Careers, Opinion

OPINION: Making the break to become an independent research fellow

Dr Catherine Hogan
Research Fellow
Dr Catherine Hogan Research Fellow

Contributor – Dr Catherine Hogan

“Making the break to become an independent research fellow”

Making the move from postdoc to fellow is a very exciting time but it is also one of the most challenging. To make this transition, expect to be constantly outside your comfort zones both intellectually and personally. Here are some of the key points I learned along the way, which made the biggest impact on my journey.

1. Making the break

So how do you know if you are ready to make the move to become an independent researcher? One of the telling signs is that you have big ideas on how to take your current research project into new directions, or perhaps you see how your current experimental system could be adapted to address new questions in a divergent field. Congratulations – this is a very exciting realisation! At this moment, it is important to make the most of the opportunities that are open to you and take the plunge! Contact funding bodies, plan well ahead of the deadlines and research what is required of you as an applicant for an external fellowship. Many of the early career fellowships have strict eligibility criteria on when in your career you can apply, so if you have an idea for a project, don’t hang about – meet the deadlines that are open to you now.

A major component of any fellowship is having a host institution that will support your research and provide space and resources for you as a fellow. Choosing a host institution may be influenced by your current location and personal life and if you are lucky you will be able to keep these conditions on your choices. Consider moving away from your postdoc boss either geographically or scientifically. Your postdoc boss is most likely to be established in their field and if you develop ideas from your postdoc projects, he/she will be your main competitor. Staying close to your training ground makes it more challenging to convince review panels that you will deliver independent research. A host institution must have the resources and/or expertise that you need to conduct your research and to be considered you may need to show that your research fits with the strategy of the host. A host is not going to come to you and this is the first challenge for many postdocs. How do you choose a host institution and how do you ask for support? Put simply; learn to network. Don’t be afraid to approach the director of your first choice directly and ask if they are interested in meeting for a chat about your ideas. To get some confidence first, practice pitching your ideas to colleagues or peers at local seminars and meetings. This will help you judge whether your pitch is good enough and will be well received. It may also help to direct your application towards a department you might not have otherwise considered. Once you have decided, contact the director and ask for a meeting. Remember to allow plenty of time to get a host institution on board before a deadline.

It is also worth noting that with every cycle of the Research Excellence Framework (REF; usually every 5 years), universities make a big effort to attract early career researchers by offering fellowship programmes. These are excellent opportunities to make the break, particularly if you are outside the eligibility criteria for the early career fellowships. If you are considering these programmes, it is worth contacting the director ahead of the deadline to discuss your plans and visit the department.

2. Mentorship

Developing independent research ideas while finishing a postdoc contract can put strain on relationships with your postdoc supervisor as you may no longer agree and you may want to invest time on developing your ideas. It is worth remembering that while you are a postdoc, you are still their employee! Of course, it is more favourable to have your supervisor on side, so be open and communicative with him/her about your plans. This will help to carve out your own directions with their support and mentorship. In fact having a good mentor at each stage of this transition is essential. Not only will this person provide critical feedback on your writing skills and fellowship applications, but they can also provide compassionate support and champion your endeavour during the dark days when critical reviewers reject applications.

If you are considering moving into a new field or developing a new experimental tool for your fellowship, consider approaching someone within that field to be a mentor. Having several mentors can work in your favour but be careful not to have too many potentially conflicting opinions.

3. Become attractive!

You have 6-8 months to polish up your CV before that fellowship application deadline and it is unlikely that your paper will be accepted in time. So how can you become attractive in the short term? Of course your science, track record and how you will deliver on your research proposal are most important. If you think your expertise falls short in some aspects, find an expert who will willingly collaborate. Likewise, if you are applying hypotheses to clinical readouts, make those connections with clinicians up front. Track record is not all about publications but securing small pots of funding also have a positive impact on your CV. Whether it is travel bursaries to attend international conferences or seed corn funding to support pilot studies, this all looks good. In my case, I initiated collaboration with a leader in the field I was moving into and with him on board secured an innovation award with 12 months funding while interviewing for fellowships.

4. The bigger picture

As a postdoc you are consumed by your specific research question and driven to decipher the small details, learning to fit them together within your paradigm. At this stage you may have less experience (and sometimes opportunity) to put your research within the context of the ‘bigger picture’. When making the transition to fellow, you are challenged to pitch the bigger picture all the time so take some time to work out the most important points and how to sell them to your audience in one or two sentences. This has been described as the ‘elevator pitch’, which is a good analogy – imagine having the time it takes to travel 10 floors in a lift with your next potential employer [e.g., see “Communication: Two minutes to impress” a NATUREJOBS Feature article]. Take time to refine this and work out what message you want your audience to take away with them, and make every word count. Practice and improve it with every opportunity.

5. Learning to improve

Unless you are very fortunate, it is likely that you will not secure the first position/fellowship you apply for. Rejection can be brutal, particularly reviewers comments and it is difficult not to take it personally. However, be objective and constructive with the criticism. Take the positive points and build on them. Read between the lines, e.g., if a reviewer does not understand your hypothesis, consider that you will need to communicate it more succinctly next time. If you have any doubts in your research proposal or in your abilities, this will come through in any competitive situation. If you have an opportunity to contact members of a review/interview panel, take it. Be polite and ask for constructive feedback on how you performed and where in your proposal you fell down. This kind of feedback is gold when refining your research question, experimental design, choosing collaborators etc.

With every application, improve, refine and polish. On the other hand, do not be afraid to disagree and defend your work if reviewers are contradicting what you believe to be right, or in an interview situation. A big motivator for me during those dark days of rejection was to always come back to the science – I was convinced I had a good research question worth exploring and if anyone was going to do the work, why not me.


About the author
Catherine Hogan

Catherine Hogan joined Cardiff University in 2013 as a Research Fellow with the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute. She has a growing group focused on understanding early tumorigenesis in epithelial tissues, exploring the mechanisms governing how normal cells communicate with mutant cells, and determining whether cell-cell interaction between Ras-transformed and normal cells plays a role during early development of pancreatic cancer.

You can read more about her work at: 

European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute profile page

School of Biosciences staff profile

ResearchGate.net profile

or find her on twitter @cathoutwest