Postdoc Appreciation Week: How do I develop research independence?

Posted in: Academic Career, For PhDs

The second of our posts celebrating Postdoc Appreciation Week.

I can still remember a talk from one of our academic staff a few years ago on his career journey. He described his journey from PhD student to postdoc to lecturer as a journey from doing to thinking to directing. As we saw yesterday, an independent academic research career is one career option among many for postdoctoral researchers. If this is the direction you want to head in, it's vital to use your postdoc positions to start working towards research independence and building an independent profile. This can feel challenging - and even counter-intuitive - when you're working on a project that has been defined by someone else; below are some steps you can take to start evidencing and building research independence:

- develop your research vision. This is one of main things that prospective Heads of Departments will look for in candidates: do you have a clear vision of the research you want to pursue over the next few years, and specific research questions you want to address? Ask yourself: what do I want to be known for as a researcher? What unique contributions do I want to make to my field? At which conferences would I like to be an invited speaker? Can I summarise my research vision on a postcard? (Have a go at doing this if you never have)!
- think about independent researchers you admire - what qualities do they have? What steps did they take along the way? What are some of their key achievements? (And don't forget they will have had some failures and setbacks along the way - as this academic's CV of failures demonstrates. You'll find it helpful to take advice and inspiration both from senior academics and from colleagues who are a step or two ahead where you would like to be. Do make use of the University's mentoring scheme for research staff.
- while you are working on a research project defined by someone else, research managers will expect you to take more day-to-day ownership of the project than you did during your PhD, and to work with minimal supervision. Consider suggesting ways to take the project in new directions and bring your own ideas to it.
- linked to the above, as a postdoc you will be having more of a role in leading, directing and mentoring more junior researchers. Take advantage of the opportunity to co-supervise PhD students and supervise undergraduate and masters projects. Reflect on how you are shaping the direction of projects and guiding and motivating others.
- Develop your own research network. Look for opportunities to collaborate with other researchers and work on sub-projects with them. It's always best to be open about this with your current research manager.
- publish! Think quality as well as quantity, and aim for some publications where you have significant leadership of the research work.
- build your visibility and credibility: engage with conferences and academic networking so that people know about you and your research. It IS possible to do this without coming across as arrogant - be positive about your research achievements and connect with other like-minded researchers. As my predecessor puts it: 'Research independence= not just someone else's postdoc'.
- one of the best ways to demonstrate research independence is through securing your own independent research funding. This can best be achieved through securing a Fellowship, but do also consider applying for smaller pots of research funding to atresearchers tend a conference, run a pilot study or run a public engagement activity. Use Research Professional to search for (international) large and small funding opportunities in your field.
-take on leadership roles within your Department, University and wider research field. This could include, for example, involvement in Athena Swan Committees or representing other postdoctoral researchers on your Department's research committee. If your Department doesn't currently have a Postdoc Society, why not consider setting one up?

Posted in: Academic Career, For PhDs


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