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I am currently a researcher (a postdoc) in a research group at a scientific institute. I obtained my Ph.D. degree 2 years ago and right away I got employed at this institute and started as a postdoc. I dare to say that I did a nice job during my Ph.D. and also I am working quite well here and my supervisor is happy with my outcomes.

Yesterday, after a discussion with my supervisor regarding some results he told me that now it is time for me to gradually start my own research (along with doing my job here) in order to strengthen my academic career so that I can have my own research group in the future. I am a bit stressed now because the main path of my research has been always chosen by my supervisors and also I always had their support. On the other hand, this has always been my dream to have my own research and become a pioneer in a scientific matter.

I have some interesting scientific topics in mind that I can follow but I am afraid that I cannot do a nice job alone. I think what I need is just a strong startup then I will get into my stride. Could somebody give me some good advice?

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  • May I ask what your field is? – henning Dec 13 '19 at 20:38
  • @henning--reinstateMonica Yes sure. It is engineering. Mechanics, in particular. – KratosMath Dec 13 '19 at 21:44
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Specialize, focus and diversify your research agenda solely on 2-3 open questions/problems the next years. There is not really another path. Especially in fundamental sciences it's hard to plan an academic career, so you have to take risks, therefore diversify them. And this is also encouraged by the academic system to achieve results beyond the state of the art and knowledge. With many publications you might get a staff position, but to get tenure as a professor you need to become one of the few experts in your field for a distinct method or sub-topic. But don't understand this as a 2nd PhD, it's now your duty to acquire funding, PhD students and build a scientific network around you. You need to acquire people now that work with or for you. You showed with your PhD that you can work alone on a scientific question, for tenure you need show that you can set up aresearch agenda for younger scientists and bigger projects with several partners and that you are able to manage successfully and financially projects aparat from teaching duties. You also have to show autonomy, staying with your supervisor your whole post-doc time is disadvantegous.

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This is a great question, even though it connects to the very general question of how you get established as an independent researcher.

It is never too early to have your own research interests and take your own ideas seriously. It is not really different from having hobbies, only that here you take the hobby idea seriously.

Ideally in your post-doc you are behaving as though you have a lab of your own within someone else's lab. Maybe that is a good place to start, taking small projects from start to end. It is probably better to begin with something small that you can finish before you complete the post-doc. This can also give you the confidence to work on more projects.

Another way to think about projects is to consider funding sources. A bit of weird way to go about it, but I find that it can give you some concrete goal to aim towards. This depends on the field, but it can help to write a proposal about your idea in the form of a grant, and then decide if you'd like to submit it or not. The important part (for yourself) is seeing that you understand the investment and skills required by the project.

I don't think there's ever a situation where you will receive no feedback from anyone. The supervisor provides a buffer between funding bodies and journals and their students (depending on the supervisor...), so it's not a huge leap to try to do without this mediation. You still have the critical feedback of reviewers and colleagues, and eventually, students.

As a final point, you can consider collaborations with other, more experienced researchers where you contribute equally and are on the same level as the researcher you collaborate with. This way you can learn from more experienced researchers while being essentially independent. This can make the transition much smoother.

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This is a really good question and something that a lot of researchers struggle with. I've written an article about this my self. There are many different ways to discover a new research topic. The first thing you need to ask yourself is, what interest YOU as opposed to what is currently trendy or where all the funding is going. Being aware of funding is of course important, but it should be CONTRIBUTORY factor and not a DETERMINING factor. After all, you are going to work with your new research project for many months or years, exploring something that is interesting to you makes it so much easier in the long haul.

To answer your question concisely, I would say:

1) Look through conference proceedings on topics that you've researched in the past, look at the titles. Do you see anything that interest you? Set aside one hour, make a batch of tea, and skim through these articles to find something that sparks your interest.

2) When reading through this material, always ask yourself, hmmm is there something that I could contribute here? If not, maybe it's better to keep searching until you can answer that question affirmatively.

3) Finally, remember to take walks to free up your mind. It is often during these times of recreation that we come up with out most creative ideas. Maybe even schedule a bus/train trip in the upcoming weekend to a neighboring city that you've never visited. Just sitting in the bus/train, meandering and gazing out the window will definitely keep you busy with all sorts of creative ideas.

Keep at it and best of luck with finding your new research project! :)

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  • Thanks a lot for the really nice ideas. – KratosMath Nov 20 '19 at 10:51
  • No worries, keep it up. I hope you find something that suits you. 😀 @KratosMath – Adam at Avidnote Nov 20 '19 at 10:55
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    Sorry I find this no good advise for several reasons, a research agenda you have to plan strategically not within an hour. Next you shouldn't contribute something here and there or which you can already answer, one has to really go deeper to contribute something significant. With 3) I agree very much, my best ideas are coming outside of university :-) – user48953094 Nov 20 '19 at 14:13
  • @user48953094 I think you made a very good point. I don't want to have my footprints in different researches without a deep understanding. I would like to do something big. That is why I posted here. +1 – KratosMath Nov 20 '19 at 14:39
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Pick your favorite topic in your chosen field. Explore the underlying assumptions. Push these assumptions along different dimensions to see if and how they breakdown. Do a little investigation on the work done by others working on these extremities, and see if you find something that interests and inspires you, to do more.

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