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Dr Maria Sharmina

Current position
Senior Lecturer, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Engineering, University of Manchester.

Details of PhD
Ecological Economics, University of Manchester, 2013.

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
February 2021.

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?

I organise quarterly one-to-one Professional & Development Review meetings with each of the postdocs I am supervising, where we look at their long- and short-term career objectives, professional interests, and training needs. In addition, we often discuss development opportunities in our weekly research project meetings, and I email the postdocs whenever interesting opportunities come up, which can be several times a week. 

Examples of such opportunities include student supervision experience, giving a guest lecture, a time management course, funding calls, policy-makers’ calls for expert evidence, service roles (e.g. to organise a series of research seminars or to serve as a postdoc rep on a committee). So it’s very much a continuous process. 

How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers? 

It is important to encourage postdocs to take up development opportunities outside their current research project, by actively suggesting such opportunities to them. Some examples from my own experience supporting postdocs include: 

  • suggest they dedicate around one day a week to working on career development opportunities and their own projects
  • ask them to share with the wider team (i.e. our research Centre of around 35 academics, postdocs and PhD researchers) what extra activities and initiatives they are currently working on, to inspire others 
  • help those who would like to remain in academia to gain a teaching qualification (Associate Fellow or Fellow of the Higher Education Academy) and provide them opportunities to gain experience in teaching and student supervision 
  • offer a postdoc to join as a co-supervisor on a PhD project particularly relevant to a postdoc’s methodological and sectoral expertise 

Certainly, job security is high on the agenda, so I always look for ways to extend their contracts, as well as encouraging them to apply for funding themselves, with my help in putting together research project costings and proposals, deciphering funders’ guidance, inviting non-academic project partners, and soliciting internal peer-review. 

As a result, one of the postdocs I am working with has become a Researcher-CoInvestigator on a successful ESRC project; others have applied to take part in competitive research funding sandpits, and another one has led an application to a Leverhulme Small Grant Scheme as their very first proposal. 

Career progression is important, and people often need help with interpreting promotion criteria, and here I draw on my experience serving on promotion committees as well as on many recruitment panels for both academic and research roles. 

The most senior postdoc I am working with is currently applying for promotion to Research Fellow, and we have crafted it together to make sure it is as strong as possible. The three other postdocs are not applying for promotion this year, but we have nonetheless started putting together their promotion applications as a developmental exercise. 

What’s the added value of a postdoctoral researcher over and above a PhD student? 

Postdoctoral experience is not only an opportunity for consolidating expertise in a particular research area, building on the fundamentals learned during the PhD, but also a chance to specialise further, or to broaden out, or to move into a different research area, depending on the postdoc project. 

Postdocs often work in a team, rather than on an individual project, which helps to master the art of give-and-take. In addition, with support from the Principal Investigator, postdocs develop research independence through applying for and managing small funding grants, and build collaborations outside the immediate research group. 

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

A key part of any research project is managing it within a limited timeframe alongside other commitments, for example by not allowing project scope creep and by keeping distractions (such as email) in check. 

We discuss time management quite frequently with the postdocs I supervise, to share advice with each other. Different systems work for different people, but I often start by suggesting David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Cal Newport’s Deep Work

What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc?   

My advice would be to think about the postdoc’s development well beyond the research project that they are on, both in terms of their long-term career goals and introducing them to the Department/Faculty/University activities well outside the immediate research group. 

Show the postdoc what it means to be an active researcher, instill the spirit of helping colleagues to do the same, and build positive relationships with administrative and support staff (you will really need their assistance in managing research finance and postdoc contracts!). 

Always keep improving your own skills, whether it’s in research methods, getting grants, publishing high quality papers, communications skills, or time management. In each area, look for the best training, books, and experts both within and outside your University. This attitude will rub off on the postdocs you are working with. 

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