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Prof Hilary Pilkington

Current position
Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

Details of PhD
PhD in Russian and East European Studies, 1993

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc
Never had a post-doc position, became full time lecturer in first year of own PhD study

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
April 2021

What's the added value of a postdoctoral researcher over and above PhD?

I think they're quite different roles. I mean, with a PhD student it's just such an extension of a teaching responsibility. You're looking to shape, to encourage. Clearly it's their project, but it's very much about taking responsibility for them achieving the goals that they've set themselves. With a postdoc, the relationship is about sharing ideas and sharing skills. Often a postdoc will be hired because they've got complementary skills. They're not a mini-you. They're exactly the opposite of you. You're learning from them, you're sharing ideas, you're thinking about a future together quite often. 'Where could we take what we're doing now? How would that fit both of our skillsets or our passions?' It's very much about working together rather than facilitating, I guess, the project of somebody else.

I think it's also a much more everyday relationship. It's an everyday practice of sharing and of supporting each other, rather than a kind of checking and a supervising and a development role. There is a development role in there, but it's much more mutual, I think.

What methods, skills and experiences do researchers pick up from postdoc positions?

I think the biggest thing that... I've never been a postdoc myself. I've never had a postdoc role myself, so I'm kind of thinking about what my postdocs have said to me. I think one of the biggest differences from your doctoral research to postdoctoral roles is working in teams. It's learning to set shared objectives and meet shared deadlines, and often much harder, much more rigid deadlines than you have. There's no you can catch up, whereas if you're late with something in a research project where other people depend on you, it's not the same. You can't just go to your own set of deadlines. So, working in teams. I think learning how to do large-scale research. Usually, especially in humanities and social sciences, a doctoral piece of research is quite small-scale, usually in one location. Not always, but usually in one location, whereas postdoctoral roles, especially in the kind of projects I've led; big, multinational, collaborative projects. You have to learn new techniques often of data gathering, data analysis, how to deal with multiple contexts and how to build that into your analysis of data collected in different places.

Coming with that, I guess one of the things that I spend a lot of time with my postdocs on is developing protocols, so much more standardised methods of collecting, storing, and analysing data. Again, you can use your intuition a lot more when it's only your individual project that depends on it. Where you're requiring other people to work to the same standards, you really have to standardise that in documentation. I think that kind of gives people a sense of systematisation, even of what might appear to be more fluffy humanities and social science disciplines. So much of what a postdoc does is, or at least in the kind of spheres I have postdocs working in, is learning to organise work. That is incredibly important. You can't work in a team without that organisational background, and although it's something that we often do for ourselves in our heads, putting it down on paper or on screen creates all kinds of new ways of thinking about how to achieve goals. All of those skills are really transferable to other domains. I think everything I've learned in research has been through international collaboration, so it's incredibly important to me.

I'm an ethnographer, so I probably would say this anyway, but seeing things from the outside, seeing how other people do things and how it's similar and not similar to what you do, is just so informative. You learn a lot about yourself by looking at how other people work. I would say first and foremost it's just looking at the diversity, both of intellectual traditions, the value that is placed on particular intellectual traditions or even academic practice in different countries has been really valuable to see. Different ways in which people collect data and analyse data. Even really small things that you don't know until you're in there. In some countries you can't collect data on ethnicity or religion, and this has huge implications for what you can do collaboratively. I think there's all those kinds of awareness of diversity. One of the things that's really struck me over the course of working and collaboratively is just the inequality of access to the academic market, if you want to put it that way, that non-English first language subjects... You know, how much harder it is for people to get articles published, maybe get funding proposals supported, when they're required to be in English and you're not a native language speaker. I think those kinds of awarenesses of just how global academia works, and how important it is to try and facilitate an equal access to the goods and services out there, has been very important too.

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?

I think it's really difficult to quantify that. I find the most useful thing is to have those conversations when the postdoc wants them. I think if you sat down and had, every three months, a conversation about career development, it would be quite frustrating and probably quite anxiety-inducing for a postdoc. They know their positions are insecure anyway. To keep reminding them of that in a way that puts pressure on I think would be quite counterproductive. I tend to have conversations at key moments for the postdoc themselves, because then it's really meaningful and they can make decisions without feeling constantly under pressure to develop their career. So much pressure is on already. To have another person exerting that pressure on you I don't think necessarily is the right thing to do. That might be different if a postdoc was particularly reticent or didn't appear to be thinking about the future. Obviously, I would do something slightly different. In my experience, they are acutely aware of the insecurity and the precarity of the position, so it's my job to support and to help at key moments when they feel that they need advice and direction, or just to talk through the options that are available.

What form do your informal career development conversation take?

Each one is very different. Obviously, at the start of a role you would have that conversation, and you would get a clear sense of what that particular postdoc sees as the future. There's classic questions. 'What do you want to be doing in five years' time?' That gives you a sense of where they want to go, because everybody is really different. Then, on the basis of that, you can then guide. Then you're always looking for things, whether it's a new training course that you've seen advertised or it's a potential proposal, a research funding opportunity that they might be interested in, or a network that's developing. If you know what their interests are, then you can guide them in that way. I wouldn't see it as a sit-down every particular period of time. I would just see it as a constant, alerting them to opportunities that are out there that might or might not be of interest to them. I think in developing postdocs, I think the context is really important. Humanities and social science, there isn't really a career pathway as a postdoctoral researcher into a permanent research position. Those positions just don't exist when they do in other disciplines and areas. I think we're always looking for different possible career paths, and that awareness that there is a danger of being too successful as a postdoctoral researcher. If you go from the first to the second to the third postdoctoral research position, it might already, by the time you finish that, be late, for example, to go into a standard lecturing/research position within academia.

It's a real balancing act between encouraging people to go on and develop in what they're doing, whilst making them aware of what else they need to keep developing on the side in case they want to make that shift. I always, for example, encourage postdocs to keep up their teaching profile, and to vary that, so not to do all my tutorials for me because I'm too lazy to do them, but for example to get lecturing experience. If possible, it's not always possible because of institutional rules, but if possible to take on a sub role in PhD supervision, because those are the kinds of things that they will need to show when they're competing, for example, a lectureship with somebody who's done a lot of teaching before. Other things, I think it's about a variety of tasks, so a postdoc shouldn't be doing one thing. They shouldn't just be data-gathering on a project. They should be leading some tasks, for certain. They should have control over specific parts of the project so they can experience... Or initiating particular tasks in the project. I'd really develop that. I think they need that insight into management, because again, if you're a postdoc for five, six years, you would already in another job be looking for a position that showed you had management capacity. You don't want to move in at a very junior level, so you need to be able to demonstrate that you had some management and some leadership roles.

The training is obviously expanding, not just consolidating your research skills but perhaps taking on new ones. If you're a qualitative researcher, to use the opportunity of research training that's available in universities to get other skills so you can broaden and you can show diversity in your capabilities. I would also really encourage postdocs to get involved in new research bids. It's one of the things I've always done. This kind of goes back the danger, in a way, of if people are good you encourage them to get involved in a new research bid that you're doing, and then they're involved as a postdoc potentially, or a Co-I in that, and that can kind of cement them into that postdoc role. It's a balancing act, but that engagement with writing research bids I think is really important. Postdocs do go on to develop their own collaborative research projects from having learned how to put the bids together by being involved in ones that they're not necessarily responsible for. I think that's really important too.

How do you balance postdoc career development with the demands of the research project?

I would love to have a strategy for how to manage those. Very, very difficult. I think the key one is that they're not a zero-sum game. I think the postdoc is very much engaged in the delivery of those outputs. They're not just an apprentice. They're part of that team that's delivering. That is part of their development, is to bring them in on that and to share responsibility for that. I think there are plenty of tasks where development can be part of the output and be good for the project.

Co-publication, for example. If I'm writing and article together with a postdoc, it's both leading to a good output for the project, it's reducing the amount of time, because I'm sharing the burden with that postdoc, and they are developing themselves through publishing with an established academic. I think it's about thinking how tasks can be productive and useful for everyone in a number of ways, rather than seeing it as Peter taking from Paul and vice versa.

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

I'm not sure it's a transition into a PI as such. I think a research project is already organically grown. Often you're bringing people with you, quite often, who've had an input into the research proposal, and I think it would be a mistake to suddenly say, 'Now I'm PI. I'm your line manager, I'm your employer,' and that things have to be much more formalised. It may be the case, if somebody's brought in new and there's a much more formal relationship at the start. I think it's always the case of seeing a postdoc as a partner in the delivery of the project, rather than an apprentice or an employee, because you will need that person to care about the project as much as you if you're going to deliver it well. My advice would be, depending on how the original relationship is set up, is to see that person as your ally more than anything else.

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

I would advise another PI to know their postdoc, and know where they want to be in five years' time. There's a real danger of talking about alternative pathways being misunderstood. Almost everybody who goes into academia has some kind of imposter syndrome, that they're not quite sure that they're really good enough to be where they are, and going in with a, 'Well, you could maybe get a job in another sector, not in academia,' could so easily be misread as, 'I don't think you're really going to cut it in academia.' Know where they want to go. If they want to go into academia, talk about those kinds of skills that they're going to need, the things that they're going to need to keep up alongside the research profile. If you know they're interested in other sectors, then I think it's about making them aware, giving them access to maybe people that you know in those sectors, networks and examples of where people have made that move. I do a lot of asking people if I can share emails with other people so that they can just have that informal conversation and see whether that is a direction they want to move. Quite often the grass looks greener in another sector, and when you sit and talk to somebody about what it really feels like to be working in local government or whatever, it's not quite as rosy as you think. I think it's just about linking people up, allowing them access to see what another trajectory might look like, but above all knowing them well enough to be able to do that sensitively.

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