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Prof Rachel Williams

Current position
Professor of Ophthalmic Bioengineering, Department of Eye and Vision Science, University of Liverpool

Details of PhD
Biomedical Engineering, University of Liverpool, 1987

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
April 2020

How do you support postdocs to develop their careers? 

I do always try to be completely open and honest with them about potential careers and academia and what other options might be available. I think, as you become more experienced with your PDRAs, I think you workout which ones are likely to do well in a career in academia and which ones perhaps it isn't the right place for them to be and I think it's very important to be honest with your PDRAs and encourage them to think about other options when perhaps it's going to be very, very difficult for them to have a career in academia and it may not be the best thing for them to do.  

It's always important to allow -and I try to make sure that my PDRAs can go to conferences and go to workshops whenever possible if the funding's there within grants to allow them to do that. 

I think it's really important for them to go to these sort of events so they can promote themselves, so they can form networks, so investigate other places where they might want to get a job or what might be good for them to develop their careers.  

I've been fortunate to have a lot of projects with industrial partners and I try to use these as opportunities for the PDRAs to learn more about what a career in the commercial sector looks like and actually recently I've managed to use grant funding to support some of my PDRAs to do product management training, for example.  

So they've gained PRINCE2 certificates and I think these are options that allow PDRAs to develop their CVs. So they've got papers, they've got conference presentations, they've attended workshops, they've got certificates for particular maybe also regulatory affairs training for example, and I think these are opportunities you can give to PDRAs that help them to look at opportunities but also develop their CVs.  

What methods, skills and experiences do researchers develop during postdoc positions? 

I think it's really developing their independence and their confidence. I think that as a PhD student you're starting to do that, but you're reallydeveloping round a very specific project. I think at the postdoc level I like to just be able to see that they can be a bit broader than that and bring in more of their own ideas and I think they'll develop supervisory skills as well.  

So they work, if you like, with maybe other PhD students or with students and so they can develop ways in which they can understand how to provide training for them. I think they perhaps probably develop better team-working skills as well because they're likely to be working with other postdocs or other people within the laboratory.  

Sometimes they can gain experience in terms of financing, so in budgeting for grants, and definitely they'll learn in terms of collaboration with other partners. So very often projects have got external partners, or partners at other universities for example, and I think learning how to collaborate with them can be really useful. 

What's the added value of a postdoc researcher above a PhD?

The aspect of them as being more confident and more experienced than PhDs I think is the major difference between a PhD and a postdoc. 

What have you learned from collaborating with industrial partners? 

Yes, so I do work with both industry and clinicians and I think these have both been very central to my research. They act as partners on a lot of my projects and the PDRAs have gained some really useful experiences from these collaborations.  

For example, the clinicians bring experience of working with patients, working within the NHS, they get experience of working with ethics and the costs and how the costs are different in the NHS, or what's valuable to the NHS. Working with industrial partners brings other skills in terms of learning what's important in the commercial aspects of research, how does regulation influence the choices that have to be made in a research project?  

So I think there are real opportunities for PDRAs to see how these different domains work and how you have to look at a research project differently if it involves either of these partners. 

What's the benefit of having a mentor? 

I think mentors are very important and I think it's really good for all PDRAs and all people training, and I would have done this myself, is to find a mentor from a different discipline, or at least someone from a different department.  

I think what you need to look for from a mentor is someone who looks at things differently and looks at things in a different perspective, if you like, so obviously I encourage all my PDRAs to have mentors.  

I always tell them that I can help them with my opinion, but my opinions are biased, I mean, my opinions are my opinions and what they need to do is to go and talk to other people about their opinions, which will also be biased, and then they can help to form their own opinions from looking at that.  

I think it's possible that sometimes we see PDRAs who have worked in the same group for too long and they don't necessarily have the breadth of opinion to be able to make their own and I think they really need to look at things from a different perspective to try and understand and develop their own opinion using different people's expertise. 

Describe a typical week in your job. How do you balance postdoc career development with the demands of your project? 

Yes, so I really don't think there's such a thing as a typical week in an academic life! I do different things every week, but I do try to make sure that with all my groups I have a sort of standard timetable of meetings every week and this tends to be around projects rather than around individual PDRAs but if we have a meeting scheduled for every week then it's not such a problem if they're cancelled for some reason or another.  

Quite often you'll find as an academic you'll be away at a conference, or a grant review panel, or whatever, and you can't make a meeting every week, but if they're timetabled in there I think that's quite a useful way of doing it. I don't specifically have these around people's training needs but they'll be around a project but I do try to make sure that the PDRAs know that they can always book a specific meeting in my diary.  

My diaries are open to all my teams and so they can see where I am, when I'm likely to be free, and I also have an open door policy so that they can pop in any time if I'm there. And I think it's really important that PDRAs know that that's a possibility because I think our timetables aren't straightforward, my diary can look an awful mess, and I think it's really important though that PDRAs know that they can always come and talk to the lead, if you like, the PI for their project at any time, either about the project or about their own training needs.  

How do you maintain a good work-life balance? 

As academics, the thing is that we always have more on our to-do list than there's really time to do, so I think the important thing is to know when to stop. I have several interests outside my work and I try to make sure that I make time to do these and I think it sometimes helps if you can have specific projects to help you achieve this.  

So one of the ways I do this for example is I'm very dedicated to a vegetable garden, my vegetable garden, and seeds have to be planted at the right time and the weeds have to be kept at bay so the crops are productive.  

So sometimes these don't have to be perfect but they have to be good enough and I think by making time to do things like this then you end up saying, well, I have to stop working and the rewards from fresh vegetables that are picked and brought straight to the table are huge, so it's really encouraging to have something like this to do. I also try to encourage my PDRAs to make sure that they stop work and they don't work all the time but you have to actively manage this I think.  

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

So I think the thing about managing postdocs is it's really important to give them some space, even to make mistakes sometimes. I think you need to remember that it's a training role for them and they're not just there to produce data for you.  

So I think you need to listen to their ideas, you need to allow your postdocs to have those ideas, to try and incorporate them into the project, or at least let them try them out, and I think, actually, it's important to allow postdocs to fail sometimes. So to let them try something, give them a bit of freedom to try something, and actually find out that they don't always work. 

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