Career planning for tomorrow’s faculty

Dr. Paul Dalby, an executive consultant and plant scientist, facilitated a two-day workshop on the KAUST campus for the University's postdoctoral fellows in plant science. Photo by Lukas Synek.

-By Sandra Schmöckel, Magdalena Julkowska, Cristina Andres-Barrao, Boubacar Kountche and Gordon Wellman

Over one-quarter of researchers at KAUST, including faculty members and students, are postdoctoral fellows. Having finished their Ph.D.s, postdocs come to KAUST for additional training as they gain independence as scientists and leaders in their chosen fields. Once at KAUST, they quickly learn that there is more to landing an academic or leadership position than publishing academic papers.

To move to the next level, they need to know how to create a professional identity, manage team dynamics, lead a group, and establish effective time management skills for themselves and others. To help postdocs learn these skills, faculty members in the Plant Science Program in the University's Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division (BESE) sponsored a Research Leadership Development Program for Early-career Researchers in Plant Sciences.

The program was underwritten by Professor Pierre Magistretti, dean of BESE, and two groups, the Postdoc and Researcher Support Program and the Office of Sponsored Research, under the direction of Distinguished Professor Jean M.J. Fréchet, senior vice president for research, innovation and economic development at KAUST.

Facilitated by Dr. Paul Dalby, an executive consultant, plant scientist and former faculty member from Australia, the interactive and intensive two-day workshop attracted 24 early career researchers who learned how to craft successful grant proposals, create self-awareness, build leadership skills, develop career plans and formulate research and teaching statements.

Dr. Paul Dalby, an executive consultant and plant scientist, speaks with a KAUST postdoctoral fellow in plant science during a recent two-day workshop for postdocs on campus. Photo by Lukas Synek.

The workshop covered the important aspects of the transition phase from a researcher to a program leader. In creating their professional identities, the postdocs focused on marketing tools for ambitious scientists, such as effective promotion of self by acknowledging contributions of individual team members and the role of social media in promoting science.

On the second day of the workshop, postdocs took a crash course on project management, validation of program logic, business and project planning and budget development and management. A central part of the workshop was discussing how to attract money from various sources, such as grants, government and industry. Finally, the postdocs drafted their own career strategy plans.

"I was impressed by the self-initiative and drive of this group," remarked Dalby. "The KAUST postdocs were especially enthusiastic and eager to learn how to proceed along their career paths with clear plans and passion."

"This program gave me confidence to move into the next stage of my career as an assistant professor," said Dr. Sandra Schmöckel, a postdoctoral fellow in KAUST Professor Mark Tester's Salt Lab. "I plan to be ready to submit my first grant proposal when I start my new job."

Skills developed during this workshop will be further honed in follow-up events supported by the Postdoc and Researcher Support team and the Office of Sponsored Research. The postdocs will participate in programs to help them prepare a job application for a faculty position, attend an interview with a faculty panel and write a proposal for research funding.

As the engine of research at KAUST, postdocs play a vital role in helping the University achieve its mission to be a top research university that addresses global challenges through scientific and technological education and research. Helping postdocs to prepare for careers in other universities, industries and governments extends the University's reach across the globe and builds lasting connections for the University.

"The postdocs in Plant Science showed great initiative in pushing their faculty mentors to offer this program," said Damien Lightfoot, program lead for Researcher and Postdoctoral Support at KAUST. "We hope that other groups of postdocs will do the same."

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