One of your most important responsibilities as a research leader is supporting the career development of your team.  Although funders will expect you to show compelling plans for how you mentor and support early career researchers, in any case it should be a priority for a research leader as your role is to enable the success of others.

Here, we review the formal expectations on you as the supervisor or manager of an early career researcher when it comes to supporting their professional and career development, before looking in more detail at skills training, professional development, and careers advice.  


Establishing expectations 

Know what is expected of you 

  • Imperial’s Concordat action plan to implement the Researcher Development Concordat (2019) reaffirms the College’s expectation that PIs will ‘create opportunities to nurture the careers of ECRs’, which includes helping them to make best use of their 10 development days and ensuring that PRDP processes are implemented consistently.
  • Similarly, the College’s supervisor guidance stipulates that supervisors should ‘discuss professional development opportunities with students and advise on their attendance to Graduate School Professional Skills Courses’ and ‘be aware of students’ career-related needs and help them achieve their potential’ (see also: the College’s Cornerstone) materials to support successful student/supervisor partnerships.
  • In other words, your role is to actively encourage researchers to reflect on their development needs and career aspirations; to guide and support them in identifying opportunities; and to allow them time to pursue those opportunities. Perhaps most valuable is role-modelling to early career colleagues the importance of professional development by regularly raising the topic in your conversations. If ECRs hear you talking about it, they will feel more confident to tell you what they are needing and wanting (see below).   

Set clear expectations with your researchers 

  • In addition to setting expectations for your partnership and the scientific work that the researcher is undertaking, it’s important to clarify what you expect in terms of how they approach their own professional and career development.
  • The Concordat says that researchers must ‘take ownership of their career, identifying opportunities to work towards career goals, including engaging in a minimum of 10 days professional development pro rata per year’. You might want to explicitly raise this point with researchers you manage and particularly with PhD students you supervise, so that they are aware that you expect them to be proactive in identifying opportunities and bringing them to you to discuss. 

Skills training

Today, for tomorrow  

  • There will always be situations when a researcher needs to acquire new skills, especially technical research skills at the outset of a new project. Sometimes, this need is clear to both parties (‘conscious incompetence’); at other times, the role of a supervisor or manager is to help the researchers identify what they didn’t know they needed to learn (‘unconscious incompetence’).  
  • Key is to help the researcher look beyond their immediate, ‘today’ needs. All skills – even seemingly very niche research skills – are transferable to other projects, roles, or employment sectors. Yet we know that ECRs have very low levels of confidence in their employability, so don’t forget to talk about this transferable, ‘tomorrow’ dimension with them. What else could be done with this skill? Who else uses it? Where is it referenced in job adverts? You don’t necessarily need to have the answers; encourage the researcher to find out and report back.

Training needs analysis

  • There is no universally accepted template for ECRs to conduct a Training Needs Analysis (TNA), but most models are based on a self-audit where researchers are asked to rate their confidence against a list of pre-selected skills, and most require the researcher to put forward evidence to back up their confidence rating.   
  • The Graduate School uses a web-based tool called Inkpath, which has built-in skills audit and planning functionality, derived from the Vitae Researcher Development Framework.
  • In What Every Postdoc Needs to Know (World Scientific, 2017), Liz Elvidge et al. give advice on conducting a personal skills audit and provide a list of the most common transferable skills (pp. 89-98). Postdocs can also use PRDP to review their skills and identify training needs, and you can remind them of the importance of taking time to complete this process carefully.  

Professional development

Development vs. training 

  • Much vexed debate has gone into thrashing out the difference between development and training, most of which ends up as little more than a subjective judgement (e.g. ‘I don’t like the word training’). But here, it can be helpful to distinguish between training courses and development opportunities. The latter are work-based experiences which enable somebody to grow in their role, often drawing on informal (‘social’) learning such as advice and feedback from peers/colleagues. Classic examples of development opportunities for ECRs would be giving a talk at a conference for the first time or gaining new teaching experience.
  • It is not the case that researchers can only use their 10 days on formal training courses; the 10 days can also be devoted to pursuing development opportunities. You should work with your ECRs to explore their needs and aspirations, and identify where you can help them to secure relevant experience. Of course, the best approach is often a complementary mixture of formal training and other development opportunities.  

Breadth and stretch 

  • For an opportunity to be genuinely valuable, it must incorporate an element of both breadth and stretch. Context is key. If a researcher has never delivered a lecture before, then this will be a growth opportunity, especially if you encourage them to reflect on the experience afterwards. But if a researcher has successfully delivered dozens of lectures, it is, arguably, no longer adding any value in terms of new learning or new opportunity.  
  • It is helpful to have this conversation with early career colleagues, who often report that they feel obliged to say yes to every opportunity, on the grounds that more must be better. You can prompt this reflection by asking, ‘Would doing [this opportunity] add a new line to your CV?’ 

Careers advice

Career conversation insecurity 

  • Both ECRs and their supervisors often report insecurity when it comes to discussing careers. This is most acute in the case of careers outside academia: around half of postdocs report that they do not feel able to discuss non-academic careers openly with their PI; and PIs themselves describe a lack of familiarity with such careers and feel that they cannot be expected to be careers advisors. The consequence is that honest career conversations are not always happening. 

What you can do

  • The most important thing you can do as a manager/supervisor is to encourage ECRs to discuss their career aspirations and concerns openly. Emphasise that you are keen to hear about their ideas and plans. Your researchers may not be aware that they can talk about careers with you. Share your own career story with them and don’t assume that ECRs will understand academic career pathways in the UK – in fact, we know that these are often unclear to them.
  • ECRs frequently say that they fear leaving academia will be viewed as a sign of failure, so it is helpful to state explicitly that you do not see it this way. Where possible, highlight former students or colleagues who have moved on to other careers, and if appropriate, you might consider facilitating a conversation between them. 
  • Don’t worry about not having expert knowledge of other career sectors. Imperial researchers can book one-to-one career consultations and access comprehensive careers support via the Careers Service and the PFDC. The PFDC also has a series of ‘Pathways’ tip sheets with information on the most common destinations for researchers leaving academia, how to find jobs, present yourself to non-academic employers, and so on. Cambridge University Careers Service has also produced a series of publicly accessible videos and podcasts to support PhDs and postdocs in their career planning.  


External resources and guidance

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