Steps Towards Research Independence (STRI)

30 Principles for Steps Towards Research Independence 

We hosted last week the STRI symposium ‘Steps Towards Research Independence’ for researchers from the Faculties of Science, Medicine, Dentistry and Health. Our ambition in hosting this symposium was to offer a packed day full of ideas, food for thoughts, strategies and shared experiences about the process of transitioning towards research independence. Our speakers included researchers who had just gained their first fellowships to academics who had held several, lecturers who had never had one as well as professors who had achieved great academic success and held senior fellowships. We also had talks from colleagues from Research and Innovation Services about different funding streams or researchers supporting colleagues with the integration of statistical good practice in research proposals and research design. We had over 90 participants who joined us on the day for a morning full of talks and an afternoon busy with 6 workshops on offer covering topics as diverse as leadership skills, demystifying the CV, incorporating ‘Person, Project, Place’ in fellowship applications, as well as very interactive and dynamic sessions with Vox Coaching on shining in job/ fellowship interviews.

Some of our contributors commented that the concept of independence in research is flawed or at least misconstrued, and for some ‘being completely independent is a myth’.

So what do we actually mean by ‘research independence’. What does it mean to be or become independent as a researcher. If we restricted ourselves to the English dictionary defintions, being independent could mean:

  1. Free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority
  2. Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence
  3. Capable of thinking or acting for oneself
  4. Not connected with another or with each other; separate

So how do we interpret these different definitions in the context of research? Well research independence is certainly not about being ‘free from outside control’ or ‘not depending on another for livelihood’ considering that most scientific research requires funding from some sources whether public, private, industrial or charitable. Control does exist in multiple modes whether it is through the REF, the restriction of funding calls to particular areas of research and of course the need to convince others in investing in your research project and in you. Research independence is not either about ‘not being connected’ with others, quite the opposite actually. The only part of the definition that is meaningful in the context of research is the 3rd definition ‘capable of thinking or acting for oneself’, developing your research ideas, new ways of thinking or looking at a particular question. But even this, is actually never done in isolation. So research independence is complex, and may mean many different things. It is subtle, it is about deciphering academic culture, it is about learning to function in a certain environment, it is about understanding what people want.

So STRI was a forum to unpick some of the diverse meanings of research independence, giving tools to early career researchers to navigate the turbulent waters of academic research.

Why bother attempting to transit towards research independence?

A mindset for research independence is a step towards research independence
A mindset for research independence is a step towards research independence

Prof. Mark Geoghegan remarked: “you owe it to your talent”.

I have captured some (not all!) of the recurring themes and suggestions offered by our contributors. I am calling them the 30 P for STRI, for 30 principles for Steps Towards Research Independence, 30 things to think about, ponder on, try to explore in developing your own strategies, in progressing your research careers. They are not rules, they are just basic, common sense principles. Of course, there may be many more than 30, but let’s start with these!

  1. Work in a research environment or on a research topic that inspires you.
  2. Develop your research ideas.
  3. Bounce ideas with your supervisor/ PI/ colleagues/ friends/ anyone
  4. Develop the narrative of your research vision.
  5. Start from what you have, your expertise and add something new/different (new technique, new model); add the parts to develop your research niche.
  6. Become the ‘go-to’ person in your research field.
  7. Start applying for some pots of research funds (eg. SURE scheme) (even if your supervisor has some) and increase your confidence in developing and writing proposals as well as supervising others.
  8. Ask regularly for feedback on your CV from academics on recruitment panels (eg. am I ready to apply for a fellowship? What else do I need to achieve to succeed in lectureship applications?)
  9. Leaders are not born they are made. We are the products of our environment: choose one that can foster your research imagination
  10. Work with people who will support and foster you, and give you a sense that there is no limit to what you can achieve.
  11. Don’t let the jargon used in job description and funding calls (eg. world leading) stop you from applying.
  12. Express your research ideas and skills with conviction in applications
  13. We all fail with some applications…be prepared to fail with some.
  14. Be strategic and meticulous in planning your career.
  15. Ask for help…we all need help sometimes.
  16. Start thinking about the next step as soon as you start.
  17. Map the funding landscape as well as the competition (eg. Who will fund your researcher? Who are you competing against on your project?)
  18. Start writing funding applications a long time before you need the money/a job, before you feel ready for it (developing them is part of the maturation of an application as well as yours).
  19. Start writing the next application before your hear from a submitted one.
  20. Public engagement can teach you to communicate better your research ideas in funding applications
  21. Attend small and big conference to build a strong network
  22. Organise conferences/symposia yourself so people get to know who you are.
  23. Learn complimentary techniques/ methodologies
  24. Become visible in your department by contributing/ taking some responsibilities (eg. seminar series).
  25. Start collaborating at local level (eg. in your own department, across the university)
  26. Have conversations with your supervisor/ PI about how you want to take your research forward and what will remain the focus of the PI- clarity of research goals on both sides helps to maintain effective working relationships
  27. Identify departments/ institution where your research profile/ expertise/ vision fit their research strategy (eg. add something new, consolidate) and build relationships
  28. Discuss becoming a co-investigator with academic colleagues on diverse grant and funding applications, make suggestions and proposals.
  29. Develop a publication strategy (eg. your own research but also write reviews, papers with collaborators, comment pieces, etc.)
  30. Only do it if you ENJOY it…does not mean it is easy, but have pleasure in pushing the boundaries of knowledge

We hope that the symposium will have motivated early career researchers to dare, to want, to desire, to consider, to understand…transition towards research independence a bit better.

Understanding what is expected of you before setting on a path can only help the process. Independent or independence are terms that appears often in job adverts for research positions. Here are two examples:

We are seeking an independent and motivated Postdoctoral Research Fellow to be part of a team working in the group led by Prof X on a project funded by X investigating X. The successful fellow will be a key person in the group, both assisting and leading other researchers as well as directing their own research project.”

 “Applicants must show the potential for research independence and evidence of maturity. A PhD in a relevant subject area is essential. They should demonstrate a promising track record of early achievements appropriate to their research field and career stage, including significant publications (as main author) in their respective field. They may also be able to demonstrate a record of invited presentations at well-established international conferences, and awards of grants and prizes.”

It can be easy to get stuck in dark thoughts about the competiveness, insecurity and the risk of not ‘making it’ in research careers, so we hope that the symposium will have provided researchers with key strategies and positive messages these transitions.

The talks have been filmed and will be put online for University of Sheffield researchers. We have also set a Google group, where you can contribute ideas, resources or ask questions on this topic. Join the discussion, join the group. Steps Towards Research Independence- STRI 2015.

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