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Transitioning to research independence

Reprinted from the MRC website.

We understand that for many researchers, making the leap to independent research can be a challenging time. That’s why we’ve been working to ensure we can provide our researchers with the support they need to navigate this process. Professor Moira Whyte,  Head of the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Chair of the MRC’s Training and Careers Group, guides us through what we can offer to help early-career researchers in the transition.

Making the move from postdoc in someone else’s group to making your mark as an independent researcher can be a tough career stage. As noted in a recent article – The life of P.I. Transitions to Independence in Academia – early-career researchers (ECRs) face numerous barriers to securing posts, staff, time and funding. This comes at a time when they are trying to make their mark scientifically and generate the outputs that will get them recognised as leaders in their field, and we’ve heard from our own fellows, from both basic scientific and clinical backgrounds, about what a critical career stage this is.

To help, we’ve prioritised support at this career stage for a number of years, offering targeted support for ECRs who are making the transition to independence across the range of our funding: through fellowships (Career Development Awards and Clinician Scientist Fellowships), grants awarded by our research boards (New Investigator Research Grants) and through programme leader track posts in our institutes and university units.

Each of these mechanisms offers a route for ECRs to secure their own significant funding for the first time. They include support, funding and protected time for setting up their first research team and leading their own research project. The newly launched UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowships offer a further option for researchers at this career stage.

Improving guidance

We’ve been working hard to improve our guidance for ECRs navigating their options, including clarifying the key aims and characteristics of some of these mechanisms. We’ve updated our guidance on supporting research staff development, for those supported by MRC funding. This helps postdocs prepare for the next step in becoming independent, as well as for holders of MRC awards to manage their time to include opportunities for developing and progressing.

We supported the implementation and review of the concordat for researcher development and have supported the Academy of Medical Science’s SUSTAIN programme since its inception. SUSTAIN has just recruited its third cohort, and the programme provides interactive skills training and career development sessions, tailored mentoring and the opportunity to network with research leaders.

We’ve also worked to remove barriers to research careers, removing years post-PhD as an eligibility criterion for all our schemes in 2015 – a move followed by many other funders – recognising that careers progress at different paces. Additionally, none of our schemes requires applicants to move institution (often used as a proxy measure for readiness to establish research independence in practice). Moving can create further unnecessary barriers for ECRs, many of whom are looking to negotiate transitions in their personal life as well as professionally.

Doctoral training

In parallel,  we’ve improved the provision of doctoral training through our Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), ensuring training and experience is student-focused. At a workshop in autumn 2018 for DTP leads, the range of progress made in improving doctoral research training was exciting. Student-focused doctoral training and supporting ECRs in becoming supervisors and co-supervisors are not mutually exclusive and, as suggested at the workshop, we plan to include support and experience for ECR supervisors as metrics for future assessment of our DTPs.

More to do

We recognise that there remains much to be done. Our mechanisms offer a strong start for new principal investigators, with generous funding, protected time and prestige. But we know from our own researchers that they still face challenges negotiating this career phase.

We remain committed to supporting people flexibly through research careers, targeting critical stages, and identifying and addressing barriers to progression. And we want to ensure our funding supports ECRs in transitioning to longer-term positions. We’re also committed to increasing the diversity of individuals pursuing research careers by understanding ambitions and barriers, and plan to pilot interventions to promote and facilitate diversity over the coming year.

Our working life series and career inspirations podcast show how exciting a research career can be. We want to do our best, both to ensure no ECR we fund faces unnecessary barriers in pursuing their aspirations and to work in collaboration across the sector to recruit and retain talented individuals in science and academia.

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