• Hour glass icon36 minutes : 4 minutes reading | 32 minutes video

Supporting researchers to engage in career development and decision making

Session details 

Date: 26 April 2023

A session on postdoc career development led by career coach Dr Elizabeth Adams 


  • Dr Elizabeth Adams, career coach, Scafell Coaching.  

Session overview

Often as a PI you will find yourself mentoring postdocs through contract and career uncertainty and extremely challenging decisions. 

Whether your postdoc wants to stay in academia or move beyond, there will be many internal and external factors which are influencing their career thinking, their sense of identity and their capacity to take action. 

This PI Network workshop looked at how PIs and managers of researchers can have more meaningful career conversations with researchers, through exploration of some of the barriers which they might be facing and what the managers role might be in helping to address these. 

Topics covered:

  • Expectations and the role of PIs
  • Postdoc skills inventories
  • Academic and non-academic CVs
  • LinkedIn and networking
  • Recruitment processes

Challenging career assumptions 

This part of the session explored the assumptions that both postdocs and their PIs and managers make about careers within and beyond academia. 

Shared learnings

  • Many things influence someone’s career decisions, from internal or individual elements (such as past experiences, career goals and relationships) to external or structural factors (such as the economic climate, institutional structures and job market). 
  • Avoid perpetuating incorrect assumptions about careers within and beyond academia by asking your postdoc(s) what assumptions they’ve noticed, encouraging them to look for evidence of these and inviting different perspectives.
  • Everyone makes assumptions about careers but it’s important to recognise what assumptions you might be making and try to avoid them, both for yourself and when discussing careers with your postdoc. For instance, your postdoc may assume that they are not ‘fellowship material’ or that they couldn’t come back into academia if they left it. Alternatively, some PIs might assume that no other career is as flexible as academic research, that postdocs should move between institutions, or that moving beyond academia is a waste of a postdoc’s PhD and training. But just how accurate are these assumptions?

Helping your research staff when they feel stuck 

This part of the session explored how PIs and managers of researchers can help their postdocs to engage with career development decisions (without resorting to simply giving advice!) 

Shared learnings

  • There are many challenges and barriers that can prevent postdocs from engaging with career development, including their research, feeling unsure about where to start and a lack of confidence. 
  • As a PI there are plenty of things you can do to help your postdoc move forwards with their career development, including encouraging them to engage with the wider ECR community, participate in public engagement, write pros and cons lists, or support them to set goals and checking in with them about those goals after agreed intervals. 
  • Another way to help your postdoc could be to ask them open-ended questions about their careers so far and their aspirations. What are they proud of? What are their career values? What would they do if Universities didn’t exist?  
  • The ‘inner critic’ can be an incredibly powerful voice that can prevent postdocs from engaging with career development or taking up opportunities. Be alert and empathetic to your postdoc’s inner critic, you could consider sharing your own experiences or career failures with them. 
  • Encouraging people to step out of their comfort zone can also help them to become aware of their inner critic. For example, one of the participants at the workshop recommends their postdocs to attend drama or acting classes as a way of helping them to build confidence, and has used such workshops as team building exercises. 
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