Early Career Psychologist Column

Transitioning to independence

Elizabeth Holly, PhD, shares common questions regarding the transition to research and professional independence.
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By Elizabeth Holly, PhD

description As I am entering the late stages of my postdoc period and preparing to enter the academic job market, I have been thinking very deeply about how to transition to independence. My goal for this column is to share some of the questions I have been asking myself, hopefully encouraging trainees at all levels to start asking themselves similar questions. There are no universal or correct answers, just questions.

For me, the entire process of transitioning to independence is about taking ownership. Not just taking ownership in our current research projects but taking ownership of every aspect of our careers. I ask myself regularly and now with increasing frequency, “If I started my lab tomorrow, would I be ready? What am I underprepared for, and what steps can I take to fill in those holes?” I tend to sub-divide these questions into two central areas: research direction and lab management.

What do you want your research program to be? I’ve sought out a lot of advice on what makes people competitive on the academic job market, and a recurrent theme has been the importance of a clear and logical research trajectory and vision that is dissociable from the current mentor’s. It is so important to think early and often about how you will develop your own research program. If you started your lab tomorrow, what questions would you most want to tackle first? What would your first grant be? Has your current work lead very logically to those questions? If your current work (like mine) has gradually steered you a different direction than you would like to follow, what experiments can you do to change the course? Have you started having conversations with your current PI about the transition of research? It’s essential to have clear, explicit conversations about what data/directions you are allowed to carry with you and what should remain with the PI. These discussions evolve over time and can be difficult or uncomfortable, but having them throughout your training will help you guide your work in a direction that benefits both you and your PI.

For many, including myself, graduate and postdoctoral training is centered on research, but we are never formally taught the fundamentals of leading a lab. If we’re lucky, we’ve trained with great mentors and have picked up some of these skills through observation, but it is hard to get it all by osmosis alone, and we all pick up on different things. How do you even start a lab from scratch? What does it take to run a lab efficiently and effectively? What do you know about budgeting and resource management, other than you’re always spending too much money? How do you build a team from the ground up? How will you manage interpersonal dynamics? When the research group is small, bad interactions between lab members can be arguably more disruptive than when the group is large. What is your approach to mentoring? How do you manage day to day function, like meeting structure and data management? 

As I navigate these difficult questions, I have been placing increased value on growing a strong network of connections. Reach out to scientists whose careers you hope to model, even if you have never met them — I have been surprised by the amount of time and advice people have given me. Having good mentors is paramount at every step of your career — transitioning to independence does not mean you have to go it alone; it means you just have to take total ownership over your career.

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