How to develop scientific independence - title

Scientific independence – how to develop and demonstrate it?

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, this person must know what to do without needing someone “holding his or her hand.” 

Thus, selection committees that 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. 

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 independently of your supervisor(s)?
  3. Do you have a strong international network?

Let us discuss each aspect.

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

Group of scientists representing different context to excel in

In order to develop a healthy strategy for your carer, it is important to understand how selection committee members evaluate scientific independence. 

They will first check whether you have performed well in different research contexts.

Therefore, changing the lab and the country at least once or twice in your early career is good advice. 

For example, go to a new university to do your PhD and do *not* stay at the University where you did your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

You should definitely do one or two postdocs somewhere else – ideally abroad! 

A short stay in another lab during your master’s or PhD will *not* be considered as a sign of scientific independence. However, it may have other advantages, such as learning a new technology and broadening your network. 

Read more here: Should I organize a short stay abroad during my PhD

Most research institutions highly value international experiences. There are convincing reasons why you should acquire experience and skills abroad

A scientist who has worked abroad normally develops a much broader view of science and cultural differences. 

There are unpleasant side effects of international mobility that nobody ever talks about. However, precisely these unpleasant side effects of staying abroad make you more independent!

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

If all your excellent publications are published under the supervision of your first supervisor, there may be doubts about whether you can show the same excellent performance independently. 

Therefore, it is good advice to publish independently of 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 supervisors raised the money to pay you and expect you to work for their output, career, and fame – and *not* independently on your own career. 

However, many supervisors understand your situation, show empathy, and are generous enough to let you spend some of your working time on an independent publication.

Publish ‘independent’ reviews

A simple strategy to gain scientific independence is to publish one or two excellent reviews without your supervisor in the authors list. 

It makes your life easier to choose a topic that is not the core expertise of your supervisor. In that case, 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 complementary expertise, stay friends, and publish together for years.

Publish new papers with another senior author

Another simple solution for demonstrating scientific independence is to move to a new lab and perform there with excellence as well. 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 publishing as a senior author on papers 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 less relevant to your supervisor. 

You may also negotiate that you get an asterisk and get marked as an “equally contributing senior author” on selected papers.

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. Maybe your supervisor might do the same…

3.     Do you have a strong international network?

Symbols representing an international network

Finally, you should develop a strong international network to broaden your horizons. You may collaborate with international colleagues who are experts in their field and may contribute technology and expertise to your papers (or vice versa). 

Your network will probably overlap substantially with your previous or current supervisors’ networks. This will normally be accepted.

Joint projects

Effective ways 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. You should attend international scientific meetings and make friends to build your network!

National and international visibility

When you have built up your network, you will get more and more invitations to be a speaker or chairperson at scientific meetings

You may even get invited to become a 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. There are many dangers to be associated with predatory journals. It will ruin your reputation. 

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


I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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