Tell us about the career discussions you’ve had with your current postdoc and some recent development activities
We had an informal version this week about where she sees herself going, what sort of careers she sees as open to her, what she would like further development in, what she’d like to specialise in, we talked about possible work streams she could lead, discrete pieces of work. It would be very easy for me to lose sight of this and lose focus, because it would be very easy to follow to the next deadline and the next emergency and the next work tranche, but its very important to step back and to do this and take time and to have a programme of work and work out where they should be by the end, because at the end if they need to re-join the job market or if they’re looking to be included on further grant applications then we need to see progress. They’ve essentially kind of lost experience by being on the project because they’ve been doing the work that needs doing but which is not offering the most development opportunity. The skills they develop now will pay dividends for the whole of their career so its really important they get the best experience now.
One thing we did do is that there the opportunity for a follow on fund application, very short notice, had to begin within a week, it was a very short form and I did talk to her and my team members, you know should we get something in because then its experience of a grant application and actually this is a very light touch application because it was very quick and only 1000 words. And she was very very keen to do this and so we applied and even if it doesn’t come through its experience of a significant grant application which is then CV-able because then she can say – look, I was included as a co-I very early on in my postdoc and this is useful experience to have going forwards.
Its really important for the PI to do this to build into the development of the postdoc as one of the deliverables of the project, that it would be wrong and unethical if the project itself achieved all its aims and the postdoc were not in a position to go onto something better, and ideally something which would not have been possible if they hadn’t taken the post. And so that’s what we are agreeing should be one of the outputs of our project is that the scope of opportunities for that team member is enlarged and ultimately it’ll mean we can apply for future projects as a team where it will be entirely enriched because she’s part of it, though she may wish to go on and do something else entirely, so we’ll have to see.
What kind of career opportunities are available to postdocs beyond academia?
There are whole different worlds that you can access as a trained researcher, and increasingly the opportunities to move between academia and the think tank sector or academia and the civil service or all three, and the private sector as well, they’re opening up because it’s so dependent on skills and also the civil service is changing for example and they’re very very keen to encourage people to make that transition, they’re looking for people with quantitative skills but also border research skills, they’re looking for people who aren’t entering at 21 via the fast stream to diversify the civil service community. I do know people who made the transition at quite a senior stage and it was because they felt they’d gone as far as they wanted to go in academia and they had the option of returning but they might never want to because they love what they’re doing now. And that’s really reassuring because for those of us who stay then in academia, if you decide to stay in a postdoc and then a further postdoc or to move into higher education management or into a lectureship and so on, it becomes a positive choice to stay – you’re staying for the right reasons, not because if you like there are no other options, but because there’s a whole wider world.
And hopefully postdocs will become aware of that, that it is possible to become a freelance consultant for a while and you can charge a good day rate and be attached to a project, there are think tanks that are desperate for people who have good research skills who can also communicate. They often struggle to know how to access the skills that postdocs have, so I’ve talked to some organisations about how they might want to advertise and how they might want to go about recruitment because it’s a big decision often for a small organisation to make as well, to hire somebody who has skills and experience in a different sector. But increasingly it is possible, you know, there are ways to go in perhaps on a placement or to go in on a short-term contract and then that can turn into something more.
What advice would you give to a PI preparing to have a conversation about pathways beyond academia with their postdoc?
Principle investigators have got a responsibility to keep an eye on the labour market for their postdocs. I think for a PI who’s beginning a conversation with their postdoc perhaps mid-way through a project or towards the end about what they might go on to do next, they should take a little bit of time to find out what opportunities are out there, but also opportunities outside academia. I think perhaps some PhD students and postdocs and lecturers as well, they feel that being in academia is difficult or costly or is seen as some sort of an end. I don’t. If I were having this conversation I would be stressing the benefits of leaving and coming back and this is the way that the sector is going, that careers are becoming more diverse. We’re seeing people who’ve had spent careers in policy moving in as professors, so there is a great diversity now of career types. I think in quantitative social science in particular it is more common perhaps than in other fields to move from academia to an applied research institute and to the civil service and to a think tank and back again. So this is not something to be afraid of. Perhaps the CVs need to be worked differently, perhaps networking needs to be done more explicitly, but there is a real demand for skilled researchers and capable researchers – people who can write, who can think, people who can communicate, and that you have those skills. There’s a great benefit also to PIs but academics more broadly, to keeping in touch with the policy world and the consultancy world and the commercial world and the government world and our former students and our former postdocs are one way of doing that and so these are things that we do value and we should value more.
What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc?
I think some of it should be done at the application stage and make sure that you’ve budgeted in correctly for their time but also that there’s a budget for their training. I think it’s really unfortunate if there’s a postdoc without some conference attendance funding attached or training attached, so for the last bids I’ve been involved with I’ve included some money for that.
I think also making sure that the tasks are reasonable and that the project commitment is reasonable for the postdoc so that they do have a little bit of time for themselves and that they don’t feel that they’re completely overloaded by having to deliver several papers within a short space of time.
I think the lack of clarity can be really difficult for postdocs, and I think in some senses for a PI we feel that, well we kind of know what the scene is like and we know what’s expected. You know, we know what the research community is like and we know what the journal hierarchy is like and what the timelines are for future funding streams and so on and that it will take two months to put a grant application together and so on. I think for somebody new, particularly if they’re new to the British context, they may not know this so they just need some demystifying. So for the postdoc its important that they should feel able to ask but for the PI to make sure that they spend time demystifying, that they’re inducting somebody into the sector and into the profession.