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Postdoc positions typically last 1 to 5 years. It’s easy for both you and your postdoc to feel like they’ve got plenty of time for career development, particularly at the beginning when there’s so much to set up, learn and get started. Thinking about their next steps may seem less important compared to project-related priorities. 

“One bit of advice I would give to any postdoc is it’s all too easy to take on a postdoc position, and because they have generally a fixed term with like, one year or two years, you think, well, this is what I’m doing for two years and I will worry about what to do next at the end of the two years. I would say it’s better to start asking yourself right from the start what you want to do next.”

Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Liverpool. 

But not thinking about their next steps means your postdoc is likely to miss out on opportunities. As their manager, you can help your postdoc identify skills they might want to develop and experiences they can gain. If left until later in their contract, many of those opportunities will have passed. 

“So from day one, I’ve discussed career development with my postdoc.”

Dr Ruth Nugent, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, University of Liverpool 

From the outset, work with your postdoc to plan the research as well as the experiences they’d like to have and their development needs. Postdocs who make research plans with their PI at the start are more likely to publish and submit grant applications. Planning can also help postdocs to clarify their career goals and gives them more time to pursue training opportunities (Davis 2009). 

“Within the first six months we established what kind of role they want to take in that sense and how they are going to develop. Then it depends also on how long the project is, but let’s say in a three-year project you will start by doing that and just carry on through that in the first year. When we get to the second year we normally start thinking about: what are the skills that you have learned, what else you have to continue to develop in order to be successful after the project.  

Then we encourage them over the second year to start thinking about what they want to do in the future because three years goes like that! You move really fast and particularly when you are in early career, because of the way that the postdoc works you need, I would say, at least at the end of your second year to start thinking what is going to come after the third year.” 

Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Co-Director of Digital Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities, Lancaster University. 

What to do when 

You can support your postdoc’s career development at every stage, from funding to finish. Below are some suggested things to consider at each step along the road. 

Before your postdoc starts

There is plenty you can do to support your postdoc before they start with you, from how you write the project grant to how you interview for the position. The ‘Funding and recruitment’ page has resources that may help you lay some groundwork for supporting the career development of your postdocs.


In the first few days of your postdoc’s contract there are many important tasks that need to be done to help them settle into their new role. Discussing development needs and future careers at the induction stage, no matter how briefly, can help to reassure your postdoc that you’re interested in helping them and give you an initial idea of what support they might need from you.

Prosper’s ‘Induction’ page for managers has resources to help you with your postdoc’s first days.


In the following sections we’ve outlined a rough structure you might want to consider when supporting your postdoc with their career development over the course of their contract. 

The suggestions below are based on a postdoc who is unsure of their next steps. This is for two reasons: 

  • Your postdoc might not want to tell you they are unsure of their next steps or that they’re considering moving beyond academia. They might worry that being honest about their thoughts or concerns could jeopardise their chances of getting a contract extension or other development opportunities.
  • Academia is highly competitive (see the realities of achieving an academic career here). Even if your postdoc is certain they want an academic career, being aware of their wider options can be helpful for confirming their goals and considering contingency ideas should academia not work out.

Remember that every postdoc is different and the support they need will be individual. For instance, a postdoc who wants to move beyond academia will require different support than a postdoc who wants to stay within academia. Individuals also move at different speeds and will want more support with some aspects of their career development than others. 

The structure below provides resources and pages that you could signpost your postdoc to. If you both felt comfortable then you could structure regular career development meetings around these prompts to discuss how they are getting on, act as a sounding board and discuss any additional support your postdoc might need. Alternatively, you could use these suggestions as a way of providing your postdoc with resources for self-directed development and reserve meetings for other aspects of career development.

The first third of your postdoc’s contract 

Over the first few months of your postdoc’s contract, encourage them to consider their career so far and what they’re looking for from a career. This early time in their contract is also ideal for helping them realise the range of skills that they have, skills they’re potentially missing, and working together to plan how they can gain those skills. 

You may find Prosper’s career conversations resources for managers of researchers  helpful for discussing careers with your postdoc. 

The middle third of your postdoc’s contract 

Once your postdoc has more of an idea of what they want and need from a career it can be helpful to support them to explore their options and what they might need in order to obtain their goals. 

The final third of your postdoc’s contract

As your postdoc moves into the final stages of their contract with you, they’ll most likely be considering their next steps: finding, applying for and getting a job. This can often be the most stressful and uncertain time in the postdoc cycle and whilst it can feel important to finish off as much of the research project as possible, your postdoc will still benefit hugely from your support. 

When your postdoc finishes

Once your postdoc has finished their position you can continue to support them, by providing references for their future job applications. Staying in contact with your postdoc and knowing what roles they go onto has advantages too: you might find that your former postdoc becomes a collaborator on a new project and you can tell future postdocs what your previous postdocs have gone on to do.

Prosper's ‘Project end and outcomes’ page has useful resources to help you continue to support your postdoc once they’ve left your team.


Davis, G. 2009. Improving the postdoctoral experience: an empirical approach. In Science and Engineering Careers in the United States: An Analysis of Markets and Employment, Edited by Freeman, R.B. and Goroff, D.L. pp99-127, http://www.nber.org/chapters/c11619 

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