How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?
It is important to discuss career development with postdocs, and not just in a once per year appraisal or anything like that, but at least several times during each year. It would be a good thing to do not only even in the interviewing process, but certainly when they start working for you and every so often during that.
The first thing is to think about, well, what is it that’s good for the postdoc, rather than just what’s good for yourself, and that means asking them questions and listening to the answers. One thing I try to do is just make myself available for anyone in the department that wants to come and ask me for help and advice.
One bit of advice I would give to any postdoc is it’s all too easy to take on a postdoc position, and because they have generally a fixed term with like, one year or two years, you think, well, this is what I’m doing for two years and I will worry about what to do next at the end of the two years. I would say it’s better to start asking yourself right from the start what you want to do next. Now, that might be for some people, they’re wanting to stay in academia, go on to another postdoc or a lectureship or a fellowship, but for a lot of people, it will be going outside of academia into industry. Many people go into, whether it’s into law or teaching or any kind of those things.
What methods, skills and experiences do researchers pick up from their postdocs?
In terms of the skills and experiences that postdocs pick up during their postdoc positions that could be relevant to other jobs, I’d say the main – I mean, there’s a lot of them in terms of things like, time management and project management and collaboration and working with others, but the most important ones I think are their ability to learn new skills and their ability to solve problems. Especially unexpected problems, because in many jobs and many careers, a lot of your time will be doing the work that you know you’re going to do and expect to do, using the skills that are very much in your experience and in your wheelhouse. In a lot of those careers, what will then really put people to the test is if something comes along in their week that’s unexpected, that requires them to learn something new or requires them to take on a new problem and work out, well, how am I going to solve this problem? What am I going to do? If you don’t have experience in those things, something like a new problem like that can be very daunting, but to anyone that’s done a postdoc, that’s their absolute bread and butter. They’ve spent their whole postdoc doing nothing but having to learn new things and solve unexpected problems, so when they then take on another job, whether it’s in industry or somewhere else, it gives them a resilience and a versatility and flexibility that I think some other backgrounds often don’t provide.
How do you balance postdoc career development with the demands of your research project?
In terms of how to work postdoc development into normal time constraints of a working week. For me, I guess I’m luckier at the moment in that because I’m only relatively newly starting out a group and I do still spend a lot of time with the researchers in my group. When I first started out, I would be spending a lot of time in the lab with them, so we talk fairly regularly. Now that the group is getting bigger, I’m very rarely in the lab, but I’m still around there with my door open and I try to encourage a situation where anyone in my group can come and talk to me at any time, because obviously, if you’re factoring postdoc development into your time, it might not necessarily be the best time for them. I do think it’s important to be approachable so that if anyone in your team has questions or wants guidance, they can come to you rather than having to wait for a meeting that might be in two months’ time, say. Other than that, I still try to have regular contact with my group and regular meetings with them, and particularly one-on-one meetings with the postdoc where there aren’t other people present. As well as discussing their research, we will discuss where they might want to be going after the postdoc or what we can do to help them with their development, and to look at things like, if there’s training courses that they can go on, if there’s skills that they want to develop, and so what we can do to give them those options.
How do you maintain a good work-life balance?
I think one thing I’ll note that as my career has gone on, every stage I’ve gone up, from PhD student to postdoc to research coordinator to getting a fellowship and starting a group, then the group getting bigger. Every time you take a step up, there are more and more constraints on your time that will potentially affect your work, life balance. There’s more pressure, there’s more things to do, and it becomes more important that you accept that you will have lots of to-do lists. I have lists of lists, and you start realising that there will never again be a time where you’ve finished everything, and that there will be plenty of things that you can’t get to, so it doesn’t become a question of work-life balance in terms of how much time off do you have once you’ve finished your work. It’s always going to be a question of how much time off do you allow yourself to have. Now, that’s a question for you. Now, although I should be busier now than I ever was before, I find my work, life balance better now than I did when I was a postdoc and when I was starting out my independent career. Now, a lot of that comes down to stability, so I now have a permanent position and that really affects your work-life balance, because that security means when you’re making that decision, how much work do I want to do, one of the questions isn’t about needing to do the work so that you can secure the next position. It’s the people I think that are in the more insecure positions that will put themselves under the most pressure, because if they think, I have to get these results otherwise I won’t get the next job that I want, that’s when people, even though it’s their choice about the work, life balance, not something necessarily where an employer is telling them how much work they need to do. It’s understandable that they might make themselves do more work than they would otherwise want to do, because of the potential impact it will have on the rest of their life.
What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc?
I’ve heard a lot of advice from other people about what you should do with postdocs, what you shouldn’t do with postdocs, how to treat them, and what’s right and what isn’t. I think in every case, it will depend on the nature and personality of the supervisor, it will depend on the nature and the personality of the postdoc, and it will depend what the postdoc wants to get out of things.
I would say you need to be talking with the postdoc and having that conversation with them and very much saying, well, what do you want to get out of this and what would suit you in terms of how I can help you and how our relationship can work, and working it out together. You might get things wrong and you might have to then change how you do it, but it’s better to do it while having that conversation with each other, and quite often, to work out how you can both improve. Rather than not discussing how best to do it with the actual postdoc and instead, taking advice from other academics who might tell you things that have worked for them and their postdoc, but might be completely wrong for you and yours.