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Dr Ruth Nugent

Current position
UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, University of Liverpool

Details of PhD
Archaeology, University of Chester, 2016.

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Case study conducted
March 2020

Tell us about your career journey

My interest in archaeology started when I was really quite young, but I didn't actually come into archaeology, academically speaking, until I was, sort of what was considered a mature student. So I was in my late 20s. I was really fortunate that I was given a Leverhulme PhD as part of a much wider project called, 'The Past in its Place' where I looked at history and archaeology of the dead in English cathedrals, over about 12 centuries. So I really got interested in a very long period. From there, I was very fortunate again, to be able to get some very small short-term postdoctoral positions on projects that I've been able to actually contribute to the writing of. A fantastic opportunity to start thinking about my potential as a PI, and all my PIs were really encouraging me, thinking going to the next level, which was to apply for a larger project. Therefore, I applied for the UKRI Future Leaders Fellow

What were the pivotal moments in your development? 

There were pivotal moments where I realised that just staying in my very small world of archaeology was not going to be sustainable and that the opportunities to actually expand my world, and my network of people that I could connect with, meant that pursuing some postdoctoral activity would allow me to access new ideas, new tools, new methods that just weren't available to me as either an undergrad or up until my PhD. So these were really pivotal moments where a PI was incredibly encouraging in giving me either one-to-one teaching on something, or seeing my potential to learn something and to then take that forward. So these are conversations with PIs who just had time for me and were interested in me in beyond just merely my contribution to the project, but thinking about me as a person and my career path and not trying to shoehorn me into something. That was incredibly helpful for me.  

How do you support postdocs to develop their careers? 

So from day one, I've discussed career development with my postdoc, because I am still quite early in my career and my postdoc has only just arrived about three months ago. We've had fantastic conversations because they're both coming out of disciplines that I am not that familiar with. One of the things that I fear is, that coming into an archaeology department, they may lose contact with their actual career goals. Which may align with other disciplines more than mine, but we have a career development plan of where they're currently at, what they're currently working on and I give them, every Friday we've a kind of, 'Write for yourself' day. I am always looking for opportunities to ensure that they remain connected to their own career goals and how I can support that as the PI right now. It's great to have a log going, because then I get to understand them more, we have great conversations about this, and I get to learn more about them as a person, so I am not funnelling them down a path that I think is best for them, but they're really guiding their own career.  

What specific things do you do to develop your postdocs? What have you found to be most effective? 

For the post-docs that I am so fortunate to be working with, I found it would be really effective in developing their ideas, is to give them opportunities to actually go on training at any given stage within the project. That can be something that we have to actually embed into a very early stage of the funding application itself. A kind of wiggle room to allow them time and resources, if need be, to go and take that online training course that might cost them money, or take-up a summer school that might be two weeks of the project time. The dividends are absolutely massive, both for the project and for the postdoc as well. So that's one of the things I am really, really keen to support and also to really encourage them to not only present their research, but to be heavily invested and able to contribute to the actual organisation of the events and the conferences that my particular project is working on. It's really important that my postdocs are not just locked away in a room just doing the research, but are actually getting a really holistic and full experience of all this project potentially offers, and for them to start building their own networks and their own contacts as well. Also, making sure they have full access and they're involved with the meetings and the online activities that we do, with all the project partners, because it can only benefit them in the long run.  

What methods, skills and experiences do researchers gain from postdoc positions? 

A sense of management, there's a level of management that comes with the postdoc position that is not inherent in the PhD to the same degree, because you're not being supervised now. So this ability to manage very large bodies of research and the level of autonomy and responsibility that you have as a postdoc, is so sought after, in so many professions, within and outside of academia. If you've had access to using, just a particular kind of software, that maybe people are not familiar with, or you're used to cross-referencing different kinds of data that aren't necessarily being thought of in conjunction with each other before. You can actually bring out of this, skills that are really, really exciting. I think, having sat on, as a research support officer working in the knowledge transfer partnerships, and seeing these truly exciting people who have completed PhDs and are working between a university and within industry, as just one example. You can see how beneficial the postdoctoral level of ability is, to those in industry, who are able to pick-up on incredible knowledge-base that the candidate has. At the same time, they develop these people skills in being able to present and communicate and market exactly what they offer from their research.  

What is the benefit of having a mentor? 

The input of a PI as a mentor is something that I cannot encourage enough, it's something that can set you on the right pathway, but they're also people that can become really lifelong friends as well. I think, regardless of what stage you're at, whether it's early career, middle career or even late career, a mentor is someone who is absolutely invaluable, because we're always evolving and having another pair of kind eyes on your career, is only going to be of value. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? How do you balance the demands of your project with the needs of your postdocs? 

A typical week for me is, because I have some postdocs who are full-time and some who are part-time, is making sure that week-by-week, everybody has a clear idea of who is actually available and when, so people aren't being passed at the wrong time. So a week for me will involve actually, normally, at least one one-to-one meeting with each postdoc, because we're in a very early stage of our project. Just checking in with them, there is nothing that they need to prepare for these meetings, they just need to give me an idea of how things are going, any issues that need to be raised and just how life is. Particularly for those who have just recently moved to the city, that they're settling in okay. Quite often I'll do this just by going out for coffee with them. I don't try to have very formal boundaries to these meetings.  

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

For a new PI managing their first postdoc, absolutely talk to people who are already PIs. Make sure you're connecting with people at different stages and levels of experience of managing a postdoctoral team. Whether it's just one postdoc or a wide variety, because they can give you reflections, on not only what's working for them and what hasn't, but the different kinds of roles that postdocs can take on. The different kinds of personalities and how to manage that, but also, they've also got stories of being a postdoc themselves and their memories. So you can kind of get this wonderfully rich inheritance that you can think about, and I think it's really important to remember that it's not just about your research. It's also about everybody having a homelife and other lives and priorities and that will give you a really happy morale within the team, which really is not something that money can buy. 

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