Pursuing your own research ideas, getting your own funding, and running your own laboratory are the holy grails of scientific careers in academia. But, while most academics in training aspire to freedom, to become independent you need to break free from your research adviser, and you need to take some sizable risks. The process often requires once-in-a-lifetime career decisions and difficult lifestyle choices. Independence also comes with a hefty list of tasks and responsibilities that few aspiring scientists receive formal training for.
To help you with what is likely to be the toughest transition in your academic career, Science Careers has put together a roundup of our best articles on the topic.
Over the years, Science Careers has reported on new policy developments, funding and mentoring schemes, and grassroots efforts aimed at promoting independence in the United States and Europe. Early-career scientists have also given us their perspectives on the pros and cons of becoming independent and told personal stories behind their successes—and, occasionally, failures. Established experts have provided advice on how young academics can initiate their journeys toward independence, making sure they reach their destination in a timely manner.
The world’s various academic systems have a long way to go before they will offer sufficient, and sufficiently early, opportunities for independence. So stay tuned for further reporting on the issues.
Love in the Lab, by Vivienne Raper, 8 February You may be an item at home, but in the lab it is important for couples to be perceived as two independent and successful scientists.
Big Hopes, Small Changes for Biomedical Training, by Michael Price, 14 December 2012. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is planning to increase the number of awards designed to promote earlier career independence, but many think that more needs to be done.
Rethinking the Ph.D., by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 7 September 2012. Ph.D. students in the NIH-Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program enjoy an unusually high degree of independence.
Careers in Fast-Forward, by Michael Price, 17 August 2012. Winners of NIH’s Director’s Early Independence Awards share the trials and successes of starting their own labs immediately after graduating.
Brazil’s Science Culture Shock, by Susan Gaidos, 13 January 2012. Northeastern Brazil could be an ideal location for young international scientists seeking independence, provided they are willing to tackle infrastructure problems and red tape.
A Twin Career Story, by Elisabeth Pain, 29 April 2011. Internet telecommunications researchers and identical twin brothers Alan and Steven Davy have paid attention to making their projects and careers distinct.
In Person: Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia, by Kathy Weston, 4 February 2011. To remain independent, you have to keep your interest up.
Perspective: Top 10 Tips for Mentors, by Philip S. Clifford and Joan M. Lakoski, 8 October 2010. As a mentor, it is important that you foster your mentees’ autonomy by encouraging them to take initiative in the mentoring relationship.
Focus on Germany, by Julie Clayton, 24 September 2010. One outcome of the recent public cash injection into the German scientific system has been a rise in the number of junior professorships on offer. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
New Partnership Aims to Improve Research Careers Down Under, by Elizabeth Finkel, 11 June 2010. Developmental geneticist Edwina McGlinn is the first group leader to be appointed under a joint initiative between Australia and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
Perspective: The Successful Physician-Scientist of the 21st Century, by Andrew I. Schafer, 28 May 2010. In the past, young physicians could assume that mentors would carve out their paths to research independence for them. Not anymore.
Structuring a Career Around Gallium Nitride, by Elisabeth Pain, 26 March 2010. A Royal Society University Research Fellowship allowed materials scientist Rachel Oliver to prove herself as an independent researcher.
Going Back to a Changing Poland, by Elisabeth Pain, 19 March 2010. Molecular biologist Agnieszka Chacinska benefited from experience in Germany, setting up a quasi-independent lab while continuing to receive mentoring.
Making Science and Family Fit, by Elisabeth Pain, 5 February 2010. Were it not for a mentor and a supportive husband, both of whom encouraged her to do a postdoc overseas, structural biologist Michal Sharon probably wouldn’t have managed to achieve independence in her native Israel.
Coming to America: Doing a Postdoc in the U.S., by Lucas Laursen, 1 January 2010. According to many scientists and career advisers, American research experience is de rigueur for those who wish to win independent research posts at some European institutions.
Returning to Science, by Sarah A. Webb, 30 October 2009. With the right support, it is possible to succeed in science after a family-related hiatus.
Funding Your Future: Publish Or Perish, by Virginia Gewin, 11 September 2009. Several funding programs have been created recently to support young scientists on their way to independence. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
Choosing the Less Traveled Road, by Elisabeth Pain, 4 September 2009. Epigenetics researcher Lars Jansen’s 5-year position at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Portugal guaranteed him immediate independence.
The Evolving Postdoctoral Experience, by Laura Bonetta, 28 August 2009. From a supervisors’ point of view, learning to work independently is among the most important factors in assuring a successful postdoctoral experience. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
Independent Postdocs, Part 2: On-the-Ground Experiences, by Elisabeth Pain, 21 August 2009. Three postdocs, all at different stages on their path to independence, share tips and personal insights about the process.
Independent Postdocs, Part 1: Gaining Early Autonomy, by Elisabeth Pain, 31 July 2009. Several experts discuss how to negotiate more autonomy with your principal investigator (PI) while still a postdoc.
Independent Postdocs: Resources, by Elisabeth Pain, 31 July 2009. Any funding that you get as a postdoc helps you cultivate independence.
Perspective: How to Succeed in Big Science and Still Get Tenure, by Victoria McGovern, 31 July 2009. Science is increasingly collaborative, but the key to getting tenure is demonstrating that you are the intellectual driver of a serious body of work.
A Career Revisiting Classical Biological Problems, by Elisabeth Pain, 17 July 2009. Structural biologist Nenad Ban delayed starting his own group for a year and a half while he finished his postdoctoral project.
Perspective: Traversing the Bridge Years–Advice for Future Physician-Scientists, by Skip Brass, 15 May 2009. The associate dean and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Programs tells how to develop a successful strategy to cross the bridge between graduation and independence.
Women M.D.-Ph.D.s: Life in the Trenches, by Karyn Hede, 30 January 2009. Family responsibilities make starting your career as an independent clinical or translational investigator more difficult.
The Pathway to Independence Awards: Early Returns, by Siri Carpenter, 31 October 2008. NIH’s new transition awards program seems to be doing what it was designed to do: move postdocs quickly into faculty posts.
After Success Abroad, a Polish Scientist Returns Home, by Chelsea Wald, 28 August 2008. Biochemist Agnieszka Dobrzyn’s fears that she would never be allowed to head her own laboratory dissipated soon after her return to Poland.
The Postdoc Experience: Not Always What You Expect, by Laura Bonetta, 28 August 2008. For young scientists, one of the most negative aspects of a postdoc can be the lack of independence. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
Focus On Europe: Research by the Numbers?, by Jill U. Adams, 11 July 2008. In the United Kingdom, young researchers can enjoy much more independence much earlier in their careers than in other European countries. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
In Person: Research in France, by Andreas Bikfalvi, 4 July 2008. Researchers in France may obtain a permanent contract much earlier than in most other countries, but this does not necessarily mean earlier scientific independence.
Faculty Positions: Seeking the Skills for a Successful Career in Academia, by Emma Hitt, 25 January 2008. Tenure-track faculty members must be fiercely independent and yet be able to collaborate with others. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
A Family, a Laboratory, and an EMBO Award, by Elisabeth Pain, 23 November 2007. Cell biologist Sandrine Etienne-Manneville’s go-for-it attitude helped her find a quick way to independence while juggling work and family.
Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 7: Tainted Love, by Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, 3 August 2007.Science Careers reflects on the paradox between the needs of young scientists to constantly win approval from the scientific community and to also cultivate independence.
The NIH R01 Toolkit, by Science Careers Editors, 27 July 2007. Getting an early start on developing your own ideas will help you submit a well-developed R01 proposal for independent funding.
Getting to the Top of a Big Pile, by Elisabeth Pain, 27 July 2007. Panel reviewers share tips on how to win a so-called Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to set up an independent lab in Europe.
To Choose an Adviser, Be an “Armchair Anthropologist”, by Siri Carpenter, 20 July 2007. When choosing advisers, be sure to ask what strategies they use to help students develop independence.
Escaping the Postdoc, by Amarendra Swarup, 22 June 2007. The road to scientific independence is rough, but the U.K. government, institutions, and postdocs have been working to make it smoother.
Mind Matters: Making the Leap to Independence, by Irene S. Levine, 2 March 2007. Early-career scientists need a mix of scientific, fundraising, and management skills to start up their independent laboratories.
FP7 Funding Opportunities at a Glance, by Elisabeth Pain, 23 February 2007. The big news in the E.U. Seventh Framework Programme is the formation of ERC and its Starting Independent Researcher grants.
New EMBO Installation Grants, by Elisabeth Pain, 2 February 2007. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) has launched the EMBO Installation Grants to encourage expatriated scientists from underfunded European countries to set up research groups back home.
Mastering Your Ph.D.: Group Dynamics, by Bart Noordam and Patricia Gosling, 19 January 2007. Expect varying degrees of independence, depending on the type of research group you choose to join.
Opportunities: Insubordination, by Peter Fiske, 12 January 2007. The goal of a Ph.D. education is to not necessarily to do everything you are told.
NIH Names New Postdoc Award Winners, by Andrew Fazekas, 15 December 2006. Winners of NIH’s first Pathways to Independence awards hope that the honor—and the money—will ease their paths to research independence.
Mind Matters: Getting Yourself Mentored, by Irene S. Levine, 24 November 2006. Having a good mentor during your transition to independence can help you turn tough times into unparalleled personal growth experiences.
Betting the Farm, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 3 November 2006. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus offers early-career researchers unmatched levels of freedom and support.
Success Factors for Postdocs: Be Prepared!, by Peter Gwynne, 15 September 2006. Independence is among the main factors that determine the success of a postdoctoral experience. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
NIH Urges Career Training and Tracking, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 4 August 2006. NIH has been encouraging institutions to offer Ph.D. students and postdocs additional professional development skills such as grant writing and laboratory and project management.
The Angst of Ramón y Cajal Researchers, by Elisabeth Pain, 14 July 2006. The Spanish Ramón y Cajal program was launched in an effort to bridge postdoctoral and permanent positions, but how well it has worked has widely varied.
MentorDoctor: Suffering From a Lack of Direction, by Science Careers Staff, 24 February 2006. Get past the feeling that your Ph.D. supervisor is not advising you well, and take ownership of your work.
GrantDoctor: Bridges to Independence, by The GrantDoctor, 10 February 2006. The GrantDoctor discusses the launch of the Pathway to Independence program by NIH and its likely impact in the coming years.
A Bridge to Independence, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 3 February 2006. Despite a tight budget, NIH is moving forward with a plan to help as many as 200 postdocs each year establish their own labs.
Independence for Young German Scientists, by Sicco Lehmann-Brauns, 9 December 2005. The German Emmy Noether Programme has been striving to give postdocs scientific independence.
NIH Gives Young Scientists a Boost, by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, 9 December 2005.Science magazine reported on three NIH initiatives aimed at smoothing the transition to independent researcher.
What’s Wrong With American Science?, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 9 December 2005. More grants for early independence may contribute to the nation’s overproduction of Ph.D. scientists and the diminished attractiveness of scientific careers.
The European Young Investigator Awards: Meet the 2005 Winners, by Elisabeth Pain, 11 November 2005. The European Young Investigator Award program was a precursor to the current ERC grants, helping young scientists to assemble independent research groups in Europe.
Getting Wired: Pathway of a Neuroscientist, by Andrew Fazekas, 4 November 2005. Edward Ruthazer developed a sense of self-confidence and independence while working overseas.
United States: Two Scientists and a Baby, by Jim Austin, 12 October 2005. Aligning their plans and ambitions helped a dual-career couple find two faculty jobs at the same institution.
International Careers Report: Germany — In Pursuit of Excellence, by Peter Gwynne, 7 October 2005. Germany has pledged to create new positions for young and independent researchers to make science more attractive. (A special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)
Getting a Permanent Position, and a Chair of Excellence, in France, by Elisabeth Pain, 2 September 2005. Greek immunologist Lena Alexopoulou tells the story of how she built everything from zero after gaining independence.
Take Charge of Your Ph.D. Training, by Martin Farias, 1 July 2005. Becoming an independent scientist requires an attitude that you should start developing at the beginning of your Ph.D.
Postdocs at the Tipping Point, by Alyson Reed and Keith Micoli, 3 June 2005. The National Science Foundation has modified some of its postdoctoral fellowship programs to encourage mentoring, training, and independence.
Academic Scientists at Work: To Fund or Not to Fund, by Jeremy M. Boss and Susan H. Eckert, 13 May 2005. When reviewing grants, you need to take into account several criteria related to the independence of the applicants.
Three Reports Tackle the Postdoc Mess, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 6 May 2005. Behind the readiness of thousands of men and women with a decade or more of university study to accept low salaries is the widespread but usually futile hope of becoming an independent university researcher.
Not Your Father’s Postdoc, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 29 April 2005. The U.S. National Research Council report, Bridges to Independence, discusses how postdocs can prepare to move beyond the training phase.
Keys to Independence in the UK and Ireland, by Anne Forde and Elisabeth Pain, 15 April 2005. Funding bodies are coming to the aid of young scientists with a variety of programs aimed at helping them become independent.
Bridges to Nowhere?, by Jim Austin, 1 April 2005. Proposals to get the best young biomedical scientists earlier into their own independent, well-funded laboratories have been around for quite a while.
New Multiple PI Policy May Help Postdocs, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 4 February 2005. NIH’s embrace of multiple PIs on a research project could increase the stature and independence of many young scientists.
The Incredible Shrinking Tenure Track, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 2 July 2004. Nontenure-track jobs such as staff scientists, research associates, lecturers, and research assistant professors rarely offer a status that allows independent research.
The GrantDoctor: Soft Skills and Transition Awards, by The GrantDoctor, 11 June 2004. The GrantDoctor answers a reader’s query about making the transition to an independent lab after 5 years as a postdoc.
Knowing When to Break Free from your PI, by Career Doctor, 27 May 2004. The Career Doctor offers advice to a postdoc who worries about never being able to get out of his supervisor’s shadow.
Crossing the Atlantic: A Dutch M.D. Discovers American Research, by Beatrijs Lodde, 28 May 2004. Doing a Ph.D. before the postdoc made this clinician more independent from the start.
The Perfect Postdoc: A Primer, by Jim Austin, 21 November 2003. The opportunity to take some of your postdoctoral work with you when you finally achieve independence should be one of your criteria when choosing a postdoc.
Science Advisors Part 2: Getting On, by Kirstie Urquhart, 10 October 2003. Winners of an EMBO Young Investigator award share their experience of selection committees and their views on what it’s like to make it to group leaders.
Science Advisors Part 1: Starting Out, by Kirstie Urquhart, 26 September 2003. More EMBO Young Investigators share the secrets of their career success.
Guiding the Guides, by Ingela Björck, 27 June 2003. The goal of good supervision is to achieve the optimal balance between generating research results and producing competence and independence in trainees.
Taking Postdoctoral Needs Seriously: The Office of Academic Career Development at the University of Pittsburgh, by Jennifer Petrie, 4 April 2003. The transition to an independent post requires training beyond the traditional postdoctoral research experience.
Getting a Grip on Scientific Misconduct, by Christina Ochsenbauer, 31 January 2003. Without conscious thought about the ethics of their own lab, postdocs could find the tough road to independence even bumpier.
The Ideal PhD Mentor—A Student’s Perspective, by W.T. Ling, 6 December 2002. Supervisors should steer their students toward initiative, confidence, and independence.
The Career Path to Research Fellow, by John Isaac, 15 November 2002. Becoming independent—and in charge of your own team and budget—comes with a very steep learning curve.
Serial Postdoc Killer?, by Kirstie Urquhart, 25 October 2002. Some observers worry that new E.U. regulations on fixed-term contracts could make it more difficult for young researchers to achieve early independence.
NIH Grantees: Where Have All The Young Ones Gone?, by Eliot Marshall and Erica Goldman, 4 October 2002. Those who win NIH grants before age 35 have long been a select and vanishing group.
Climbing the Tree of Science, by Torsten Wiesel, 13 September 2002. One of the major problems in life sciences careers is that postdoctoral fellows are often treated as highly skilled technical assistants at the time they have their best opportunity to sow the seeds of an independent career.
Hodgkin Fellowships Give Women a Boost, by Joanna Wilkins, 6 September 2002. The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships in the United Kingdom offer female early-career scientists some independence and the flexibility to take career breaks.
Wellcome Trust Fellow: Getting (Well) Paid for Work You Love, by Simon Morley, 9 August 2002. Biologist Simon Morley’s position as a senior research fellow gave him the freedom to run a lab his own way.
Junior Professors on the Rise, by Sabine Steghaus-Kovac, 2 August 2002. Junior professorships in Germany provide opportunities for early independence in research and teaching.
Writing a Research Plan, by Jim Austin, 26 July 2002. How can you demonstrate independence to a hiring committee when you have never been given the chance to work independently?
Transitions Part II: Switching Postdocs, by Stijn Oomes, 3 May 2002. After enjoying a great deal of independence during his Ph.D., Stijn Oomes found a more restrictive environment unbearable during his postdoc.
French Science: Storming the Bastille, by Michael Balter, 26 April 2002. Several new programs have been helping young scientists achieve unprecedented levels of independence in France, but more progress is still needed.
Enduring Qualities in Mentoring, by Judy Illes, 29 March 2002. Being poorly positioned to select a mentor often translates into being poorly positioned to transition to career independence.
Shooting for the Moon, by Jim Austin, 8 March 2002. Astrophysicist Tom Murphy was still a postdoc when he took charge of a research effort that involved several faculty members.
The Secret of Research Success, by Phil Dee, 19 October 2001. Learning to be selective in the information and ideas that you share is a key step in your push for early independence.
Your PhD Boss: Adversary or Super-Advisor? Part One, by Phil Dee, 15 June 2001. As you become more confident, you’ll find yourself drifting free of your boss.
Underrepresented Minorities in Science: A Black Scientist Shares His Keys to Success, by Roland Owens, 2 March 2001. Social barriers can give supervisors a perception that black students and postdocs lack independence, but initiatives exist to help level the playing field.
Enhancing the U.S. Postdoctoral Experience, by Maxine F. Singer, 22 September 2000. Some postdocs have complained about receiving little guidance from their mentors and too few opportunities to grow toward independence.
Scientific Community: Soft Money’s Hard Realities, by Marcia Barinaga, 22 September 2000. Soft-money positions such as adjunct associate professor and research associate often offer little independence or status.
The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui: Your Scientific Castle, by Vid Mohan-Ram, 14 April 2000. The day you start making plans to set up your laboratory marks a significant milestone on the road to scientific independence.