Leveraging your postdoc or research role

Postdocs and research staff who progress with most confidence and least heartache tend to have taken a strategic approach to their time at Oxford; spotting what else it offers for personal and professional development beyond the research project for which they were hired and taking opportunities to engage in, and understand, wider worlds of work.

You may be surprised to learn that this is also the case for early career researchers who choose to stay in academia.

The first step here is some honest reflection on why you are doing a postdoc or other research role. Try listing out all the reasons, including financial or other personal ones. Perhaps you fell into it on the invitation of your PI, or because you had not considered alternatives after your PhD?

Then ask yourself whether your expectations have changed during your current post.

Be reassured:

  • Your skills are valued. To take one example, consultancy organisations appreciate researchers’ patience and mental readiness to get into something completely new to them, using a pile of data.
  • It is never too late to change your approach to your current research role. That said, the earlier you do this the better, to avoid ‘postdoc drift’ (carrying on as a postdoc/RA without realising the career implications of doing so).

Being pro-active, organized and realistic are key – as testified by authors of the recent book ‘What Every Postdoc Should Know’, including the head of Imperial’s Postdoc Development Centre.

The Careers Service is here to help you in these areas.

Here are some ideas to get you started, many of them expressed in a recent Nature article by David BoglePro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School and Professor of Chemical Engineering at UCL and chair of the LERU (League of European Research universities) Doctoral Studies Policy Group.

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We cannot emphasise enough how important it is to take charge of your own career development. Colleagues can make suggestions or open doors to opportunities, but you are ultimately responsible for deciding what is best for you.

In keeping with University policy, all postdocs should have an annual Professional Development Review (PDR) with their line manager.  We recommend requesting a PDR with your line manager (or a CDR, see below) within the first six months of your role here, in order to identify your training needs and how best to meet them. If you have not yet had a PDR, ask your PI or the departmental administrator to set a date and for the relevant forms.

We strongly suggest you ensure that the PDR is focused on your career development, rather than just your progress on the project. In some departments, Career Development Reviews (CDR) are offered as a separate conversation with a different form. Others combine the two.

It can be difficult to talk openly with your PI about your career, not least because they are under pressure to deliver what they have promised to the funder. Remember that this comes from a fundamental tension at the heart of our research process and is no-one’s fault. You can stay in charge of your career planning by choosing another senior colleague with whom to have a Career Development Review, or similar conversation, that is separate from your PDR with your line manager.

Some postdocs become so focused on delivering to their PI’s expectations that they forget to look outside the small world of their lab or library. If asked, they may say that their career will progress upon meeting the project’s goals. Yet in their heart of hearts, most know this is an enormous and often wrong assumption. And they are worried about ever being able to develop any independent research.

You can avoid being in this difficult position by claiming the professional development time you are entitled to within your contracted hours as postdocs. Divisional policies differ slightly: currently, research staff within Medical Sciences Division have up to 5 days per year, those in MPLS up to 10 days and no specific limits have been set in Social Sciences or Humanities.

Read our page on Boosting your Employability for suggestions of tailored skills programmes and internships for researchers designed to fill the gaps in researcher training and to broaden your horizons.

Sometimes an honest conversation with your PI is sufficient to decide when you will take this time and what you will do. At other times you may need support from your departmental administrator or a divisional HR manager.

Look into society’s future needs to spot new, fruitful research areas that will make a difference, particularly by engaging with other disciplines. Build skills in strategic thinking, for example by developing systematic research road-maps, and look for opportunities to demonstrate your abilities to think independently about new research that is both feasible within time frames and can have impact.

Many PhD students and postdocs miss opportunities to develop commercial awareness and skills for innovation by forgetting to engage with the financial aspects of generating research. Work with your PI or peers to understand the financial management of your project, get involved in writing grant applications and explore a wide range of funding sources (including crowd-funding and venture capital).

Take every opportunity to learn how to pitch ideas, influence others and negotiate your stance. You can do this by watching more experienced postdocs, or your PI.

Getting to know people and being known by others are vital to progression, whatever your career direction.

If working in academia or a research-oriented institution is on your radar, find out which networking platforms are used by established and influential researchers and decision-makers in your particular field. Research Gate and Academia.Edu are popular, and some communities are very active on Twitter.

We recommend that everyone joins LinkedIn. Before fine-tuning your profile on this and other relevant platforms, look at how others a step or two ahead of you have written theirs. Then take stock of what you have to offer, think about who you are trying to reach through your presence on this platform, and choose your language accordingly.

For further tips see our networking resources.

Professional registration with the Science Council is open to all practising scientists, regardless of discipline. It provides independent recognition of your competence, ability, integrity and what you do to serve the public interest.

Applying for professional registration supports and encourages you to reflect on what you have achieved in your career so far. This process will build your confidence as a practising scientist. Once registered, you are committed to keeping your skills and knowledge up to date through continuing professional development (CPD). Joining this community of scientists also offers plenty of scope for networking.

Explore the benefits and how to register from the Science Council website.

The Science Council is only one of a range of professional societies, which include:

  • The Biochemical Society
  • Institute of Physics
  • Royal Society of Biology
  • Royal Society of Chemistry
  • British Sociological Association
  • Royal Statistical Society
  • British Psychological Society
  • British Philosophical Association
  • Royal Historical Society

and many more. There will be an association or society for your field.

These organisations are a great place to start networking and to extend your understanding of the wider debates and concerns shared by researchers across your discipline area. Most are very keen to support early career researchers, and some have special ECR discounts, events, schemes or funding pots.

Two Oxford postdocs share their experiences of benefiting from professional society membership in a blogpost on the Oxbridge Early Career Researcher blog.

Postdocs typically have a broad and finely-honed skillset that includes project management, teamwork and facilitation skills. Yet, in the words of one, “we carry it round like a big sack, without looking closely at what’s inside or considering its value”.

A number of factors play into this scenario; a prevailing notion within university communities that the attributes needed for (academic) career progression are so obvious that they don’t need articulating, a focused dedication to the current research project that puts everything else on the back-burner, plus, perhaps, personal uncertainties about “whether I have what it takes”. For the latter, see our page on Responding to Change or Setbacks.

Audit your skills

Use Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework (RDF) to see the spectrum of skills developed during a PhD or postdoc that are above and beyond your subject-related intellectual abilities.

If your sights are on academia, download the full RDF to benchmark your skill levels against those expected for the next stage of progression.

The ‘Career Weaver‘ web-based app developed by the Careers Service is another good tool for identifying not only your skillset but also the values and motivations that shape your working life.

Whatever your intended direction, use a broad skills list to review, and perhaps cluster, your skills. This is best done instinctively, so set yourself a time limit to ring those you use or have demonstrated. And remember that you, and others in academia, may not be in the habit of identifying certain skills – treat this as an opportunity to name your skills in a new way.

We are often too modest or simply do not recognise the skills we possess. Ask a colleague here at Oxford, or in a recent role elsewhere, to list your competencies – both technical and ‘soft’ – with examples of where you have demonstrated these. You can then combine these lists in order to review how you match the criteria listed on job vacancies more accurately, and build an evidence base for future applications.

Communicate your skills effectively

Employers will only be able to understand what you have to offer if you break down what you do in your day-to-day research into specific activities, and use words that are familiar to them.

See our guidance on Writing Applications for examples.

Try writing a skills-based CV as an exercise in identifying the full range of your transferable skills and choosing appropriate language to describe them.

Identify the fit with roles outside academia

Project management, drive and problem-solving are just some of the skills researchers bring that are highly attractive to recruiters across sectors.

For more on how employers see a doctorate, or postdoc experience, browse our pages on Boosting your Employability.

You will be better positioned to know what a potential employer wants to see in your application if you have understood what ‘research’, ‘analysis’ or any other function means in that organisation,  as well as the pace of work and their definitions of success. Talking to people is the best strategy. Ask about typical time-lines for projects, how many are run at the same time, what the benchmarks for quality are and how the organisation uses the results.

Dip your toes in to try things out

Once you have identified a field of work or organisation that attracts you, look for ways to gain some ‘in-house’ experience. Visiting, work-shadowing, assisting with a project on a voluntary basis or offering your time as a consultant are all excellent ways to test the fit of a new environment and working culture.

Postdocs are usually very busy people, and you may be wondering how you might find time to do some of this testing. The good news is that there are things you can be doing now that will both boost your skills and give you insights into different spheres of work. This blog post by an Oxford researcher is a great example of profiting from an opportunity to enter a different world of work with a limited demand on your time; Oxford Hub have a range of projects which offer ways to experience work setting beyond academia and gain critical professional skills.

As you spend time in a different work setting, you can expect to feel discomfort because you are living within, and in some respects between, this newer world and that of academia – which you are more familiar with. We can reassure you that this discomfort is quite normal and will ease as you become more comfortable with a slightly different professional identity. The Harvard Business Review article ‘How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career’ by Herminia Ibarra can be a quick but insightful read if you’re trying to make sense of the process of adaptation to a different work environment.

Looking beyond academia, few jobs specify a postdoc as an entry requirement. Most employers draw from a broad field of graduates and some may not know what a postdoc or RA role involves. The only way they can see research employment as an asset is if candidates break down what it is they have achieved and can bring to the organisation.

You may feel that applying for such roles gives you little scope to reap the returns on your investment in a doctorate and postdoc experience. But this is more a matter of timing. Once you’ve joined an organisation, progression can be rapid because promotion is based on performance. Employers tell us that postdocs typically achieve targets more quickly than others because they are more mature and have prior work experience.

Doing a PhD can be enormously rewarding. It is also a large investment of time, energy and (probably) money. For most career paths the opportunity costs of the years spent doing a PhD are greater than the returns on salary or competitive edge in recruitment. That said, there may be other good reasons why you want to do a PhD. It is important to set these out clearly for yourself and understand what you are signing up for. Too many people drift into it then become anxious about their job prospects.

To find out what is involved see the further study section of our website and our pages on careers in academia and higher education. If you like research and the University environment, investigate roles in supportcommunication and knowledge exchange here at Oxford, then explore parallel roles at other institutions.

If you are considering non-academic options, the sectors where a PhD may be required or highly favoured are research in industry, government, international development and think tanks.

To help you make a decision, come along to an Insights into Academia seminar or one of our regular ‘To PhD or not to PhD?’ workshops.  The researcher development organisation Vitae (www.vitae.ac.uk)’s website has a section called ‘Are you thinking of doing a doctorate?‘ that also contains useful advice, links and information.

The availability of funding is one of several things that you will need to take into account when considering whether to pursue a PhD. The central university has a list of scholarships available to graduate students which are managed by the University’s Student Fees and Funding team; have a look at the list to see whether you might be eligible for any of these funding schemes.

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