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Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva

Current position
Senior Lecturer and Group Leader, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.

Details of PhD
Biology (Physiology and Biochemistry), University of Lisbon, Portugal, 2008

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
April 2021

Who has helped you along your own career pathway? Would you say there's a benefit in having a mentor?

I think there's a big benefit in having not just one mentor, but many mentors. I think people are very diverse, and I definitely have in my life and in my career benefitted hugely from having diverse mentors. Throughout, from the very start, and before starting my PhD, there were mentors that really made me see that I could do it to start. My postdoc advisor was a great mentor, and somebody that really helped me identify that yes, research was important for me, but having said that there's just so many people. It's difficult to pinpoint just one. There's a few names that come to mind when I think of key mentors. There's other people that have been important in particular stages. I think a PI can... At this stage, it's still extremely important to have those mentors.

Being a PI can be described as one of the most lonely career options, because as we keep going up it becomes more and more lonely. It's really important to have good colleagues and to have good mentors that we can rely on and discuss different aspects with at different stages.

How frequently do you discuss career development with your postdocs?

We have one thing that we call the annual performance development review. At a minimum once a year we do discuss career development, and that's put into the context, for example, what are the objectives for the coming year? How does that fit into your career development plans? I like to meet more frequently and to schedule meetings every four months or so to discuss this in particular, so how are things going? How are we doing in terms of not just research objectives but actually development objectives? This has been a bit impacted by the pandemic. I haven't been able to keep up with all of these meetings. I do like to take the opportunity when I meet with postdocs, and when we start talking about opportunities, for example, 'Oh, there's this conference coming up,' or, 'Oh, there's this particular workshop and you've expressed some interest in this area. Are you still interested in this area? Do you want to explore this?' Where possible, we do try to talk about it. We do also have a couple of... Through our communication channels, we use Slack for this and we have a channel that is dedicated to career development and opportunities. Wherever I come across a training course, etc., I do post it there, and if a particular researcher in the team shows an interest then I try to keep note of it and to then discuss that a bit further.

For example, one team member has expressed some interest in intellectual property, so if I come across something along those lines, 'Are you really interested in this? Do you want to explore this?' Try to take those opportunities as they come along.

What specific things do you do to develop your postdocs?

When postdocs join the lab, the first conversation I try to make it really clear that we are focused not just on the research, but also pay attention to their career development. To me, it's really important that people take ownership of their own career development. I'm very conscious that people are very diverse, and what interests them is going to be very diverse.

To me, there's no prescribed set of skills that a postdoc needs to develop. I'm really interested in learning from the postdocs what are their interests, so we can tailor what skills they've developed towards those interests, recognising that in some cases they might not yet know that they are interested in a particular thing. We do also mention that it's important to keep open to opportunities and to experiment, and when finding out that actually, this didn't make it for me, well, that's actually useful, because then you know not to go there. I guess there's things that we develop; there's skills that postdocs develop during their position. That includes, for example, communication skills, teamwork, those sorts of things that apply to different things. Other than that, I really think it needs to be personalised, because some people might enjoy, for example, intellectual property, which we mentioned before. Some might hate it. Some people might really like scientific communication. Some might hate it. It's about having that conversation and discussing what are possible things that we are aware of.

How do you balance postdoc career development with the demands of the research project?

That balance between delivery of research objectives and postdoc development is really important, and we need to be careful because obviously we do have those commitments to deliver the research. In general, most projects will include some activities that are not just the research itself but, for example, communicating that research. If you have a UKRI-funded project, for example, there's a number of days a year that each person is supposed to be spending on science communication, for example. Also, it's important to recognise that a person that is happy and feels engaged with their position will deliver a better job. I do think that experiments are probably going to run better if they feel motivated and they feel that they are developing. We do have these conversations in terms of finding the right balance and making sure that they're not just going to spend the whole month delivering that science communication project that they got involved with, but they are going to confine it to, 'Okay, if you spend a few days learning, a few days delivering, and then make note of what is the benefit that that brings to the project, so you've now communicated this. That enhances the value of the project, and makes people aware of the project.

Now we move on to the experiment. If you want to keep investing in that area, then we need to negotiate and make sure that there's sufficient time for delivering the experiment as well as investing in your development.' I think through conversation it's typically possible to find a good balance to make sure that the experiment gets done, that the research gets done, and that there's sufficient time for development. There's been a situation during lockdown that I might describe, that was a particular researcher that had struggled with confidence throughout the time that they had been in the lab. They were particularly struggling with how to deliver work, how to spend enough hours working, while home-schooling during the recent lockdown. This was having a significant impact on their mental health. We had a couple of conversations, it wasn't just one chat, it was a number of chats, to identify what are we going to do about this? Okay, they couldn't come to the lab, because they had to take care of their children. We identified a number of training courses and opportunities for developing that confidence that could be done from home, some of them that could be done when children were in bed, and as a result this researcher has maintained good mental health throughout this lockdown, has survived through it, and feels a lot more confident and now is back in the lab and doing a brilliant job, and doing great at delivering the research for the project.

I do think that the research project is going to benefit greatly from having a more confident researcher that has really come out of lockdown feeling more empowered. I think it was a great use of their time. I feel that it was productive, not just for them but for the project, because they're going to deliver a better job now.

What advice would you give to a first time PI managing their first postdoc?

I guess it's really important when a postdoc is starting to make sure that they feel valued, that they are treated as a colleague, and that their opinion, their inputs, their values, all of that is valued. That we are interested in their development and in doing whatever we can to help them with that, but also to make sure that they gain ownership of their own development, because it's very personal. It doesn't matter what we might say or do. We can coach them in this process, but it is critical that they take ownership of their own career development. Every individual is different, and what matters to them will be different. They need to pay attention to this more than we do, otherwise it's not going to work. I guess having that really honest and perhaps earnest conversation about what we can offer and what they are expected to contribute, so setting those expectations clear and making sure that they feel valid.

What advice would you give to a PI preparing to have a career conversation about pathways beyond academia with their postdoc?

I would say that it's really important to make it clear that moving beyond academia is successful. It's many times seen as a failure, and I fully disagree with that. I think people are successful if they are doing something that they are passionate about. If that's in academia or if that's doing something else, that is being successful. So, really making it clear that they will be successful if they pursue something they love and they are passionate about.

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