Becoming autonomous

amy-loughman-150pxAmy Loughman is an Associate Lecturer in Psychology at RMIT University.

She has recently finished writing her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has undertaken research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health in the US.

Clinically trained in neuropsychology, she is passionate about understanding the relationships between physical and mental health. A particular research interest of Amy’s is the gut microbiome and the potential relevance that this ‘forgotten organ’ may have for understanding human health.

Amy blogs at Mind Body Microbiome and is on Twitter at @MBmicrobiome. Her ORCID is 0000-0002-0257-1443

Photo by Sergee Bee |
Photo by Sergee Bee |

I’ve recently taken up an academic position. Like, a proper, grown-up, paid academic position. One where I get to teach (which I like doing) and I can also do any kind of research I want to.

People outside of the research world might not appreciate just what a privilege that last point is.

Of course, anyone can steer themselves towards applying for jobs on research projects that interest them. But unless you’re a relatively established academic, and independently funded (i.e. You have project money, as well as a source of money that pays your salary such as a grant), you don’t actually get to choose much else.

For less established researchers, research assistant positions can be a great place to start. The research or project assistant role is a predominantly data-collecting, administrative and occasionally grant- or paper-writing gig. Those things can be fun, and even career-building, but at the end of the day (or rather the start), someone else is dictating what your work will look like. Intellectual input? Minimal. Autonomy to take the research where you want? That’s the principal investigator’s job. Research assistants are vital to making research happen, but eventually most people with drive and ideas of their own will be itching for more. So, like me, many people obtain a higher research degree such as a PhD. From there, many enter the independent research rat-race of underpaid postdoctoral fellowships, spending weeks of the year on writing grants with slim chances of success, and experiencing the general lack of stability that comes with a research career.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m prepared for all that. I love and believe in research too much to be put off by the competitiveness, scarce funding, and not-great money.

I was really fortunate to be employed in the final months of my PhD candidature, without the common unemployment gap or fight for a postdoc position. The upshot of this is, however, that I have minimal ongoing projects to bring to my new institution. I should also add that I have decided to pivot from my PhD research area to something significantly different. So, in this new role, I find myself now in a position where, in exchange for some lecturing, I am allowed (indeed, paid!) to spend a significant portion of my time doing my own research. Research that I design, initiate, apply for funding for, find people to collaborate with, manage, write-up, and own*.

And I’m terrified.

Terrified may be an overstatement, but I am definitely experiencing some transitioning angst. I’m feeling the burden and responsibility of this brilliant opportunity to be entirely self-directed.

What if I stuff it up? What if I get completely misguided? More importantly, what do I actually do? How should I get started?

I have lots of ideas. I’d like to start with that. I also have lots of things I’m interested in. My shorter-than-an-elevator-pitch has become: “I’m interested in the links between physical and mental health. Particularly the gut-microbiome, and how that might be impacting health and disease”. Sounds okay, right? (If not, someone please tell me now.)

However, there are many, many interesting fields and topics that fit within that pitch, and within my basket of personal research interests. Here are just a few: gut health, diet, obesity, preventative physical and mental health, public health programs, stress, mindfulness and meditation, lifestyle factors, chronic pain, functional gut disorders, neurological disorders, improving health equality, cognitive function and early life influences.

In some settings, breadth is a good thing, and it’s something I have always had. It could be because of ‘academic FOMO’, or just that my interests are broad, and I go where they take me. But when it comes to being a grown-up academic, my sense is that some specialisation is useful, and enables the carving out of a niche. But then there’s the fear of being pigeon-holed. (That terrible fear: what if I get too good at something I no longer want to do? What if I can’t get out of it? Where there was FOMO, now there is FONGO – fear of not getting out – you heard it here first!)

FONGO: Fear of not getting out

But back to the issue at hand: how do I get started?

The objective of the game, at least for the moment, is to be as ‘research productive’ as possible (i.e. write papers, get grants), preferably doing something that floats my boat. This goals is helped along by collaborations, supervising graduate students (to help with the grunt work – sorry, but it’s true), applying for any and all grants, and having a PhD (I’m working on getting this one made official).

Given these goals, I have come up with a few ideas for starting my new research at a new institution. An obvious first step seemed to be to speak to my colleagues and get to know people in fields related to my areas of interest. In chatting with others, I might be able to find ways to contribute to existing projects such as offering to help with some of the statistical analysis, for example, or expanding on their research questions. Discussions like this could also produce some ideas about possible new collaborative projects.

Another idea was to offer to write-up data or finish-off projects that colleagues might not have time for, or have forgotten about. In his workshops on getting research done, Hugh Kearns talks about getting almost-there papers completed as a matter of priority. So, this ‘finishing off papers’ strategy has the benefits of establishing new working relationships, getting research out there, and contributing to my published output (the unfortunate primary measure of research success).

There are a possible roadblocks to this approach. First, not everyone has piles of data lying around. If it really was piles of data, they could use it as fodder for student projects. Second, the chances that this data answered the kind of research questions I’m interested in are slim. I’m not sure yet how much this should matter. Early career researchers may not be choosers, perhaps?

I am also looking more broadly, and aiming to build networks of potential collaborations at other universities and research institutes.

Is there anything else I should be doing at this stage? What would more seasoned academics and researchers do if they had their early days over again? Has anyone else experienced similar angst about the transition to being an independent researcher?

* Of course all publicly funded research should remain the public domain, but hopefully you know what I mean.


  1. I’ve been going through the same process, first with a DECRA in Australia and then starting up an independent research group in Germany under the Emmy Noether scheme. My research area is plant genetics, which is hopefully similar enough to draw parallels. I think what has been most helpful for me is getting to international conferences and visiting research labs to meet and make strong collaborations internationally within my research field. Meeting other researchers with different specialties at conferences and talking about ideas has led to several joint review papers and even a couple of submitted grant proposals. I’d recommend looking for travel grants to fund this, and checking also for small project start-up grants (university level or independent funding agencies) that can be used to produce preliminary data for larger grant proposals in future.

    I actually feel that developing a strong research specialty as soon as possible is vital. If you have a clear area of expertise that is unique or at least rare within your field, then this makes you much more valuable to collaborate with. Focusing on this core area to start with will be much more helpful in building a strong track record of connected publications, which will then provide evidence of expertise for grant proposals. This doesn’t mean you can’t explore other research directions as well, but I think being too much of a generalist is quite risky as a more junior researcher still establishing a research presence. I would also urge caution in picking up other people’s unfinished projects – I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with second-hand data, and sometimes it’s hard to know what the problems are before you’re already committed and/or half-way through the analysis. This can still be a good option, but there is some risk.

    I’m not sure how applicable this would be to your research in particular, but I also found taking on undergraduate research project, Honours and Masters students was really helpful in getting additional data and analyses for small projects or to contribute to ongoing larger projects. Advertising your research to potential students at undergrad and postgrad levels is probably easy if you’re teaching, but there may also be booklets etc. released by various course coordinators of potential research projects you can advertise in.

    Good luck 🙂


  2. Thanks, Annaliese! You make some really good points, and I loved hearing your thoughts on specialising early. It is mirroring my thoughts on trying to stay as much within my primary topic of interest as possible. The second-hand data caution is also timely! Thanks 🙂


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