How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?
Very often. I think the postdoctoral journey is the most critical journey to a job and a career. So at that point, I see it’s really critical to discuss career aspirations to help shape that postdoc into a career or a profession that they are really interested in going into.
To me, it’s pivotal that from day 1 we talk about career aspirations because it’s important to know how best to plan the appropriate skills and development to tailor that postdoc into a journey that may not even be in the Job Role they’re currently in, but that offers them the opportunities to express the skills outside their current project that are essential. I like to ensure that we talk about career development periodically – at least once a month.
I think it’s critical for me to talk about career development once a month, and mainly in that framework of; how do you think it’s going? What do you think you’re missing if you feel uncomfortable in those particular aspects of where your development’s going?
To be frank as well; what do I think you’re missing? I think honesty is really often not offered. I feel it’s really important to be upfront and say, ‘These are the skillsets I don’t think you’re there with at the moment. I think these are the skillsets we really need to work on. Here are the ways we can do this.’
I think it’s got to be done on a regular basis because that’s how you’ll pick it up. You can’t just leave everything to every six months and say, ‘Look, there’s a whole barrage of things you need to work on.’ I think that’s going to cause a real element of discomfort for the postdoctoral researcher.
It’s really critical that it’s an ongoing learning activity, it’s a stream that is part of their journey that is continuing in the background constantly. It’s not just periodically we have that chat and we’ve ticked a box; it’s not a box–ticking exercise. We should forget that it ever was.
How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers?
A variety of different ways I support their development. I think there are development aspects that I can personally offer if they’re driven down towards the academic route that are there. So certainly provide opportunities in terms of collaborating, networking and opening avenues for them to participate in different roles and activities that are beyond their current Job Role.
Certainly supporting in elements of teaching or peer review so they’re gaining different skillsets. When it comes to different avenues or directions that are sequestered, then to look beyond my network and try and find mentorship that actively can support them if they’re looking for jobs in industry or other sectors where essentially they’re better guided in terms of the best skillsets or best opportunities that they can conduct in that period, so that they can improve the quality of their curriculum vitae as they look towards careers.
In terms of development activities that we specifically do to support postdocs, it’s to actually open them up to do lots of different soft skill training programmes. Employability skills are very different to academic skillsets in the context of things. We’re obsessed by outputs and all sorts of metrics in academia. But to become a really good candidate for employability, it’s thinking about things such as employability skills like teamwork or communication skills.
We support a lot of these activities through, essentially, one–to–one mentorship with my postdocs and giving them challenges and tasks to focus on. A great example of this would be that I ask them sometimes to run an educational workshop with students, where they’ve got to present a different way of presenting data or findings so I can see a diverse range of communication skills that can come through to, essentially, educate students on a topic in an interesting way so they can showcase their ability to bring out subject areas in different or communicative fashions.
I ask students to attend networking meetings, certainly for junior career researchers, and take active participation in organising committees or committees themselves. I always encourage postdocs to certainly take real core responsibility in learned societies where they can take up roles and responsibilities and learn from other people that are out there.
I guess lastly, I always encourage those that want to move on in positions beyond academia to sequester a mentor, using our career service, of an industrial person. So go and speak to someone in the sector that you’re really passionate about and help them mentor you and support you. You have to be bold enough to admit that you’re not the best person to mentor someone.
In my case, if someone wants to work in the pharmaceutical industry, yes, I knew about it 20 years ago but I don’t know about it as well as I do now. So it’s best that someone who’s in that Job Role, who knows exactly what candidates need to get into that area, supports your postdocs. You have to be bold enough to accept that.
What advice would you give to a PI managing their first postdoc?
The advice I guess I’d give a new PI would be: first, use your postdoc; they are a part of your team. Do not think that they’re just there to make up the numbers. Don’t think that you need to take responsibility for everything. I know there are pressures on the PI, but use your postdoc. Use them as an effective member of the team to support the work that you’re doing. That’s the first and most critical thing that you can do.
Make sure you support them; make sure you support their career progression. Do that by giving them the opportunity to sequester additional mentorship beyond yourself. You have to be bold enough to say that, ‘There are other people you can speak to that are going to enrich your experience. If you do that, that’s going to make you a better person.’ We have to accept that, so be bold enough to give them the opportunity to seek additional mentorship and support.
Lastly, I’d say the most important thing is then to constantly look and evaluate their performance – not by what they achieve in the laboratory or by the research; by skillsets. Actually what we’re doing is we’re developing a person here. We’re developing a person, and developing a person means we’re developing their skills. We’re not developing how cool their science is or whatever they’re doing.
We’re developing whether they can do all of these effective skillsets that improve their career prospects in any walk of life they go into. So focus on those things because they’re the ultimate things that are going to give that postdoc a job at the end of their time that they are working with the PI. Ultimately when you get to that point – which you won’t know until you get there – that’s what gives you the most joy.
To me, the most joy is seeing my postdocs progress on to fantastic careers inside or outside academia. That’s the best bit because you know you’ve shaped their life. It’s not what you did at the time and you got a great paper; it happens two or three years later, where you see the greatness of the journey you’ve made.