Prosper, postdocs and COVID-19 recovery – why the time is now


A blog by: Dr James Howard, Director, The Leadership, Organisational, Professional and Academic Development Academy (The Academy);
Lucy Williams, Senior Project Manager, Prosper;
University of Liverpool


Why Prosper?

Prosper is a new approach to career development that unlocks postdocs’ potential to thrive in multiple career pathways. Led by the University of Liverpool and funded by UKRI, our ultimate goal is to open up the huge talent pool that exists within the postdoctoral research community, to the benefit of postdocs themselves, Principal Investigators, employers and the wider UK economy. Although our work had begun before the current global pandemic, it is of particular relevance now more than ever. Unlocking postdocs’ expertise and experience has a vital role to play in how the UK moves successfully into a post COVID-19 world.

The benefits of bringing on board graduates, both under- and post-grads, has long been understood by employers. But this leaves the question – what about postdocs? As a highly skilled and motivated population, the postdoc talent pool has been slow to be accessed by employers and is often totally invisible beyond academia. Similarly, our early work with postdocs has shown that they are often unsure of what is available to them and how they ‘fit’ into other settings, while also sensing a lack of parity of esteem for these roles within the research community compared with the academic career track. This, coupled with well-documented challenges associated with a pursing an academic career, and their amplification due to COVID-19, means that the time is ripe for a new approach to postdoc career development – one that puts postdocs in the spotlight as some of the most talented and able future employees and prepares them for success in variety of careers both within and beyond academia.

We understand that now, more than ever, there’s a need to approach supporting postdocs in a way that hasn’t been done before, to deliver culture change that hasn’t been seen before. Our unique ability to achieve this lies in Prosper’s 3 pillars: co-creation with employers, democratisation of access and recognition of the pivotal role of Principal Investigators in postdoc career development.

Working directly with employers, we are providing real-world insight into roles beyond academia and expose postdocs to a broad range of opportunities. This goes hand in hand with co-creating Prosper with employers to make sure we develop the skills, attributes and mindsets in postdocs that organisations need. This is of even more importance now as employers seek to steer their organisations through unchartered waters.

Delivering culture change is impossible without democratising access. Our society is a diverse one, and the postdoc community is no different in its depth and breadth of members, backgrounds and experiences. Our own research has shown that many postdocs want to engage with development activities but whether because of caring responsibilities, lack of managerial support or other barriers, they’ve felt unable to engage with what’s on offer. Central to how we create Prosper is serious consideration for how we avoid traditional barriers and open up new ways of delivering for postdocs. While the arrival of COVID-19 has brought real challenges for us all, it has also shown us new ways of working and engaging with one another. The lessons we’re learning from this period will go a long way to inform how we ensure multiple access routes to Prosper and its resources.

Finally, we acknowledge the role of Principal Investigators in empowering postdocs to use the development time afforded to them by the Research Concordat to take stock and the right action for their careers, whatever that may be. It’s part of Prosper’s role to collaborate with PIs, working with them to develop the resources they need to bring out the very best in their postdocs. One way we’re doing this is through our recently-launched University of Liverpool PI Network, a pan-institution forum encompassing all disciplinary backgrounds where PIs can share and evolve postdoc career development practice. We’re looking forward to creating similar networks at our partner institutions and beyond as Prosper progresses.


Delivering for the Northern economy

Conceived of and based at the University of Liverpool, with partner institutions of the University of Manchester and Lancaster University, Prosper’s initial work is firmly rooted in the North. Indeed, once rolled out to our partners, N8 institutions will be the next to benefit from the model.

At Prosper’s inception, none of us could have foreseen the current global pandemic and its impact upon the UK and our economy, possibly for years to come. Despite this, our core belief that postdocs have unique value to bring to settings beyond academia holds true. Knowledge sharing between academia and other sectors has led to a cohesive and enhanced response to the pandemic. It’s now our responsibility to build on this. The synergies between our aims and those of the N8 and its Net Zero North (NzN) initiative are clear. As NzN seeks solutions to a green COVID-19 recovery, ensuring the future of Northern jobs in ways that turn the tide on the current climate emergency, Prosper will open up the relatively untapped postdoc talent pool that holds the key to many of our current challenges: the need for green energy production, a technological revolution in the rural economy and high quality employment in the North.

But Prosper’s aims don’t end here. Our new approach to postdoc career development will ultimately be available to all HE institutions and our work runs the gamut of disciplinary backgrounds, from science and engineering to the arts and creative industries.


Early progress and future developments

Prosper’s early progress has been significant. We’ve established relationships with over 130 stakeholders, including a range of employers, as well as research staff developers, postdocs and Principal Investigators across the sector both nationally and internationally. Our early co-creation work has culminated in the launch of the first iteration of our postdoc career development resource portal in June this year. Now available to all University of Liverpool staff, these resources will be curated and expanded before being be opened up to our partner institutions, the University of Manchester and Lancaster University, in 2021, followed by the N8 Research Partnership and the sector as a whole from 2023.

As we look forward to the second phase of Prosper, we are now intensifying our co-creation with employers, creating a series of career clusters that will support more targeted career development interventions. We’ll use these to work with postdocs to explore routes that suit their skills, attributes and values, and equip them to pursue these from the strongest possible base. This work will be piloted with a group of 50 postdocs at the University of Liverpool in early 2021 and learnings from it will inform the evolution of our offering.


More about Prosper

Based in The Academy at The University of Liverpool, Prosper is a new approach to career development that unlocks postdocs’ potential to thrive in multiple career pathways.

For more information, visit our webpages, follow us on Twitter or get in touch with the Prosper team via email.