How do early career researchers become “independent”?

I came across this post/preprint recently - it addresses an important question that seems to get regularly overlooked in traditional research training.

When an early career researcher is moving through academic training, their time as a PhD student generally teaches them how to do research; whereas a postdoc is the time for them to learn how to lead a research effort, and in particular, start to think about framing their long-term question.

However, a conflict exists: early career researchers are the primary labor force driving scientific research forward. The focus on generating data can take priority over training in leading a research group.

In brief, participant responses were broken down into 6 areas:

  1. Participants gave examples of how their independence is actually “discouraged”’;
  2. They spoke about the difficulty in accessing career development data and resources;
  3. They cited a lack of formal mentorship training as a barrier;
  4. Particular barriers that are faced by international scholars were highlighted;
  5. They pointed to the distractions and barriers caused by inadequate salaries and benefits provision; and
  6. They raised issues highlighting a misalignment of their values and priorities with the academic system and culture.

Participants provided solutions to these various problems, and from this we distilled a set of recommendations for early career researchers; faculty and research groups; and funding agencies, which we discuss in the preprint (you can find a summary of the barriers, solutions and recommendations for increased independence in this handout too).

Lastly, we asked - should everyone be “independent”? Is the push for independence and identifying individual contributions a barrier to collaborative efforts? We pose the thought that perhaps a better term is “agency”, and that agency can be a more widely applied concept, especially in attempting to dismantle barriers that are largely derived from gatekeeping effects.

Pre-print related to the post above

Academic research is managed through principal investigators overseeing independent research programs. The idealized training to become a principal investigator consists of studying for a PhD, where research skills are developed, possibly followed by postdoctoral research training under the mentorship of another principal investigator. The researcher can then take those skills and apply them to the management of a multi-person project. However, in the present scientific research climate, early career researchers (ECRs, broadly graduate students and postdocs) face obstacles to establishing their own independent research programs. To gather data on the experiences of ECRs in academia, we organized a series of workshops discussing the barriers they experience to research independence, and solicited their proposals of solutions to overcome them. Barriers identified included: a lack of agency for ECRs in leading aspects of their own research; gaining access to training opportunities in grantsmanship; and pressure to focus on producing only positive results of statistical significance. Proposed solutions to these problems point to particular aspects where training ECRs may be beneficial. These findings may be informative to the scientific community as we consider how to train ECRs for research independence.

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