- Skills for careers within academia
Prosper has heard repeatedly that many PI felt shocked, thrown in at the deep end, adrift, lost, overwhelmed and/or underprepared when they first became a PI. In the video below, Dr Tamara West, PI on an ESRC-funded networking grant in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Film at the University of Liverpool discusses her experiences transitioning from postdoc to PI
PI Network video Tamara WestTranscript
The first postdoctoral roles that I took very much just focussed on research and probably rightly so. That was fine by me. It never formed out of any desire of mine to be involved in any sort of project management. I was just involved in doing the research. As I progressed, I got involved more in grant writing. Again, this focused almost exclusively on the research content, the methodological content. I was never really involved in any conversations around budgeting, wider project management, data management plans. It was never part of any conversation. I was just a person who contributed to the grant.
Then as I moved a little bit further on, I was involved in some more cultural policy work where I was co-writing consultancy applications as well as grant applications. That gave me an insight into budgeting requirements, project management requirements, time management requirements. Again, even though I was at a point in my career at that time where I would have really benefited from a little bit of extra help and assistance in terms of how to manage these things, how to gain training or access different networks of support around this, I wasn’t included in that.
So looking back now, I wish I’d had conversations that were more related to what I needed to progress further, but they never really took place. In the final postdoctoral role that I undertook, I was using budget codes more. So even simple things like budget codes and how all of that works is an important thing to learn. I was involved from beginning to end in research design and application and I was also independently submitting my own grants. Even so, I was never really given a lot of different choices in terms of training possibilities.
By training, what I mean here is there are some things that the PI can do and can involve you in, but some things a PI doesn’t have that training and doesn’t necessarily understand all of the intricacies of project management. So part of the PI’s role there is perhaps to help identify formal and informal training possibilities. Sometimes budget doesn’t exist for that, but they can also be done in-house.
Now I realise there’s drop-ins. There’s the sharing of project applications. There’s a lot of support just within my own department, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time when I would have really benefited from doing that. So I suppose with all that what I want to emphasise is that the needs and the goals of researchers shift according to the stage they are in their career or in their contract. So it needs to be an ongoing assessment. It needs to be an ongoing conversation because I think sometimes PIs forget they are the line management. Sometimes that’s shared and that’s great.
For example, in a very small team it can stop with the PI. In a way, there needs to be a greater understanding of that. I know PIs have a lot of other work to do teaching different research projects, but, in the end, that time needs to be built in right from research application stage that those conversations will be held, that there will be some sort of identification of formal and informal training opportunities.
These need to be flexible in terms of the stage of career and employment that the postdoctoral researcher is currently at. As I say, it can be formal and informal. It can be the identification of project management modules and training courses, but it could also being given access to departmental drop-in sessions. Just that simple thing of being made aware there is support.
It could be things that UKRI, for example, are running. Just to have that conversation and to help a little bit because before you’ve done something, you don’t even know what questions to ask. Looking forward, I think any research projects that I apply for and indeed any research project applications that I assess, I think it’s important to make sure that the postdoctoral researcher isn’t just someone who’s there to do the research.
They are a team member. They have career and development needs that will take them to a job within academia, but also – quite likely even if just for a short time – outside of the academic arena and beyond academia. That’s an important thing to bear in mind.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
As their manager you can help your postdoc prepare for and better understand the requirements of a tenured academic position, by talking with them and involving them in or explaining some of your responsibilities. You may also be best placed to help them identify specific skills they’ll need to develop for your discipline.
Prosper’s work with managers of researchers has revealed some key desirable skills for an academic career:
- Advanced levels of project management
- Communication skills
- Strategic thinking
- Grant writing
- People management
- Leadership and influencing skills
- Skills for careers beyond academia
Postdocs have technical research skills, but their breadth of experience can also give them an advantage when applying for jobs beyond academia. They’re able to take the initiative, learn things quickly and figure things out for themselves.
In speaking with employers several key desirable skills stand out for a career beyond academia:
- Commercial awareness
- Creativity and innovative thinking
- Digital skills
- Networking and relationship management
The World Economic Forum’s top 10 skills for 2023 are grouped into four basic types: Problem-solving, Self-management, Working with people, and Technology use and development. How does your postdoc demonstrate these skills?