When breaking free is a mark of success

Two new measures aim to assess researchers' independence from their former lab heads.

3 October 2018

Gemma Conroy

Ikon Images/Alamy Stock Photo

For early-career researchers, a good working relationship with a supervisor can open the door to exploring hot research areas, collaborating strategically and publishing papers. But building a career independently of a supervisor has rewards that go further.

Peter van den Besselaar

Peter van den Besselaar, an informatics researcher at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands interviewed 40 panel members at the European Research Council about the qualities they consider when evaluating candidates for starting grants. In addition to productivity, the panel members rated independence as an important factor. But the survey revealed that the panel members were also uncertain about how to measure this trait.

There is no shortage of indicators that measure productivity and collaboration, with numbers growing to over a hundred in recent years, according to a 2014 review of their usefulness. While these metrics are useful for tracking a researcher’s body of work, they do not reveal other important qualities grant evaluators and hiring committees consider when assessing candidates, such as creativity, originality and the ability to lead a team.

To address this gap, van den Besselaar and co-author Ulf Sandström at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden have proposed two indicators to measure the extent of researchers' independence from their former supervisors.

One measures the supervisor's influence in the researcher's network. The other looks at how similar or different the researcher's current research topics are from those of their former supervisor's. The analysis was published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

Original thinker

The new indicators could be used to assess a researcher’s initiative and originality, says van den Besselaar. “Those with more publications and citations are not always the winners.”

“Scientific development is based on groundbreaking ideas that change current paradigms,” he says. “This often requires working and thinking independently.”

The authors used their indicators to analyse the careers of four researchers — two in the life sciences and two in chemistry. They downloaded each researcher’s papers from the Web of Science, starting from their PhD to a decisive moment in their career, such as becoming a full professor or leaving academia to pursue an industry position. The team compared these papers with those of their former PhD supervisors.

First, the team calculated the share of papers co-authored with the former PhD supervisor. To score each researcher’s originality, they measured how similar their line of research was to their supervisor's. They also constructed the researcher's collaboration network and calculated the position of their former supervisor in the group. Finally, the team combined these calculations into an overall independence indicator.

While the chemistry pair had a similar number of publications and citations, their independence scores were very different. The indicators revealed that the first researcher, a full professor, had developed a co-author network separate from their supervisor’s and had deviated from their PhD topic. Although the second researcher had left academia to work in an industrial research and development lab, their former supervisor was still central to their network and their line of research had not changed.

The life sciences pair were also productive researchers, but the second researcher had a higher citation impact and more published papers than the first. Despite the two being more productive based on standard measures, the majority of their papers were co-authored with their two former supervisors. However, the researcher with fewer citations and publications was more independent with a strong network of their own.

Taking control

At a time when teamwork is becoming central to scientific research, van den Besselaar says that the new indicators could help identify researchers who are developing ideas of their own.

Striking a balance between encouraging researchers' independence and contributing to a lab’s goals requires planning ahead, says Tracey Chapman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

In her lab, postgraduates are free to explore side-projects and work with outside collaborators as long as the time commitment that will be involved is discussed beforehand. “Tensions arise when a side-project turns into something more than what was originally discussed,” says Chapman, who currently supervises eight researchers. “But this can be avoided with good planning.”

Isaiah Hankel told Nature Careers in a recent article on "The quest for postdoctoral independence" that learning to set boundaries early on is important for postdocs. Hankel, a cell biologist who founded a career-advice business for PhDs called Cheeky Scientist, said that while it may be daunting to say ‘no’ to a supervisor, postdocs need to take control of their schedule. “If you go to a lab and start working 16 hours a day, anything less than that will seem like slacking off.”

Chapman says that involving candidates in the day-to-day aspects of managing a research career, such as writing grants and developing lecture materials, can prepare them to stand on their own two feet when their studies come to an end. “A sense of personal contribution and ownership makes any career more fulfilling.”

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