Treading the Path to Independent Research

Treading the Path to Independent Research

The freedom to pursue your own research ideas - in your own lab, with your own funding - is the pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow for many aspiring scientists. But you would be excused for giving up on this dream if the early years of your career aren’t bursting with top publications. The traditional route from postdoctoral scientist to independent researcher is through the competitive process of fellowship applications, but in today’s research environment tradition is no longer one size fits all. Fellowship applications are notoriously difficult to attain, so to even consider it as your route to research independence you’re expected to have published well and made a name for yourself in the field. But lacking some of these requirements doesn’t dampen the ambition of many scientists, and so new trails continue to be blazed on the path to independent research.

As a final year PhD student, I’m in the process of considering the next steps in my career and independent research seems like an aspirational but intangible goal. The worries that often float into my consciousness are “Will I publish well enough to apply for fellowships?”, and “Will my family life be a barrier to my career goals?” These are issues we students seem to worry about the most and I’m sure it doesn’t stop with us. Luckily for me the equality4success team often hosts speakers who have taken somewhat unusual routes to achieve their goals of independent research and so I’d like to share some useful information I’ve gleaned from a recent guest speaker of our My Life in Science seminar series.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat” says Dr Susan Campbell, a senior lecturer and group leader at Sheffield Hallam University. She told the audience that she was ready to make the leap to independent research after her first postdoc, but her publication profile meant that particular door was still closed to her. She wanted to continue in an academic environment and - thanks to a management and leadership course during her postdoc - was offered the position of senior technology manager at Sheffield Hallam University. This is one of those positions you might not consider as a jump towards independent research, but for Dr Campbell it was the perfect foot in the university door. During her management stint she published results from her postdoc, which caught the university’s attention and ultimately led her to her current position of senior lecturer with her own research group.

Running a research group in a teaching-led environment isn’t straight forward. Four days a week can be swallowed up by teaching responsibilities, so this is where the strategic planning begins. Smart recruitment is key here, postdocs and students need to be independent workers and all visitors to the lab, from master students to summer placements, are important producers of preliminary data. Securing large grants can be a challenge when you only have one day a week in the lab, but smaller sums and studentship grants can be your bread and butter and help to leverage larger grants. The right work environment is important; Sheffield Hallam is supporting its lecturers with funding for their own lab and internally funded studentships.

Pursuing independent research alongside a heavy teaching load might not be your cup of tea, but it’s worth taking the time to consider alternative ways of funding your research ideas. Licensing out a product you’ve developed in the lab can be a source of funds, or a viable spinout idea could attract backing from commercial sources. There’s even a crowdfunding site helping individuals fund their own small projects. So, if you’re searching for the pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow, but can’t apply for a fellowship, don’t despair. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.