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Prof Carsten Welsch

Current position
Head of Department, Department of Physics, University of Liverpool.

Details of PhD
Applied Physics/Accelerator Science, Goethe University, Frankfurt, 2002.

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career
Around 40

Case study conducted
April 2020

Tell us about your career journey Question goes here?

I started off studying physics in Frankfurt, Germany and spiced that up a little bit by spending one semester at the University of California in Berkley before I started my PhD in accelerated science, again at Frankfurt University.  

Took my first postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg and was then awarded a CERN Fellowship which took me for three years to Switzerland.  

I was awarded Young Investigator Group by the Helmholtz Association in Germany which allowed me to return back to my home country and build up my own research group. One year into that group, I got an offer from Liverpool University to join them as a permanent academic staff member and I've worked in Liverpool ever since. 

Did you ever consider a career beyond academia? 

Yes, definitely. Actually, when I started studying physics and I did actually study physics and economics, I had a 100 per cent plan to go to industry, so I never had the academic sector on my radar. The fascination of doing your own research, of realising your own ideas was what attracted me into the academic sector and the opportunities that arose over time.  

Until I had a permanent post really, I did consider alternative avenues; I did apply for work with the European Commission for example, with the European Patent Office -with industry, Lehman's as a company, for example. I did spend some time working in the banking sector as well, so I think I did definitely consider other options outside of academia. 

Have any of your former postdocs moved beyond academia? What sectors did they move into? 

Most of my postdocs are still active in research and most of them are now working in industry and probably 70 per cent, I would say, are working in industry so the number of those that stay in the academic sector is comparably small. They still use the skills that they build up and grew during their postdoc time so you can nicely see when you follow the career pathway of your former group members, of the next roles that they are taking on.  

Then, the things that they learned whilst they were working with you have allowed them to get these posts and they further grow them, so there are postdocs that now work in the automotive industry and they develop sensors that are used in cars or motorbikes for example.  

There are postdocs who work in the medical industry, either developing diagnostic tools, several of them work with companies that are developing next-generation cancer therapy machines. They use the skills that they acquired whilst they were working in my group, designing and optimising particle accelerators and now use that in the industry sector. 

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs? 

As head of department, I have overall responsibility for the postdoc development in the physics department and in addition, I have the responsibility for the postdocs that are in my immediate research group. We talk about career development all of the time; I think that's an absolute crucial element in postdoc development. 

Postdocs need to build up and establish quite a complex portfolio of activity, they need to do more than just one research project; they need to build up the scientific and technical skills to lead on programmes. They need to learn to supervise others, they need to learn to give talks in front of large audiences, contribute to teaching, so it's a huge amount of things that postdocs have to learn beyond what you get when you qualify for the PhD degree level.  

I'm helping them to steer through that ocean and find the direction that works for them and that is of course, a particular challenge in their development because there's no two postdocs that have the same destination in mind of their journey. Some really want to push as much as possible for the academic sector, others early on realise that they would probably prefer to work in industry. Then, depending on where they would like to go, the support that I can or should give them has to be quite different. 

How do you support postdocs to develop their careers? 

We have formal meetings on the one hand for that, the university's PDR process is very suitable for that. It has to be done more frequently than just once a year as we do it for academic staff members so sitting down with them in whatever formal or informal way works for both the postdoc and their supervisor; it's absolutely crucial.  

They're having open and focused discussion around where should the journey be going in terms of research, what are the research targets for the next three months, six months, a year, maybe two years? What are the expected outcomes in terms of presentations, talks, publications? All of this being really specific. 

In terms of skills, it is very important to reflect on the gaps that postdocs have in their skills and then to help them either through our CPD sessions within in the university or external trainings by sending them to workshops, conferences.  

Really allowing them to develop to the level that they aspire to and I think the role of supervisor has to be in these meetings to, on the one hand, guide them, and also when they come forward with proposals, playing sometimes devil's advocate and really questioning, is that the right direction for you. 

What specific things do you do to develop your postdocs?  

The university's quite extensive CPD programme, where staff can learn a variety of skills from project management to dealing with difficult people, presentation skills, all of these things. Sometimes it's more technical skills that are required, be that a new skill in a mechanical workshop, be that a programming language that people have to learn or an expert software.  

Then, very often the solution is an external course that they should follow. Sometimes the solution is to enable secondments, to send postdocs to another company, to another university and learn specific skills that will benefit them.  

Then, this would be part of the development plan to build up these skills so it's first starting with a gap analysis, what are the skills you are missing? And why would it be good for you to get them? Then, identifying how exactly can you get them, over what time frame, and very often, also, who is going to pay for it. 

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

I think what has always worked good for me is to reflect on the things that have worked well and also the things that didn't work well in my own career and then try to do things better with my own postdocs.  

Also, working with them as a partner, right from the start, and making them understand that the PI is somebody who can help them in their projects, in their development, in their overall career planning, it's very important.  

The more open the dialogue between a postdoc and the PI can be, the better. I would also recommend to new PIs to reach out to colleaguesto get a mentor, to learn from the good practice that is out there and also, and very importantly, to learn from the mistakes that other people have made. No postdocs are the same so there will always be new challenges and there will be situations where nobody has an answer too.  

That's where the PIs grow, that's where they build up expertise that other colleagues will not have and then they can guide others in the department in the future about these challenges. I think all of these points are probably things I would recommend to new PIs. 

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