Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores

Current position
Co-Director of Digital Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities, Lancaster University.

Details of PhD
Archaeological Computing, University of Southampton, 2012.

Year became PI
2018.

Years spent as a postdoc
2012-2016.

Total number of postdocs managed during career
5

Case study conducted
November 2020

How do you plan and implement your postdocs’ career development over the course of a project? 

I discuss with them actually career development from the very beginning. In fact from the very moment that we offer them the job, for instance we actually start talking about; what are the things that we are going to do in order to support them but also ask them about their expectations straightaway, what they want to do, where do they want to go? 

I do that really regularly, whether that is over coffee or over a plan, a series of stages within the postdoc, I have basically developed for my postdocs a little programme where we go… First when they start a project I think it can be quite overwhelming if you ask them straightaway, ‘What do you want to do in the next three years and then after that’ and so on. I think there are particular stages in their career with you as a PI that you can go into more detail. 

You can give them the support that they actually need. The first one is; within the actual project what kind of development you want to take over within the project? This is to say that we talk about development of leadership at the beginning. 

At the end of the day, they are leaders in making, so what you really want to do with them – or at least what I really want to do with them – is for them to identify or to come out with their own role that they want to actually pursue within the project, and what level of commitment they really want to take on that. Although I am the PI and of course they will have guidance from me, I really want them to lead in the aspects that they need to within the project, and have also the liberty to do so. 

Within the first six months we established what kind of role they want to take in that sense and how they are going to develop. Then it depends also on how long the project is, but let’s say in a three-year project you will start by doing that and just carry on through that in the first year. When we get to the second year we normally start thinking about: what are the skills that you have learned, what else you have to continue to develop in order to be successful after the project. 

Then we encourage them over the second year to start thinking about what they want to do in the future because three years goes like that! You move really fast and particularly when you are in early career, because of the way that the postdoc works you need, I would say, at least at the end of your second year to start thinking what is going to come after the third year. 

At the same time that they are working in in my project, I leave time for them as well for their own development of proposals. That can include also applications for lectureships, things like that. It includes two strands. One is focusing on the actual writing of a funding application where they can go as PIs or co-I, depending on the project that they want to develop with their own ideas. Another part will be for instance the writing of presentation letters for your applications and things like that. 

I love to encourage both my PhDs and also my postdocs to look beyond because academia is perfectly fine and it’s a beautiful job and it’s fantastic to do. But if you are inclined to do something else I think that’s fantastic, too, and it is equally valuable. 

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

I think the main strategy is to have very clearly defined; what are the outputs that are respected from them? I think when there is no clear direction this is when problems can emerge. I think by having very clear goals on what it is expected let’s say to deliver, we can then balance that. 

I will always make sure that they have enough time to develop their own publications, to develop their own research agendas, to develop their own small projects for instance that can be parallel to the project as well or can be tangential. It doesn’t really matter. I think what we do is to always try to have a balance within those two things. 

There are particular times for particular strategies. It might be the case that during the first year of the postdoc it’s really easy for them to laser focus just on the project and do that without much competing things. By the third year you will have the issue that they need to get a new job. So you need to carry on working in the project but at the same time helping them and giving them more breathing space to actually develop their own career trajectory. 

I think it’s a matter of being conscious of what they need at particular times within the project and therefore make sure that what you are asking from them, it is achievable of course and gives them enough time to actually do the things that they need to do in order to end up with another job, or with another job with yourself as well or as a lecturer. 

Whatever it is what they need to do, but having that balance is really important. The way of making that happen is to be very clear what is expected at different stages of the project. 

How can postdocs use their skills and experiences in careers beyond academia? 

Within academia it’s the language of funding, the language of writing journal articles, books, whatever that is, presenting in conferences and so on. Equally these skills are completely transferable to other places. 

For instance the fact that they learn how to lead parts of the project, that can transfer easily to any managerial role, to any research role within any other industry as well. The fact that they know how to identify a problem really easily, how to communicate with team members, how to solve for instance a particular problem as a team or individually, how to manage their own time, these are skills that are really required in any industry. 

I will say if anything, postdocs make fantastic workers for any kind of industry because you have this level of highly-focused skillset or mindset of actually identifying a problem, solving it, explaining what it is, how to solve it, even create a methodology behind in order to actually work it out, and then bring for instance other parties as well to work with you in order in order to solve it. 

I think as a postdoc you get all the skills that you need to run from industries to government, so all sorts of different things – which is something that often people don’t talk about, but I think it is true. I think if you have had an experience as a postdoc you will certainly be able to do any other kind of high-skill level job, definitely. 

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

First of all, be kind; treat them as you wish anyone else will treat you. Make sure that you establish a relationship where you give them enough freedom to become the leaders that they need to become, to become the colleagues that you want them to become, and promote them; promote their careers. 

Apart from all the specifics that you can give in terms of like, ‘You can manage the project like this or like that’ and so on right, I think beyond that in general I will say: be compassionate, be kind. Just remember how it felt when you were at that position. I think that is really important to have that empathy and to lead them through the things and the difficulties and the challenges that being in early career basically poses. 

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