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Prof Cecilia Wong

Current position
Professor of Spatial Planning, Department of Planning & Environmental Management, the University of Manchester

Details of PhD
Town & Country Planning, University of Manchester, 2001

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
November 2021

Tell us about your career journey 

I'm Professor Cecilia Wong at Manchester University. I'm also the Director of the Spatial Policy & Analysis Lab of the Manchester Urban Institute. My career is a bit unconventional because I finished my master's degree. I was trained as a professional town planner, so I actually worked in local government but was bored by local government. Then, I actually went to Newcastle University to the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies to be a Research Associate. I spent quite a long time there, about over four years, nearly four years. Then, I saw there was a lectureship in Manchester University. So, I applied and then I became a lecturer. That means I have local government experience but I didn't have a PhD, so I did a lot of research projects while I was in Newcastle.

At that time, the ESRC has a postdoc fellowship and, actually, I wrote to them. I said, 'I did not have a PhD but I think I have enough research experience to apply.' They said, 'Yes,' and I got it. Actually, I started working on a postdoc fellowship before I got my PhD and I actually become my journey as a lecturer and I actually finished supervising two PhD students before I got my PhD. After I finished the postdoc, I used the paper to publish. That's how I always tell my student. 'Every road can get to Rome.' We all come from different pathways and, yes, that it is a bit unconventional.

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?

I think once people ask me, 'How often do you see people?' Then, they all laugh. I will pop around into the lab three times a day. I'll be forever there hopping around to see what they're doing and checking. My approach, as I said, maybe because I come from - that training is through apprenticeship when I was starting my career, so it's always very informal or very, very close relationships and always available when they have things to ask. They don't need to wait for the next meeting, you know, 'See me next week,' because I will just pop around to say, 'Hello. Anybody have anything?' We will just then sit around, do a chat of 15 minutes to resolve problems or if they have issues, they know that they will find me.

How do you support your postdocs to develop their skills?

Wherever I see people inviting me to do things or there's a certain workshop and things available, training courses, then I normally would email to them. I'd tell them, 'I think you may be interested in that,' so highlight to them. Many times, they just go, or sometimes say, 'I'm busy,' but I think one of us in the team should go. Someone should pick up the skill, so I will send it over and they tend to pick up quite a lot. In a way, also, I think it's that mutual learning among each other is quite important. In our lab, most people are quite into number crunching and doing mapping analysis. Some come from the more qualitative backgrounds but, interestingly, he actually picks it up. He just finds it interesting. He said that everybody in the lab can do it. He's not doing it. Now, he's actually quite competent in GIS mapping. So, there is a lecture skill. A lot of time I think it's good to go to formal training but I think people underestimate there's a collective working and learning from each other. I think that is actually very, very important that they spark ideas among each other, not just the PI. I think the PI is to engender that atmosphere, to support them to have that team spirit and the group spirit.

The other thing is, I think, most people find that writing papers or writing reports is very difficult. I think one of the best ways is to do writing together, so they can see if certain things you change it, or when they provide a thing, I say, 'Okay, can you give me clarification? Ah, okay,' so they learn. In order to make things clear they need to have this step by step... A lot of times, again, I think it's you need to work together. When you work together it's the best way to learn from each other. That's sort of... I think they appreciate it. They see that throughout the process, they see then... Again, same as presentations. If somebody invites me to give a talk, I tend to say, 'Why don't we split it and you do one half, I do one half?' That means they start going out to meet people and have opportunities to also go to start doing the presentations and, in that process, they also learn how to do public speaking. Also, they meet a wider range of people. I did that because I benefitted from that when I was young, when I'd with my boss go to different meetings, meeting senior politicians, civil servants or other professors. I think you enlarge your circle. That is a thing that you we actually help with our postdocs to also get them involved.

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

I think first treat them like your friend, like your family. That is how I feel. I always feel that if they come to work with me, I am responsible for them. It's not just because they are working for me but we're working with each other. We are family. We're trying to make something great. I always feel that if you work as a team, you need to have this very close-knit trust and friendship and to make it work. I think that works best.

Now, it doesn't mean that other centres or other approaches will not work but, me, personally I find that to me the most productive relationship is of this kind. This friendship will last lifelong and the collaboration may be on and off but we're still so fond to see each other. When you see people you worked with a long time ago, you still have very fond memories. I think that is how academia works. It's the successive generation, help the successive generation to move forward. I think that is the mission that, being a PI, you need to remember. Once upon a time we were young and we were also researchers, being alone. Actually, we get a lot of support from other people to grow ourselves. It's the time that we payback and we also have to support the others to get on with their career.

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