Do assumptions affect PhD & Postdoc careers?

Research life can encourage a solitary life. PhDs (and Postdocs) do not often have time to reflect on ‘trends’ that may affect them. The consequence is that many of these individuals struggle to understand why university funding and culture is changing. Universities continue to train an ever-increasing number of young researchers, whereas tenured academic jobs decline. Many funding organisations demand grant applications describe “impact”. Horizon 2020 states that….“…impact broadly defines the wider societal, economic or environmental cumulative changes over a longer period of time”.

Towards the post-covid era, Horizon Europe continues much along the same line. However, the exact deliverables to achieve impact are a challenge for grant applicants. Industry states young PhD researchers are needed but demands transferable skills. But what skills? And how does a young researcher gain experience applying such training? Many collaboration or innovation funding tasks fall outside of scientific training and are complex. Likewise, a first job in industry demands a different perspective from academic research. Within the challenges of the pandemic, PhDs and Postdocs are trying to survive — let alone understand what impact criteria funding organisations want. This article outlines how research impact can affects PhDs and postdocs performance.

Reflect on mindset

A key aspect is how university researchers think partnerships or spin-outs. Before marketing any innovation project to industry, it is valuable to meet with academic inventors and spend some time reflecting on mindset. Collaboration can require a PhD or Postdoc to think differently about a range of issues.

Designing a collaboration can involve assessing problems that research will solve with stakeholders, proposing why a specific approach is superior or creating and managing relationships with commercial staff. In addtion to the scientific perspective, an understanding of different perceptions, culture and business communication is needed. It requires researchers to quickly develop an expanded mindset — and it is hard.

An occasional reaction from a PhD student is ‘I can’t — or — shouldn’t have to do that’. This is not a critique of researchers but of humans. Our decision-making, thought-processes and actions can be affect by assumptions. In many situations, people make make limiting assumptions. These are ‘assumed beliefs’ that prevent people from doing what they will need to do. Now, stakeholders could simply push harder and force researchers to move into the unknown. Nancy Kline in “Time to Think” proposes to help people’s thinking by asking a different question. An incisive question — that gets people to think and replaces the limiting assumption with a freeing one.

What kind of perception is needed for research?

Let’s consider an example. A university professor within life science explains current academic funding to her research group. Her aim is to help her team reflect on the nature of current university research. She asks all postdocs in her lab to consider how they could collaborate with industry. However, some respond with limiting assumptions when asked. The postdocs explained why they didnt want to do this:

“I have no experience of working with companies. I dont have the time or experience with industry people. I have experience with specific drug delivery systems – not therapeutics” – “I’m simply too busy to start working with companies” or “I am interested in start-ups – however, I dont think I am the right person. I wouldnt know where to start.”.

The professor offers incisive questions to address these limiting assumptions. Consider the first example. The assumption is that the postdoc did not have the confidence to propose collaborations due to a lack of experience of working with industry. The incisive questions could be:

“If the TTO was to contact a company and request that they help us understand how they work with universities – how would you feel?”

“If we obtained knowledge on how drug delivery companies work, could that expand our perception within the group?”

The second limiting assumption focuses on the postdoc’s time — and possible the importance of the task. The professor offers:

“If you were to learn that our research group would delegate stakeholder interview tasks to all staff and project students, do you feel that we all could obtain sufficient information to work with companies?

“If you were supported, would that help you manage your time?”

The final example highlights that some young researchers may be curious about a career in industry or a first job in a start-up company – but are not sure where to begin. Here, the professor asks:

“If you knew that our colleagues have created a start-up, that I intend to find some training at the University and that you would not face this challenge alone – how would you feel?”

By discussing such assumptions, the professor has asked her team to spend some time working on perception, feelings and values. They do not change their values — but they reflect. Reflection enables them to meet their own success criteria but to have empathy other stakeholders – their research funder, the University or a commercial partner.

Some postdocs will state their primary interest is pure research, but will appreciate the value of collaboration with industry and other applied researchers. Other postdoc staff may wish to build the collaboration experience as a first step to working in industry. Others may get a taste and wish to experience the spin-out world. In each case, the individual is reflecting on their values and cognition.

Addressing cognition is hard. This is not just a challenge for PhDs, but for everyone. In her research on “self awareness”, Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist highlights that one 10%–15% of people truly examine their own decision making or cognition. Moreover, she highlights the value of external self-awareness, where we seek to understand how other people view us. On one hand this can be difficult for a PhD student that works a solitary research life, however it can help to frame our perspective when communicating with companies (or other stakeholders) that we seek to learn how they view us. Introspection is a minor part of the value here. External communication creates value by not focusing on one-way communication, but instead interviewing company staff on what research problems they regard as important and how they prioritise them. Assumptions and cognition may be components with the complex PhD/Postdoc experience — but managing them carefully can help everyone.

Written by Eoin Galligan, Business Development Manager, University of Aarhus

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