How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs? [06:00]
We talk about these things continually. Now, for some individuals, they’ve come to the group with a very clear career path that they want to follow, and then I see my role as facilitating that and giving them the opportunities and exposure and expertise, etc., to have the best chance of success at that career path. Others really either come with a goal and a plan and then they change their mind or are not sure where they want to go to next. So, obviously, with that latter category, we have a lot more discussions about it and that’s where I really try to get them to talk to as many different people as possible, as well. I can offer my insight and opinion, but if you don’t know anything about that career path, don’t be afraid to say so. But if you think that you possibly could make some introductions or make some suggestions of who they might talk to, do that. So I think it is about encouraging them just to grab a cup of coffee or get on Zoom with somebody and have those conversations, because I think people generally are quite happy to talk about their own careers or to give advice or just listen.
I have been surprised that sometimes people do seem to be very reluctant. Some postdocs seem to be reluctant to raise this question and even sort of fear that if they say, ‘I don’t know if this really is the right career for me. I’m not sure if I want to stay in academia. I might want to leave this institution,’ then the relationship is going to break down and that they will get less support. I totally understand why people might have that fear, and it’s sad that they do, but I think it’s important to recognise that people may be reluctant to bring up that conversation themselves. As a PI, you should make it clear that you’re open to that conversation, it’s not a judgement, it’s not a… You may be disappointed if somebody who decides to leave, but you’re there to support them in whatever career choices they make. Have those discussions regularly about what the future aspirations of the postdoc are and make it just a regular, just informal thing, so it’s not built up to a big career conversation, so that the postdocs are aware that your door is open to these conversations, you won’t judge them, you’re there to support them. Then I think if you can build that sort of relationship, hopefully, you’ll get the best out of them and they will get the best out of the range of opportunities that a postdoc affords.
What specific things do you do to develop your postdocs? [02:42]
Making sure that postdocs are invited to the relevant meetings even if they’re not presenting or it’s not directly relevant. Give them the opportunity to attend, because you never know what they might learn or who they might meet in a coffee break, or something. So just providing that opportunity and an exposure to other activities – teaching, committee membership, or anything that gives postdocs a taste of what life is a PI might be like, and it’s not obviously just the research then. There’s a lot of other activities. There’s teaching, but there’s all the sort of budget management, people management, etc., and trying to give some exposure to postdocs. If possible, I try and give them line management experience if we’ve got technicians in the group. I think it’s good for a CV, also, but, more importantly, you learn a lot from managing staff about personal relationships and time management, etc. Independence, yes, as I say, I put a lot of trust in my postdocs because I’ve been, at times in my career, very busy with other activities.
They’ve had to work quite independently and that involves a lot of trust. That involves me trusting them, but also them trusting me that I will be available when they need me. So I guess that brings me to perhaps my last point, which is about time. I think to support a postdoc, you have to invest time individually in them. Just being aware, being sensitive to the needs of the different postdocs and realising when you need to drop other things and invest time in that individual, when you can leave them to be independent and back off, that’s something that I’ve been and I’m still learning and trying to learn. Of course, every time you have a new member join the team, everyone is different and it’s trying to establish that, what works best for the relationship between the two of you.
Have any of your former postdocs moved into positions beyond academia? [04:42]
So some of my postdocs have remained in academia, but many haven’t; they’ve gone on to other careers. So a couple have gone to work in industry, one here in a local industry in Liverpool, another for an international agrochemical company. We work closely with product development partnerships that are sort of public/private sector partnerships to develop new tools for vector control. Some have gone on to work with those international NGO-type organisations; that’s been a career path that several have taken. Government scientists, both here in the UK and overseas, and scientific writing, actually; one former postdoc went to become a scientific writer for a pharmaceutical company. So, yes, they have gone on to do a range of different things, and I think that’s really important to recognise and support that and have those conversations throughout your time working with the postdocs just to see what interests and what might fit their skills, their interests and not fall into the trap of making the assumption that everybody wants to follow your career path.
Who has supported you along your own career pathway? [06:12]
I’ve benefited from lots of different mentors, sometimes not formal mentors. We probably wouldn’t have described ourselves as a mentor/mentee relationship, but colleagues, particularly a network of female academic colleagues both in my own institute and colleagues working across the globe and on similar projects, that have really supported me at key stages and been sounding boards for when I’m making decisions about career decisions or sometimes just struggling with management issues or workloads, or something.
People that have got different backgrounds, different expertise and just being able to talk to those people and get frank answers or suggestions, I think, is really valuable. So I would say that mentors are very important, but it’s not necessarily one single mentor or one for life. It’s just reaching out to people that might be able to help at that time and taking advantage of it.
What advice would you give a new PI if they were managing their first postdoc? [07:13]
Embrace diversity. Embrace diversity in all its aspects. Think about what could complement your skills or your personality or your way of working, your background. Try and avoid the pit of falling into looking for clones of you, because I think everyone benefits more from working in more diverse teams. So if you get this relationship right between a postdoc and PI, both of you learn from that experience immensely and your research, but also, I think, your life is enriched by the experience of working with a diverse range of colleagues.
I think also I would advise them to have those discussions regularly about what the future aspirations of the postdoc are and make it just a regular just informal thing so it’s not built up to a big ‘the career’ conversation, so that the postdocs are aware that your door is open to these conversations, you won’t judge them, you’re there to support them. Then I think if you can build that sort of relationship, hopefully, you’ll get the best out of them and they will get the best out of the range of opportunities that a postdoc affords in addition to the research outputs that they will deliver.
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