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How to Become a Truly Independent Investigator

Learn to become a trusted independent investigator by focusing on logistics like funding, skills, personality traits, persistence and flexibility

By Sarah Tragesser

Most young investigators ultimately aspire to become an independent investigator with their own program of research and recognition in the field. We typically define independence as becoming the Principal Investigator on an R01 grant. An alternative definition of independence reads, “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.” Although this definition of independence is not often observed in academic settings, it is more consistent with positions in government labs or private industry. Irene S. Levine (2007) provides some helpful tips on accomplishing independence in the article, “Making the Leap to Independence.” [Levine, I. S. (2007). Making the Leap to Independence. In Science Careers, Science Magazine, 03-02-2007.]

Logistics

  • Securing a Position: The first step in this process is to secure a position where you will have adequate lab space, start-up funds, and time and freedom.

  • Funding: Grant funding is a critical component to independence. Ultimately, the goal is to secure large grants (e.g., R01 from NIH), but there are now other mechanisms that can provide a stepping-stone between being mentored and being an independent investigator:

- K99/R00 Pathway to Independence awards are specifically for the purpose of helping postdocs become independent investigators. These also make applicants competitive in the job market by providing funding for their first years on the job.

- New Innovator Awards provide funding for new investigators who propose innovative approaches that have the potential for making a high impact on the field.

  • Skills: Obtaining funding in the first place requires grant-writing skills and lab management skills. If these skills are not obtained during training, several conference workshops and training programs exist to help you develop these skills.

  • Personality Traits: Experienced lab managers report that personality traits are a key component to becoming an independent investigator, and may even be the distinguishing feature between individuals of equivalent skills, talent and/or training who do and do not become independent. The following are categories of personality traits that have been associated with becoming a successful independent researcher and some behaviors related to each category.

  • Persistence: May be fostered through participation in grant-writing and revision as a graduate student. Examples: Have a good balance of both short and long-term goals; remain calm despite adversity; work to tackle problems one-step at a time.

  • Confidence or “Fearlessness”: Confidence may be fostered through mentors who engage students in meaningful discussions, and treating students like peers. Examples: Believe that goals will happen and work to achieve them; not be easily intimidated; not be overly worried; be open to innovation.

  • Flexibility: Flexibility may be fostered by working in dynamic environments. Examples: Handle ambiguity and uncertainty appropriately; be willing to learn new roles or skills, even those beyond your comfort zone; apply old knowledge to new areas; become involved with a variety of projects; be flexible enough to adapt to what is fundable but also what is interesting to you.

  • Working Smart: Working smart means using your time efficiently. Examples: Getting more done in less time [Editor’s note: See Scientist Spotlight series for suggestions on how this might be achieved]; identify and employ strategies that make the most of your time (e.g., spending enough time in the library to know in advance what will be innovative in your field, where you can build a niche).