I finished my PhD a very long time ago, in 2003, and then became a postdoc for three years at the University of Leicester. I then moved to the University of Strathclyde for I think it was 18 months, and then was lucky enough to get a ten-year track position back at the University of Leicester.
I remember being absolutely overjoyed that I got this ten-year track position, and then moving back to Leicester, and then suddenly thinking oh God, I’ve actually got to look after people in the lab, and I’ve got to be the one who answers all the questions, I don’t know what I’m doing, and absolutely feeling like I was sinking for a good year of that start because there was no one there who was really able to mentor me in any sort of way. So once I’d got over that initial trauma of trying to be a PI, I started thinking about how I could help people in my group to get the skills that I felt I was missing in terms of people management, in terms of just generally running a group and being the lead in a group where suddenly you’re expected to know all the answers, because as a postdoc you always have somebody to fall back on, but then when it becomes to being the PI, you’re the one who everyone has to come to to ask the questions, and you’re meant to come up with the answers, and you don’t always know.
So one of the things that I found very early on was just to be really honest with my group, right from the start, and tell them that they are colleagues of mine, that they’re not my postdocs, or my PhD students, they’re my colleagues, and to work things out with them when things go horribly wrong. I’ve kind of developed that theme with my group over a long period of time now.
So I’ve been PI since 2008, so now I have two current postdocs and three PhD students within the group, and whenever we’re putting work together, projects, be it grants, be it anything, I always involve them in just about every stage of it so that they understand the process more than anything else. So when I first tried to write a grant I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about costing a grant. I didn’t know that the salary that’s listed on the university website for a grade seven whatever, isn’t actually the salary you need to apply for.
It’s a lot more than that because you need to put in factors like your pension contributions, National Insurance, all that sort of thing that you just don’t know about until you start doing it. And other things like how do you decide, if you’re doing a science project for example that needs chemicals, how many chemicals you need to cost into the grant. It’s a really open-ended question because you’ve got to think about well, okay if I’m doing this many experiments, how much solution is this going to require, how many chemicals do I need to make that, how many drugs do I need to do these experiments. It’s really hard to do until you have actually done it, to know roughly what you need to apply for.
So those are the kind of things that I start with in the group, and it’s not just postdocs that I do this with, it’s PhD students as well. I involve them in all of those discussions, because I think it’s really important for, when you have an idea for a grant, and when you’re trying to develop the grant, seeing all the different parts of that process, I think that’s a really important part for the postdoctoral people to learn if they’re going to go down that academic route.
As we’ve been talking about in the session as well, it’s really important for postdocs to know that if they don’t want to stay in academia, that’s absolutely fine. They haven’t failed if they leave. A lot of my colleagues will consider people who leave academia after a postdoc to be a failure because they’ve not stayed in academia, but of course they’re not. As we’ve already said there’s no way everybody who does a PhD and does a postdoc can stay in academia because there’s just not enough places for that. So we have to prepare people, and as we’ve talked about, reminding them that they’ve got these huge, brilliant skill sets that they’ve developed over the course of their PhD and their postdoctoral years that they can take to use elsewhere.
It’s not just about what they can do in academia, it’s about what they can bring to other things as well. So one of my former PhD students gave up in research science and such, and went and became an accountant, because he realised that his analytical skills were perfect for that kind of forensic nature that you might need in accountancy to find out where that last penny’s gone in that Excel spreadsheet. He’s absolutely brilliant at that. That’s what he’s gone on to do. So I think that it’s been really important for me, for my group, to try and help people to realise what skills they have and allowing them as well to talk about their ideas within the group.
I know that some PIs are very much focused on this is the project, this is what I want you to do, this is how it is, but I’m a little bit more relaxed about things like that, and I’m very much open to them discussing what they would like to do, how they would like to do it, and allowing them to express their ideas, and then if their ideas are great, then we go with it. If their ideas are rubbish, I’ll politely tell them they’re rubbish, and we move on. It’s about having that open conversation with them, and I think that the more open I’ve been with people who’ve worked with me, the more they’re willing to speak, and the more that they’re willing to suggest things. I think that helps foster a good relationship.
Now I guess that does make it difficult if I do ever have to have some difficult conversations because perhaps I’m a little bit too friendly with them and a little bit too open to some things. At the same time I think I’d rather have that and have that relationship where there’s some sort of trust there between us so we can talk about things openly. So I think that to me, very much making sure that people realise they’re part of a team that I am allegedly the head of, but by no means the all-knowing being, and that there are things they bring to it that I don’t understand.
So for example, one of our postdocs has been doing a lot of computer modelling recently. So he’s been bringing in all this computer coding that he’s done and I’m looking at it going I have no idea what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it, but it looks great. It’s that kind of thing, it’s skills that he’s got that I don’t, and he’s bringing something new, so I’m letting him lead on that. It’s that kind of thing that I think has helped my group be relatively positive with one another, and it’s not just about them helping me, and them helping themselves, it’s also about helping all the other people in the group, because they’re helping the PhD students to do new things that I can’t teach them as well. So I think there’s a lot of really important collaborative supervision that goes on in my group because of the different skills that people bring.
So one of my postdocs is a basic scientist, I hate that term but that’s what he is, he’s a non-clinical scientist, but my other postdoc is actually a clinician, so he brings a very different viewpoint. He has a much more clinical focus on what he does. So he brings a completely different set of thoughts to how we run our experiments in the lab because he’s always thinking about how does this go back to affect a patient.
So that gives us a unique perspective, and I think that gives us a really nice working environment, and our lab meetings get very heated at times where he’s arguing from a very clinical point of view and we’re saying, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter, you don’t want to worry about the clinic, you want to worry about the animal model.’
He gets very tetchy at times, but I think that’s really helpful, those sorts of discussions can be really positive within the lab environment. It means that everyone is learning different things from different people within the group and there’s no one who’s kind of too dominant in there because everyone’s got their own skill set, and I think that they’re realising what they bring to the party, and they’re starting to learn from one another which I think is a really nice environment to have. So I think my key things for helping postdocs develop their skills, I think firstly it’s making sure they realise that they’re colleagues at this stage.
PhD students it’s very much that supervisor-student relationship, which is a bit, I don’t really like it very much but it’s how it is. By the time they get to postdocs, or late PhD students into postdocs, I feel they’re very much more colleagues than my postdoc, and I try not to call them that, but I do accidentally do it every now and then. I involve them as much as I can in discussions about everything within the lab, and that’s from running the finances, how much money we’ve got left, everything that we can try and do, and try and involve them in, that’s what I try to do for my group to give them the experience as well of how to run a project, and how a project looks, and how to build a project in the first place.
As I say I try and give them all the freedom where possible to express themselves in terms of their ideas, and their research plans, but at the same time having to reign them in if they’re going a bit off-piste too much because obviously we do have a funding stream that we’re meant to stick to to some level. So that’s kind of what we try and do, but also try to discuss with them regularly that if they do want to do something that’s not necessarily in academia, and they want to go into industry, or want to do something else that’s non-related, that that’s perfectly fine.
I’ve no problem with that at all as long as they realise they’ve got the skills to do it and don’t shy away from doing something they really want to do because they’re concerned they don’t have those transferable skills when they clearly do. The only thing you can do is just support them and just to say to them, look, you are good enough to do this, help them with their CVs, help them with letters and things like that. One of the things that I’m trying to do a bit more now is to find out exactly what these companies want from people so I can help them to best shape their applications.
So I’ve got friends who work in industry, and in different companies, and I’m talking to them to try and find out if someone put in this application and it said this, how would you view it. That kind of thing. So try and find out what is the best way to help support that particular person. At the end of the day it’s their decision what they do. If they want to stay in a job till the end of the postdoc position that’s brilliant, that’s what I would love to do, and I would love to try and help them stay if they want to or help them move on to the next job if they want to. But if halfway through they’ve realised it’s not for them, which can happen, or they’ve been offered something they consider as better, then who am I to stand in their way.
Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, it’s difficult, especially if they leave and you’re stuck with five months left of a project at the end, then it’s really hard because you’re not probably going to be able to find someone to fill that position who is as experienced as the person you had before, but I would always try and see if there was a PhD student who was completing at the time that that was happening, that potentially if it was a funded grant, for example if the British Heart Foundation, or whoever happens to be funding it, withhold that salary until that person finished because they’ve got the necessary skills to take it on.
Those kind of things. I would always try and find someone or try and find someone who had some experience at least in that area, to try and at least get some of the work finished. It’s really tough. It is really tough when somebody leaves halfway through their grant, but it happens. You can’t stop people doing what they need to do. After all they have their own life, they need to leave, and do what they need to do sometimes.
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