Tell us about your career journey
I’m Mrinal Dasgupta. I’m a professor of particle physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. In terms of my career journey, I did an undergraduate degree at Cambridge University and then a PhD there, and that finished in 1998. Then I did three postdocs in different places, in different countries, at international institutes; that finished in 2004. Then I got what is called an STFC Research Council Advanced Fellowship, which is five years. So I held that here at Manchester from 2004 to 2009. Then from 2009, I was appointed as a lecturer and then made my way through the system until I became a professor.
How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?
So we have a formal discussion by way of a P&DR process, so personal and development review once a year. That happens every year. That happens annually, but I think I meet postdocs on a weekly basis and sometimes more often than that. Many times the discussion does turn to… There’s a fine line. If we’re discussing a project, but then, of course, you want to give them a suggestion that’s going to help them to take the next step and that sort of abuts on to career development. So with those informal conversations, you mention quite often that, “Have you thought of applying for such-and-such job? Have you thought of giving a talk at this place?” and so on. So those kind of discussions are much more regular. So because I’m in contact with them so frequently, it’s almost like a formal discussion at the end is not really needed in a sense because we’ve gone over those things in some way, shape or form beforehand. If you’re not in touch with your postdocs and you’re not really in tune with them, then that formal discussion at the end of the year is more or less a box-ticking exercise; it’s not really something that’s useful for anybody. So the only way to really do that is to actually, if you’re in regular contact with the individual, then those discussions will happen organically, I think, and they’ll happen naturally.
How do you integrate postdoc career development activities in your projects?
It evolves naturally over the course of the project. I think you’ve got to give some thought to how the postdocs are going to develop before they arrive. So, you know, you hire somebody to work on something, then you have to make sure that they’re working on something worthwhile that will help them, so not put them on something that’s a dead end. There’s a responsibility there that has to be thought about. When you’re hiring somebody, you have to make sure that the project they work on will be seen as important when they finally achieve the goal of working for that. So that is obviously something that is a great motivator for them. You have to think about how their role might grow during the course of the project. So initially it’s your project and they’ve joined it, but, ideally, you would want them to take ownership of the project as time goes on and think of it as their project, and in that way, everyone benefits. They benefit because – how they’re going to get the visibility, out in the field. So they have to be going out and giving talks, and that, and if it is something that they believe is their project, then those talks will be better for it, more convincing. So I think that needs to be thought about beforehand.
There has to be the space for the postdoc to perform to their potential and get the most out of the project. So you need to be setting up the projects and if you if you’ve got a slot there for a postdoc, then you have to think carefully about the role of the postdoc and how it’s going to evolve with time. So it does happen naturally, but it needs some thought beforehand to anticipate issues that can come up or the likely cause of something.
How do you balance postdoc career development activities with the demands of your research projects?
So if I’ve got a postdoc just working on a project with me, for example, then I think the two things go, to a large extent, hand in hand. So the things I’ve just described – helping the postdoc take ownership of the project, grow their role within the project – that helps them then to grow their own career. So progress of the project is tied up, in an ideal world, with the progress of the postdoc.
Now, some postdocs have different projects they’re working on, so they’re working with you, but they’re also working with other people. Then that’s also important to their development. You want them to be doing the part that they need to do for your project, but they’re also under pressure to do the part they’re doing with other people, and I think you just have to prioritise the postdoc’s needs. You are under pressure with your project, but your project is typically a larger timescale… Okay, there can be exceptions. There are times when projects come under a great deal of pressure because you have to be the first to put out some research result, and if the postdoc is being pulled in multiple directions, that can be a tricky thing. You’ve just got to make sure you handle that in a sensitive fashion and speak to the other people who might be pulling on those postdocs and say, “Look, can we sort of try to come to some arrangement?” Not all projects will go critical at the same time. So if the person is working on different things or working with other people, you try to give them the time to do that and avoid a clash with the time where your project might go critical. It needs discussion between you, the postdoc and anybody else who’s involved as to how the time doesn’t clash. So it can be tricky, but I think it’s not impossible if those conversations are had.
What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc?
I think that some of what we’ve touched on would be things that, with the benefit of hindsight, would have been things that would have been good to have known earlier. So I think this initial conversation that we were talking about where you’re clear about what you expect and what the postdoc expects, I think this is important to have. Everyone is different and not everyone is excited about things in the same way as you are or as the previous person. So I think you have to really understand that quite quickly. But they are good, that’s why they’re there. So they’ve got good qualifications, they’ve done fantastically well in their PhDs, or whatever, so they’re talented individuals and I think you have to understand how to get the best out of those individuals. They’re going to be there for two/three years and your project will benefit tremendously if they’re able to perform well. So I think it’s really about thinking about the particular person and what makes them tick and understanding that your job is to help them to perform, you know, make sure that obstacles are removed from their path, give advice when it’s needed, but perhaps not give too much advice. It’s also a mistake I’ve made, perhaps, in the past is to overload them with suggestions and advice in an attempt to be helpful that can actually have a negative impact. So I would be a little bit more careful and don’t overload them with info.
So you should know when to lead them in a certain direction when you can see that they need some orientation. You should also, I think, have the ability to take a back seat. It will not work perfectly all the time. I think this is something to understand, as well. There will be times when you will not be that satisfied with a given person’s stint on a project, or whatever it is, but you have to try your best and you have to try to get the best out of that situation if such a situation happens. You have to realise, of course, don’t expect perfection, but be prepared to make adjustments so that everyone can benefit.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]