What is a postdoc? part 2

Posted on: 13 May 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts

What is a postdoc?

Following part 1, in this piece we take a closer look at the skills, personality traits and outlook of postdocs.

TL:DR Postdoc = Staff/employee. Postdocs are driven, self-motivated, able organise their time and prioritise, used to adapting in response to changed circumstances, willing to try new ideas and learn new methods, and are able to manage other people.

As in part one of this blog, we are referring to generalisations – things that are typically correct in the UK academic setting. We know there are exceptions to these rules but have tried to keep things as clear and concise as possible. We are also trying to draw out the similarities that are common across the majority (if not all) postdocs, regardless of research discipline.

In part one we discussed how a postdoc position is a distinct role, an employee and not a student, but also not a fully-fledged academic. Now, we consider what a postdoc is in terms of skills, personality traits and outlook.

The day-to-day specifics of a postdoc’s role and specialist expertise in a research project differ not just across disciplines but even within disciplines and between different teams of researchers. Academia is inhomogeneous in the extreme. However, in this blog post we will try to focus our attention on the similarities that do exist and are common across all postdocs.

Lovers of learning

What motivates a postdoc? Very often, it’s a desire to know more. These are all people who’ve undertaken specialised study, over many years, in pursuit of the answer(s) to specific questions. They are curious by nature, and apply that curiosity to venture into new, unexplored territory. Sometimes a postdoc position requires you to step outside of your particular PhD specialism, or to work within a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary team. (We love this explanation, including diagrams, of the difference between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary from Sean Newman Maroni). Thus, postdocs are versatile and used to adapting their knowledge and/or their methodologies to new areas of research. In addition, postdocs demonstrate courage and creativity, being willing and eager to develop previously unknown solutions and new and innovative ways of approaching problems.

Postdocs can identify when something isn’t working and when to call it a day. In addition to adapting and responding to research challenges positively, postdocs are patient and accept that adaptation is an iterative process. Typically, whatever postdocs are working on, be it a specific project or assisting the development of postgraduate students, a quick, one-off intervention, like waving a magic wand, is not realistic. Instead, persistent and imaginative suggestions and solutions have to be created, tried, assessed for usefulness and refashioned before starting the process anew. To put it bluntly, postdocs learn from everything: the good, the bad, and the really rather challenging. That knowledge and experience feeds into the next publication, experiment, or role.

Rarely does a position come up which matches a postdoc’s PhD topic exactly. In interviewing for a postdoc role, applicants have likely had to think carefully about the scope and aims of the research project (pre-determined by the PI and/or the funder) and then propose how their research experience and aspirations fits within that remit. Already, then, postdocs are researchers who can contextualise their expertise within a broader framework and make a strong case for the value they bring. In addition to tailoring their pre-existing knowledge and skills to a new role, a postdoc position provides an opportunity to enhance their knowledge, often increasing its breadth and adding new skills too.

Highly skilled and highly adaptable

Each postdoctoral position inevitably leads to postdocs developing new skills, which differ depending on the nature of the project. This is part of what makes postdocs so valuable – the often short-term nature of these positions mean that postdocs are continually adding to their experience and skill set. If we consider our own backgrounds, then…

Catherine Charlwood, interdisciplinary science and literature scholar: working on a large European Research Council-funded project looking at the intersections between literary, scientific and medical culture, I of course improved my academic writing skills (responses to peer review!) and my publication record, but there were lots of unexpected, broader gains. I found myself organising the various researchers and volunteers involved in a large-scale public humanities event (2,500+ visitors!); I learned how to edit audio files in order to create podcast episodes; I learned advanced Excel skills so that I could evaluate data and report on the impact of specific outreach events we’d put on as a project. Being a postdoc also parachuted me into a network of stakeholders (HE administrators, museum staff, health and safety officers) and having to manage our collaborations with them. I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten, but the point is that I hadn’t done any of this as part of my literature PhD.

Fiona McBride, surface scientist in chemistry: I took my first postdoc position to broaden my technical skill set. I’m a surface scientist (a niche area of chemistry), and this postdoc position allowed me to learn a number of technical skills that were new to me (I won’t list them here, it’s a smorgasbord of three letter abbreviations!). The group was much larger than I was used to and I was the only postdoc, so I learned how to manage a greater number of students, in addition to the responsibilities and practical aspects that come with managing a number of laboratory spaces. I had to rapidly get up to speed with all of the ongoing research projects (the majority of which were not in surface science), identify my role in those projects and find ways I could expand the research. I was also able to contribute to grant writing – this was the first experience I’d had of preparing text for a funding application.
My second postdoc position again broadened my technical skill set but I also gained a number of transferrable skills. I learned how to write a tender in order to purchase large pieces of equipment (large capital outlay) and how to manage projects in a more formal way as a number of projects I worked on had industrial partners: how to run a meeting and write meeting minutes; how to write interim and final reports; how to analyse, present and explain data/results appropriately to industry; and how to understand the different pressures of research in an industrial setting versus a university. I learned how to work effectively in a number of collaborative projects, both with industrial partners and with other university partners. Again, my ‘soft’ skills were built upon, informally mentoring PhD and masters students, teaching them specific lab skills, and assisting them with writing. This included a huge amount of proof-reading! I juggled all of the things whilst trying to pursue my own research and get papers written up.

Through our personal experiences despite our different disciplinary backgrounds, what’s evident is there are a number of shared skills and experiences we gained during our postdoc positions. In addition to these skills we, as all postdocs do, gained and practised the ability to both give and receive constructive criticism. It’s the basis for rigorous research (through the peer review process), transparency and accountability. Postdocs are able to adapt in response to this type of feedback but also to external pressures (i.e. changing priorities due to external factors such as funding or time limitations). If the research takes an unexpected turn or a publication ‘scoops’ the work, then regrouping, adapting and changing tack are all second nature to postdocs.

However, it’s only with hindsight – and perhaps detachment from the immediacy of the postdoc position – that we are able to reflect on the skills we developed. Since postdocs tend to be surrounded by other academics, it’s all too easy for them to ignore the skills they do have as obvious: who cares that you can analyse results, interpret findings or present your research to an assembled crowd of experts who will pose searching questions? Everyone can do that! But this isn’t the reality. We spoke to Dr Edward Latter, a former postdoc now working in the civil service, and he highlighted this precise issue: “[pay] attention to the skills that you take for granted, as actually they're really, really, valuable skills. And it can be quite difficult to see those skills because everyone around you has them as well. Whereas if you move into an environment where not everyone has that background, actually these skills are really, really, valuable”.

So we know that postdocs are more skilled, experienced and confident than both graduates and even PhD graduates. Postdocs have expertise in their specific area of research, but they have gone beyond this and have developed a breadth of additional skills. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) based in America has created an overview of what they think are core competencies common to all postdocs. They break them down into 6 broad sections: discipline-specific knowledge; research skills development; communication skills; professionalism; leadership and management skills; and responsible conduct of research. As a postdoc you get to experience and develop in all of these areas (to some extent) and go far above and beyond what you could do as a PhD student. As an employee, rather than a student, postdocs consolidate their research practise and gain more independence and responsibility, often allowing them leadership experience.

Reflection and reframing skills

Postdocs are able to assimilate and re-process information for different audiences rapidly, identify research gaps or niches and exploit these. These skills are so valuable to other sectors! But they often come under other terms: in industry the process of being up to date on the literature within your field (and of what’s coming) can be called ‘horizon scanning’, while the research niche is ‘freedom to operate’. In an academic setting this may mean not stepping on another academic’s toes or infringing onto their research area, but in the commercial sector it’s about not infringing copyright or patent (which has financial and possibly legal implications!).

Beyond the Professoriate (an American public benefit corporation dedicated to the career development of those holding a PhD) has created a list of ten transferable skills they’ve identified which employers want. These may be focussed at PhD graduates but give an idea of how skills learned and honed in academia can be reframed for sectors beyond it.

Prosper seeks to address postdocs’ self-awareness regarding their skills and how they can effectively communicate these attributes to enable them to secure employment in a sector they desire to work in. Postdocs have already mastered the art of communication and the appropriate terminology in their chosen field, they now need to turn their focus to the same learning curve in their desired employment sector.

As part of Prosper’s on-going practice of co-creation, we are working with employer partners to create resources that reflect their skills needs, as well as how they foresee these developing over time. What would you particularly like to know from employers? Let us know! Get in touch with the Prosper team at prosper.postdoc@liverpool.ac.uk or find us on Twitter