On March 13th 2019, FoR ED Gary McDowell led a workshop, “Training Transitions: Pathways to Independence in Research” at the University of California Irvine School of Biological Sciences.


What does “independence” mean for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers? The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study for The Next Generation Researchers Initiative (of which FoR ED Dr. Gary McDowell and FoR President Dr. Jessica Polka were members) took the definition of independence from a previous 2005 Academies study, Bridges to Independence:


The definition of ‘independence’ as a researcher in a tenure-track faculty position who has received his or her first R01 research project grant is outdated…

we define an ‘independent investigator’ as one who enjoys independence of thought

In addition, the committee has affirmed the interconnectedness of scientific research and research training. Mentoring and research training cannot be separated from scientific research for anyone in postdoctoral- or graduate student- positions and should not be considered as separate objectives.”


The barriers that early career researchers (undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty) may face in establishing themselves as independent scholars are a topic of increasing discussion, in an ever more hypercompetitive academic environment. For example, a major issue for postdocs is the tension between being supported from research project grants, fulfilling the aims of someone else’s research project, rather than being in the ideal postdoc position of developing their own research project and goals, and learning how to lead a project, with mentorship from another investigator. This is just one example of the conflict that has arisen between fostering academic scholarship, and providing the labor for scientific research needed to publish papers and acquire funding. This was recently discussed in the piece, “Stop blocking postdocs’ paths to success“, in which the late Ben Barres stated:


“I think it’s time for the academic community to start openly discussing the issue of research freedom for postdocs (or lack of it).”


Future of Research has been holding workshops to help early career researchers appreciate evidence about the biomedical enterprise, identify barriers they face in striving towards independence, and most importantly to discuss and propose solutions to overcome these barriers, the most recent taking place at University of California Irvine’s Graduate Professional Success in Biomedical Sciences (GPS-BIOMED) program funded by an NIH BEST grant.











Many of the problems identified, and solutions proposed, related to the individual. Imposter syndrome and confidence were recurring themes. But there were also systemic issues identified – a lack of access to professional development training, a lack of funding mechanisms in which to develop independence, and a lack of data about the realities of the system (career outcomes were a major talking point) – which participants felt contributed to the difficulty in establishing independence.


Over the course of the session participants identified actions they could take. For example, a wide variety of training opportunities available to them locally were highlighted and the suggestion to establish multiple mentors was made. But there were also recommendations that there should be a greater focus on preparing for faculty job applications, and faculty professional development, that there was not currently access to, suggesting a gap in the research enterprise’s priorities.


Overall, the workshop follows a format that we have found particularly successful in empowering early career researchers. Providing access to data about the realities of the system allows early career researchers to think in an informed manner about their own research environments. Discussing the problems they face allows space for catharsis; but then working on how to solve those problems helps provide positive action points moving forward for the researchers themselves – and also gives FoR ideas of what systemic issues to address in our work.


You can find the slides from Dr. McDowell’s presentation here. Please stay tuned for our upcoming paper summarizing the data from our workshops, and outlining thoughts for the future of research independence for early career researchers.


This workshop was organized with the help of Dr.Harinder Singh, Associate Director, GPS-BIOMED program & Lauren Lyon, Career Counselor, Division of Career Pathways at UC. Photographs provided by Dr. Harinder Singh.