Postdocs' Guide to Gaining Independence

Postdocs' Guide to Gaining Independence

This page may be helpful if you're a postdoctoral researcher* who eventually wants to be principal investigator (PI) of your own lab, most likely as a faculty member at an academic institution.

*For our purposes, we assume that you have already joined a mentor's lab. Also, we use mentor in the singular, but you may have more than one.

Table of Contents

Laying the Groundwork

As a postdoc, you have a lot to think about as you head down the road to becoming an independent investigator. Here we give you information on ways to prepare so you can reach your destination.

Make the Most of Your Mentor

To grow as a researcher and get the foundation you need for independence, you'll have to reap as much as possible from your mentor,* who is your adviser, advocate, critic, and instructor. This is a person from whom you can—and should—learn much.

To help cultivate a successful relationship, be sure to communicate. If you're not already doing so, have regular meetings with your mentor to keep him or her updated on your work and progress.

Whether in a meeting or not, don't be shy to acknowledge any concerns you might have and what you feel is important to keep you moving forward. Is there a conference you'd like to attend? Do you want to present a poster or give a talk? Let your mentor know you're thinking about such matters. It can't hurt to ask, and it shows you're eager and proactive.

Speaking of being proactive, see if you can contribute to writing an initial draft of a grant application or progress report that your mentor is going to submit. Since you'll be applying for grants (probably from NIH) throughout your career, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with grantsmanship early on, including writing and getting to know the application process. Your mentor will have experience with both, as well as receiving grants, and can therefore provide valuable insight to help you.

If you're at a point where you're ready to apply for a grant of your own, consult with your mentor to choose an appropriate grant type (e.g., fellowship, career development award). Then work with him or her while writing the application, and of course, have him or her read it when you're done. It’s also worth seeking feedback from several other colleagues. See below for more information about the kind of grants that are suitable for postdocs.

Lastly, as you get close to the end of your postdoctoral training, have a frank discussion with your mentor about the ideas, data, and resources (e.g., reagents, cell lines, animals) you’d like to take with you when you start your own lab. Your opinion about your rights to these items may differ from your mentor’s. Set mutually acceptable expectations up front to avoid confrontation later.

*Except for the NIAID Career Transition Award (K22), the grants covered in “Laying the Groundwork” require either a formal or designated mentor (for Ks) or sponsor [for the Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)].

Research, Research, Research

You'll spend most of your postdoctoral years conducting research, so make the most of being at the bench. Ultimately, that means getting enough preliminary data to use for papers and grant applications.

This is the period to develop your own research questions and discuss with your mentor new ideas to pursue. Your project should address an important research question and be doable in a reasonable amount of time. Try working on multiple projects to continuously advance your science and maximize your research time.

While you may zero in on getting results, think big picture as well. That is, focus on developing a new or underdeveloped area of expertise, coming up with experiments to conduct, and thinking about the future of your field and how you can help advance it.

It's also important to make scientific contributions that are original. Strive to be the first person to do something, such as thinking about a problem in a new way or taking an approach that overcomes limitations in existing paradigms.

Publish Papers, Apply for Grants

The fruits of your labor, i.e., your research, should lead to publications and grant applications.

Publications

Perhaps nothing is more important throughout your career than your publication profile. As a postdoc, you'll continue the publication trajectory you began as a graduate student (with your thesis and possibly a paper or two) and concentrate on getting more publications under your belt.

Aim to

  • Publish high-quality papers in top journals of your field.
  • Be first author to highlight your contributions.
  • Write a review article if you're not publishing a research paper every year.
  • Develop and collaborate with other researchers on papers.

Grant Applications

Try to write at least one successful grant application during your postdoc. This could be an application submitted to NIH, another federal agency, or a private foundation. Being awarded a grant not only benefits your research but is a sign of independence, creativity, and leadership potential.

To find a grant that's appropriate for you, see the following descriptions. Note that except for the K99/R00, all require either U.S. citizenship or permanent residency status (Alien Registration Receipt Card, Form I-551). People on temporary or student visas are not eligible.

Find additional information in Training and Career Development Grant Programs.

Purpose Award Notes
For research or health professional doctoral degree Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
  • For applicants who have recently earned their doctoral degree.
  • Funded investigators must sign a payback of 1 month for each month served for the first 12 months. Doing a second year as a postdoc is considered as payback.
Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award (K01)
  • For junior researchers.
  • Provides three, four, or five years of supervised career development experience.
  • Applicants develop a specific career development plan and research project.
  • NIAID only supports epidemiology, modeling techniques, and outcome research.
For clinical doctoral degree (requires a professional license to practice, M.D., D.V.M., or O.D.) Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award (K08)
  • Aimed at physician-scientists (those with M.D. or clinical degree).
  • Provides three to five years support of protected time for research.
  • Applicants develop a specific career development plan and research project.
Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23)
  • Aimed at physician-scientists (those with M.D. or clinical degree) for an intensive supervised patient-oriented research experience.
  • Prospective research must include interaction with study participants (beyond use of samples and data).
  • Provides support for three to five years depending on amount of research experience.
Transition Awards Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00)
  • Facilitates a timely transition of outstanding postdoctoral researchers from mentored, postdoctoral research positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions.
  • For those who have no more than four years of postdoctoral training at the time of the application's due date.
  • Applicants should apply in the third year of their postdoc to be able to resubmit.
  • Provides up to two years of mentored training (K99 phase) and two years of independent research (R00) phase.
  • Read our Pathway to Independence Awards (K99/R00) SOP for more details.
Career Transition Award (K22)
  • Facilitates the transition from a postdoctoral research position to an independent research position.
  • For those who have no more than five years of postdoctoral experience with plans to apply for an assistant professorship at an academic institution.
  • Provides two years of support if approved for funding and the full-time assistant faculty (or equivalent) position is secured.
  • Note: If you are not affiliated with an organization, you may still apply. Read Special Instructions for Submitting K22 Applications From Unaffiliated Applicants Using the SF 424 (R&R).
For advanced degree in a quantitative area of science or engineering Mentored Quantitative Research Career Development Award (K25)
  • Aimed at research-oriented investigators at any level of experience, from the postdoctoral level to senior faculty level. Former principal investigators on NIH research projects or subprojects and previous recipients of certain awards are not eligible. See the program announcement for a complete list of exclusions.
  • Provides protected time for research and career development for those whose research has not focused on health and disease.
  • Provides up to five years of support.

Additional Tips

Along with conducting research and writing papers and grant applications, there are a few other items you should consider doing.

Work on Communication

As a researcher, it’s essential to be a “great communicator” since you’ll need to talk and write effectively about your work. Therefore, focus on developing good communication skills whenever possible. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Talk the Talk

Get used to speaking to an audience by regularly presenting your research at conferences, departmental seminars, and other events. This will help you accustom yourself to being not only in front of people but also be concise and focused since you’ll have a limited window to talk.

If you plan to teach at an academic institution, inquire about teaching opportunities where you are.

Do Right by Writing

Good writing is crucial to successfully conveying the importance of your research findings. You’ll likely spend a good deal of time preparing papers, grant applications, reviews, and presentations, so be sure to sharpen your writing skills and continue to improve them throughout your career.

One way to do this is to help your mentor with a grant application or progress report, as we mentioned above. You can also gain writing experience by editing and giving feedback on papers from other lab members.

Hone Leadership Qualities

As a postdoc, you’ll be expected to work relatively independently, exhibiting research initiative and leadership. Fundamentally, you’ll need to show your mentor that one day you can be the PI of your own lab.

Be assertive, eager, and scientifically creative. Display leadership in the lab environment yet show that you can work well with others in a group. Find opportunities to mentor and guide junior scientists and manage a team of students on a research project.

And since you may have to collaborate with investigators on papers or grants, take the lead in forming partnerships.

Network

As with any other profession, it's important to meet and connect with others in your field. After all, they could be your collaborators or colleagues one day.

Consider joining a professional society related to your research field and arrange meetings to discuss your research with professors and fellow researchers at your current institution.

Find events that are relevant to your research area. For example, attend annual meetings of The American Association of Immunologists, American Society for Microbiology, and other professional societies. Check the list of presenters, if available, for those with whom you'd like to talk, then familiarize yourself with their current work.

Whether you set out to meet specific speakers at a conference or end up engaging in impromptu conversations with attendees, it's a good idea to keep in mind a few points about networking:

  • Be friendly, collegial, and mindful of people's time.
  • Prepare an elevator pitch to concisely and briefly explain your research and major findings.
  • If your mentor isn't with you to make introductions, be confident enough to introduce yourself and know how you'll go about it.
  • If you want to meet certain people for a reason, tell them what that reason is (as long as it's not to inquire about a job), ask questions, ask for advice, or talk about how their work has affected yours.
  • Carry business cards with you and don't be shy about handing them out.
  • Follow up with contacts soon after you've met.

Outside of going to conferences, you can connect with other researchers by organizing seminars. If your PI invites collaborators or speakers, get to know them.

In Summary

Your postdoc years will be busy with conducting research, getting papers published, honing skills, and writing grant applications. Learn more about that last item below.

Writing a Strong Grant Application

As we pointed out in "Laying the Groundwork," writing a successful grant application during your postdoctoral years is important because receiving a grant benefits your research and is a sign of independence.

Here we provide advice on developing a strong application for a fellowship (F) or career development (K) award, the grant types we mentioned previously as being suitable for postdoctoral fellows.

Before Writing, Do Some Prep Work

Like a chef who readies ingredients before actually cooking, you should do some prep work before writing your application.

Read and Follow Directions

Be sure to carefully read your chosen funding opportunity announcement (FOA) and the SF 424 Application Guide.

The FOA has must-know information, such as eligibility, budget, and level of effort as well as a link to any institute-specific guidelines or restrictions. For instance, NIAID supports only epidemiology, modeling techniques, and outcomes research for the Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award (K01).

The SF 424 Application Guide contains instructions for completing application forms. NIH may return your application if it doesn't meet all requirements, so abide by the guidelines, including those for font and page limits.

To find an Application Guide, go to NIH How to Apply – Application Guide for the generic version or use the link in your FOA.

Assess How Much Time You'll Need

Once you know your application's due date (listed in the FOA) and any internal deadlines your institution has, set a target date of when you want to submit your application. You should allow plenty of time before the official NIH deadline for steps like having others read your application and giving it a final edit as well as dealing with problems that may arise, such as technical difficulties with the electronic submission process.

To learn more about what else you should do before submitting, go to Timelines for Applying for a Grant.

If you run into glitches with a federal electronic system, go to Dealing With System Issues.

Talk to Those Who Have "Been There, Done That"

In addition to your mentor or sponsor, talk to other researchers who have gone through the process of applying for grants. They can give you advice and insights that may help you strengthen your application.

Investigators who have a grant award may also be generous enough to share their application with you so you can get a better idea of how to structure yours. Keep in mind that FOA requirements and NIH forms do change over time, so don’t rely solely on the content of their application.

Request Letters of Reference

All the grants listed above under Grant Applications require letters of reference (at least three, no more than five), so think carefully about whom you want writing them, i.e., your "referees."

Since these letters are critically important and should address your competence and potential to develop into an independent investigator, you should ask only those people who can make the most meaningful comments about your professional training and qualifications.

Note that your referees should not be directly involved in the application and that the mentor named in the application cannot be a referee.

Have a short discussion with a potential referee before asking that person to provide a letter of recommendation. You might also ask others who have used that person as a referee whether he or she will provide a quality recommendation.

Give your referees plenty of time (several weeks) to write your letters, which they must submit by your application's due date, and provide materials that will help them write effective letters, e.g., a copy of your CV or resume and details about the program to which you are applying. Most importantly, give them the Instructions for Referees, which describe what they should address in the letters and how to submit them.

Find instructions for referees and information for applicants under Reference Letters on the How to Apply – Application Guide page.

As You Write, Keep In Mind Some Tips

When you get ready to put pen to paper, so to speak, remember the following tips.

Write for Your Audience

Your study section will have broad expertise that covers your scientific area, but each reviewer may not have in-depth knowledge of your specific research interest, as we explain at "Know Your Audience." Therefore, examine the roster and write your application so both an expert in your field and others on the panel will understand your research.

Here are links to the study sections that could review your application:

Know the Review Criteria

The advice pages above touch on the review criteria your reviewers will use to evaluate your application and give it an overall impact/priority score. We expand on the criteria here because it's essential you know what they are so you can address them appropriately while writing your application.

Though there are standard review criteria for fellowship and career development awards, there may be FOA-specific criteria, which you can find in Section V. Application Review Information of your chosen FOA.

Standard review criteria differ for fellowships and career development awards, so we'll go over each group along with what reviewers look for and how you may meet the criteria.

For fellowships, the standard review criteria are

Fellowship Applicant—Reviewers evaluate your potential based on your academic achievements, research productivity, and letters of reference. Grades and awards are the usual metrics for scholastic evaluation. The expectation for research experience varies with the award mechanism with a higher expectation placed on postdoctoral awards, e.g., the F32, where doctoral studies, especially in Ph.D. programs, are expected to produce publications and presentations.

As a way of predicting potential, reviewers consider upward trajectory; that is, an applicant’s showing marked recent improvement of earlier problems, such as mediocre grades or productivity. If you have any weaknesses, you may want to explain (or have your references explain) the reasons for them.

Reviewers also expect clearly stated career goals and look for efforts in the fellowship that will facilitate reaching those goals.

Note: While the goals are considered under the Fellowship Applicant criterion, the efforts to reach them are usually evaluated under Training Potential.

Sponsors, Collaborators, and Consultants—The scientists responsible for your training are important for generating reviewer confidence that the fellowship period will be successful. Reviewers look for experience in the scientific topic of the proposed research project as well as experience and success in training scientists.

Sponsors with a limited background in training should point out why they are likely to be successful mentors. If your sponsor has a relatively limited track record in training scientists, consider recruiting a cosponsor who has training experience. He or she should contribute to the application and show commitment to you by describing how the training will be conducted. Describe how the training efforts with your sponsor and cosponsor are coordinated. If you have collaborators, include collaboration letters clarifying their roles in the training.

Since fellowship awards are limited to stipends and do not provide support for research materials or equipment, reviewers need to be confident that the funding for the laboratory and the project will be provided. Financial support can be from your sponsor’s lab, the department, or a collaborator but should be clearly described in the application.

Research Training Plan—Reviewers recognize that your time and effort will be devoted to your research project, but they want to see a clear description of efforts that will likely result in publications. The project itself should provide you with new skills and approaches that will facilitate reaching your career goals. Be sure to generate reviewer confidence that the proposed efforts will advance the scientific field and “launch” your career.

Avoid the common mistakes of 1) failing to recognize and address potential problems and 2) proposing risky research or Specific Aims that would require success of another aim to be successful.

Make clear to the reviewers how much of the Research Plan you developed and how much help your sponsor provided. Since each situation is different, there is no single formula for success. Reviewers want to see sponsor involvement but also expect you to contribute to the ideas and goals. The Research Plan should generally be related to, but somehow distinct from, ongoing research in your sponsor’s lab.

Reviewers are also impressed by applicant-generated preliminary data, when possible. However, in the absence of preliminary data, a strong justification based on the literature can be sufficient.

Training Potential—This criterion refers to what you will learn during the fellowship period, appropriate for your career goals. Reviewers look for new skills and training that will expand upon any previous scientific training.

Reviewers are often disappointed when they see applicants proposing to conduct research in an area that is highly similar to their previous interests, even when the research proposal is of high quality. You’ll generate the most enthusiasm by seeking training in which you can use your previous experience but move into new areas, be exposed to new ideas, and achieve your career goals. This doesn’t mean you have to work in a new field, but you should emphasize the new skills, techniques, or knowledge that you’ll gain.

Reviewers also look to see that your planned activities are consistent with the sponsor’s training plan, which is an important component. They are most impressed by customized training plans that home in on what an applicant needs to succeed and reach his or her career goals. Reviewers are often disappointed with a “generic” training plan that is limited to activities that would be appropriate for any fellow.

In addition to research activities, reviewers also want to see career development training, such as teaching, grant writing, or presentations that are appropriate to your career goals.

Institutional Environment and Commitment to Training—Reviewers look for appropriate facilities and resources for the proposed fellowship activities. They are impressed with strong faculty in related fields and other intellectual resources that will motivate and support applicants as well as institutional programs, e.g., seminars, workshops, and professional development activities, that facilitate success.

For career development awards, the standard review criteria are

Candidate—Reviewers look closely at research productivity, which includes publications, presentations at national or international conferences, patents, awards (e.g., travel awards), and fellowships, such as those from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Strong research productivity indicates that you, the applicant, will be able to successfully establish an independent research program.

Consider your productivity when deciding whether to apply. For example, if you have several manuscripts in preparation, you may want to wait until the manuscripts are accepted to submit your application. Once you do submit, you have until 30 days before the review to send additional material, such as news of an accepted manuscript. Learn more at Late Applications & Post-Submission Materials.

Career Development Plan/Career Goals and Objectives—Competitive K applications have a career development plan specifically tailored to the candidate. Avoid the common weakness of writing a generic or formulaic plan.

Clearly describe the career goals or objectives and justify the proposed areas of training, which should be aligned with the proposed Research Plan and career objectives. For most candidates, this section should include plans for formal training in grant writing and laboratory management.

For mentored awards, include meetings with your mentor and advisory committee as well as clear metrics for evaluating your progress. Lastly, provide a timeline for your training and research goals. This will help to emphasize how the proposed training and Research Plan align with each other.

Research Plan—Clearly state the hypotheses and support them with solid preliminary data. This information will help convince reviewers that the proposed approach is feasible and will result in interpretable results. Additionally, clearly explain how the proposed studies are novel and will impact or advance your area of research.

As for the Specific Aims, they should be interrelated and cohesive but independent of each other. That is, the results from one aim should not be necessary to conduct the studies proposed in another aim.

Always include a section describing potential problems and alternative approaches. This demonstrates that you are thinking deeply about your research and will increase reviewer confidence that you will be able to handle problems that may arise.

Finally, include a description of the long-term scope of your proposed project, including a discussion about how it is distinct from your mentor’s research interests and how the Research Plan will lay the foundation for developing a future independent R01-equivalent grant application.

Mentor(s), Co-Mentor(s), Consultant(s), Collaborator(s)—The mentor’s letter of support is critically important in all K applications. Remember this letter does not count towards the required three to five letters of reference.

The letter should:

  • Describe your mentor’s research expertise, support and training record, and the accomplishments of previous mentees.
  • Include a clear statement that your mentor is committed to helping you develop an independent research program distinct from his or her research interests and a description of how he or she will help you achieve independence.
  • For mentored award applications, it should also include a detailed mentoring plan that's tailored specifically to you and includes clearly defined metrics for evaluating your progress and plans for helping you if specific milestones are not met.

For a mentored award, think carefully about how you build your mentoring team. Each mentor should have a clearly defined role and a clear commitment to meet regularly with you. If your primary mentor does not have significant experience training junior investigators, you should consider including a co-mentor with a strong training record.

If support letters from collaborators are included in the application, make sure that each collaborator states his or her specific role in the proposed project. The letters should clearly describe how the collaborator will contribute to the proposed studies and/or the specific resources he or she will provide you.

Environment and Institutional Commitment to the Candidate—This criterion is most relevant for mentored K applications and should include a description of the research and the training resources available to you.

Additionally, an institutional representative, such as the dean or departmental chair, must provide a one-page letter affirming the institution’s commitment to providing you with a minimum of 75 percent protected time as well as the necessary resources to complete the proposed research and training needed so that you can advance to research independence.

After You're Done Writing

After you finish writing and before you submit your application, you should allow time for others—including your mentor or sponsor—to read the application and provide feedback. See Timelines for Applying for a Grant to learn more about what else to do before submitting your application.

Have Questions?

A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.

Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.

Content last reviewed on August 11, 2016