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.