Explore and prepare for a range of employment options across different sectors, by making use of mentors, careers professionals, training and secondments.
This may well be reinforced by your university’s statement of expectations for Principal Investigators and research staff. So rather than meaning that it’s all on you (it’s not: there are expectations on research managers as well), this puts you in the driving seat to initiate the conversation with your PI and to shape your future direction.
The earlier you start to think about skills you’d like to develop or explore, the sooner you can identify relevant opportunities.
“It’s better to start asking yourself right from the start what you want to do next”.
In the recent Wellcome report, ‘What researchers think about the culture they work in’ (2020), of 3885 research staff surveyed, only the following had received inputs relating to career conversations from their supervisor/manager/PI in the last 12 months:
Had a career conversation with you about your career aspirations – 44%.
Connected you to others within or outside your field – 34%.
Provided career advice and guidance – 34%.
Offered you training to support your skill development – 31%.
(2020, p. 24)
Crucially only 9% of researchers discussed careers beyond academia with their supervisor/manager/PI. The sector is changing, and as this report shows there is a new focus on research culture, but you might need to speak up and ask for what you need.
What is a career conversation?
“Organizations and in particular direct managers, often assume that a little ‘career talk’ can be dropped into a performance review process and that is sufficient for facilitating critical Career Conversations between a manager and employee. But when asked, the majority of employees are looking for more information and advice about a wide range of topics”.
(Right Management, 2016, p. 7)
As a postdoc you should, as a minimum, have an annual professional development review (PDR) discussion with your PI. Although this discussion will focus on your current role, it should also encompass your plans for the future. An annual PDR is distinct from a career conversation. Best practice is to keep them separate.
A career conversation is:
Future-facing - what do you want to do? where do you want to go?
Exploratory - may have an agenda of points to cover but can expand.
Not tied to specific outcomes - although actions could arise from it such as making an introduction and so on.
Who to have your career conversation with?
In some cases, your PDR is not conducted with your PI, instead it may be someone in your line management team, which may be a further reason to request a dedicated career conversation with your PI. If you cannot have a career conversation with your PI, find someone whom (a) you feel comfortable talking to and (b) is in a position to support you, for example either with time to explore career opportunities and/or share contacts with you.
Dr Edward Latter, Earth observation policy lead in Defra (Civil Service):
I think, be mindful that your PI may not have personal experience of careers and career paths outside of academia. Whilst in terms of careers in academia, they’ve been through it, they know what it’s like and they’ve got to the stage they’re at because they’ve been through that process, in terms of careers outside of academia, they’ll have worked with lots of people. If they’re experienced PIs, they’ll have worked with industry. They’ll have probably worked with policy and funding and areas so they have a certain amount of value that they can add there. I suppose my advice would be to just certainly have that conversation, have that conversation, but try and get a sense of what their experience is of working with people who have been outside of academia, who have made that change. If there’s anyone that they have contacts who you could speak to. When I ended up leaving one of my jobs, one of my PI’s actually said to me that they thought I’d make a good civil servant. I’m not entirely sure if that was supposed to be the compliment that I took it as at the time. They have got that experience of working with people from other disciplines even if they haven’t done it themselves and make use of that expertise. Just be open and honest as well about what you want from your career. It’s your career, it’s your life, so just try and be as honest and as open as you can.
Dr Al Mathers: Head of Research at Good Things Foundation
What do you want to get out long-term from your career? People always ask you really difficult questions about where you want to be in five years and I think that’s too hard because it feels like you should say a certain role and you should say a certain sector. I think there is something about what motivates you. What do you see as the thing that has driven the work that you’ve done for that PI? Do they think that it’s because you are driven by being a really good organiser, a really good planner? There’s something with your PI about separating those operational skills from more pure research skills and what the balance of those is, and having that conversation about how far you’re motivated by one or the other. Do you really find that being a skills specialist is where you want to go, or is it about the management and operation of projects, and getting that right that’s really critical, and then unpicking it? Again, having someone to bounce that back off might start challenging your assumptions about, ‘Well, actually I’m not a specialist. I just want to complete things. To get them done. To have a process.’
Dr John Miles, Founder and CEO of Inkpath:
First of all, honesty, it’s important, I think. There’s a lot of, as often the case, that postdocs who feel very nervous about going to their PI and the PI will have invested in them in all sorts of different ways, not least in terms of funding. Having that honest conversation and being clear about the huge value that you got from that relationship, I think is important because that will set that conversation on the right footing. I think also, to be completely honest, bearing in mind their background and their trajectory when you’re talking to them, because it may be that they’ve gone into industry and come back and they’ve had a really varied career and they’re in a great position to be able to advise you on the different kinds of things that you might be able to pursue. It might also be the case that they have been, had a very, very focussed career and you’re asking someone about things that they are not experts in and they’re not able to answer.
I think bearing that in mind and having a kind of, giving them a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card, if you can, by saying, ‘Look, I want to be able to talk to you about this and I’ve been thinking about X, Y and Z,’ and those things might be particular avenues you’d like to look at but they might also be, ‘I want to talk to the careers service. I want to go and take advantage of some of the opportunities that are available to me in terms of training and things.’ I think being honest and having, being prepared. Just go into it prepared, have a good long think about what you want to take into that conversation, the kind of input you want from them. It might be limited input, but what you’re really doing is securing their support, probably more than their advice in a lot of cases.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Whilst your PDR discussion may touch on your career aspirations it may not, or you may find there is not sufficient time to be able to discuss the points you would like to cover. Thus, it is worth requesting a separate career conversation with your PI. There is no reason that your career conversations need to occur only annually. In fact, having career conversations more frequently is likely to be of benefit.
It may also be a good idea to suggest breaking down your career conversations into a series of three conversations:
'Who am I?’: A reflective conversation about your skills, motivations and values. Have a look at our Reflect section for some tools to prepare for this.
‘What and how should I develop in?’: A conversation about growth in your current role but with an eye to the future.
‘What’s next for me and my career possibilities?’: A conversation focussing on your future.
Your PI needn’t be the person you have all (or perhaps any) of these conversations with, but it may be a useful way to approach structuring these conversations (adapted from Squiggly Careers (2020).
How to approach a career conversation
Prepare for the career conversation, be clear on what you want to discuss and what you wish to get out of the conversation.
Request a meeting with your PI, explaining that you wish to have a conversation with them about your career covering the two or three points maximum that you have determined.
Set the agenda: ensure you know what you would like to explore in the meeting and, if possible, give your PI prior warning of the questions you want to discuss to give them time to consider them. For example, if you want to ask them what they see as your strengths, they may give a better answer if they’ve had time to prepare.
Set your expectations: your PI also has their own needs, goals and concerns and these may not align perfectly with yours. Even if you wish to move beyond academia your PI may have useful advice or contacts.
During the conversation, be honest and open about your aspirations, remember the following advice:
“‘during my postdoc – I think I just knocked on his [my PI’s] door one day and said “can we chat? I’ve been trying to think about what I want to do next.” […] what I do remember is that the door remained open and as I went to explore different opportunities and had various different interviews, I did actually report back to him, and he was quite interested and very supportive, which was lovely. I guess it was a two-way learning process”.
Ultimately, it’s important to have career conversations with your manager (in this case, your PI) at they may be able to facilitate opportunities for you to grow and exercise skills in areas you are interested in. If your PI is unable to have a career conversation with you, see if you can find a mentor (your institution may have a dedicated mentor network), someone in your own network, or even a peer to discuss your aspirations with.
Preparation is key
“while you are preparing for the talk, remember that the most important person in your career plan is you, not your adviser. You make the decisions and the rules about how and where and why you’ll work as well as what you’ll do”
Questions to ask yourself ahead of your career conversation
What do you want to get out of this conversation?
What would a successful conversation look like to you?
What do you want to come away with? Examples may include:
a contact from your PI’s network.
an introduction to someone.
agreement to take some opportunity that you’ve identified but isn’t part of your direct role.
“Have a look at your PI’s CV. If your PI has walked the path that you want to walk, then they will serve as a great mentor for you and be able to open the right doors. If you are considering a career outside academia, potentially your PI may not have the knowledge or network to actively help you. This should not deter you from having that conversation, but it will be important to set an intention behind that meeting. For example, are you looking for your PI to make personal introductions and connect you with people in their network e.g. group leaders in industry? If yes, who specifically do you want to be connected to?”
Think about your skills and values by visiting the corresponding pages in the Reflect section. Bring along your findings and highlight the specific area or areas you would like to discuss with your PI. For example, it could be that you have found you have a particular strength around communication and you would like to discuss possibilities to enhance the use of this with your PI, such as running the project’s social media account or getting some teaching time and experience.
“Be honest and upfront about what you want. If you are unsure of what you want, ask for their advice: what do they think your strengths are? Can they help you develop certain skills for the career path you would like to enter? Can they make introductions?”
If your PI suggests you have a career conversation before you request one, or early into your contract, that does not mean they think you should start looking for something else because they think you are not good at your job.
Additionally, don’t assume that your PI thinks any particular career path is more valid or worthwhile than another. This assumption may stop you from being honest and open when having a career conversation with your PI, as you may give the career aspiration you think they want to hear and not what you actually want.
If you are starting to think that your career aspirations lie beyond academia your PI may have a connection they can signpost you to or share with you. Even if they do not have a suitable connection to share with you they should be able to provide some support, even if that is only being aware of your career interests and thus able to highlight future opportunities as they come across them.
Your PI has a number of competing pressures (time/money/project deliverable constraints) to juggle and thus are unlikely to be able to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity you wish to pursue. However, you can ask for more details if they are unable to grant a request. Try asking – ‘can you tell me more about what factors influenced your decision?’ and listen to their response. Asking ‘why?’ tends to make people defensive, thus for a more constructive conversation ask questions using ‘how’, ‘what’ or ‘when’ – for more details see Saul et al. (2012).
Lastly, you may have heard horror stories (social media is unfortunately very good at circulating these) that if you either tell your PI that you are looking for another job (anywhere) or that you are considering careers other than in academia that your PI will no longer invest in you. These are generally baseless concerns!
Listen to the Squiggly Careers podcast episode on how to have career conversations, it covers talking about career possibilities rather than concrete career plans, which in turn is less alarming for your manager (i.e. it sounds less like you’re telling your manager you are leaving imminently). If you have made the decision to leave your current position it is best to have a conversation with your PI about this to make sure that you both get the most out of the remaining time, given that notice can typically be several months.
An online article on why it’s important to set an agenda for meeting with your PI (it’s aimed at PhD students but has some useful broad advice). Veuthey, T.L. and Thompson, S. (2018) Why you need an agenda for meetings with your principal investigator https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06619-3 (Accessed on: 22 May 2020).
Vitae (2019) The Concordat to support the career development of researchers (commonly known as the Researcher Development Concordat). Available at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat (Accessed on: 22 May 2020).