Prof Christopher Jackson

Current position
Chair in Sustainable Geoscience, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester

Details of PhD
Geology, University of Manchester, 2002

Year became PI
2004

Total number of postdocs managed during career
9

Case study conducted
January 2021

Tell us about your career journey 

I did my PhD at the University of Manchester in 1998 to 2002. Then I was unusual in that I didn’t do a postdoc. I left my PhD and went straight into the energy industry. I moved to Western Norway to work for an energy company for about three years. 

At the end of those three years, I decided I wanted to return to academia. I tried to get a postdoctoral position but there weren’t any, but I was offered instead a temporary one-year lectureship, which I took. 

In that temporary one year I then managed to turn it into a permanent contract and then that started my, to this point, 16.5-year journey in academia. 

Have any of your former postdocs moved into careers beyond academia? 

Postdocs who have worked with me in the past have gone on to a number of different roles. I think it’s probably about 50-50. Half of them have stayed in academia and pursued research fellowships or they’ve got lectureships actually, but some of them have gone into industry. So they’ve decided that they don’t want to stay in academia any more. 

Of the latter group who went into industry, half of them probably when they started the postdoc, knew they wanted to do that anyway. What they wanted to do is develop some more skills that would ultimately make them more employable. I was totally fine with that. My job as a PI is not to produce academics! 

My job as a PI is to train people, to try to produce the best science we can for society, and enrich ourselves intellectually. It’s not to provide feedstock for the academic domain at all. 

What advice would you give to a PI preparing to have a conversation about pathways beyond academia with their postdoc? 

There’s two ways of doing this. One is that you as the new PI go away and research all the areas that that new postdoc could go into based on what you think. You may be able to, in a better way than your postdoc, identify the transferable skills they’ve developed in their time with you. You may actually have a better idea about them and about all of the career opportunities for them. 

Actually preparing in that way, you don’t need to spend hours on the internet looking. You may just generally think, actually there’s four or five careers. I’ve had these conversations myself where somebody, a number of people I’ve worked with, they have failed to see how generic some of the things they have developed are. Often they’re applied to a very specific region or a very specific problem. 

So I think that’s one way to prepare but equally they may just walk into this conversation going, ‘I don’t know what to do. I have no skills. I can’t work anywhere else’, which again if you’re prepared as the PI, that would be helpful, but if you’re not you can then start to explore it more dynamically and say, ‘Well, okay you’ve done this bit of analysis here but the fundamental part of this analysis, which is quantification of x, maybe there are jobs where people need to do that on a daily basis. 

Maybe spend the next few days looking and doing that direction for them.’ That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to have the answers. You can come into the meeting partly with some answers but equally to go without any answers, and then just give them the guidance around searching for better opportunities and how to apply their skills. 

How does your commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion influence your approach to postdoc career development?

For postdocs in our group, I think making sure that they can attend courses or workshops or webinars about EDI principles and research assessment and culture, I think that’s absolutely something I’ve done in the past and something I’d encourage other PIs to do. 

Again, I don’t think the biggest challenge we have in academia and in broader society at the moment is to do with getting people to do harder bits of science. I think the biggest challenge we have by far is changing research culture and environment. 

I think considerable amounts of work need to go into changing that because I think there’s already a lot of intellectual brilliance in the system. There’s lots of intellectual brilliance let’s say in the academic system which is tainted by not having best practice approaches to the EDI part of what we really need to be doing. 

So it’s trying to make sure that the next generation of researchers who are coming in are well-versed in that. I think that’s where the big challenge lies. Exposing postdocs to talks which are non-scientific, and webinars and training which is non-scientific, is valuable. 

How can a PI balance postdoc career development with the demands of their research project? 

During somebody’s time as a postdoc it can be incredibly challenging because of competing demands on your time and attention. The draw of the deliverables for a research funder, whether that’s industrial or governmental, and your desire to develop your own career which might not be part of the aims and objectives of the research project. 

For example, if a postdoc wants to do some teaching to improve their pedagogic practice, that isn’t something that the research funder in many cases is explicitly paying for. It would take time away from delivering on that project. So there’s a clear tension there. 

Fortunately, as a PI I’ve had postdoctoral researchers and I would say fellows and even PhD students where that tension has existed, but it’s not been a huge problem. There’s not been huge conflict arising from, ‘Well, you’ve not delivered these fundamental things we need for the project because you’ve been doing all of this self-promotion and career development and all this stuff which is benefiting you.’ 

Given I’ve not had that, when I’ve heard those tensions have blown up and become really problematic for people, it seems to be because there’s not been a conversation between the PI and the postdoc as to where the postdoc wants to get at the end of it. 

If the PI is, ‘You are just here to do this project bit of work for me, and what happens to you after two three years I don’t care about the moment you walk out the door’, I think when those conversations haven’t happened and the PI has that in their mind, I think that’s when the issues start. Then the postdoc understandably says, ‘I need to develop my career in these different ways which isn’t consistent with this and promoting your career as the PI.’ 

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

My advice to a PI who’s managing their first postdoc is; talk to them a lot! It goes back to this old adage; you don’t need to be friends to be colleagues. But I think it helps if you have trust and you have an openness in that relationship that allows you to talk about both professional and personal goals and professional and personal challenges. 

They are not disconnected, they can both negatively and positively impact each other. So that would probably be the tip I would give a new PI; is to kind of talk to your postdoc about what professionally… I think the professional thing is easier to do because you can say, ‘Firstly, where do you want to be in two, three years or ten years or whatever? What can I do to help you get there how would we manage this together?’ 

The personal stuff is harder to approach because some personal stuff is personal and some people find that harder to talk about. Equally make it clear that there are opportunities, as much as you can as a PI and you’re willing to talk about personal things, you don’t have to disclose anything about yourself of course. To make it clear to a postdoc that we are humans and there are personal factors at play. 

I think the automaton approach of just a very robotic, ‘I am just here to do this bit of science’, that instantly shuts down a conversation that the postdoc might want to have with you about something which is making their technical work suboptimal. I think then that becomes your problem as a PI. 

If you have done that and then the work is suffering but you’ve made it really difficult to unpick that and make the work progress again because you’ve said, ‘I don’t care about your personal life and what’s going on at home; all I care about is whether you can do this thing.’ 

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