State of play: understanding the current postdoc career development experience
Posted on: 20 February 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts
In our first blog, Prosper’s Research Staff Developers, Dr Catherine Charlwood and Dr Fiona McBride, discuss the findings of our initial focus groups with postdoctoral researchers and Principal Investigators.
‘Career planning’: two words we don’t think we’ve thought seriously about, or really heard, since secondary school. Career planning is a concept that has largely been missing from the postdoc experience, mainly because there’s the assumption that everyone is trying to progress to an academic career – the lectureship, the long-dreamt-of permanent job. However, with the number of academic jobs so small, and the skill-level and knowledge of postdocs so spectacularly high, more needs to be done to open up the UK postdoc community to the wide range of career possibilities available to them, both within and beyond academia.
Prosper is a three-and-a-half year, Research England-funded project focusing specifically on this issue. Built on the principles of co-creation and democratisation of access, Prosper will bring together postdoctoral researchers, Principal Investigators and employers to create new ways of approaching postdoc career development. This approach comes from our understanding that the kind of culture change that postdoctoral career development needs can’t be achieved by working with one group in isolation, but requires continuous co-creation with a range of stakeholders.
Attending to all
While there are many postdoctoral career development initiatives which focus on a particular discipline or set of subject areas, Prosper seeks to support all postdocs – from physicists to philosophers, mechanical engineers to musicologists. In order to meet everyone’s needs, though, we need postdocs and PIs from all disciplinary backgrounds to share their views, trial the content we produce and give us honest feedback – there will be plenty of opportunities for you to share your knowledge, experience and thoughts with us as this iterative project goes along.
Understanding where we are
In January, we held initial focus groups with postdocs and PIs from across all faculties at the University of Liverpool. Researchers from all stages of their careers came together to discuss what best practice looks like for postdoc career development, the challenges they faced and how Prosper could support them.
A clear theme which came out of our postdoc focus groups was the instability that comes with being a postdoc and the implications of this for their wellbeing. Relocating regularly is often an expectation of the academic job market, making it difficult to achieve other kinds of life goals such as starting a family or buying a house. Putting to one side those landmark moments, simply the energy required to ‘start over’ in a new place and making new connections is something often overlooked within the postdoc experience. Participants spoke of the difficulties of uprooting their lives away from family and friends, needing to develop new friendships – one postdoc had moved six times in four years. Constant moving also has a knock-on effect on postdocs’ sense of identity since ‘where am I?’ often informs the answer to ‘who am I?’.
Another consistent theme was a lack of knowledge about what is available to postdocs, both in terms of the opportunities which might exist for them beyond academia, and also the university services which can support them. This lack of knowledge of what is ‘out there’ beyond the academic track can then lead to the fear that their skills won’t match employer requirements, both real and imagined. It’s been hard to hear such highly capable people – who can analyse complex data, construct strong arguments, write grant applications, and refashion research for any given audience – doubt their abilities. Something needs to change. As we keep reminding ourselves in the team, “we haven’t set ourselves small challenges!” Then again, it’s only through addressing grand challenges that culture change is possible, something which the HE sector badly needs (highlighted most recently by the Wellcome Trust’s ‘What researchers think about the culture they work in’ report published in January 2020).
Principal Investigators shared postdocs’ concerns over the availability of time and money for specific development activities, but the pressure to deliver a set project to its funder understandably dominates for many PIs. They also shared concerns about their own lack of knowledge about the pathways that could possibly be open to postdocs beyond academia, with many PIs themselves having only worked within universities. Generally speaking, PIs understood that much more was needed by their postdocs in terms of professional development, but there is a lot of uncertainty as to how they, as PIs, can best support this.
What was really heartening was the willingness of PIs to come together to discuss postdoctoral career development, irrespective of their own career stage or discipline. This is evidently an area of interest for PIs, and a key message which came out of the focus groups was the lack of structure available to guide them in managing their postdocs' development. This was in direct contrast to the relatively structured offerings available for PIs when supervising PhD students. PIs also felt there was a lack of support around how to have potentially difficult conversations with postdocs about careers beyond academia, a need which Prosper is particularly keen to meet.
As the focus groups went on, the inherent value in bringing together experts in different disciplines became obvious, allowing PIs themselves to hear about the differences in development opportunities, industry partnerships and societal impact of different faculties and disciplines. The tendency to assume your discipline’s norms translate to all others led to some amazed faces and a greater appreciation for the nuances of the different areas represented.
Similarly, what also became clear through these discussions is that while there are several shared experiences common to all postdocs and PIs, there are also key differences depending on discipline and how this relates to employment prospects; how likely you are to have colleagues or work as part of a team; whether you have teaching or supervisory responsibilities, to name but a few. It’s important to remind ourselves that the term ‘postdoc’ is multitudinous in meaning even within a university context and Prosper must respond to this.
So what’s next? Well, we are continuing to engage with postdocs, PIs and employers at different events and developing project links with the University of Manchester and Lancaster University. We’re also working towards the launch of our prototype online portal available at Liverpool from June 2020. We will need your feedback on the material and content as we create and curate it to make sure that it meets your needs.
Have you found any tool to assess your skills that you liked? Tell us what and why!
What would you want to hear from former postdocs who have already made the move beyond academia? Let us know!
More about Prosper
Based within The Academy at the University of Liverpool, the project has two institutional partners, the University of Manchester and Lancaster University, as well as a wide range of employer stakeholders. These crucial relationships will allow us to reflect on both the diversity of the postdoc experience and the needs of employers, creating a development model that works for all.
Prosper was initially conceived of as part of the answer to the People Strand of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy. Postdocs are highly intelligent, critical thinkers with both the skills and ability to adapt and learn at a rapid pace. They represent a largely untapped resource for employers, who may not even know that professional researchers abound on short-term contracts within universities. A robust and thriving knowledge-based economy requires these two groups – researchers and employers – to speak to each other, and Prosper aims to facilitate those conversations.
Central to all Prosper’s activity is equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) and we are putting the democratisation of access to career development opportunities at the centre of the project. The postdoctoral population is rich in diversity and all postdocs deserve access to career development. Future blog posts will look at EDI in more depth.