Moving towards research independence

By Dr Kay Guccione

About the author

Dr Kay Guccione designs mentoring and coaching programmes at the University of Sheffield. Kay recently delivered a session at the Northern Advanced Research Training Initiative (NARTI) Annual Doctoral Conference, held at Newcastle University Business School and organised by the NARTI administrator, Joanne Garrick, Leeds University Business School. The below blog post is based on one of the sessions Kay delivered at the event.

Crafting your networks: moving towards research independence 

For postdoctoral research associates, an important route into a long term academic career is via a funded research fellowship award. Fellowship funding is invaluable as it affords you time to focus on establishing your own research niche and to produce your own research papers – the currency of research careers.

This article draws on interview data from my research into the fellowship experience and will help shape your understanding of how you could work towards securing a fellowship. Throughout this post I share some findings and I pose some ways forward to you that will help you evaluate your networks and your planning for the fellowship route.

At the fellowship applicant stage too, researchers must demonstrate their blossoming publishing track record, present a good project idea, and demonstrate their potential to become an independent research leader.

What does it mean to be an ‘independent research leader’? What would you need to demonstrate to the funders? I speak to a lot of postdoctoral researchers who are uncertain about their future, and have mostly already ruled themselves out of a fellowship based on their understanding of what it means to be independent. Take a look at the quote below:

“I was going to apply, then I chickened out. I thought well, I’m not ready to call myself independent, there’s a lot I don’t know, what if the panel think, ‘Who’s this joker’. As I understand it, being independent means that you are able to do everything yourself, and, I, I don’t think that describes me.”

Take a minute to review your current thinking about what independence means to you. Look around at the fellows you know, and at the newer academics you’ve met – in practice is ‘independence’ a synonym for never asking for help? Or for doing it all yourself? From the data I collected I don’t think so.

In the 25 interviews with fellowship holders that I conducted, I asked fellows to talk about (1) how they developed themselves toward gaining their fellowship award, and, (2) who helped them to get there. The answers to question 2 showed that many different types of people supported fellows to succeed with their applications – no one did it alone!

Start thinking today about who you have around you, who can help you, be a sounding board for your ideas, advise you, guide you, and connect you to others who can help.

The path to fellowship success

The fellows talked about five ways of developing towards success; you’ll recognise that they are all interrelated, iterative developments.

  • Developing awareness of career opportunities and constraints
  • Developing the confidence to apply and to do the project
  • Developing and negotiating ownership of research ideas
  • Developing application skills (writing and interviews)
  • Developing resilience and maintaining momentum.

Developing awareness of opportunities and constraints: First and most importantly, go and look at what you’re aiming for. Get on Google and find out who funds fellowships, when the deadlines are, whether you’re eligible and what projects (and what researchers) they previously funded. People who can help you:

  • Specialists in your research office: these folk specialise in understanding the priority areas for funders, and know very well what they are looking to see in your application.
  • Current fellows: send an email and offer to buy coffee in return for hearing their stories about the challenges and pitfalls in writing fellowship projects.  

Developing confidence: Anxiousness around being ‘good enough’ to get the fellowship is normal. Build your confidence by getting feedback, through taking opportunities to present, discuss and shape your own research. Confidence can be cultivated so look for opportunities to grow yours. People who can help you:

  • A career champion or mentor: find a person who reminds you that you can do it. Join a mentoring programme perhaps, if you find you aren’t getting the support of your current Principal Investigator (PI). Maybe reach out at a conference and build a relationship with a new senior colleague – can they give you feedback on your ideas for your proposal?
  • A writing buddy: who else is writing fellowships or grants and would be willing to do some reciprocal reading/feedback?
  • Your researcher development staff: these people will know of workshops or coaching you can access to address specific learning needs about writing, interviews or confidence building.

Developing and negotiating ownership of research ideas: Whether your ideas come to you via a ‘Eureka!’ moment (hardly anybody) or whether you spend time working to develop a germ of an idea into a unique set of hypotheses and questions (most of us), there are steps you can take to develop ideas. People who can help you:

  • Departmental colleagues: ask colleagues to listen to you present your rough ideas and give feedback to help you develop your thinking, and your proposal.
  • University professional services, special budget holders, committees: securing a small amount of funding to conduct pilot research e.g. through hosting a summer student or internal funding call, (get yourself on the right mailing lists to find out about these) gets you a track record of funding, real data to back-up your later applications. Speak to your researcher developers to find out how to find out about these opportunities.
  • Your current PI: do take steps to negotiate ownership of research ideas with them, especially if they overlap with your work for them.

Developing applications: The best way to start writing your application is simply to download the forms, and get on with writing a draft. Then get input and feedback from everyone you can muster to read it. Expect there to be many drafts and many hoops to jump through before it’s ready. People who can help you:

  • Your ‘research services’ people: Arm yourself with knowledge of the online systems you’ll need and the signatures required from partners, collaborators, and the sponsoring Head of Department.
  • Insiders: Quiz every fellow you meet, and every grant panel member, on what questions to expect in the interview. Write answers to the questions and practice them.
  • Researcher developers: ask for help you organise formal mock interviews, and ask to video or audio record them so you can remember what you were asked, and what you said.

Developing resilience: Digging deep into your self-discipline to make time to write, managing your disappointment, and keeping going through pressure and critique is always tough. Reach out to friends, family, and colleagues to help you celebrate the small wins (small amounts of funding, submission of applications, shortlisting) as well as the big, and to help you to process and learn from critical feedback.

Next steps

Building and utilising professional networks of people that support and enhance your development is also important; your career progress is very likely to be a function of the support and guidance afforded by other people. If you are contemplating or developing a fellowship application, now is the time to meet, recruit and activate senior colleagues, sponsors and mentors who could support or endorse your applications – draw on their experience, expertise and guidance. 

Resources

  • Link to download full report which contains rich illustrative data on each of the five areas of development, presented as conversational narratives. (Guccione, K (2016). More than lucky? Exploring self-leadership in the development and articulation of research independence. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 1–37.)
  • Short video illustrations on the topics of networks, ideas, confidence, applications, and resilience are available via the Fellowship Ahoy! YouTube Playlist.

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