• Hour glass icon27 minutes : 8 minutes reading | 19 minutes video

Creating a working environment that lets you and your postdoc grow – skills for PIs and postdocs 

Session details

Date: 29 March 2023

This PI network session looked at helping your postdoc to develop their skills in a way that benefits you both.

Speakers at this session 

  • Dr Stefania Silvestri, Prosper Research Staff Developer, University of Manchester  
  • Dr Tamara West, Researcher, Department of Languages, Cultures and Film, University of Liverpool  
  • Dr Simon Vaukins, Prosper Research Staff Developer, Lancaster University  
  • Dr Andrew Holmes, Prosper Research Staff Developer, University of Liverpool  
  • Dr Richard Rainbow, Senior Lecturer, Department of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Liverpool 

Session overview

A session with the Prosper team and PI speakers looking at how PIs can grow their postdoc’s skills and develop a mutually beneficial working relationship. 

Whether they wish to continue in academia or move beyond, the skills your postdocs develop during their time with you can help them to make that next step successfully. 

But supporting your postdoc’s career development doesn’t have to be a one-way process – working together to develop your postdoc’s skills and experience can benefit you as well. 

This workshop covered:

  • Postdoc skills and the skills they might need in a career within or beyond academia. 
  • Identified ways in which PIs and managers can build postdoc skills in a way that benefits them both. 
  • How to build a working relationship where your postdoc feels comfortable asking for more or less responsibility. 

Session recordings

Dr Tamara West, PI on an ESRC-funded networking grant in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Film at the University of Liverpool discusses her experiences transitioning from postdoc to PI.

Dr Richard Rainbow, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine at the University of Liverpool discusses his experiences supporting postdocs to develop their skills.

Shared learnings

1. Postdoc skills

  • The postdoctoral role requires a range of different skills beyond the subject-specific skills individual research projects need. These include project management, time management, adaptability, resilience, presentation skills, networking, supervision, teaching, and working as an independent researcher with their line manager. 
  • The skills and abilities of a postdoc will depend on their level of experience as a postdoc (just completed their PhD versus being employed on their second or third postdoctoral position) and the management and leadership styles of the supervisors and PIs they’ve experienced in previous roles.  

2. Skills for academic careers

  • Compared to a postdoctoral position, the role as PI requires advanced levels of project management, communication, strategic thinking, budgeting, grant writing, people management, leadership and influencing. 
  • Many PIs report that they felt shocked, thrown in at the deep end, adrift, lost, overwhelmed and/or unprepared when they first became a PI. 
  • PIs can help their postdocs prepare for and better understand the requirements of a tenured academic position by involving their postdocs or simply talking them through some of their responsibilities. 

3. Creating an inclusive environment for skills development 

  • A culturally inclusive environment requires mutual respect, effective relationships, clear communication, explicit understandings about expectations and critical self-reflection. 
  • Developing your postdoc’s skills isn’t about them taking time away from your research project. It doesn’t have to be either/or, although remember that the Concordat (which most Higher Education institutions in the UK are signed up to) recommends a minimum of 10 days of career development per year.  
  • Developing your postdoc’s skills also isn’t about taking advantage of them, getting them to do all your budgeting, paperwork, supervision, etc. simply because you don’t want to. Postdocs are not there to be used under the pretence of career development. 
  • Instead work with your postdoc to identify areas they would like to develop and ways in which they can do so that benefits you both. For instance, managing the day-to-day budget of your research project can be very beneficial to both you and your postdoc should they feel it a skill they’d like to develop, but only if they are supported by you and feel comfortable asking for help or saying no.  
  • Help your postdoc to recognise that their career development is an important output of your research project (and increasingly funders are looking to see evidence of this in grant application and reporting) and build a working relationship where they feel confident to ask for development opportunities. 

4. Skills for careers beyond academia

  • Postdocs have technical research skills, but their breadth of experience can also give them an advantage when applying for skills beyond academia. They’re able to take the initiative, learn things quickly and figure things out for themselves. 
  • In speaking with employers several key desirable skills stand out: commercial awareness, communication, creativity and innovative thinking, digital skills, leadership, networking and relationship management, teamwork. Postdocs and PIs can consider what these skills look like in their current roles and what postdocs can do to develop them further. 

5. Identifying postdoc skills

  • Postdocs are often unaware of the breadth and depth of skills they have, which can limit what roles they apply for and how they present themselves. 
  • Creating a skills inventory or personal skills audit can help postdocs recognise their own abilities.  
  • There are three easy ways in which PIs can encourage postdocs to create a skills inventory: Time breakdown, Reframing research outputs and Real-time skill spotting. Download Prosper’s Skills Briefing to discover how to do these with your postdoc. 
  • Reflecting on their skills, postdocs can also perform a gap analysis, identifying key skills they feel are missing and working with their PIs to develop those skills. Frameworks such as Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework or Eurodoc’s Transferable Skills for Early Career Researchers can help postdocs identify gaps. 

6. Developing postdoc skills 

  • Time spent on postdoc skills development doesn’t have to be at the cost of time spent on the research project. There are plenty of tasks where postdoc career development can be productive and useful for postdocs and PIs. For example: 
  • Leadership – supervision of of undergraduate and masters projects, Involvement in staff networks; role on institutional committees (e.g. as postdoc representative); chairing team or departmental meetings or journal clubs; mentoring PhD students and less experienced postdocs; application for own research grants; lecturing and teaching - design as well as delivery. 
  • Team management – involvement in organisation of faculty or external events such as workshops and conferences; informal day-to-day line management of research assistants and technicians; design projects that involve collaboration with others; training of PhD students and others in research techniques. 
  • Networking and relationship management – managing coordination and communications with collaborators; finding/establishing collaborations; representing you and your research at meetings and conferences; joining you in meetings with partners; promoting research on LinkedIn or social networking sites. 
  • Communication – research paper/book writing; research paper reviews; presentations and posters; invited talks (do you need to be the one to give the talk?); outreach initiatives; blog posts; departmental meetings; managing research group's social media; formal research reports and updates to stakeholders and funders. 
  • Strategic thinking – discussion of current research trends and horizon scanning; engage postdoc with strategic planning for research over the next 5 or 10 years; encourage volunteering to sit on active working groups or committees as a postdoc representative. 
  • Grant writing, budgeting and commercial awareness – involve postdoc in your project's budgeting; involvement in any new grant writing; discussion of processes that feed into grant application; support collaboration or mentoring with any research partners beyond academia; discussion of impact of research and involvement in REF case study preparation. 
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