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How to foster healthy scientific independence—for yourself and your trainees

Letters to Young Scientists logo
The team-written Letters to Young Scientists column offers training and career advice from within academia. eduardrobert/iStock, adapted by C. Aycock/Science

One of the most paradoxical concepts in science is independence. Almost nothing that we do as scientists is the product of complete independence. We work closely under the guidance of mentors for years as trainees and, even long afterward, our very best work is often the product of a team. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, all of us are also standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Yet, from dissertation defense to tenure, scientists are continually evaluated on their so-called independence.

Strategies for achieving independence are rarely discussed when you are slogging your way through graduate school or a postdoc. The focus is often on finishing the next experiment or writing the next paper. But as you move forward in your training, a greater premium is often placed on your capacity for conducting research without the need for close supervision or oversight—especially if you are interested in becoming a faculty member or lab director yourself. In this column, we offer guidance to help you attain independence while continuing to work collaboratively with colleagues.

Start early

It’s natural to work closely with mentors early in your career because it is a time of learning and development. But there are things you can do to develop a sense of independence and the skills to run a lab, even while you are still in grad school.

One of the most common ways to do that is by leading a research project, from conceptualization to completion. That doesn’t mean you have to do the work all by yourself. Given that in many scientific fields it is nearly impossible for a single individual to execute an entire project, publications will often include co-authors. But you will learn a lot by taking the lead as a first author on publications, which means you will likely do the much of the writing, analysis, and research design.

You should also think about how you can take the lead on work that is truly original and not redundant with your mentor’s prior work. It is usually wise to build on existing research by other scholars. Indeed, science benefits from replication and extension. But it is ideal to do at least some research that takes a novel direction—and you will learn even more if you are able to write grants and secure funding for the project yourself. Then later, if the work is impactful, you may be able to continue follow-up studies on the topic after you leave your mentor’s lab. That can help establish you as an emerging leader in the field.

Graduate students and postdocs can also start to develop leadership skills by mentoring more junior members of the lab. Managing people is not easy, and we benefitted from the experiences we had recruiting, training, and mentoring our own team of research assistants when we were graduate students. Building these skills—and learning from these relationships—will ultimately make it easier for you to transition to the role of research team leader.

Develop a unique research direction

Once you become a faculty member, the standards shift. By the time you apply for tenure, you are usually expected to have a line of research that is independent of your former mentors. For many faculty members, this is done in a slow, linear progression, so do not worry too much if most of your papers in your first few years are based on data you collected during your Ph.D. or postdoc years. In Jay’s case, during the first 2 years of his faculty position he only had two publications that were not co-authored by his former mentors. But over the next 3 years, he more than quadrupled that number.

Eventually, you should be thinking about wrapping up your old projects and laying the foundation for new work with your own lab. This will involve writing grants and recruiting a team of talented researchers. You may receive advice during the pretenure review process to pivot to publishing papers with your own trainees during this time. This allows tenure committees to ensure that faculty members are capable of effective mentorship and managing their own team independently before giving them tenure.

Focus on collective success

Faculty are generally hired based on their ability to conduct research, but the key role of most faculty members is to manage a lab and mentor trainees. Despite the critical importance of these skills, they are rarely taught in graduate training programs. We encourage you to seek out formal training in mentoring and project management at this stage (if not earlier) and shift your focus from your own success to that of your trainees. In many fields, this means shifting from the role of first author to the role of senior author—where you oversee and guide the project.

This stage requires careful attention to the professional needs and skills of your trainees. Understand that your trainees will need to build their own independence so they can thrive after they have left your lab. How can you impart the skills you learned at the same phase of your career? What can you do to support and inspire them to take the lead on projects? How can you provide a lab culture that fosters the success of all your trainees and a sense of shared purpose? These should be the fundamental questions guiding your research responsibilities at this stage of your career.

At some point, you may even want to take a step back and invite your trainees to design and lead a new project or grant themselves. This is a part of letting go that can be hard for some mentors who have often developed close—and highly successful—collaborations with their trainees. But try to put your own needs aside so they can flourish. Creating an environment where others succeed can pay off immensely in terms of retaining talented team members and recruiting the next generation of lab members.

Be sure to give your trainees credit for their work by publicly acknowledging their contributions. Many faculty mention their students in conference or colloquium talks or highlight their contributions in social media announcements of new papers. This is important because trainees deserve credit for the work they have done, and in doing so you will help them along their own path to independence.

Ask for advice

In a healthy department, senior faculty members can and should serve as supportive mentors to their junior colleagues. So, if you run into problems when running your lab, reach out to others for advice. In June’s department, each pretenure faculty member is assigned a senior colleague as their faculty mentor. This senior faculty mentor can provide an arm’s length perspective on professional development and a liaison to help them with challenging questions and get support along the way. These mentorship opportunities are highly rewarding and often provide critical insights for navigating difficult and sensitive issues.

It can also be useful to lean on your former mentors for advice and support. We all regularly reach out to our former Ph.D. and postdoc advisers with questions about how to navigate difficult professional situations, or to share resources (e.g., a lab manual, course materials, sample grants). Great mentorship often continues well beyond your time together in a research group and continues throughout your career.

Final thoughts

The ways in which scientists can attain independence will differ across institutions and fields, so please take our advice with a grain of salt. If it does not reflect the context of your home institution or make sense given your situation, feel free to discard it. For instance, even at the faculty stage, it might make sense to collaborate with a former mentor on some projects when it is the best path for producing groundbreaking science.

This will be our last regularly scheduled column. Since we began these columns 4 years ago, we have sought to give early career scientists advice for supporting their own growth and success in science. We might check in periodically with new columns. But for now, we want to wish you the best of success wherever your scientific career takes you.

Send your thoughts, questions, and suggestions for future column topics to [email protected] and engage with us on Twitter.

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