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Why use Prosper?

In this article we outline why what Prosper offers is important to both postdocs and you as a manager of researchers, as well as the advantages of using the Prosper approach to supporting postdoc career development

At a glance

Prosper’s resources have been developed in collaboration with managers of researchers from all disciplines across different institutions to understand their needs and cater directly to them.

Prosper’s PI Network provides opportunities for managers to learn from experts and share best practice

Prosper’s approach specifically addresses the career development needs of postdoctoral researchers. For postdocs who are unsure of their next steps or who are considering careers beyond academia, Prosper can help them to explore their options and make their next steps with confidence.

For postdocs aspiring to an academic career, Prosper can help them focus their goals, strategically develop their skills and consider their options should they need a contingency plan.Career development isn’t a one-way thing and managers of researchers benefit from supporting postdoc career development too. Prosper’s free-to-use resources were co-created with postdocs, managers of researchers and employers, and are tried and tested across 3 Higher Education Institutes.

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Why focus on postdoc career development?

There are many reasons to support postdoc career development, we've included a few below.

  • Postdocs are temporary: Since the postdoc role is typically a temporary period of research, postdocs need to consider their next steps. Few postdocs remain as postdocs their whole career (Afonja et al. 2021, Hayter and Parker 2019).
  • Postdocs are unique: The career development needs of postdocs have not been addressed as strategically or structurally as those of PhD students, and support for managers of postdocs has been similarly lacking compared to that available for supervisors of PhD students (Charlwood and McBride 2020; Gibbs et al. 2015; LERU 2018).
  • Postdoc careers have been neglected: The career development needs of postdocs have not been addressed as strategically or structurally as those of PhD students, and support for managers of postdocs has been similarly lacking compared to that available for supervisors of PhD students (Charlwood and McBride 2020; Gibbs et al. 2015; LERU 2018).
  • Postdocs pursue a range of careers: Postdoctoral researchers go onto a wide range of careers, within and beyond academia (Vitae 2019). Postdocs should be prepared for and made aware of the diverse careers that make use of their advanced skills (OECD 2021). Their work in research and development within and beyond academia is important for the UK economy (Felisberti and Sear 2014).
  • Increasing sector recognition: The importance of postdoc career development is increasingly acknowledged by research funders and institutes across Higher Education.

The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers

Over 100 universities in the UK have signed up to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, the principles of which urge managers of researchers to support their researchers to prepare for a diversity of careers and provide their researchers with a minimum of 10 days per year to engage with career development (Vitae 2019).

Similarly, funders are increasingly looking to embed incentives for staff development into grant assessments and encourage managers to see the development of their research staff as an important outcome of their project (UKRI 2023).

Prosper’s approach specifically addresses the requirements of postdoctoral researchers and their career development needs, whilst also helping managers of researchers to better support their postdocs.

Postdoc career paths

50% to 70% of postdocs aspire to become to become academics, although this proportion decreases with time spent as a postdoc (Bebiroglu et al. 2019; Grinstein and Treister 2017; Hardy, Carter and Bowden 2016). They face a highly competitive job market.

The numbers of PhDs and postdocs have risen...

Nationally and globally the numbers of postdoc and PhD students has risen sharply over recent decades. 

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In the UK the number of PhD students rose by 12% between 2000 and 2006 (Royal Society 2010).

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In the Netherlands the numbers of postdocs increased by 80% between 2005 and 2020 (Rathenau Instituut, 2023).

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Between 2000 and 2012 the number of PhD holders in OECD countries increased by 56% (OECD 2014).

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The number of postdoctoral researchers in Finland has increased by nearly 150% in the past decade (OECD 2021).

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The number of PhDs awarded annually in the United States has grown by 37% since 2003 (OECD 2021).

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Doctoral awards increased by 25% across OECD countries during 2014 to 2019 (OECD 2021).

...but tenured academic positions haven’t kept up.

‘Numbers of tenured positions haven’t risen as much, causing greater competition for academic jobs.

Menard and Shinton 2022; OECD 2021; Watts et al. 2019

In 23 European countries

Whilst the numbers of postdocs and PhD students across 23 European countries rose between 2010 and 2013 by 22% and 23% respectively, academic staff numbers only rose by 9% in that same period (Herschberg 2018).

In the United States

The number of PhDs awarded annually in Science and Engineering in the United States almost doubled between 1982 and 2011 whilst the number of new faculty positions created annually didn’t change (Schillebeeckx et al. 2013).

In France

The rate at which PhDs are awarded in France is about ten times the rate at which new academic jobs arise (OECD 2021).

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In the UK and globally, only 10% to 15% of postdocs go on to become permanent academic staff (Vitae 2021; McConnell et al. 2018; Menard and Shinton 2022; Sauermann and Roach 2016; Woolston, 2020).

Awareness is mixed...

Postdocs may not be aware of the odds or the challenges they face. Their passion for their research may convince them that they can beat the odds. Emotions, self-confidence and information asymmetries influence postdoc career decisions. (Afonja et al. 2021; Andalib et al. 2018; Kendal and Waterhouse-Watson 2022).

...and the consequences can be serious

For postdocs aspiring to academia, career precarity and failure to achieve their goal can have detrimental effects on their well-being and confidence and may lead to an identity crisis.

Vitae 2016

“The loss of social identity came through as a strong theme in the challenge of leaving HE research. Some respondents reported deep-seated difficulties in giving up their research staff identity”

Caterine 2020

“In a very real way, we worry that we don’t know who we’ll be if we cease to be academics.”

Herring 2021

“If I wasn’t a historian of 20th-century biology and philosophy, then I didn’t know who I was. I knew that losing my identity as a researcher would also mean losing a whole community.”

  • For the 85% to 90% of postdocs who will go on to careers beyond academia, Prosper’s career development approach helps them prepare for the move and make their next steps with confidence.
  • For the 50% to 70% of postdocs aspiring to become academics, Prosper helps them focus their goals and strategically develop their skills and experience, whilst providing opportunities to explore their options should they need a contingency plan.
  • For the 10% to 15% of postdocs that go onto an academic career, Prosper’s Managers of Researchers resources can help them to support the career development of their own postdocs.

Managers of researchers play a critical role in postdoc career development

Managers of researchers and principal investigators have a significant influence over the careers of their postdocs, and may even be the biggest influence on a postdoc’s career path (Hayter and Parker 2019; Menard and Shinton 2022).

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Managers of researchers can act as ‘gatekeepers’ of a postdoc’s time and buy-in from managers can make or break postdoc career development opportunities (Charlwood and McBride 2020; Watts et al. 2019).

Managers of researchers may want to support their postdocs...

Universities, funders, postdocs and managers of researchers themselves recognise the role that managers play in postdoc career development and mentoring (Baas et al. 2020; LERU 2018; Menard and Shinton 2022; UKRI 2023; Watts et al. 2019).

Many managers of researchers are interested in and seek out management and career development training opportunities, recognising their own mixed levels of knowledge and ability (Baas et al. 2020; Charlwood and McBride 2020; Loissel 2019; Watts et al. 2019).

...but they aren’t always given the support to do so...

Yet support for managers of researchers is sometimes absent, inconsistent or inadequate, and the time taken to develop a principal investigator’s own abilities is weighed against the competing demands on their time (Charlwood and McBride 2020).

Managers of researchers are rarely trained to be managers and don’t always have the knowledge of careers beyond academia that postdocs may need (Baker 2020; Kwok 2018; Loissel 2019).

...and interests don’t always align.

The result is that postdocs may feel that their managers are not interested in providing them with career support (Pain 2018).

Whilst this isn’t the case for many managers of researchers, some do not reciprocate the loyalty and commitment they expect of their postdocs and others may even feel that it's in the interest of their research to keep the best postdocs they have for as long as they can (Herschberg 2018; Woolston 2020).

Prosper supports managers

  • Developed in collaboration with managers of researchers to target the needs of managers of researchers.
  • Prosper’s PI Network provides opportunities for managers to researchers to learn from experts and share best practice.

The benefits of supporting postdoc career development

Supporting your postdoc can help their career... and yours! Read on to discover some of the ways in which supporting postdoc career development can help both of you without detracting from productivity.

Career development doesn’t detract from research

Researchers participating in career development show no decrease in time to completing their PhD degrees or in levels or quality of research output (Brandt et al. 2021).

Prosper’s own work running pilot postdoc career development cohorts also supports this, with managers of researchers reporting no decrease in postdoc research capabilities as a result of engaging with Prosper’s career development resources.

Supported staff are more productive

Structured and supportive career development can lead to increased numbers of research papers and grant applications, better relations between postdoc and managers, and greater levels of overall productivity and success (Davis 2009; Scaffidi and Berman 2011).

Researchers receiving career development support are happier, have a positive impact within their research groups and have more direction in their own career development (Watts et al. 2019).

“It’s important to recognise that a person that is happy and feels engaged with their position will deliver a better job, so I do think that experiments are probably going to run better if they feel motivated and they feel they are developing.”

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Senior Lecturer and Group Leader, Lancaster University.

Builds future research opportunities

Far from being seen as an unsuccessful reflection on their manager, postdocs that move beyond academia can become sources of research funding, increase impact through research collaboration and improve academic performance (Hayter and Parker 2019).

“When I left for IBM the funder of my Institute, the BBSRC, saw it really positively because now the Institute had an industrial collaborator.

Dr Laura-Jayne Gardiner, Research Staff Member, IBM and former postdoc.

Strengthens research funding applications

UKRI (2023) are placing an increased emphasis on people leadership and management skills in their funding calls. Development of research staff is being seen as an integral outcome of funded projects and UKRI will be assessing grant applicants on how they will “support the career and professional development of their team members for a broader range of roles across the research and innovation system”.

‘UKRI is looking to reward project leaders who “support the careers of their staff” and are going to embed “incentives for workforce development in grant assessments”.

UKRI, People and Teams Action Plan 2023

Builds your reputation

A good reputation can change how you are perceived by others within your department or institution, but also externally. Being open about the support you provide for postdoc development may help you to attract the best postdocs to work for you.

“I feel like as a PI I’ve grown a bit of a reputation of being supportive and supporting others.”

Prof Melissa Gladstone, Professor in Neurodevelopmental Paediatrics and International Child Health, University of Liverpool.

Supports your case for promotion

With the importance of supporting staff career development being recognised by research institutions and funders, universities are beginning to include staff development within their promotion criteria. Supporting your postdocs and being able to evidence that support may help you with your own career progression.

The advantages of using Prosper

To the best of our knowledge there is no postdoc career development provision which does exactly what Prosper does.

  • Prosper requires no subscription or use fees
  • It's been developed specifically with and for postdocs and managers of postdocs from all disciplines across different institutions to understand their needs and cater directly for them in the resources
  • It's career direction neutral, postdocs don’t have to have a fixed idea of where they’d like their career to go
  • Co-created with employers, managers of researchers and postdocs
  • A PI network was created in parallel to further support managers of researchers – find out more about the PI Network here
  • Collaboration across Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) was baked in – developing and trialling the model across 3 HEIs simultaneously
  • Prosper’s resources are tried and tested – view our evaluation reports here (where are these?)
  • Not just a set of resources, it’s an approach, with additional activities to support the postdocs’ development
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References

Afonja, S., Salmon, D.G., Quailey, S.I. & Lambert, W.M. 2021. Postdocs’ advice on pursuing a research career in academia: A qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses. PLOS ONE, 16, e0250662.

Andalib, M.A., Ghaffarzadegan, N. & Larson, R.C. 2018. The Postdoc Queue: A Labour Force in Waiting. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 35, 675-686.

Baas, T., Dewhurst, S., and Peyre, S. 2020. “Leadership and Management for Scientists”, Lara, L.I., et al. (Eds.), Best: Implementing Career Development Activities for Biomedical Research Trainees, Elsevier, London, pp. 87-101.

Baker, S. 2020. Academics ‘not best’ to advise postdocs on leaving academia. Times Higher Education, available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-not-best-advise-postdocs-leaving-academia (accessed 21/04/2023).

Bebiroglu, N., Dethier, B., & Ameryckx, C. 2019. Employment status of PhD holders in the Federation Wallonia-Brussels. ORCS Thematic Report Series #1, Observatory of Research and Scientific Careers, Brussels, Belgium.

Brandt P.D., Sturzenegger Varvayanis S., Baas T., Bolgioni A..F, Alder J., Petrie K.A., et al. 2021. A cross-institutional analysis of the effects of broadening trainee professional development on research productivity. PLoS Biol 19(7): e3000956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000956

Caterine, C.L. 2020. Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide, Princeton University Press.

Charlwood C., McBride F. 2020. Helping PIs to Prosper: What Might be Learned from PhD Supervision. Research Education and Development Scholarship Conference 2020.

Davis, G. 2009. Improving the postdoctoral experience: An empirical approach. In R. Freeman & D. Goroff (Eds.), Science and engineering careers in the United States: An analysis of markets and employment (pp. 99–130). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Felisberti, F.M. and Sear, R. 2014. “Postdoctoral Researchers in the UK: A Snapshot at Factors Affecting Their Research Output”, PLOS ONE, Vol. 9, No. 4, e93890, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093890.

Gibbs, K.D., McGready, J. and Griffin, K. 2015. Career development among American biomedical postdocs. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2015; 14(4):ar44. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.15-03-0075

Grinstein, A. and Treister, R. 2017. The unhappy postdoc: a survey based study. F1000 Research, 6, 1642-1642.

Hardy, M.C., Carter, A. & Bowden, N. 2016. What do postdocs need to succeed? A survey of current standing and future directions for Australian researchers. Palgrave Communications, 2.

Hayter, C.S. & Parker, M.A. 2019. Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study. Research Policy, 48, 556-570.

Herring, E. 2021. Why I Am Leaving Academia, available at: https://wellreadherring.blogspot.com/2021/02/why-i-am-leaving-academia.html (accessed 21/04/2023).

Herschberg, C., Benschop, Y., & van den Brink, M. 2018. Precarious postdocs: A comparative study on recruitment and selection of early-career researchers, Scandinavian Journal of Management, 34, 303-310, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scaman.2018.10.001

Kendal, E. and Waterhouse-Watson, D. 2022. I’m a unicorn, ask me how! What the rise of ‘quit lit’ and ‘staypieces’ says about higher education and academia. Studies in Higher Education, 47, 560-571.

Kwok, S. 2018. “Learn to Lead”, Nature, Vol. 557, pp. 457-459. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05156-3 (accessed 21/04/2023).

LERU. 2018. “Delivering Talent: Careers of researchers inside and outside academia”, available at: https://www.leru.org/publications/delivering-talent-careers-of-researchers-inside-and-outside-academia (accessed 21/04/2023).

Loissel E. 2019. “A question of support”, eLife, 8, e52881. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.52881.

McConnell, S.C., Westerman, E.L., Pierre, J.F., Heckler, E.J. and Schwartz, N.B. 2018. United States National Postdoc Survey results and the interaction of gender, career choice and mentor impact. eLife, 7, e40189.

Menard C.B., Shinton S. 2022. The career paths of researchers in long-term employment on short-term contracts: Case study from a UK university. PLoS ONE 17(9): e0274486. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274486

OECD. 2021. Reducing the precarity of academic research careers, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, May 2021, No. 113, https://doi.org/10.1787/23074957

Pain, E. 2018. PIs need to help postdocs develop their careers, available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/07/pis-need-help-postdocs-develop-their-careers (accessed 21/04/2023)

Rathenau Instituut. 2023. De postdoc, available at: https://www.rathenau.nl/nl/page/de-postdoc (accessed 21/04/2023)

Royal Society. 2010. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, RS Policy document 02/10, available at: https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294970126.pdf

Sauermann, H. and Roach, M. 2016. Why pursue the postdoc path? Science, 352, 663-664.

Scaffidi, A.K. and Berman, J.E. 2011. A positive postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education 62:685–698, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-011-9407-1

Schillebeeckx, M. Maricque, B. and Lewis, C. 2013. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nature Biotechnology, 31, 938-941.

UKRI. 2023. People and Teams UKRI Action Plan March 2023 https://www.ukri.org/publications/ukri-people-and-teams-action-plan/

Vitae. 2016. What do research staff do next?, https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/reports/vitae-what-do-research-staff-do-next-2016.pdf

Vitae. 2019. “The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.” https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat/Download_Concordat_PDF.

Vitae. 2021. The Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (CEDARS) https://www.vitae.ac.uk/impact-and-evaluation/cedars  

Watts S.W., Chatterjee D., Rojewski J.W., Shoshkes Reiss C., Baas T., Gould K.L., et al. 2019. Faculty perceptions and knowledge of career development of trainees in biomedical science: What do we (think we) know? PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210189. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210189

Woolston, C. 2020. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers, Nature, 588, 181-184, doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03381-3

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