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Prof Simon Maskell

Current position
Professor of Autonomous Systems, Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics, University of Liverpool

Details of PhD
Engineering, University of Cambridge, 2004

Year became PI

Case study conducted
April 2020

How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers?

I do try to exploit opportunities that exist to help the postdocs acquire skills that will be useful to them in the future, as well as actually useful to me in the short-term, to be honest. I suppose that's also a factor. For example, we have PhD students. The PhD students need to be trained in things that the postdocs know about. I don't need to be the person communicating that knowledge to the PhD students. The postdocs are extremely well placed to do it, so they can and do.  

We have meetings often. We need people to run the meetings. I'm capable of running a meeting, but so are the postdocs, and getting experience of running meetings is a good thing, and similarly proposals. I wrote a proposal, I could writeit in isolation of the postdoc that might end up working on it. Actually it's much better for them but also better for me if they're engaged in the process, so that doesn't just mean writing text for the proposal, that means understanding how you analyse the core and analyse any feedback you get afterwards to learn so that you, kind of...  

I suppose my hope is that I'm educating the postdocs in practises that I picked up when I was trained in sales and negotiation in industry. If you've been trained and you can pass that training on to, for example, postdocs, you can teach them to behave like an industrialist when interacting with an industrialist, and that's useful in an academic setting. It's also really useful in industry, because that's the environment they're going to go into, and yet it's not an environment where simply filling in the form is what you need to do.  

You need to understand why the questions are being asked. You need to understand how to interpret the feedback. You need to understand how to influence the people making the decisions. You need to understand how to influence what happens afterwards and before. All these things you get taught if you're in an industrial context. I try to capitalise on training I've had and how I work as an academic, but also how I engage with postdocs in helping me to help them to help me, in that kind of context. 

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

The easy answer is experience. The PhD student is typically less extensively trained, and therefore probably more narrow and less deep in their understanding and skills base. The experience base is hugely valuable, and that's not just technical experience, that's experience of life.  

It's all about the depth of understanding and experience but also the breadth of experience of different situations, as well as different technical topics.  

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

The things you gain then through being a postdoc are more about the reality of how to deliver on a more specific time scale. I know it's probably more true in projects I have where they're typically less grants and more project oriented, so they're more about harder deliverables, which is probably closer to what you get in industry, whereas PhDs have a much more loose sense of direction, rather than a very specific purpose.  

That maybe makes my experience base a little different to others, but I do think it's about the distinction between being trained, which is the principal purpose of a PhD as I see it, and delivery in the context of a postdoc. I guess the flip side of that is that that's where the centre of gravity is, not where the... That's not mutually exclusive, so that doesn't mean that you shouldn't train postdocs, but equally that you can't rely on a PhD student to deliver.  

Sometimes you often can, but I think it's about... The experience basis is around the different way of working that's associated with actually having a job. 

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

Treat them as a peer and help them to help you, so give them the opportunities to help you, which coincidentally are almost certainly the things which will help them in their future career after they're no longer working with you.  

I suppose that boils down to trusting them and believing they can contribute. The point of the exercise is to further the knowledge and grow what the world is capable of, not to accumulate numbers in a spreadsheet. I think you have to believe that. If you believe that, you put your trust in the postdocs being able to do things, you support them and you encourage them to be open about when they're finding things tough, so that you can help them when they need it, and nobody is hiding anything.  

You want to have as much respect for them as they have for you, and that means you should say when you don't know something, and you don't understand, and be open and honest about the fact that you're fallible, with finite knowledge and finite skills and gaps, and all this kind of stuff. 

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