, Eurodoc’s Transferable Skills for Early Career Researchers, or the World Economic Forum’s top 10 skills for 2025. These frameworks provide lists of skills that your postdoc can use to compare their own abilities against.

Postdocs make fantastic workers for any kind of industry because you have this level of highly-focused skillset or mindset of actually identifying a problem, solving it, explaining what it is, how to solve it, even create a methodology behind in order to actually work it out, and then bring for instance other parties as well to work with you in order in order to solve it.”

Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Co-Director of Digital Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities, Lancaster University

Performing a gap analysis

As your postdoc identifies skills they’d like to develop, work with them to consider what those skills look like in their current role and also what those skills look like in your role.

Once your postdoc has an idea of the skills they might need for their future career, you could suggest they perform a gap analysis, identifying key skills that they feel there are missing.

The MoSCoW method is a useful way of prioritising skills development needs, suggest that your postdoc rank the skills they’d like to develop by:

  • Must have – essential
  • Should have – important but not essential
  • Could have – nice to have
  • Will not have – low priority

“It’s first starting with a gap analysis, what are the skills you are missing? And why would it be good for you to get them? Then, identifying how exactly can you get them, over what time frame, and very often, also, who is going to pay for it.

Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Department of Physics, University of Liverpool.

Developing skills for the future

There are many ways you can help your postdoc to develop their skills further, from providing them with time or funding to attend training courses to enabling them to spend time with other researchers or organisations.

Increasingly, funders such as UKRI are looking to embed incentives for staff development into grant assessments, viewing research staff development as an important project outcome. Build resources for postdoc development into the grant application where possible.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of projects with industrial partners and I try to use these as opportunities for the PDRAs to learn more about what a career in the commercial sector looks like and actually recently I've managed to use grant funding to support some of my PDRAs to do product management training, for example.

Prof Rachel Williams, Professor of Ophthalmic Bioengineering, University of Liverpool.

Mutual benefits

Developing your postdoc’s skills and experience isn't a one-way process. There are plenty of things that you do as a PI that your postdoc could help you with, growing their skills and helping you in the process.

“There are plenty of tasks where [postdoc] development can be part of the outputs and good for the project... It's about thinking about how tasks can be productive and useful for everyone in a number of ways, rather than seeing it as Peter taking from Paul or vice versa.” 

Prof Hilary Pilkington, Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester.

Expand the sections below to discover some ideas for developing key skills required for careers both within and beyond academia:

With every task you do, is there something that your postdoc could learn from or contribute towards? For instance, if you’ve been invited to give a talk, do you need to be the one giving the talk or could your postdoc develop their communication skills by giving the talk for you?

“I give [my postdocs] the opportunity to meet industrial partners, clinicians, and to come to patient involvement groups with me. Anything that I go to, I try to always take one of my postdocs with me, so that they will learn the skills that I'm still learning as a PI... I think seeing how I foray into different fields, into different industries, into different sectors will also help them develop along that path, and will help them form their own networks with the same people that I do and beyond that.

Dr Raechelle D’Sa, Professor, School of Engineering, University of Liverpool.

In the video below Dr Richard Rainbow, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine at the University of Liverpool, discusses his experiences supporting postdocs to develop their skills:

Final considerations

Developing your postdoc’s skills isn’t about getting them to do your budgeting or supervision simply because you don’t want to. Postdocs are not there to be used under the pretence of career development. Instead, work together to identify skills they would like to develop and agree on ways in which they can do so.

Build a working relationship where your postdoc feels confident to ask for (or turn down) development opportunities. For example, should they feel it a skill they’d like to develop, your postdoc managing the day-to-day budget of your research project can be very beneficial to both you and them, but only if they are supported by you and feel comfortable asking for help or saying no.

Supporting postdoc skills development doesn’t have to take time away from your research project and it can be beneficial for you both. Remember also that the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (to which most Higher Education institutions in the UK are signed up to) recommends that postdocs spend a minimum of 10 days of career development per year. How will your postdoc spend their 10 days this year?

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