This article is more than 1 year old

We need to talk about postdoc career development

The idea that a postdoc is a route to an academic career downplays other career possibilities. Lucy Williams and James Howard have been helping postdocs prosper with tailored advice and support
This article is more than 1 year old

James Howard is the Director of The Academy at the University of Liverpool.

Lucy Williams is the Senior Project Manager on the Prosper Project based in the Academy at the University of Liverpool

The UK has one of the highest per-capita post-doctoral populations globally, attracting some of the most talented researchers from across the world.

Despite this, the postdoc layer risks being overlooked, not least in relation to career development.

There lingers an ingrained perception of a single track to success: securing an academic position. But the ratio of postdocs to full-time positions is acute.

What postdocs do

The Researcher Development Concordat explicitly mandates a minimum of 10 days professional development for researchers pro rata. Yet carving this time aside still leaves open the question of how best to use it, and what resources exist to support it. More can be done, and not doing so amounts to a tremendous missed opportunity – not just for postdocs, but for UK HE and the wider UK economy.

Prosper commenced in 2019 with Research England funding, aiming to create a new model of postdoc development for the UK. As part of our efforts to co-create, test and refine our approach, we’ve run two year-long pilot cohorts. The first involved 53 postdocs from across the University of Liverpool. The second took our approach multi-institutional, involving 75 postdocs from across the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Lancaster.

The model that’s emerged is built around three complementary themes – Reflect, Explore, and Act. Reflect is about enabling postdocs to take stock of their career and situation, to identify their strengths, skills, values and goals. Explore is focused on learning about the pathways and routes to career success open to them in the world beyond academia. Act focuses on the practical attributes needed for success, skills relating to networking, tailoring academic CVs, and de-mystifying recruitment processes.

The resources we’ve developed are geared towards postdocs as postdocs. What’s more they are knitted together holistically, catering to postdocs as rounded individuals and reflecting the reality of their distinct context.

Access for all

A crucial principle underpinning our approach has been the democratisation of access. From the very start we’ve worked to bring a diverse set of voices into our co-creation process, with a particular focus on EDI principles, and those who have historically struggled to be heard. We believe our recruitment process for our pilots was genuinely innovative in this regard – we strove to ensure the makeup of our cohorts statistically reflected the diversity of the UK’s postdoc population, in terms of gender, ethnicity, and field of study. We worked to remove barriers to engagement wherever possible. We’ve aimed to make sure there is something in Prosper for everyone, and to move career development in this space away from the more obvious and over-represented groups (such as the life sciences to pharma pipeline).

Equally important to effectiveness is building a sense of community. Our pilot postdocs had access to group coaching sessions throughout the year, in fixed groups of no more than 11.The world of the postdoc – with its specialisation and small teams – can be a lonely one. The lack of community combined with the competitive aura of academia can make many postdocs feel as if they are the only ones facing the challenges and uncertainties they experience, when quite the opposite is true.

Another distinct element of our approach is employer co-creation. We’ve worked with over 100 employers across a range of sectors to create the resources in our Explore and Act areas. Postdocs can learn first-hand about roles and opportunities where their skills and talent are in high demand. As well as benefiting the postdocs, this helps to put postdoc recruitment further up the agenda of participant organisations.

What works

We completed a comprehensive evaluation of our first pilot cohort last October. While it’s early days (and we will be tracking our pilot postdocs over the long-term), the initial findings are very positive. Our first cohort postdocs showed major improvements in confidence levels relating to various aspects of their career development. They exhibited an increased open-mindedness towards non-academic pathways and a greater awareness of career options beyond academia. We observed a tangible increase in behaviours relating to professional networking, employer engagement, and job applications.

Most tellingly, almost half of the participants in our first cohort were able to use what they had learned to secure new roles – with over 30 per cent making the leap beyond academia to a variety of organisations including the Met Office, the European Commission, the Civil Service, software companies, pharmaceutical companies, and a handful of promising start-ups.

All of this feeds in to the creation of the final Prosper model, which – along with an associated online portal – will be launched nationwide in the summer of 2023. This will draw together the outputs from our two pilot cohorts, alongside our work with employers and Principal Investigators. In addition to resources for postdocs and Principal Investigators, the final model will include materials and guidance for Higher Education institutions, designed to enable organisations to use Prosper in a flexible way, according to their varying needs and internal resources. The contents will be freely available to all.

Transforming the culture of postdoc career development for the better is a big task, and this is just one step in the right direction – but it is a step worth taking.

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