Independence is a lofty goal. It’s what every parent wants for their child and every citizen wants for their nation. It is also what most scientists aspire to after years of training and working for other people.
But the practical challenges of achieving independence in a scientific research setting are formidable. First, you have to secure a position, lab space, and sufficient funds to buy equipment and hire people, during a time of constricted budgets and increased competition. And once the first round of resources is in hand, you have to be skillfully employed in a coherent scientific effort even as you seek another round of resources. The effort requires a mix of scientific, technical, project management, and interpersonal skills. More intangibly, the path to independence requires flexibility, persistence, and self-confidence. Not everyone has what it takes. Then again, not everyone aspires to scientific independence.
Earning your wings
One prerequisite to independence is an academic position that provides the space, freedom, and employment stability necessary to engage in independent research and to build a research team. But this is only the beginning. Although academic positions generally come with start-up packages, setting up a lab from scratch is expensive and it’s soon necessary to go hunting for more funding.
The scientific community has long considered single-investigator research grants, such as the RO1 offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Holy Grail of science funding–but that goal often remains elusive, particularly for young investigators. The success rate for RO1 grants, for example, remains disappointingly low. Of 22,148 applications reviewed in 2006, only 3610 (or 16.3%) were funded. Over the 25-year period between 1978 and 2002, the median age of doctoral biomedical researchers receiving their first independent research grants from the NIH rose from 37 to 42.
Recognizing this as a threat to the development of the next generation of researchers, NIH decided to turn the problem on its head. Last year, it announced the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence (PI) award, a new mechanism designed to increase the share of federally-funded awards received by younger investigators and to create institutional incentives to help postdocs become independent investigators. After 2 years of funding at $90,000 per year, grantees can apply for an additional 3 years of funding for up to $250,000 per year. And since the grants cover full overhead costs, they provide a strong incentive for universities to create positions for these grantees.
In Europe, the governments of the U.K. and Ireland have made similar efforts to expand the number of transitional awards for early-career scientists. Back in the United States, NIH has just announced a “new” award–dubbed the “New Innovator Award”–that is intended for newly independent biomedical scientists. The number of “New Innovator” awards is likely to be tiny, however.
More than science
But money isn’t everything. Becoming a successful scientist requires getting the work done. What differentiates those trainees who go on to become independent investigators from those who continue to work for others? Although there is little hard data, the common assumption is that only the best and the brightest go on to independence.
But there is more to it than intellect and scientific skill. To become successful as independent investigators, young scientists must possess–or acquire–a battery of nonscientific skills. Traditionally, individuals were left to pick these up on their own, but they may now take advantage of many excellent programs that focus on teaching them the skills of successful grant applications and scientific management. One of the most ambitious and comprehensive of these efforts is a program in lab management supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in the U.S.A.
A successful PI must know how to bring a team together and nurture each individual, says Peter J. Bruns, Vice President for Grants and Special Programs at the HHMI, who was on the faculty of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for more than 30 years. His advice to budding lab managers: “When you look at successful mentors, you’ll find that they recognize the human needs of their people. They listen to their problems, work-related or not. They help them succeed as people,” Bruns says.
Many scientists believe that personality plays a crucial role in achieving independence as well. “The scientific abilities of independent investigators versus the nonindependent ones are essentially the same,” says Michael F. Hochella Jr., a professor of mineralogy and geochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. “In my experience, the difference may lie in both the level of ambition and basic personality,” says Hochella, whose career mentoring doctoral and postdoctoral trainees has spanned more than 2 decades.
Do you have what it takes?
The foundations of personality are part nature and part nurture. With effort, people can make some changes around the edges but most core character traits endure. How we are hard-wired may make us more or less likely to become independent researchers. According to some of the experienced lab managers interviewed for this article, at the top of the list of traits required for independent research are persistence, self-confidence, and flexibility.
Independent research isn’t the path for the scientist who is motivated by quick rewards, Hochella says. Research independence requires tenacity, drive, and the willingness to hang in for the long haul. “Young scientists who wish to become independent need to be able to see the rewards down the line, set their minds on it, and go for it,” says Hochella. “They remain calm, take things one step at a time, and know that if they pass all the individual hurdles, they will have a good chance of making it.”
Michael Thoennessen, a professor and associate director of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NCSL) at Michigan State University in East Lansing believes that mentors can help young scientists by modeling the costs and rewards of persistence. “He can convey to the mentee that he loves his job, although it involves intense work, long hours, and is sometimes loaded with administrative tasks,” he says.
Experience in the PI’s basic tasks can also give aspiring scientists a leg up while they’re still in training. Steve K. Lower, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus is a one of Hochella’s protégés who has gone on to secure his own grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy. “As a graduate student, my adviser allowed me to play a big role in the writing of NSF grants. He also allowed me to review the panel reviews” of the grant proposals he helped write, says Lower. Aside from learning the nuts and bolts, those experiences helped him recognize the importance of persistence and humility, he says.
“Those who succeed are well-grounded people who have seen success and believe they can do it too. They are not the type of people who worry too much or are easily intimidated,” says Hochella.
Mentors can help trainees become more self-confident by engaging them in meaningful discussions and treating them as peers rather than “down-the-pecking-order” students and postdocs, says Thoennessen. “Trainees gain confidence when they realize the people they respect in the field don’t have all the answers,” he says.
“The ability to handle ambiguity and uncertainty with some equanimity, even to embrace it, is really critical,” says Thoennessen. This requires a willingness to learn new roles, even or especially when it means moving beyond one’s comfort level or skill set, he says.
“I enjoy the process of science and can be happy working on a variety of different projects,” says Rich. He took his prior work and expertise in the area of gastrointestinal motility and applied it to a new animal model, the zebra fish, to show that he could do what he proposed to do and then added a new hook to get it funded. “When considering projects, I always keep two things in mind: what work will be fun to do and what work is fundable,” says Rich.
One of the most universal keys to adapting to an independent position is learning to get more done in less time. Between teaching, research, grant writing, mentoring, and committee work, new faculty members have a lot more to do than they did when they were grad students and postdocs, so they can’t afford to waste time–and that means working smart as well as hard.
“I recall Professor Hochella saying, ‘You can make discoveries by spending a month in the lab or a day in the library,’ ” he says. Lower first put that lesson into practice when he spent a good part of his first summer of grad school in the library. “At the end of the summer, I had figured out what was missing from my area of research. I knew where I could carve a niche,” he says. He’s been applying the lesson ever since.
Not everyone is interested in pursuing independent research. “There are many young scientists who don’t have a burning ambition or an inherent need to lead. They are content with following, knowing that they are just as capable,” says Hochella. “They just don’t want the hassle.”
“Today, many students don’t want to be clones of their professors,” says Bruns. He hopes that the graduate school community will recognize the need to prepare some equally talented graduate students for jobs other than doing “big research in big groups.”
Indeed, in a time of increasingly collaborative science, perhaps it’s the concept of independence itself that needs revising. A seminal report from the National Research Council (NRC) published in 2005, called, suggests that the traditional definition of an independent researcher–as an individual, usually in a tenure-track position, who has received his or her first RO1 research project grant (or equivalent) as a principal investigator–is too narrow. Rather, an independent researcher is “one who enjoys independence of thought–the freedom to define the problem of interest or to choose or develop the best strategies to address the problem.” Encompassed in the broader term is the notion that researchers need not be in tenure or even self-sustaining to be independent. They can achieve independence by making distinct contributions to the research enterprise even if they’re not in charge of the lab.
The problem is that there aren’t many alternatives to PI-ship for established academic scientists. Although some non-PI jobs may be found within universities–running core facilities, for example–these kinds of jobs are relatively few. Far more common is that older scientists stuck in postdocs with little job security, even a decade or more past their Ph.D.s. But these are not jobs that anyone aspires to. So early-career scientists who aren’t eager to head up their own research enterprise should consider opportunities to teach or to find work outside academia–at government labs or in private industry–where they can do good work without having to build and support a laboratory and a team. The kind of teamwork described in that NRC report is far more common in industry than it is in academia.
In one of the all-time most popular career advice books, (first published in 1970 and updated many times since), author Richard Nelson Bolles says, “The key to a happy and fulfilling future is knowing yourself. This self-knowledge is the most important component of finding the right career.” If your pursuit of independence feels like a slippery slope and you’re not enjoying it, sometimes it helps to reassess your career goals and talk them through with a trusted mentor, a career counselor, or a mental health professional.