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Strategies for Getting to Independence

As part of our Monthly Postdoc Conversation this week, we discussed challenges postdocs face when working on the pathway to establish research independence.  The group discussed common situations such as:

  • What happens if I am doing work that just utilizes skills I already have?
  • How do I carve out my research direction?
  • What happens if my PI doesn’t let me “leave the lab”?
  • How do I ask for protected time?
  • How do I find independent resources to support independent work?

The OPA staff and UWPA leadership were on hand to offer these Tips and Tools to help you succeed in your pathway to independence:

–        Negotiate up front.  Ideally, release time and beginning to discuss your pathway to independence is part of your postdoc interview and will give you insight into whether it is the right environment for you. Since few people do that, what can you do next?

–        Ask for what you need. Develop a plan (for research, for independent grant funding, for a professional development opportunity) and present your case to your PI.  Be clear about what you are asking for, how it will help you, and how it may ultimately help the research group if that is possible. Use your broader mentoring team of trusted advisors to get feedback on your plan before you discuss it with your primary faculty supervisor. You can also talk through strategies for presenting your plan with Dr. Bill Mahoney, Senior Faculty Advisor with the OPA during his office hours (or by appointment).  For tips on how to be proactive about getting the mentoring you need, see the “Managing Up” posting.

–        Leverage the Federal Office of Management and Budget policy on release time within federally funded grant projects.  That is, they recognize the postdoc is in a dual role of employee AND trainee and therefore require that a % of your effort should be dedicated to professional or career advancement, even when funded on a federal research grant.

–        Show and share in success.  If you were accepted to present on your independent work, perhaps from your doctoral research, publicly thank your current PI and research group for their ongoing support (and apply for an OPA travel grant to help you get there).  All faculty value positive press, and when the departmental or School or UW news picks up on your research, they will enjoy their affiliation with you.

–        “Say no to say yes.” Sometimes you have to turn down particular assignments or repeat projects if they aren’t growing your skillsets in order to create more space for new work.  That said, sometimes saying yes will get you into unexpected collaborations with colleagues in other departments or across the country, which can further distinguish you from your postdoc faculty advisor.

–        Establish the evidence you need to demonstrate your contributions and independence. Research is often done in teams, and it is a positive quality to pitch in and help when needed.  And, sometimes four years can go by and you may find you don’t yet have a first authored paper from the work or a grant since you’ve been busy writing for other people.  Sit down with your faculty advisor and look at your CV together.  Discuss your career goals and what additional evidence you will need to be competitive.  Is it a first authored paper? Negotiate for taking the lead on the next piece of work completed by the group (and document these decisions with the whole research team so expectations are clear to everyone).

–        “Lean in.” “Just do it.” That is, fight the imposter syndrome.  You might not feel ready to step out on your own, but growth happens when we take risks and push our edge. Get feedback from people you trust about your areas of strength and growth.

Let’s keep this list of tips growing.  If you’ve had things work for you, or others around you, write us and let us know about them.  We’ll add them to the blogpost that is archived on this topic.