Managing your first postdoc 

What is a postdoc

A postdoctoral research position is typically a fixed-term research post for PhD graduates. Specific details such as contract length, job title and salary vary between institutions and with the funding grant. 

The postdoc role is often seen as a stepping stone to a tenured academic position, a way for a researcher to develop their experience and skills beyond their PhD and prepare for the transition to independent researcher. Whilst not as explicitly training-focused as a PhD, the postdoc role is still a role of development. 

The temporary nature of the role means that postdocs need to consider their next steps. Few postdocs remain as postdocs their whole career, although the postdoc period is getting longer and there are concerns that it’s becoming more of a job than a career step (Afonja et al. 2021; Hayter and Parker 2019; Herschberg et al. 2018, McAlpine 2016). 

The additional experiences and training that postdocs gain mean they are well suited to a range of careers. Around 10% to 15% of postdocs go onto become permanent academic staff, but the skills postdocs have mean that they can be highly sought after in roles beyond academia (Vitae 2021; McConnell et al. 2018; Menard and Shinton 2022; Sauermann and Roach 2016; Woolston, 2020). 

Becoming a Principal Investigator 

Whilst successfully becoming an independent researcher and getting a grant that will fund a postdoc is a very positive experience, it also presents new challenges (McAlpine 2016). 

‘The Principal Investigator takes responsibility for the intellectual leadership of the research project, for the overall management of the research and for the management and development of researchers.  

UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (Vitae 2019) 

The move from doing your own research to leading and managing researchers working on your research for you is a big step.  

‘Being a PI is a fundamentally different job to being a postdoc; they just happen to be in the same environment.  

Tregoning and McDermott 2020 

As a manager of researchers your responsibilities are wide ranging and are likely to include: 

  • Fundraising 
  • Fund management 
  • Purchasing of materials 
  • Recruitment of staff and students 
  • Training and development of staff and students 
  • Management of staff and students 
  • Publicising research 
  • Planning research 
  • Grant writing 
  • Teaching and assessment for large and small student groups 
  • Mentoring 
  • Administration 
  • Departmental responsibilities 

When managing your first postdoc, you may be expected to learn many of these responsibilities on the job, an experience that can be overwhelming. Preparing for this role transition can be especially difficult when the provision of leadership and management training for new PIs at research institutions is often limited. 

“All my friends who have recently become PIs wish they had some sort of training. They have been thrown into the wilderness without learning any of the skills needed to survive.” 

Anonymous US biology postdoc, quotes in Van Noorden 2018. 

The impact of this lack of preparation on your postdoc(s), on your research and on you and your wellbeing can be huge.  

“I remember being absolutely overjoyed that I got this tenure track position... and then suddenly thinking ‘oh God, I’ve got to look after people in the lab, I’ve got to be the one who answers all the questions, I don’t know what I'm doing and absolutely feeling like I was sinking for a good year of that start.”  

Dr Richard Rainbow, Senior Lecturer in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Liverpool. 

If your postdoc is considering an academic career, what can you do to help prepare them for the range of responsibilities the job requires? 

Useful resources 

Your institution is likely to have resources and training opportunities for managers, however many PIs from different institutions report being unaware of such options. It’s worth checking within your institution for development opportunities, but Prosper also has plenty of resources for managers of researchers: 

Advice from other PIs 

You are not the first person to manage a postdoc. 

Academia, both within your own institution and beyond, is full of fellow PIs and managers of researchers with lots of experience.  

Mentoring 

If you don’t already have one or more mentors within or external to where you work, look for mentoring schemes that you could join. You can draw on the experience of mentors who are more senior than you, and share experiences and support with mentors at a similar level to you via mentoring circles, buddy schemes or communities of practice. 

Regardless of whether its peer mentoring or you’re mentored by someone with more experience than you, both mentee and mentor can benefit from the experience of sharing practice. Just remember, the benefits you receive from mentoring should ideally be paid back by offering to be a mentor to postdocs or academics with less experience than you. 

If your institution or department doesn’t have a mentoring scheme, how much would it take for you to set one up?  

Social media 

For all its flaws, academic social media can be a very useful tool for seeking advice from other PIs. Whilst the range of responses may be broad and can vary in levels of usefulness for your current situation, a well posed question can result in great advice. 

For instance, in 2018 Dr Nathan Hall, Associate Professor of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University asked academic Twitter users for the advice they’d give to their younger selves about academia. In more than 900 comments the responses included the importance of saying no, defining your own version of success, the benefits of mentors, the value of life outside of work, looking after your own wellbeing, and Charles Gordon’s quote that “we are all smart, distinguish yourself by being kind" (Custer 2018). 

Prosper 

Whilst speaking with managers of researchers about their experiences supporting the career development of postdocs (see our real-life examples of managers of researchers here), we also asked them for the advice they’d give to a new PI managing their first postdoc. Expand the headings below to see their responses! 

References

Afonja, S., Salmon, D.G., Quailey, S.I. & Lambert, W.M. 2021. Postdocs’ advice on pursuing a research career in academia: A qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses. PLOS ONE, 16, e0250662. 

Custer, S. 2018. Hundreds of academics give advice to their younger selves. Times Higher Education, accessed 04/04/2022 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/hundreds-academics-give-advice-their-younger-selves  

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.   

Herschberg, C., Benschop, Y. & van den Brink, M. 2018. Precarious postdocs: A comparative study on recruitment and selection of early-career researchers. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 34(4), pp303-310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scaman.2018.10.001   

McAlpine, L. 2016. Becoming a PI: From ‘doing’ to ‘managing’ research. Teaching in Higher Education, 21, 49-63. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2015.1110789  

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. 

Tregoning, J.S. and McDermott, J.E. 2020 Ten simple rules to becoming a principal investigator. PLoS Comput Biol 16(2) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007448  

Van Noorden, R. 2018. Leadership problems in the lab. Nature, 577, 294-296. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05143-8   

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    

Woolston, C. 2020. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers, Nature, 588, 181-184, doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03381-3 

Refine image Refine Cross
Filter by: Unsure what to search for? Click here
130 minutes
Close
Flash badge View notice(s)