Monday, September 5, 2011

Towards research independence

I received a request:
"Can you talk about going from a research dependent (when your projects are fed to you) to someone able to write single author papers?" 
Here a few thoughts.
  • Get a good mentor. Ask them to help you with this.
  • Be aware of how committed the person paying your salary is to you making this transition.
  • Before and during any project (both those fed to you and ones you come up with) ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? Why is it important? What do I hope to discover? Is it realistic, particularly in the desired time frame? When and why might I abandon the project?"
  • Ask the same questions of your supervisor and/or collaborators.
  • Get in the habit of critically evaluating other peoples research (fellow students and postdocs, papers you read, talks you hear..). What is the basis for your positive and negative evaluations? 
  • Continually work on your writing skills.
Having said all that bear in mind that "independence" is not the be all and end all. It should be tempered with the following two points.

First, the ultimate goal is to do the best possible science. This usually involves collaboration. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses: choosing specific projects, putting together a collaboration, doing the actual calculations or experiments, writing code, making devices, writing the paper, getting the grants, promoting the work, connecting theory and experiment, ... 
A key is recognising your own strengths and weaknesses and working with people who complement you and appreciate your contribution.

Second, the importance of "independence" in career advancement varies significantly between different countries and institutions. Furthermore, I fear it is often evaluated in a fickle, highly subjective, and inconsistent manner. Hence, you may think you have become "independent" when you have published a single author paper; don't assume that others will see it that way. They may have completely different criteria or not even notice.

I welcome comments.


  1. Thanks for the article. I am trying to start this transition. I am writing up my PhD thesis at the moment (Electrical Engineering) and so far 3 publications in top rank journal are out.
    I have got an idea of a technical solution which is not relevant to my PhD topic and over five months I have worked alone in parallel to my PhD on assessments, analysis, and formalization of this technical solution. I kind of wanted to check my abilities on starting something from scratch independently without involving others. Luckily, it seemed to work!
    I have written a journal paper collecting all the progress (no experimentation, however) and ready for submission to a suitable journal. I was advised to keep it for single-author publication after I get the PhD to avoid upsetting my supervisors.
    I am planning to negotiate it with supervisors before I do submit. And I wish to submit it now to register the idea to my name before someone else does. But I know I am setting a precedent in the "history" of this team by going single-author. So my inquiry is:

    1- If my supervisors get upset, do they have really right to do so? I mean am I doing something wrong?

    2- If they are upset, should I still go my way single or add them as coauthors and sacrifice the transition to independence? (Not planning to work with the team afterwards, but concerned about any negative recommendations from my supervisors to future employers if asked!)

    3- Would having a single-authored paper at this stage be of any negative impact to my view in the community (e.g. no team spirit)? Given I have overall published 5 journal papers (including the 3 papers mentioned earlier) and 6 conference papers before and during the PhD. ALL these papers are with other co-authors (sometimes up to 6), and in two of these papers I am a second author.

    Your advice is much appreciated.

  2. "They may ... not even notice."

    I have seen worse. Usually they *always* notice, and rub it the wrong way. Anti-competitive laws (and lawsuits), anyone?