Postdoc transitions



Photo by Abby Shovlin at

This week, I have been developing a new resource for new postdoc staff to guide their transition. This includes links to practical information along with a ‘transition guide’ to encourage a smooth and reflective transition to Edinburgh. Here I will go through some of the background literature that helped me structure and design the resource.

Transitioning into postdoc positions are particularly interesting due to the variety of different paths getting here (e.g. traditional academic path or coming from industrial/clinical/teaching positions) and the varied nature of the postdoc positions themselves (independent research vs. PI’s project and different levels of teaching/supervision). These differences mean that postdoc transitions are a personal and unique journey.

This need for individualised transition support has also been highlighted in research investigating student transitions from school/college to an undergraduate degree. For example, as part of the Scottish Higher Education enhancement themes, Abby Shovlin (Academic Transitions Advisor at IAD) developed a 5 element model for student transitions. This workshop was very successful as 96% of the students found it helpful or very helpful.

On top of this individual support, postdoc transitions should focus on ways to allow researchers to grow and succeed in their position. According to Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002), there are three requirements to achieve this:

  1. Competence: feeling able to successfully complete tasks and fulfil goals. This is crucial for people to overcome insecurity, make risks and develop in their career.
  2. Relatedness: feeling connected to others
  3. Autonomy: ‘being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behaviour’

New postdocs in Edinburgh may not feel competent straight away. To increase competence, postdocs need to:

  • Have easy access to practical information (e.g. where things are who can support them)
  • Be aware of workshops, training and support to develop skills
  • Clearly understand the expectations and goals of their PI and the planned timeline/outcomes of their project

To facilitate relatedness, postdocs need to be learn about the people around them and get involved in activities in Edinburgh (e.g. peer support, sport, social events and department seminars). This also involves combatting issues such as overworking and insecurity, as they may prevent staff from engaging in activities.

Gaining autonomy requires researchers to feel as if they are following their own research interests and values (e.g., they are researching something because they want to). This is more difficult for the transition guide to address because postdocs will have already applied for their research position, which usually states the research project. However, taking control of their career will help gain autonomy (e.g. by thinking about what they aim to get out of their postdoc and how they will achieve this)

From this research and feedback from postdoc staff, I have begun to develop a three-step model for postdoc transitions. This aims to be relevant for all new postdocs/ early research staff at the university, but is likely to be particularly useful for people beginning their first postdoc. The steps are:

  1. Learning

This section aims to increase competence and relatedness. By learning about the working environment, project and institution, they will gain awareness of what is expected of them. Also, by reflecting on discrepancies between their prior-expectations and their experiences in the position, they can identify issues that they should find support to resolve and skills they can improve by attending training/workshops.

Learning about their principal investigator and networks in Edinburgh will increase a sense of relatedness.

2. Working

This is based on an element of the undergraduate model: reflecting on your own assumptions and own academic orientation. Reflecting on previous working habits, identifying whether any of these are unhealthy and learning some strategies that could help will allow staff to work sustainability.

Learning about the importance of work-life balance will also increase competence and productivity at work.

3. Developing

The focus of this section is autonomy. Thinking about how they can get the most out of their postdoc and work towards their next position will allow them to gain direction and focus.

By including these three requirements, I hope that this guide will be a succinct and user-friendly way for postdocs to reflect on their experiences and give them the tools to succeed in their postdoc!

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