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Dr Raechelle D'Sa

Current position
Senior Lecturer, School of Engineering, University of Liverpool.

Details of PhD
Biomedical Engineering, University of Ulster, 2008.

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
July 2020.

What were the pivotal moments in your career? 

I think the fact that I just had great mentors along the way and I was open to change. I was open to new opportunities and that was I think what was most pivotal. A lot of things happened to me quite serendipitously and I just made sure that any opportunity that came my way, I actually gave it a fair chance. 

What’s the added value of a postdoc over and above a PhD? 

One of my mentors had told me when I had started my career, when you do a PhD, remember a PhD is about a training exercise. It is training you in one thing; how to answer a scientific question. You can answer loads of scientific questions, but you need to train your mind in how to answer a question robustly and how to do reproducible science, and that's the thing that you should get out of a PhD. Once you do your PhD and you have the skills developed in how to do research, then you can apply for postdoc positions which will allow you to develop creativity. When I got to a postdoc, and I advise all my postdocs and PhD students alike, that this should be the separate role of a PhD versus postdoc. That you should be able to take these skills and even if you move to a different field, as I've done numerous times before, you can take the ability to answer a research question and answer a research question in tangential fields. 

What methods, skills and experiences do researchers develop during their postdoc positions? 

I think the biggest skill that postdocs pick up is managerial skills, because when you are a postdoc, you will be responsible not just necessarily for your career, but you will be widely responsible for other PhDs within the group. I think this is a great learning experience because while during your PhD, you developed an ability to answer research questions, during your postdoc, you'll have the ability to develop your own research and help train the next generation of scientists. The next skill that I think that you develop is creativity. During your PhD, especially PhDs within the UK, they are very, very defined in terms of their scope and how you have to start from one point to finish at another point within three years. Within the postdoc, because you already have the scientific skills, you can hit the ground running and you can really develop a research project and what you should do is not only develop your research. Develop the creativity in the research, but develop yourself as an independent scientist, because after a postdoc, you should be able to independently think about research and where you want to go next.  

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs? 

I actually have quite a big open-door policy, so I don't make it a standard process where I have to discuss career pathway or have to discuss things in a very scripted manner. I'm quite open about my experiences and because I've had quite a diverse experience to get to where I am, I quite openly speak about all of these different experiences and how it has shaped my research career. In terms of the people I've worked with, they're free to come and talk to me at any time. I do career talks as well, and because I've had such a varied career path, I actually get emails from students and postdocs that I don't know to ask me how I got to where I got to.  

How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers? 

I support my postdocs I suppose by giving them freedom. Freedom to explore the avenues, what they want to explore. Within a postdoc position, there is a defined set of deliverables that you have to achieve, but there's always flexibility for the postdoc to be able to be a bit creative in that pathway, and I give my postdocs the freedom to explore what interests them the most. We have a back and forth dialogue about how to take a research project forward, and I think that in this way, the postdocs develop the skills that are most suited towards them. They're able to find the passion in what they're doing and really build upon their own independent career. What I try to do for my postdocs is have the open-door policy as I mentioned earlier, but also expose them to as many experiences, especially in terms of networking that I can, because I found that this is what benefitted me the most. What happened within my career was every step that I took was quite serendipitous. I met someone, I spoke to them, and I moved on to something new. What I try to do with my postdocs is give them the opportunity to network as much as possible, and I think through these networking experiences and being quite open about my experiences, hopefully they will find a pathway that's right for them. I recognise that my pathway is quite different than a lot of pathways to getting to where I am, and I also recognise that people don't necessarily have the same aims and goals of what they want as a final career path. If you allow your postdocs to be exposed to as many different opportunities, they will hopefully realise what is right for them in terms of their career ambitions and they will be proactive about taking that forward. 

How do you support postdocs to develop their networks? 

I suppose our lab has been quite well funded throughout my postdoc career, I've been fortunate enough to be able to send my postdocs to conferences that are relevant in the field. Through these opportunities is how I personally met different sorts of people and I also give them the opportunity to meet industrial partners, to meet clinicians, and to come to patient involvement groups with me. Anything that I go to, I try to always take one of my postdocs with me, so that they will learn the skills that I'm still learning as a PI. I'm still learning how to network with different organisations and I think seeing how I foray into different fields, into different industries, into different sectors will also help them develop along that path, and will help them form their own networks with the same people that I do and beyond that. 

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

The career development of the postdocs I think is entangled into the deliverables of the research project. For example, if a postdoc is interested more in a certain area, as long as it fits into the deliverables that need to be achieved for the project, I encourage them to explore that to the fullest extent of how they want to be able to do it. They're also encouraged to apply for as many opportunities as they want, that they see fit for progressing their career. If they want to do for example an internship somewhere else in a different sector that takes them away for a while, as long as they achieve their goals within their research, I'm quite happy for them to explore as many different avenues and as many different opportunities as possible. 

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

Something someone told me when I started but I never really took seriously, enjoy having a first postdoc because you get to collaborate with someone who is going to be a brilliant scientist and who you have the opportunity to develop in terms of a brilliant scientist. Postdocs should be seen as colleagues rather than someone who's working under you, and I've always taken this viewpoint. If you have a small lab, I think you should be able to enjoy those relationships where you have a much more personal relationship, a much more interconnected relationship with a person. It is a wonderful experience when you're starting up, to have that small group that can be more disruptive sometimes and can push the boundaries of research quite a lot at that moment in time. 

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