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Project end and outcomes

‘Postdocs are [thus] expected to demonstrate loyalty and commitment to the project, but they seem to receive little of no reciprocity for their investment and dedication. Despite postdocs’ considerable contributions to academic knowledge production (Van der Weijden et al., 2016) they suffer from bad employment conditions and low social and job security.’

Precarious postdocs: A comparative study on recruitment and selection of early-career researchers.

Finding a long(er) term role; learning the ropes of a new research project; building new professional relationships; the pressure of completing publications even after the end of a position and a project; the guilt of leaving something half-done... 

Postdocs often find themselves pulled in multiple directions when reaching the end of a project, not knowing what the best way is to proceed, a right way for themselves and for others involved. Some might have to make the difficult decision to end a contract before seeing the end of a project. 

“At the end of the day it's their decision what they do. If they want to stay in a job till the end of the postdoc that's brilliant, and I would love to help them stay if they want to, or help them move on to the next job if they want to. But if halfway through they've realised it's not for them, which can happen, or they've been offered something they consider as better, then who am I to stand in the way. Yes, it's frustrating. Yes, it's difficult [...] It's tough, but it happens, you can't stop people doing what they need to do: after all they have their own life.”

Dr Richard Rainbow, Senior Lecturer, University of Liverpool.


Reaching the natural or forced end of a postdoc’s contract should motivate both you, as a manager of researcher, and your postdoc to review the outcomes of the project and agree on a way forward.

You could consider the following points: 

  1. If your postdoc is leaving before the end of a project and you will need to find a replacement, ask them to complete detailed handover notes that will allow the newcomer to pick up where they have left.
  2. Create a clear plan on what tasks they should finish before the end of their contract, and prioritise the tasks to enable them to conclude the most important ones.
  3. Agree on expectations around publications after the end of their contract: will they continue to contribute to outputs? What will their authorship position be? 
  4. Make provisions for any team member they were officially or unofficially supervising or line managing: who and when will take over this role? 
  5. Review together the expectations you laid during the induction and notice what has been fulfilled or not: this will help you agree the most suitable outcome for all involved.
  6. Finally, work on a debriefing as end of project and reflect together on what has gone well, what has gone wrong and what could have been changed in the process. This should be an open discussion, without the need for finding a culprit for failures.

Coming to the end of a project and parting ways for different careers or simply progression should not mean the end of a professional, and often personal, relationship. On the contrary maintaining contact with your postdocs, including those that move beyond academia, can be of great benefit for you and them. It can open new avenues for collaboration and can broaden and better the research environment and culture. 

“There’s a great benefit also to PIs but academics more broadly, to keeping in touch with the policy world and the consultancy world and the commercial world and the government world and our former students and our former postdocs are one way of doing that and so these are things that we do value and we should value more.”

Dr Siobhan McAndrew, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol.

After the contract ends

Once your postdoc's contract has ended there are still responsibilities for you as their former manager that can help you both.

1. Providing a reference

As their former manager it's possible that you will be asked to provide your postdoc with a reference for several years to come. A reference from you will certainly be essential for getting their next job and likely more.

Be aware when writing a reference that the language you use is free from bias. Gendered language can create biases that result in hiring inequalities. In 2021 Imperial College London produced an excellent Guide on Eliminating Gender Bias from References and Letters of Recommendation, complete with good practice guidelines, a check list and example reference letters. Once you've written your draft reference, you can also check the text using an online gender-decoder tool.

After writing and returning a reference make sure to keep a copy securely saved in case you're called upon for another reference several years down the line and need to refer back to it.

2. Keeping in touch

Regardless of your relationship with your postdoc, it can be helpful to keep in contact with them after they have left your team. There are a number of advantages to this, including:

  • It ensures they can contact you for a reference
  • It helps you to know what they're working on - they could end up as a future collaborator
  • It helps you tell future postdocs what your previous postdocs went onto do.

Even just connecting with your postdoc on LinkedIn can mean you're able to keep track of what roles they've gone on to after leaving your team. For information about using LinkedIn as a PI, visit the Networking page for Managers of Researchers.

3. Project reporting

Funding organisations such as UKRI are increasingly recognising that staff development is "an important outcome of research projects" (UKRI People and Teams 2023 Action Plan). Currently there is no guidance from funders for how you can report staff development as an outcome of your project but its worth considering when you come to report on your project how you might include any development activity that you have supported your postdoc with.

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