The Case for Offline Postdoctoral Mentoring


Most attempts to define the concept of mentoring come to a broad consensus that involves the transfer of “knowledge, social capital, psycho-social support […] between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the mentee, or protégé)”.  Thus in the context of postdocs and UK Higher Education (HE), more experienced academics would transfer the knowledge of conducting academic research in the UK (e.g. how to apply for funding, how to manage people), to postdoctoral researchers, who are establishing themselves in their respective disciplines.  The social capital referred to in this definition could be experiential knowledge from working in a particular field or academic unit within a university, or the introduction to a particular network of researchers.  Finally, psycho-social support usually comes via an empathetic listening and experiential or anecdotal information communicated by the mentor as an example of how certain issues like confidence, and work-life balance, for example, can be dealt with as one progresses from early-career researcher to a research leader in HE.

In the UK, the progression from postgraduate to Professor is one experienced by relatively few who qualify as PhDs. Synthesising data from a number of national research bodies and organisations from 2003-2009, The Royal Society posited that approximately 30% of science PhDs proceed on to some form of postdoctoral and early-career researcher training.  Only about 12% of those advance to permanent academic staff (lecturer, senior lecturer, reader), and only about 13% of those advance to professorial posts.  In other words, for every 1000 PhDs qualified in the UK, only five will go on to hold higher level faculty positions.  Putting that in terms of QMUL’s postdoc population, of the current 450(ish…) science postdocs, only 54 are likely to advance to a permanent academic post, while only seven will make it as far as a professorial post.

Source: The Royal Society, 2010.

Source: The Royal Society, 2010.

If we only look at the progression for female academics, the numbers describe what is referred to as the “leaky” pipeline.  Thirty-five percent (35%) of science-PhD graduates are women, however this number lowers about 25% at the lecturer/reader stage and lowers again to 11% by the professorial stage (The Royal Society, 2010).  So of those seven QMUL postdocs who will go on to professorial posts, only one would be a woman.

One obvious limitation is the number of open posts available at any one time, thus, a relatively large number of postdoctoral and ECRs will be competing for a relatively limited number of permanent academic posts, leading to a great surplus of researchers who will pursue other avenues. A number of these researchers, particularly male research staff, are also making proactive choices to leave HE, transferring their skills to other sectors.  This is what compelled a recommendation that more (supported) postdoctoral fellowships be made available to attempt to curb the ‘brain-drain’ from the academic sector as well as more transferable skills-based training for researchers. These sentiments haven’t changed much from the Roberts’ Report (2002), which highlighted these systemic issues in UK HE, and reported a lack of employability support and transferable skills training for early-career researchers.

A practical attempt to incentivise more postdoctoral researchers into academic futures came from the UK research councils (RCUK; soon to be UKRI); insisting in 2014 funding rounds, that fellows be offered clearer and achievable avenues into entry-level academic positions following the term of the fellowship. Since their 2015 calls, RCUK postdoctoral fellowships were re-branded as ‘leadership fellowships’; requiring that applicants give significant consideration to their development plans as future research leaders.  A trend that has spread to many other funding schemes, and not just those aimed at postdocs, research funders are prioritising the researcher’s development plan, meaning that in addition to a good research plan, researchers often need to consider how they will use the funding window to get themselves to the next stage in their career.

Postdoctoral researchers will usually have a research supervisor (line manager) whose responsibilities will include their career development.  At QMUL, these responsibilities are framed around our appraisal scheme, and less formal avenues.  In most cases, this relationship forms the primary source of career support for burgeoning academic researchers. However, as this relationship is ultimately tied to the progress of a research project (and perhaps funding for that very position), the developmental advice given may not be completely impartial.

This isn’t to say that one cannot gain tremendously from a strong relationship with one’s postdoctoral research supervisor, however having a second channel of open, impartial and confidential offline support to discuss issues that may arise with one’s line manager, for example, is an invaluable supplementary resource.  Scheduled mentor sessions give developing researchers and mentors themselves the opportunity for self-reflection.  The added value of a different academic’s counsel on development within the wider discussion of career aspirations provides the postdoc with a greater breadth of first-hand experience to inform future decisions.  Moreover, if one were to subscribe to the mentor-protégé model more popular in the US, then a second mentor could bring about the exposure to potentially different networks, opening avenues of future discourse and potential collaboration for both postdocs and mentors.

Mentoring can be instrumental in conveying explicit career knowledge (e.g. research-output expectations or forming research networks) while enhancing implicit knowledge about the less-obvious but still vital aspects of academic professionalism, ethics and values. In many cases, mentors also provide emotional support and encouragement. Many postdocs, whether fellows or contract researchers are often hired for a specific project that defines their focus, as it will likely be the source of any much needed research outputs.  However there are other domains of skills that come from interactions with more senior academics. A researcher needs to do to build and maintain collaborative relationships; understand their funding landscape; consider research impact; understand how to navigate institutional politics and gender bias; to name only four examples of the sort of knowledge a mentor could help impart to a developing researcher. Also, when mentored postdocs were asked about their experiences, they generally perceived that time spent with a mentor had been beneficial to their career progression, as they felt more supported in making critical decisions.

The benefit also extends to the mentors.  Mentors report an increase in productivity, career satisfaction, and personal gratification. Building a strong mentor-mentee relationship facilitates reflection time for the mentor themselves providing them with increased self- awareness and a longer-term vision of how mentoring influenced their personal, cognitive, and professional growth.

So, with my soap-box away, I turn your attention to the three approaches to postdoc mentoring being trailed at QMUL from 2017.


About ruipiresmartins

I'm a researcher developer for postdocs and research staff at Queen Mary University of London. Prior to that, I was an EMBO Fellow at the Gurdon Institute (University of Cambridge), studying Embryonic development and a PDRA in the Institute of Bioengineering (QMUL) studying nuclear and chromatin architecture in embryonic stem cells.
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