Becoming an independent researcher in academia is crucial to achieving future success.
When you start your first postdoc, you often find yourself dependent on your supervisor: the one that provides the funding so that you can do their your research. But as you build up your experience, it’s important to start demonstrating your own independence as a researcher. Doing this whilst working for someone else is not an easy task.
It might sound obvious, but “just being a clone of your PhD supervisor may be a bad strategy,” says Jim Usherwood, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow and Reader at the Structure & Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College in London. You might look up to them and admire their work, but in the end funding agencies will look for innovative applications that demonstrate how you will be doing new research.
But, it’s more difficult than it looks to build up independence without treading on a PI’s toes, especially when you’re hired to work on their research. “I do know there are disciplines where the PI needs/demands postdocs to stay in their field of expertise and put all their time in to the PI’s project,” he says. If that field is expanding and going to continue to expand, then this could be an advantage: at some point a new institution would hire a younger/cheaper duplicate of the PI. “But if not, then you may be competing to step into dead-man’s shoes… and there could be generations ahead of and behind you waiting to take that step.”
Usherwood suggests the following should be done early on in an academic postdoctoral career to build up some autonomy:
- Start supervising undergraduate student projects to give you extra time and resources on slightly different projects.
- Find out what other areas of interest the PI might have. They might not currently be working on them but they could be willing to discuss opportunities.
- Don’t be protective about your ideas. “It’s much better to chat about them and find what has been done before; if the occasional idea gets adopted/swiped along the way, have a new one and believe that there will be important people in the field appreciating your input anyway.”
Once you’ve started developing some of these skills during the first postdoc, it’s time to think about where you could find your own funding.
In Holland, the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme offers grant for researchers at various points in their careers. Veni grants are for those who recently obtained their PhD; Vidi grants for those who have several years of research experience behind them after a PhD; and Vici for senior researchers who have “demonstrated an ability to develop their own line of research.” For European postdocs looking for some guaranteed experience in another country, Marie Sklodowska-curie Actions also offers a variety of fellowships for postdocs looking to work abroad, whether within or outside of Europe.
In the USA, a good place to start is the NIH R03 Small Grants Program. This provides funding of up $50,000 per year for two years, and preliminary data isn’t necessary. If looking for a more mentored approach, the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the NIH might be more suitable. This covers funding for five years, where the first two years will have mentored support and the final three will be more independent. A similar grant from the NIH called the Transition Career Development Award, or K22 for short, is divided into two periods and between two places: the first at your institution and the second somewhere else. It’s aim is to facilitate a record of independent research from the investigator that will catapult them into a successful research career.
In Japan, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, or Cashukin for short, had a budget of 301billion Yen in 2014 (equivalent to US$2.5billion), of which 19.5billion went to early career researchers. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has special programmes for european researchers looking to come to China. You can find out more about those programmes here.
There are many other funding programmes around that can help get you started. If you’re stuck on where to look, speak to your PIs to find out as much as you can about getting your own funding. More often than not, a PI wants to help you become independent (not just for your success but also because it means they don’t have to pay for you anymore!).
Non-academic research institutions might offer alternative routes to becoming independent. The Francis Crick Institute in London for example, which is due to open in late 2015, has a new way of helping early career researchers to develop independence. It’s going to be offering 80 12-year appointments to young researchers, with a review at mid-stage. “This is an experiment in funding individual researchers,” Professor Jim Smith said at the Naturejobs Career Expo in London in September 2014. “That review will take account of the fact that these days it takes longer and longer to get a good piece of work done. If you start as a postdoc and say you work on mice. It will take you a year to get the mice imported and up-and-running. It can take you that same year to get your lab established. It can take 3 years to do the experiments that you want to submit. It can take a year to get the paper submitted. It can take a year to get the bloody thing accepted. So by the time you’re there you’re at 6 years. which in many institutions is time you’ll be coming up for tenure. And if you’re not lucky you won’t have the papers you’ll need to be accepted.” therefore, instead of basing their reviews on your publication track record, the Circk will look at your overall profile as a scientist after 6 years. If the review board think you’re doing well, you’ll get another 6 years. After 12 however, it will be time to move on. “There will be turnover at the Crick,” said smith.
As well as finding funding however, it’s important to pick the right lab for you. This is what we’ll exlpore in the next part of the series, so stay with us!
If you haven’t come across the postdoc series before, you can catch up here: