What do you get out of working with postdocs?
I must say that working with postdocs or people who were initially employed by me as postdocs is an absolutely central part of my career and of my work. I can’t think of anything that’s more central really. Certainly, involving other people. Of course, I wouldn’t get my projects done without postdocs. That goes without saying.
But I think what is of even greater value to me is something that goes beyond that. I have far more conversations, I mean intellectual conversations, with my postdocs than I do with any other category of colleagues. I often find you read stuff and you think I don’t agree with that or you come across a new idea you’re very struck by and stimulated by and you want to talk to somebody about it. I find that it’s my postdocs, usually I’m having those kinds of exchanges with. Introducing them to what’s buzzing in my head and asking them about what’s of interest to them or to respond to what I’m saying, to develop a dialogue.
As I say, I do that more with my postdocs and I don’t just mean the postdocs I’m working with at a particular moment of time, because that would really be just one or two people. What happens is, and this is part of why I value postdocs, is that I develop relationships with my postdocs that go way beyond, in terms of length of time, go way beyond their employment with me and certainly, the very first project they work with me on.
They become intellectual collaborators. When they’re not here for me to talk to them, I send them a long email about, ‘Well, what do you think of this? I’m now reading this, I’d love to hear your opinion of this,’ or, ‘I’m reacting to so-and-so’s latest publication, what do you think?’ I like to show them drafts of things and get their comments on that much more than I do with any other colleagues. They’re really a very important dialogical and collaborative dimension of my career, of my work.
I would say I see the employment of a postdoc really as a kind of seed or acorn from which I hope an oak tree will grow, something big will emerge, that I will have a longstanding collaborative dialogical relationship with them lasting years and decades.
For me, postdocs are important, but if you like, ex-postdocs are even more important because I continue to have very good working relationships and personal relationships with them for the last two or three decades this has been happening.
How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs?
A lot. As the occasion arises, as a job opportunity arises or if I tell them about, that if they were interested in developing their career in a particular direction, this is what they should be thinking of.
Those are often just spontaneous conversations. Not just through those conversations, but through the work that we actually do, I introduce them to my academic network, both in Britain and internationally and it is a very international network. I think that happens as it were, all the time.
What methods, skills and experiences do researchers pick up from postdoc positions?
A whole range of very sophisticated and complex research skills and I’d emphasise knowledge, conceptual or theoretical development, and quite extensive use of various forms of interviewing. Having gathered the data, all the skills involved in interview skills and designing the empirical part of the project, then of course, comes the analysis.
Discussing the findings and relating them to our more general ideas. Conversational skills, oral skills in discussing ideas and their applications.
Then writing skills, intellectual writing skills. I’d usually be asking them to do the first drafts of the empirical findings, part of the chapters if we were writing a book or report or whatever it was, and we’d be sharing that with probably other team members, because most of my projects are quite international, multinational teams. So we’d be sharing that with our partners in other countries and seeing what they’d come up with and trying to relate them together into the larger thematics of the project.
How do you manage your postdocs? What advice would you give to a new PI managing their first postdoc?
I give the postdocs a lot of freedom. We meet to discuss a piece of work that’s got to be done and that might take a couple of weeks. I then give them a lot of freedom to go away and work on it and just say to them, if you get stuck, let me know, let’s talk about it, if there’s a problem of some kind. Usually, there isn’t, they go away and work.
On the whole, I don’t ask for loads of reports, I don’t have lots of deadlines, I don’t demand lots of meetings. A lot of our meetings can be spontaneous. We bump into each other, have a coffee. I encourage them to think and read what’s important and stimulating, and I try and develop a dialogical relationship with them.
I like them to know what I think, but I also like to know what they think and I like to have an exchange and a dialogue develop. I would say to someone, well, this is the kind of relationship that I’m able to have that I think the postdocs value, I certainly value and they’ve worked for me.
I think I’d share that experience without saying, this is what you should be doing. It’s what’s worked for me and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.