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Having successful career conversations

Here we set out the benefits of having regular career conversations with your PI (and/or a mentor) and offer some tips regarding how to go about doing so.

  • What are they?
  • How to approach them?
  • How to prepare yourself?

Take responsibility

The Researcher Development Concordat empowers postdocs to:

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”.

Dr Tom Hasell
Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Liverpool

Career conversations in academia

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.

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:

  1. '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.
  2. ‘What and how should I develop in?’: A conversation about growth in your current role but with an eye to the future.
  3. ‘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”.

Dr Kate Whelan
Former postdoc now co-founder and COO of Notch Communications

  • Set actions and goals as an outcome of the career conversation (for guidance on goal setting listen to Squiggly Careers, podcast episode 72 ‘Goal setting that works’.
  • 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”

(Levine, 2019)

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.
    • what your PI considers to be your key strengths.

Prepare in advance of the conversation (expect that this should take twice the amount of time that the conversation is scheduled to take) and listen to the Squiggly Careers podcast episode 109 ‘How to have a career conversation’.

“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?”

Dr Hannah Roberts, Career Coach,
Breakthrough Talent & Skills Ltd. (former postdoc at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology)

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?”

Dr Shona Jones
Former postdoc, IP Commercialisation Manager, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, University of Liverpool

Check your assumptions

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.

Useful resources

For in-depth guidance on how to have a careers conversation, this resource is especially useful as it provides some suggested phrasing and language to use (and what to avoid), see Saul, N. (2012) How to have a career conversation with your thesis advisor or PI: Strategy & language. Bear in mind that this is aimed more towards PhD students than postdocs.

Research Culture Uncovered podcast from University of Leeds;

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).

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References

LERU (2018). Delivering talent: Careers of researchers inside and outside academia. LERU position paper. Available at: https://www.leru.org/publications/delivering-talent-careers-of-researchers-inside-and-outside-academia (Accessed on: 22 May 2020).

Levine, A.L. (2019) ‘How to tell your advisor you’re pursuing a nonacademic career’ Science (Your Unicorn Career). Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/07/how-tell-your-adviser-you-re-pursuing-nonacademic-career (Accessed: 10 June 2020).

Right Management (2016) Talk the talk: How ongoing career conversations drive business success. Available at: https://www.right.com/wps/wcm/connect/728860eb-e39f-4d31-a75c-aae2810e8864/RM_TalkTheTalk_Whitepaper_lo.pdf?MOD=AJPERES (Accessed on: 22 May 2020).

Saul, N. (2012) How to have a career conversation with your thesis advisor or PI: Strategy & language. Available at: https://career.ucsf.edu/sites/g/files/tkssra2771/f/wysiwyg/ResearchersSlidesCareerConversation.pdf (Accessed: 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).

Wellcome (2020) What researchers think about the culture they work in. Available at: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/what-researchers-think-about-the-culture-they-work-in.pdf (Accessed on: 22 May 2020).

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