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.