How to Establish Yourself as an Independent Researcher

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, Centre for Research Staff Development 

This blog post may seem bizarre to those in Arts & Humanities.  What do you mean, establish yourself as an independent researcher?  You’ve always been doing this.  You started your PhD with your own idea and have carried it through, perhaps even with minimal input from a supervisor all the way to senior postdoc.  But for those in other fields the idea of independence comes much further down the line.  While most of what I am about to describe will apply to anyone in the sciences I hope that our A&H cousins will derive at least amusement from this potential career transition and perhaps even some useful insight for themselves.

I was lucky when I arrived for my first day in my new postdoc job.  I had just obtained my PhD and naively flew out to a snow-filled Boston.  My new supervisor came to collect me from the airport (I was his first postdoc, he doesn’t do that anymore) and by the time we reached his car my mouth was so cold I couldn’t speak.  When we arrived as his office he told me there were several projects on offer but he would recommend I select one in particular as it would give me results and future spin-out projects I could use to set up my own research group.  As I thawed from the snow, I also began to lose my naivety about what my future might hold.  I went on to develop that project and more and use it to win myself a University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society.  I wonder how different that might have been had I not had such an enlightened supervisor.

As you make the transition to lecturer or fellowship holder you will be required to demonstrate that you have credible ideas for your future research that will sustain you in the short- (1-2 years), medium- (5 years) and long-term (10 years).  Those ideas need to have come from somewhere and the recruiters or funding body will want to be sure they are from you.  They will also want to be sure that you can develop them without running back to your previous supervisor for input all the time.  That is not to say you should never speak to him or her again, but that you will not fall over if you don’t.

If you’re going to convince anyone that you can do this you will need to have started the process at least a year beforehand.  I said I was lucky in that my postdoc supervisor offered this to me right at the start.  Most will not think to offer it, but are open to a frank conversation about what you might be able to develop and take with you if you initiate that conversation.  Others may not want to let anything go, so if you face this you’ll need to consider how you can convincingly start your independent research with no prior results.  Most grants applications will need information about prior art, so this is an important step.

The next step is to be able to describe what your contribution was to the project.  As you’re working on it, keep note of the decisions you make about the direction of your project.  Think also about where your work might be published and why.  If you can show you have done this in the past, so much the better.  This will help you demonstrate that you are clear about what you are doing and where you are going and increase your credibility in the eyes of a recruitment panel or funding body.

The opposite of all of this is to get carried away with your independence.  This happened to one of my colleagues who was aiming for a position in a research institute.  He was so excited about demonstrating how many ideas he had that he convinced the interviewers he would not be able to carry them all out.  He soon learned his lesson and is now a very successful academic.

Positioning for Career Success as a Researcher and Potential Academic

Guest post by Dr Shelda Debowski 

Research Staff are faced with many challenges as they grapple with establishing themselves as credible researchers and positioning for future career success.  I see many individuals who rely on others to plan their career strategy and direct their efforts.  Although well-intentioned, their perception of what is helpful for career success may not always benefit the research staff that they are trying to help.  This blog, then, offers some tips that have worked for many successful research staff members, ensuring they can ensure they are well positioned for research or academic roles.

  1. Clarify your identity and strengths. Each researcher is unique, bringing particular skills, passions and interests to their role.  The capacity to articulate who you are and where you wish to take your career underpins your future. Being able to confidently talk about your history, goals, achievements and ambitions in a clear and succinct way will greatly assist in bridging current roles and future opportunities.  If you see avenues to go for awards or external recognition: give it a try. At the least, you will have built a more nuanced insight into yourself and your directions.  The capacity to build a narrative that demonstrates your career success and progress is a valuable skill in building your future.
  2. Understand what is important. The major currency in proving your competitiveness is your research track record. Aim to build a profile that shows you can deliver good outcomes, including the capacity to work as a lead or senior author. The capacity to obtain funding – even small amounts – is also another marker that will assist you in your next career step. Also look for chances to illustrate you can work as an independent researcher and research leader.
  3. Explore potential career paths and their requirements. Good career management requires due diligence. Regularly monitor roles that are emerging and test your competitiveness against the criteria. If there are gaps, seek opportunities to gain some experience, so that you can show you are not a complete novice.  The opportunity to build some teaching experience, for example, is a major advantage if an academic position comes up. You might seek chances to teach part of a course, be a guest lecturer, supervise masters, honours or PhD students, or work with lab classes. If you have a chance to teach, make sure you obtain evidence about your effectiveness, so that you can show that you were capable.
  4. Seek good mentors, sponsors and models. Mentors can assist you in mapping your career and ensuring you are well positioned to achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to make contact with people who can guide you and offer good advice and insights. Sponsors can open doors and make connections for you when you are ready to advance to the next stage. You may need to make a connection with them to build your visibility and presence. Models are people who have blazed a similar trail to where you wish to go. Look at their track record and learn from their experiences and choices.
  5. Reflect and evaluate. Your career needs to be managed by you. Monitor your track record and ensure you are performing across the crucial areas that signal you are competitive. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on how you are doing.

In summary, career management is an amalgam of planning and ensuring you can act on opportunities.

Found the suggestions in this post helpful? Attend The Strategic Academic course that Shelda will be delivering at King’s in September 2018. Look out for when this course is open for bookings in our weekly newsletter and website. 

Developing a Positive Relationship with Yourself

Written by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant 

Cast your mind back almost two thousand years and try to put yourself into the mind of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. To put it mildly, he was a busy man. The Empire had reached its greatest extent and was the most peaceful and prosperous it would ever be. He presided over all this without email, telephone or even a reliable postal service or any modern tools of government.

Yet he found time to reflect on his own thoughts about himself, how to approach his work, what success and failure meant to him and how to deal with both. His thoughts on this, The Meditations, is a rich and complex work that bears a great deal of re-reading.

Here are some of his recommendations for busy people trying to plan for their future:

  • Success and failure are transient and should not be taken over seriously
  • What matters is how we approach them and what we can learn from them
  • Kindness, generosity and service to others are the things we should care most about
  • Live in the present – don’t let the future or the past dominate you
  • Peace of mind is worth more than power or wealth

Coming back to the modern world, it’s surprising how much of this wisdom lives on and how the best advice for dealing with the external world is often to reflect on your own thinking and attitudes (and perhaps change them).

Here’s a really useful tool for doing just this in a structured way, helping you to identify and analyse the highs and lows of your professional life and think about the future in the light of what you have learnt. It’s much more likely that plans built on this kind of reflection will be successful and rewarding.

I’ll end with my favourite piece of advice from Marcus Aurelius (one I would l like to live up to more often):

‘Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present’.

The Juggling Life of Research Staff

Written by Thalia Eley, Professor of Developmental Behavioural Genetics, Director of the EDIT lab, King’s College London & wife of Giles, Mum of Justin, Pasco and Theo

There are many wonderful things about life as an academic. You get to spend your time answering interesting questions; the job has huge variety in it and it offers the opportunity for lifelong learning. You get to travel, both on conferences, and many even manage to live overseas for periods of their career. Perhaps most important of all, it offers the opportunity to work with highly intelligent people who are often very passionate about their work and are usually motivated by their interest in the subject. These relationships can last for decades, and are for me, the greatest pleasure of this life.

There are also many difficult things about being an academic, and as is so often the case, the difficulties tend to mirror what is good about the work. Because we are so committed to our work and to our colleagues, many of us get drawn into working very long hours. This issue of work bleeding into parts of the week when many people are not working, can affect our relationships outside of work. Here are a few ideas that I have tried along the way.

Agree a schedule

For most people, it is easier to cope with the hours someone important in your life is working if you are clear about what those are, and give plenty of notice of any changes. What can really help is if you have a very clear line between when your work hours end and when your non-work time begins. I am a great believer in limiting the amount of time you allow yourself to work for. At different life and career stages this will vary, but the critical issue is that you settle on a work schedule that suits you and allows space for those outside of work. Once this is clear, the key thing is then to organize yourself to use that time as usefully as possible.

Accept there will be tough patches

I have long been a believer in the value of time off, and it is very rare that I work outside normal office hours other than for bits of email clearing or writing the occasional blog (which doesn’t really feel like work anyway!). This has been the case for the majority of my career, even before I had children. That said, inevitably there will be times when more hours are needed, and the only thing one can do is to make sure those around us understand that this will be a busy period. During the final year of my PhD my write-up took up much of my week, partly because I wanted to have a decent break before starting my post-doc, so there was a bit of a rush to finish early. I clearly remember one beautiful sunny Sunday my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) being utterly amazed (and a bit offended) that I was choosing to work rather than go on a bike ride with them. Sometimes, for a specific period, this kind of single-minded attention is required to get a task done. It does mean that inevitably others in our lives come second, and as I’ve progressed through my career I’ve recognized the times when such periods are on the horizon.

Preparing for deadlines

Much of academic work is very flexible, and you can work to your own schedule, but there are some tasks where an external deadline is imposed and these can sometimes lead to (hopefully brief) periods of very intense work. I think it really helps with such phases to make sure any key figures in your life understand (a) how important the goal is to you and that (b) it will only be like this until the deadline. I think it can help to plan some time off, or even just a nice meal out or weekend outing straight after the deadline to reconnect with those you’ve inevitably neglected during this period. A couple of times in the run up to a grant deadline I’ve worked repeatedly in the evenings, and basically only seen my husband for a brief chat whilst we eat something. Similarly, when I got my first big grant and my team suddenly expanded I had underestimated the hours I would need to work and thus not arranged sufficient childcare. For around a year I worked 3 evening a week to make up the hours. I have to say that was one of the most exhausting experiences of my life and looking back I wish I had made the decision to get extra childcare earlier, but I was really enjoying my days at home being a mum too… Hard choices.

Involve others in your decisions

One issue I think many of us have to be careful about is not automatically saying yes every time we are asked to do something, and being more strategic in our decision-making. I’ve written a blog about “saying no” before, but in short, if you are asked to do something, it is worth reflecting on whether this adds something you need to your portfolio (as well as inevitably being useful to the person who asked you). If it is more teaching, or an admin role, have you already said yes to enough to meet any formal expectations of you? If it is an invitation to speak at a meeting or another department, have you already done quite a few such talks recently? Or even if you would like to do more of this general type of task, will this particular opportunity allow you the chance to do something a little different from what you’ve done previously, so that it broadens your CV, or is it just more of the same? If the request is for you to do something that requires time out of regular office hours and/or travel, then I really recommend as an automatic response saying you’ll need to consult with your partner/sibling/house-mate/dog-sitter to see if this is convenient. This allows you to get over the initial warm glow of being flattered to have been asked, and to make a more rational decision in the cold light of day that is in keeping with not just your career needs, but the needs of those you share your life with.

Stick to your schedule

So, I noted above the importance to me of working limited hours. Inevitably, this also improves our relationship with those around us, if they know they can rely on us to stop working when we said we would and focus on them. However, for most academics this is only possible if you are really organized about your day, and plan to do tasks at the times that work best for you. I have written before about finding time to write, and also thoroughly recommend a booklet called “The balanced researcher” by Vitae, which you can access here.  In short, it is worth making lists of what tasks you need to do, and starting with the most important when you first begin each day and week. Turn off email alerts and deal with emails in 2 or 3 short bursts in the day, and plan meetings in blocks so that your time is used efficiently.

In the end, if you find you are working far more than standard hours over a long period of time, in a way that is not sustainable then you need to do some careful thinking. Are you working efficiently? If so, are you doing jobs that go well beyond your job remit. Keep in mind if you are at an early career stage, that many senior academics will expect you to say when you have enough on your plate, and until such time as you do that they will continue to give you tasks to do. When you have decided for yourself that there is enough or even too much on your plate, the next step is to talk about this with whoever is your line manager or supervisor. Whilst this requires you to be brave, and can be hard, I have never received anything other than a respectful response when I have told more senior academics that I am unable to take on another task at this time. Sometimes it can help soften the blow if you can offer an alternative solution, perhaps someone else who could do the task, or a delay to the task of a specific amount of time to allow you to complete other more urgent tasks. Either way, take charge of your career, of your life, and make it work for you.

We are so very lucky to be in this profession, but we do need to stop and think at times to make sure that we nurture all our relationships, not just those we form at work.

You may also find my blog on balancing different activities in your life useful.

Fostering Positive Professional Relationships

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

Some of us just seem to know how to build good relationships with others.  Were these people born with this skill or did they learn it?  Of course, it helps to have a genuine interest in other people but where do you start?  In my previous role, I was introduced by one of my colleagues to an idea he had devised about where you start and how you build.  He called this the 5 As.

A number 1, the first step, is Answers. It is easy to ask someone if they will answer your questions.  All you need is questions and the understanding that the person you are talking to will be able to respond so you are not making them uncomfortable.  The questions can give you a sense of purpose when you approach your potential new friend/collaborator/advocate that can dispel any reserve you might have about approaching them.  As you start this conversation, you may find that you’re struggling to connect with them.  If that is the case then unless you really need to build a relationship with them, for example, they are your boss (!), don’t be afraid to move on.  It is likely that you will have some useful answers and there are others in the world who will respond more positively.  If you are getting on well with this person then you’re ready to push a bit harder.

A number 2 is Advice. Asking for advice puts a bit more pressure on the person you’re asking as they are taking more responsibility, but if you made a good start at building rapport with your first A then advice should follow relatively easily.  Again, if you feel by now you have gone as far as you can, cut your losses and move on, but if it is still going well you might be ready for the next stage.

The next A is Assistance. This is asking them to help you with something, for example, share a precious resource with you or read and critique your research paper.  To reach this level you will already have built some trust and respect.  After all, if the resource is precious they would need to feel that it is worth sharing it with you and that they will get something from reading about your research, even if it is the warm rosy glow you get from helping someone.  This level of relationship will have taken time to build and is likely to have come from quite a bit of interaction.

The fourth A is Advocacy. For someone to be your advocate, for example to recommend you to their head of department or fellow research group leader when you are looking for a job, you will need to have built up a fairly solid relationship so we’re talking about knowing that person for several months.  During that time you will have shown them that you are reliable and good at what you do as they will be risking their own reputation by advocating for you.

At the top of the pyramid at number 5 is Alliance. While you will probably have been giving as well as receiving at As 1-4, when you reach the 5th A you will be working together in such a way that both of you are giving equally to each other.  This comes for example when a PhD student has set up their own independent research and still has strong ties with their supervisor that are beyond a shared research programme.  This might manifest itself in recommending good PhD students or postdocs to each other, invitations to be a guest speaker, support in applying for grants or jobs and all manner of other endeavours.

I like this framework as it neatly describes how a relationship builds over time and what you can accomplish.  I use it mainly when talking about networking to demonstrate that just asking questions is a great way to start.  I think though that in any relationship, aiming for an alliance is a great goal to have as mutual respect and support is so empowering to have at any level.  In fact the higher you go in your career the fewer people there will be who will feel comfortable to talk to you because you are so much further advanced than them.  So next time you meet a more senior person in your department you don’t know, just ask a few questions to show your interest.  Who knows, over time you may work your way through the 5 As to Alliance.

My thanks to David Winter of The Careers Group for the 5 As.