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.