If you are pursuing an academic career path, I am sure someone will have used the phrase “researcher identity” at some point when talking about your progression. If not, it basically means at some point in your journey you need to work out what your ‘unique’ brand of research will be if you want to venture off and start your own research group. When you are doing your PhD this concept can seem a million miles away. You are working on someone else’s project and essentially learning how to be a researcher but as you progress out of PhD life and into the postdoc world, you often find that the seeds of ideas start being sewn. As a mid-late stage postdoc myself, I am now at the stage where I need these ideas to bear fruit as I apply for fellowships. It is time for me to gain my research independence and in my blog this month I want to tell you step-by-step what that means and how you can do it.
This part is pretty self-explanatory. Research independence is being able to go off and work on your own ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean having no senior input; it is common for research fellows to still have some form of mentor. It does, however, give you the responsibility of coming up with the hypotheses you want to investigate and designing the methodology to test them. You report mainly to yourself and it is your job to keep track of progress with the work. You will likely also have to manage your research budget because you are no longer working off somebody else’s funding. Research independence means you have probably applied for your own grant money and you need to manage it appropriately. It can seem overwhelming but it is worth it because you will have gained full academic freedom. If there is a route you want to go down and explore you are free to do so because YOU dictate the research direction. So what boxes do you need to tick to gain this independence?
Firstly you need to be at the right stage of your career. If someone is going to fund your idea they want evidence that you will be able to deliver on your objectives. In order to show that you need proof that you can turn research ideas into outputs through things like papers, conference presentations and grants (the latter is tricky early in your career but a few hundred quid here and there is good to show). This means you will likely have been a postdoc for a bit before being able to go for independent funding.
When you are ready to apply for your own funding, your idea needs to stand out. No funding body is going to give you money to do what multiple other researchers are doing. This doesn’t mean you have to come up with wild ideas like “researching Alzheimer’s disease pathology from the smallest moon of Mars”. You can take inspiration from other work you have seen or things you have explored throughout your career. Essentially, you need to ask yourself “what theory/idea/principle that is not currently being explored at my institute would I be happy to centre my career around?”
Talk to People
You might have an idea in mind but you want to “mature” it before applying for funding. The best way to do this is to get feedback. Talk to senior people that you trust at your institute. A university will not say no to extra funding. They will help you develop the idea to give you the best possible chance of securing your funding. It is also important to remember that no researcher can operate alone so having a good portfolio of collaborators is key. It is better for you and funding bodies love to see collaborative work!
Fit a Niche
This point touches back on something I mentioned earlier. In order to be independent in your work, you need to find your place in the academic landscape. Take 5 minutes to have a look at the research profiles of senior academics in your institute. You will notice they all have their own unique brand of research. Some may work on the same issue (Alzheimer’s for example) and they may work with each other, but they will all have their own unique “angle”. Universities don’t want departments filled with multiple copies of exactly the same researcher. Ask yourself what your university isn’t currently doing that you can do for them. That is how you find your own niche and justify being given licence to establish your brand of research.
Frame your Ideas
Finally, you need to frame your ideas correctly. A big part of gaining academic independence is winning your own grants. In order to do this, you need to target your proposal correctly. It is no good submitting a project on the molecular biology of Alzheimer’s to an engineering funding call for example. You need to frame the idea in a way that it fits with the remit of the funding body. Before you apply for any money, make sure you know exactly what grant you want to go for and identify how your idea fits in with their “research vision”. This step is critical if you want to get the funding required to go out into the landscape of independent research.
Dr Sam Moxon is a biomaterials scientist at the University of Manchester. His expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to develop 3D bioprinting techniques with human stem cells, so that we better understand and treat degenerative diseases. Outside of the lab he hikes through the Lake District and is an expert on all things Disney.