Co-creating Prosper with employers

Posted on: 18 June 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts

Prosper icon strip
Prosper icons depicting co-creation

Co-creating Prosper with employers – why it matters, how we’re doing it and what we’ve learnt so far.

Prosper's Stakeholder Engagaement Manager, Katie McAllister, takes a look at the importance of co-creating our model with employer partners and what we've learnt so far about their needs and priorities.

A truly innovative aspect of Prosper is that we are developing the model in meaningful partnership with employers. We recognise that to prepare postdocs for multiple career pathways beyond academia as well as within it, we need the input of external stakeholders from a range of fields. We need the expertise, the networks and the “insider knowledge” of a representative range of employers to ensure we create a model that is shaped by, and responsive to, the needs, tendencies and cultures of diverse sectors of the economy.

But what does this mean in practice? How do we create partnerships with employers that are indeed substantive, creative and meaningful? What are employers telling us they need from their future workforce to allow their organisations to thrive and grow? And how do we ensure that the fruit of our employer engagement informs and shapes the Prosper model, to the benefit of all parties? We are learning about this, and documenting our lessons, as we go. What follows are some highlights of our key findings and outputs from our employer engagement so far.

First findings: Initial employer engagement and insights

Co-creation with employers has been central to Prosper since its inception and input from a range of employers and external stakeholders was sought as early as the development of the project proposal. In keeping with our ambition to serve all disciplines and unlock postdoc potential to the benefit of all sectors, this comprised those in science and technology (including Unilever and Sci Tech Daresbury) as well as cultural and professional services sectors (such as National Museums Liverpool and North West Business Leadership Team).

Since then, we’ve been busy reengaging those organisations involved in the Prosper bid development phase and beginning to broaden our network of employers by capitalising on the networks we have within the Prosper team, across the University and within our partner institutions the University of Manchester and Lancaster University.

We are fortunate as a team that we have a diverse range of educational and professional backgrounds, including former postdocs from differing disciplinary backgrounds, as well as experience gained in the private and third sectors to draw on. In addition, the broader University comprises numerous teams for whom external engagement is a key function, as well as many PIs who collaborate with employers in a range of sectors as part of their research. The same is true of our partner institutions, the University of Manchester and Lancaster University. Happily, then, our existing pool of potential employer stakeholders is extremely rich and varied (and is likely to be so for other HE institutions seeking to enhance their development offer with employer co-creation). It should therefore come as no surprise that the insights we’ve gained from initial consultations and the first stages of co-creation with employers have been just as diverse.

The Prosper proposition – employer first impressions

Unsurprisingly, our initial meetings and consultations with employers have revealed a variety of perceptions and levels of awareness about postdocs. Those who already actively employ postdocs, such as in research and development functions within industry, acknowledge the added value that postdocs can bring to their settings, over and above that of a PhD graduate. This extra value was encapsulated by Peter Timmins, formerly Executive Director of Bristol-Myers Squibb and current Chair of the Liverpool City Region’s Health and Life Sciences Board, when he told us recently that, while “as a PhD student, you are learning how to do excellent research […] as a postdoc, you are actually doing that research independently, you are applying and extending your expertise in creating new knowledge, often leading and developing others. These are invaluable skills not only in academia but in many other fields which require excellent researchers, such as the pharmaceutical industry”.

Other employers within the Research and Development field have also shared with us that, in recognition of this additional experience, postdocs employed within a research and development or similar function within industry are likely to enter an organisation at a higher pay level than a PhD graduate. Furthermore, once in post, they are likely to progress more quickly to the next level of responsibility and remuneration.

One of our early employer relationships has been with IBM and Martyn Spink, Programme Director of IBM Research, and a large employer of former postdocs, has emphasised just how talented postdocs are, and how important it is for them to be aware of their value: “One of the things postdocs forget is that academically they’re at the top of the tree. A very small percentage of people get PhDs in this country – it’s tiny! To have done that, and then gone on and done postdocs, delivered more publications, done more things, this is a real achievement.”

In keeping with Martyn’s comments, encouraging postdocs to recognise the value, variety and broad applicability of their experience to date is one of the key aims of the our first set of resources launching internally at the University of Liverpool later this month. We want to inspire postdocs to reflect on their value and many of the resources in this prototype portal are designed to stimulate exactly that.

Foregrounding postdocs’ value to employers

Continued conversations and co-creation with employers who are already aware of postdocs and their value, such as those within the pharmaceutical industry, technology transfer, R&D and other functions already known to STEM postdocs as potential career pathways beyond academia will be central to the ongoing development of Prosper. But Prosper is also about forging new career pathways for postdocs as well as enriching more established ones. In this initial phase, we’ve also consulted those who don’t actively recruit postdocs, or don’t even necessarily have a firm idea of what a postdoc is. This includes employers in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector such as Tate Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool, SMEs such as Notch Communications and life sciences company Stream Bio and those in professional services such as those represented by North West Business Leadership Team.

The vast majority of these employers recognise research and analytical skills, adaptability and the ability to master new concepts quickly as vital to their future success. Many are interested in enhancing the diversity of their workforce and acknowledge the value of having fresh eyes on their business or organisation. One example from many, National Museums Liverpool are especially interested in ethical practice and the ways in which postdocs with research ethics expertise could add value to work in this area.

This is all great news for Prosper: we know that employers are crying out for many of the things that postdocs already have. But, as expected, these initial consultations have also revealed there are areas we need to explore and develop further. For example, one perception that we gleaned from (a minority of) employers was that postdocs (and indeed the HE sector more broadly) may lack commercial awareness. This certainly didn’t come through from all employers, but it was significant enough to encourage us to plan more in-depth co-creation on this theme. We need to understand what exactly is meant by commercial awareness in different settings, to identify cases where postdocs already have it and to develop meaningful opportunities for postdocs to further develop their capabilities in this area. Indeed, in our initial focus groups with postdocs, one of the themes that emerged was a lack of awareness of and a desire to learn more about contexts beyond academia. It is through co-creation with employers that Prosper can develop and provide access to such opportunities.

Conversations with employers have also reinforced the work we still have to do to raise awareness and improve understanding of the postdoc population as well as to articulate more clearly Prosper’s aims. Many employers, for example, initially refer to postdocs and PhD students interchangeably. We know this is inaccurate – and frustrating to many postdocs! – but it has highlighted the need for us to incorporate a clearer description of what postdocs are into our messaging (see our blog post ‘What is a postdoc’ for some initial work along this theme). We can’t assume that those working outside HE should or will understand what a postdoc is; it is our responsibility to tell them!

Encountering and responding to communications challenges like this is entirely to be expected. Every time an employer tells us something that surprises us -or challenges us - is an opportunity for us to enhance and refine Prosper. This process of testing and refinement is central to co-creation, and will enable us to ensure that when we ultimately roll-out the Prosper model, the proposition is immediately apparent to all stakeholders.

Engaging employers during lockdown

Any blog on employer engagement at the present time would be remiss without referencing the impact of Covid-19. The lockdown has certainly influenced our stakeholder engagement strategy, and has resulted in challenges as well as opportunities regarding employer engagement in particular. Following the initial lockdown, we knew that many employers would be concerned primarily with contingency planning (indeed, as we were as a team.). We’ve acted on advice that fresh approaches to new employers could give the wrong impression at this time. Consequently, from late March to mid-April, our focus was on engaging more intensively with existing stakeholders rather than expanding our pool of employer partners.

During this time, we held in-depth interviews with Unilever’s Research and Development Director, Tate Liverpool’s Head of Learning and Cancer Research UK’s regional translation lead, amongst others, regarding their requirements for highly skilled employees, their organisational recruitment processes, and what makes a prospective employee stand out to them at both applicant and interview stage. This rich content will be used in a variety of ways: employer interviews and case studies will be published in their entirety, and key insights will inform and be incorporated into various resources on the forthcoming Prosper portal. In addition, the fruit of these discussions will inform the next phase of the project, where we will work more closely with employers to create a series of development interventions organised around a set of career clusters. Of course, it is very likely that the majority, if not all of this cocreation activity will take place virtually for the foreseeable future, and we are trialling different technologies and methods to facilitate this at the moment.

Looking ahead

More than two months into lockdown, employers find themselves in a range of situations. Some are sadly facing financial challenge and uncertainty about their future. Others, particularly in the innovation space, are responding to new opportunities, be that through diverting core activity towards Covid-19 response or developing the technology needed to support the increase in remote working. Most organisations are reflecting seriously on the how they need to change and grow in order to be successful in the ‘new normal’. Being agile and responsive to opportunities and challenges will be more important than ever, as will new ideas, innovative approaches and fresh thinking. In this respect, the Prosper proposition, which offers employers the opportunity to shape the highly skilled workforce of the future, is now even more compelling than ever before.

Are you an employer interested in what Prosper can offer your organisation? Or perhaps you’re an HE professional working collaboratively with those beyond academia? Whatever your background we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at or follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.