Lessons learned from Covid and postdoc career development in the post-Covid era

Session details

Date: 21 April 2021

Speaker for the session

Hellen Parra-Flórez, Research Staff Developer, University of Manchester

Session overview

The session, open to staff in the University of Liverpool, University of Manchester and Lancaster University, focused on creating a safe space for PIs to share their experiences of working remotely through the pandemic.

Participants were able to discuss how they managed their projects and their postdocs online, remotely, away from offices and laboratories; and what they have learned from the experience.

Topics covered included:

  • What were PIs experiences during the pandemic.
  • How PIs managed postdocs remotely.
  • How to prepare for the future based on these recent experiences.

Session recordings

Shared learnings

Lessons learned from the pandemic

  • Regular communication: remote working may cause small issues to escalate if lots of time elapses between catch-up chats
  • Instigate peer mutual support by having brief social chats to avoid anxiety about small things
  • Allow time to build relationships: Make space and time to get to know each other. During one-to-one meetings catch up on life stuff first
  • One-to-one meetings with individuals helped manage the transition from having an open door and hearing discussions across desks
  • Introducing an informal Monday morning catch-up for the whole team gave them a chance to talk about what happened at the weekend
  • Weekly meetings can add much needed structure.
  • Take the decisions and go with it. Don’t torture yourself over was this the right decision or not
  • Be realistic about what support you can provide take your own needs into account too
  • Flip expectations. People would rather have a 1-hour face to face meeting, but it can be better to have a 15-minute virtual meeting, which gets to the point and is more efficient
  • Peer support should be encouraged, enabling postdocs to build their own communities. Give them time to meet regularly without the PI.
  • Platforms such as WhatsApp and Slack can be used to disseminate information more quickly than University pages. Some platform not all available in all territories, make sure all Postdocs access them.

Induction strategy during the pandemic

The hiring process online has been difficult because it’s lacked social contact. Postdocs didn’t have the space to build their community and get insights from other postdocs. Those who were recruited from overseas had remained in their home countries as it’s a struggle to get them into the country now due to visas and healthcare fees.

For some postdocs, it was challenging to have weekly meetings with people they didn’t know but things got better when the campuses/labs opened up and they could start seeing people in person and make connections.

Some PIs found interesting ways to get around these barriers by:

  • Prioritising those at critical stages – new starters and PhDs writing up
  • Encouraging peer to peer support among new starters with the creation of a WhatsApp group
  • Making more time in meetings at the start and end of the week to talk about something social, for example popular TV programmes or ask about TV recommendations
  • Setting up a weekly shut-up-and-write session where they also spoke about what they were writing
  • Providing one-to-one peer induction calls with a postdoc currently working on the project to help the new starter postdoc settle in. This approach is more personal than simply reading induction documents online
  • Establishing a Microsoft Teams module for desk-based modelling which enabled all new starters to train together and saved a lot of repetition. They were also able to discuss and help each other
  • Giving new postdocs a reason to get involved with fellow colleagues and students. For example, a new postdoc getting involved in arranging an annual workshop
  • Giving postdocs clear tasks and milestones so they aren’t floundering around and feel that they’re participating in the team effort.

Gaps in postdoc's skills

There was discussion around the gaps in postdocs’ skills, attributes or resources that impacted the delivery of their research project during the pandemic:

  • It was a steep learning curve to move to online data collection
  • The need to create space for postdocs to not feel additional pressure to over deliver on their project, just to meet the deliverables rather than exceed them, as perhaps they’d have aimed to do pre-Covid has impacted on research outputs
  • It was difficult to establish norms and expectations of working as part of a team if members had never met in the flesh and developed an initial rapport
  • Postdocs missed out on opportunities to travel and network in person, but PIs were able to send postdocs to conferences online that they are not normally able to offer
  • Training opportunities had to stop during the pandemic. It is important to make up for the things that have missed out. However, online workshops and webinars have been good training tools for postdocs.

Postdoc development opportunities

Some suggestions for postdoc development opportunities for the post-Covid era:

  • Postdocs can now be invited to sit in on meetings with stakeholders (such as with government representatives) that they wouldn’t have been able to attend in pre-Covid times
  • There should be a way to formalise skills or formally record the management skills the postdocs have developed and used around hybrid environments, as well as training on how to articulate them to future employers.
  • Postdocs should receive change management training to deal with unexpected events in the future
  • It’s key for postdocs to have papers/publications under their belt and make sure they have the time to do this for future job security.

Hybrid working

The pros and cons of hybrid working were discussed:

  • Workshops used to be main point of encounter but now there are online meetings once a week. This regular contact means constant discussion and responsiveness to people and would be worthwhile continuing post-pandemic
  • In contrast, some PIs find the regularity of meetings to be disruptive and highlight the importance of casual chats over a coffee rather than an online meeting. There is not yet an effective way of replacing organic communication
  • Online channels are perceived as unable to replace social interactions, with a negative knock-on impact on mental health and effective working
  • Some find that hybrid working is not suitable for a research laboratory setting.

Communication tools

PIs shared some of the online tools and platforms that they had been using during the pandemic:

  • The flexibility to meet outside ‘normal’ working hours sometimes worked well for some PIs and their postdocs. They had to take care how they communicated this offer, not that they were expecting people to work all hours but that it was an offer (for example, useful for those with childcare and other caring roles)
  • Several PIs disliked instant messaging services and found Slack and Teams ‘pinging’ disruptive to their working patterns. These instant messaging tools are not compatible or suitable for all individuals, but it was acknowledged that they work well for some
  • PIs could be very easily instantly contacted on MS Teams and it’s hard to control this but with a Zoom meeting boundaries could be set with respect to meeting duration
  • Some have stopped using MS Teams and instead their researchers can message them via WhatsApp if something is urgent.

Challenges during Covid

Discussion around the most challenging aspects of managing postdocs (and, more broadly, research projects) during the pandemic:

  • Decision making and moving quickly, whilst being sensitive to the needs of the team, motivation levels, and so on
  • Being extra flexible has resulted in a massive workload for some PIs
  • Information about furlough was slow to come through, so supporting postdocs wasn’t the toughest thing to deal with, students and teaching was harder
  • It was hard to make decisions with postdocs having previously agreed no cost extensions being either removed or pending
  • The sense of responsibility around people’s careers as many universities have stopped recruiting fellowships. Some PIs felt pressured to apply for funding to keep postdocs
  • There was a lot of training for teaching but less training on to how to be a PI. All the insights about how to manage this situation came from our PI networks.
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