Written by Prof Sue Brain, Professor of Pharmacology, School of Cardiovascular Medicine & Sciences
King’s employs many postdoctoral staff on a range of defined-term contracts. Whilst these workers will be already an expert in their own area of research or education; they will be at a relatively early stage of their career. Most will have ambition to progress to a greater independence and to become established within their specialist area. The success of this ambition will involve, to a greater extent developing a suitable c.v. for applying for the opportunities that are likely to occur. The priority should always be to work within the specialist area that their senior academic has employed them for, to obtain high impact publications or contributions that are recognised within the sector. This may relate to research, discovery, innovation, business, education, communications or a related academic field. However, one of the aims of the postdoctoral staff member is to develop their c.v. so that their potential is obvious. Sometimes this can be achieved purely via their work with their supervisor; especially if the work involves working in a high impact field where there is an unmet need for the acquired skills. Usually though postdoctoral staff will benefit from adding to their c.v. via related activities. This may be in terms of teaching and providing some evidence of having learnt how to enhance education, if they want to be an academic. This may involve outreach or seeking out and agreeing to invitations to speak and contribute at meetings, if communication skills involving a wider audience may be important for future career choices. Future employers may also want to see evidence of being able to take responsibility for an area of work. This evidence may come from roles carried out externally to the university (possibly a management role within a part-time or temporary work position) or via involvement with many of the committees and working groups within the university. The latter can be very important in enhancing visibility within your School, Department or even via the university.
One major question is ‘how does a postdoctoral staff member manage to do this whilst working on their postdoctoral project’? The most important aspect is to ensure that the choice of any additional commitments is targeted, strategic and relevant to aspirations for future career possibilities. It is not possible to take every opportunity, thus it is important to make the opportunities work for the postdoctoral worker. Also, decisions may have to be made where an activity is curtailed when it is not clear how continuing it will enhance career aspirations. These can be difficult choices to make and involve saying ‘no’ to senior staff who may have previously depended on you. How does one get the balance right? An important factor is to ensure these choices are fully discussed and agreed with your supervisor/line manager. The needs of your immediate academic supervisor and group need to be taken into account. All postdoctoral workers will already have some academic responsibilities alongside their employment role in making their research group work. Opportunities such as getting involved in writing grant applications and writing review chapters that are related to the postdoctoral research can be invaluable and sometimes step changing in terms of the career of an individual postdoc. Attendance and visibility at meetings is also important. However, it has to be remembered that meetings are associated with travel and time away from work, so these too have to be chosen in a strategic manner.
The discussions could take place at your annual professional development review (PDR), but are also appropriate to discuss during any of your meetings with your immediate supervisor. Most supervisors have a background that is similar enough to that of their postdoctoral staff to be a source of good advice; whilst ensuring the career remains ongoing in a positive manner. However, there are a range of schemes available within and outside of King’s where by postdoctoral staff can obtain mentors. Mentors will also be ideal sounding boards for discussions on how to enhance visibility of early career postdoctoral staff whilst building the c.v.
To conclude postdoctoral staff should always have a priority to enhance the research work to which they are attached first. However, they should also work strategically to take opportunities to enhance their profile, relevant to the careers that they hope to enter.