In order to get grants or academic positions it is often necessary to show scientific independence. But how do you do that? The following strategies will help young scientists to develop and demonstrate scientific independence.

Why is scientific independence important?

Funding institutions value scientific independence highly because they want to invest their money in young scientists who are able to generate excellent research without the help of their former supervisors. The same is true for research institutions. When a postdoc or a new professor is selected it is crucial that this person knows what to do without the need of someone “holding his or her hand”. 

Thus, selection committees which select candidates to be funded or candidates for a postdoc or professor position will always check whether a candidate can convincingly show signs of scientific independence. In order to get grants or academic positions it is often necessary to show scientific independence. But how do you do that? The following strategies will help young scientists to develop and demonstrate scientific independence.

How to develop and demonstrate scientific independence?

There are three important elements to develop and demonstrate scientific independence.

  1. Do you perform well in *different* and *independent* research contexts?
  2. Do you perform well independent of your supervisor(s)?
  3. Do you have a strong international network?

1.     Do you perform well in *different* and *independent* research contexts?

In order to develop a healthy strategy for your carer it is important to understand how selection committee members will evaluate scientific independence. They will first check whether you have performed well in different research contexts.

Therefore, it is good advice to change the lab and the country at least once or twice in your early career. For example, go to a new university to do your PhD and do *not* stay at the University where you did your bachelor & master degree. You should definitely do one or two postdoc somewhere else – ideally abroad! A short stay in another lab during your master or PhD will *not* be considered as a sign of scientific independence but may have other advantages. Read more here: Should I organize a short stay abroad during my PhD

Most research institutions highly value international experiences – and there are good reasons: a scientist who has worked abroad normally develops a much broader view on science and cultural differences. Read more here: How to become a professor? There are unpleasant side-effects of international mobility which nobody ever talks about. However, exactly these unpleasant side-effects of staying abroad make you more independent!

2.     Do you perform well independent of your supervisor(s)?

If all your excellent publications are published under the supervision of your first supervisor, there may be doubt whether you are able to show the same excellent performance independently. Therefore, it is good advice to publish independently from your supervisor(s).

It is extremely important to discuss this first with your supervisor otherwise there is a big risk that it may be interpreted as a major breach of loyalty. Your supervisor raised the money to pay you and expects you to work for his/her output, career or fame – and not independently on your own career. However, many supervisors understand your situation, show empathy and are generous to let you spend some of your working time on an independent publication.

Publish ‘independent’ reviews

A simple strategy is to publish one or two excellent reviews without your supervisor in the authors list. It makes your life easier to choose a topic which is not the core expertise of your supervisor. Then it will be easy for your supervisor to let you take this new topic to build your own career without becoming a competitor. Ideally, you develop a complementary expertise, you stay friends and publish together for years.

Publish new papers with another senior author

Another simple solution is to move to a new lab and perform there as well with excellence. This is an obvious sign that your performance is independent of the first supervisor – and you get the merit.

Publish papers as senior author

Finally, as a postdoc you should start to publish as senior author on papers which you have supervised. This is not always easy when your PI is still in an earlier stage of his/her career and may still need senior authorships. However, you may start with smaller papers which are not that relevant for your supervisor. You may also negotiate that you get an asterisk and get marked as an “equally contributing senior author”.  I personally have given the senior position to my postdocs several times and took the last-before-last position with an asterisk. This is a healthy solution to promote the careers of my postdocs and the papers still count as senior authorships for me when applying for grant proposals.

3.     Do you have a strong international network?

Finally, you should develop a strong international network. This helps to broaden your horizon. You may collaborate with international colleagues who are experts in their field and may contribute technology and expertise to your papers (or the other way round). Your network will probably overlap substantially with the network of your previous or current supervisor(s). This will be accepted.

Joint projects

An effective way to reach international visibility and build your national and international network are joint projects, publications and patents (for example by contributing to each other’s studies with complementary expertise). You can apply for joint grants and supervise joint PhD students. To build your network you should attend international scientific meetings and make friends!

National and international visibility

When you have built up your network you will get more and more invitations as a speaker or chairperson at scientific meetings. You may even get invited to become member of the board of a scientific society which gives you a lot of visibility (the treasurer position is always easier to get because nobody wants to do this job …). Later you may get invited to become a section editor of a respectable journal. However, *never* accept the invitation to become editor of a predatory journal, this will ruin your reputation. Read more here about the dangers of being associated with predatory journals.

In summary, international mobility, independence from your previous supervisors in combination with a strong national and international network will convince most committees that you can ‘do the job’.