How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers?
I think it’s important to give them freedom and to allow them autonomy that’s a good experience for them, but also obviously one has to support them. So if they want advice about how to carry out a particular task or about what kind of a job to apply for or where to publish something, then you obviously need to support them in that. Encouraging them to go to conferences, giving them time to go to conferences, maybe putting funding into the project budget at the bidding stage for them to go to conferences, etc. Also, pay attention to building networks with them and for them, and connecting them up with people that you know or paying attention to how they’re going to build their networks and how those networks are going to work for them in the longer term.
It’s also important to have a kind of flexible approach to time management, partly as a result of having attended a kind of seminar with Prosper where the issue about formalising specific periods of time in which postdocs are allowed to work on their own material. In my current project I have actually made an agreement with the Co-Is and the postdocs that they will have a specific average amount of time per week that is nominally dedicated to their own stuff. We have the annual PDR, which is a requirement in our university, and I’m sure most other universities. It’s important to make sure you do that, because often with PIs that can be something that is basically left to the PI. So you want to make sure that you do the annual PDR with your postdocs and don’t let it slide, because it is an important stage and they certainly appreciate it.
I think it’s also important to always have at the back of your mind, or sometimes at the front of your mind, the longer term development of your individual postdocs; that although the project is your priory, and what they’re going to do in the project, you have to realise and acknowledge that these are people for whom the project is just one step in their career.
What advice would you give to a PI preparing to have a career development conversation with their postdoc?
Try and put yourself in their shoes and think about where they want to get to and ask them what their goals are, how do they think they can go about achieving those goals? Then once you’ve heard their views, you can contribute your own experience about that, rather than delivering a sermon from on high about how you should go about progressing your career. It’s better to start with their ideas about how they think they should do it, and then depending on how they respond you can then contribute your own experience to help them go forward.
What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc?
I think if you were a PI managing their first postdoc, it’s important to be able to take a long-term view. If this is your first major project involving postdocs then its quite easy to get too focused on the project itself and the specific outcomes that you’ve promised to the funding agency in terms of books and other kinds of product outputs, conferences etc. It’s very easy to get fixated on those quite short-term outputs. So its important to remember that for the postdocs and also for you, this is a longer-term endeavour. And if you don’t manage to get all the publications done in the timeframe that you initially promised, which is always an over ambitious timeframe, that’s ok. These things can take quite a long time. If the publication come out a few years down the line after you’ve finished the project that’s ok, in terms of your CV and in terms of the CV of the postdocs involved – it will eventually add value to those CVs so that shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Keep your feet on the ground, don’t panic and think longer term.
I think it’s important to encourage autonomy in the postdoc. Don’t over manage the postdoc; that’s another feeling that you’re in a position of management, you have to answer every possible question, you have to direct them in every detail of what they do. So you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to answer every question; you can be puzzled as well. You can work with them to resolve the difficulties and puzzles. Don’t assume that just because you’re the PI and they’re the postdoc you have to know everything or be able to answer every question, resolve every issue. That can’t always be done, and it’s much easier to admit to your own limitations and work with that postdoc to resolve problems in a way that they find satisfactory.