4 Steps to Independence as a Postdocs

Becoming an independent researcher is the essential step on your path to an academic research career, but how do you get there from a postdoc position? How do you develop independence while working for someone else?

 The good news is that your path to independence has quite a few facets to it, several of which have little to do with money and which will see you develop skills that will be valuable to all aspects of your career.   

 The following 4 steps to independence are not necessarily in order and can be taken in parallel – but all elements need to be in place for you to make a smooth transition to independence.

1. Create your own research niche

Do you have the same interests and skill set as your supervisor? If the answer is yes, it may be time to think about a move!  Changing groups allows you to learn new skills and develop your own expertise so you can create your own niche.

The move does not have to be permanent, although starting afresh in a new location often helps with developing independence. If you decide not to move you can still organise an external collaboration that teaches you new skills and may allow you to publish without your supervisor’s involvement, which is a very big step towards independence.

2. Develop an independent persona

Do people know you outside your group? Do you get involved in your wider department, university affairs or an association in your research field?

Your instinct (and potentially your supervisor’s advice) may be to keep your head down and concentrate on publishing papers, and not ‘waste’ your time outside research.

However, becoming independently known is essential for developing your networks, your own confidence and the way people perceive you. Not surprisingly, many postdocs have found that social media have really helped develop their profile. If you prefer offline methods, start talking to people around you about how you can get involved in committees, initiatives and other networks outside your research group.

3. Develop the skills for independent research

Being a successful independent researcher demands a host of different skills. For example:

  • developing and managing a research program that runs on time and produces results;
  • designing projects for students and supervising them in a way that gives them the best chance to succeed;
  • employing the right people, and leading and managing a happy, productive group; and
  • managing all the administration and compliance that comes with your research, especially in the sciences.

Don’t wait to develop these skills until you have your own group and funding. I know plenty of researchers (me included) who have wasted valuable time getting up to speed with these skills in their early days of being independent researchers.

So how do you gain these skills as a postdoc? Some steps you can take include:

  • ask your supervisor and mentors whether you can be involved in selection panels and interviews for new staff, postdocs or students;
  • talk to senior researchers about how they design and manage research programs and ask how you can get more involved in these activities;
  • get involved in student supervision, from the project design stage to final output. If there is training in supervision at your institution, go early rather than wait until you have your own students; and
  • make sure you explore and become familiar with the administrative tasks and requirements inherent in your type of research.

4. Get on the funding train

I get asked often whether it is worth spending the time applying for little pots of money. The answer is, “absolutely”! – especially if it is the first pot of money you win within your postdoc position! Funding – any funding – in your own name starts you off towards independence.

Winning funding is a skill you can learn, and starting small is a good way to begin. Also, a small pot of money is a great bargaining chip for asking for additional funding from your Head of school or institute, for example.

Create your niche; establish your own persona; develop the necessary skills; and secure some of your own funding however little. In a nutshell – these are the moves I recommend every time as the 4 most important steps to independence.

A recent #ECRchat that I hosted on the topic ‘Gaining Independence’ has more great ideas and experiences from current and past ECRs about how to get on the road to independence. Have a look at the summary blog or read the full conversation in this Storify.

What do you think – have I captured the most important steps of have I missed some? What are your experiences with gaining independence? Please leave your comments below.

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