Knowing When to Break Free from your PI


Dear CareerDoctor,

I am now 18 months into my first postdoc. I am working with my former Ph.D. supervisor, and we are applying for grants together, using many of my ideas and with me as a named researcher. We have talked about me applying for a fellowship, but at the moment funding looks so likely that there isn’t a real need to find my own money. My supervisor also said that if I carry on publishing and take the lead on this next project, I am going to have the research credentials for an academic post in the future.

Ultimately, I would like to spend some time overseas. But things are currently going so well that it seems perverse to leave. My supervisor is also very keen for us to continue working together, so if I do walk away I would feel rather disloyal.

Still, I am getting worried that I may not be able to get out of the shadow of my supervisor. But surely, when applying for a fellowship or a lectureship, a strong research publishing record is the key?

Am I in danger of falling into the postdoc trap by sticking with the same lab? If I need to make a move, when should this be, and should I go for another postdoc, or do you think I am ready for a fellowship?


Dear Rob:*

Your question refers to two big issues in academic career development: how long may you stay in the same lab before it becomes damaging to your career, and how should you start looking for independence.

There are many advantages to sticking with an existing project and a known PI. All the foundations you need for the project to run smoothly should have been in place for a while now, and hopefully you have a few papers in high impact journals in the pipeline. It also sounds as though the working relationship you have established with your supervisor is good. He is giving you an opportunity to develop your own research ideas and try your hand at writing grant proposals. By including you as a “named researcher” — i.e., stating that you will be the one carrying out the project — he is also acknowledging your work and giving your position some security. All this is helping you learn the ropes of academic research.

It is natural for supervisors to want to keep active and productive postdocs for as long as possible. Good postdocs take some of the pressure off the shoulders of professors without diluting credit for the work.

So let?s not be too sentimental. You should leave as soon as you feel there is more value in leaving than in staying. In the short term, staying in your current position is likely to yield more publications in high-impact journals. But, as you suspect, there is more to getting a lectureship than a compelling publication record.

I recently attended a talk where Dr. Graham Smith of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews reviewed employment statistics within his school. Over the last 17 years, 20 lecturers and readers were appointed. Of those 20, 13 already had a fellowship when they were hired and four were recruited from overseas. This leaves only three who were recruited from the U.K. without a fellowship, and among those one was appointed internally. All three had previous international experience.

This is only one example, but we can draw some general conclusions:

    You are still on-track for a fellowship, assuming your publication record is strong. Fellows in the International Career Report mentioned that a good time to start applying for a fellowship is between your 4th and 6th year of postdoc. That leaves you about 6 months to find a foreign postdoc and 3 years to carry it out.

    Wherever you decide to go, you will have to explain to your supervisor why you don’t think another contract with him is the best thing for your career. His opinion of you will be a key factor in finding another position, so you need to ensure that the relationship remains good. Assure him that you’ll be committed to publishing the research from your current project and want to maintain the collaboration, or at least renew it later. If you handle it right, there’s a good chance that his respect for you will increase, and with it your future career prospects.

    After this new postdoc, you should be in a better position to apply for a fellowship. Start thinking about your application now so that you can develop research ideas and get in touch with potential host institutions well in advance. Also start talking to holders of prestigious fellowships about their proposals and selection procedures. You will also find more information about this in the International Career Report.

    Don’t allow your supervisor to decide the direction of your career. However well you get on, your priorities are not the same. You are the only person for whom your career is the highest priority.

    * Names have been changed.

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