How to transition from PhD student to independent scholar

Eva Lantsoght
5 Nov ’15

During your PhD days, you might have the help and protection of your PhD advisor. He can give you ideas to further develop, he can tell you where to publish and which conferences to attend, and he will teach you the ropes of the research trade. But once you graduate with your doctoral diploma, you are on your own. You might benefit from the protection of your alma mater a bit if you decide to stay at the same institution, but for those of us who moved away after getting the PhD, it is time to grow up and become an independent scholar.

As an independent scholar, your peers will not see you as "the PhD student of Prof. Advisor", but they will now see you as Dr. Yourself, with your own field of expertise and your own network.

To reach this position, you will need to establish yourself as a researcher with a clear focus. This clear focus does not mean that you have to focus on a single topic. No, within your area of study, you are encourage to branch out: participate in projects with the industry, carry out desk research on tangentially related fields and broaden your scope.

To develop your own network, you need to attend conferences and industry events. Publishing helps as well, as you will typically be invited as reviewer for the journal in which you published - a way to establish yourself more as an authority in your field as well.

In the following, I've gathered a few tips and things you can think of when it comes to growing roots on your very own plot of the forest and becoming an independent scholar:

1. Collaborate with other institutions

While it is nice to keep working together with the researchers and professors with whom you worked during your PhD, it is time to discover other horizons as well. This certainly does not mean you should burn your bridges with your alma mater behind you, but it is time to broaden your scope. These institutions can be situated somewhere else in the world, could be public research institutes or could be industry partners. To more varied you can develop your collaboration portfolio, the better.

2. Outreach

You could consider outreach as a time-consuming fringe activity, but it certainly can be quite rewarding. Outreach can be blogging and tweeting about your research, it can be volunteering for charities, or it can mean getting involved in student support groups and on-campus networks. Consider outreach as an opportunity to show to world the value of your research and how your work makes this world a better place.

3. Write your own research proposals

It's time to figure out what you would like to work on further, identify the needs in that regard, and turn these needs into research proposals. It can be frightening to start your very own line of research, as you might feel inexperienced, but once you get working on it, you will feel how rewarding it is. And think of it - you can fully choose what you find interesting to work on now, without having to explore ideas that might have been imposed onto you by your advisor.

4. Become active in your research community

Review papers, participate in committees, publish your work, attend conferences - you know the drill, so do your part and volunteer to move your field forward. Showing up and working hard will show your peers that you are serious about your research field and willing to moving things forward.

5. Read a lot

Keep a finger on the pulse of your field by reading recently published papers on a weekly basis. Try to set aside a few hours a week (I know it is hard, but it is necessary) to read recent publications. Follow the important journals in your field, and read them to get an overview of which topics are being explored, and who is working on what. Then identify the papers that are of particular interest for you, and read these in more detail.

6. Pick your fights and carry them out

What makes you really thick? Canalize your energy and devote time to the causes that you think are important. Pick your fights wisely - you can't take all the worries of the world on your shoulders. Do you want to raise your voice in the way women are undervalued in academia? Would you prefer to put energy into the guidance of first-generation students?

7. Develop your own writing voice

Practice makes perfect, a saying that holds particularly true for academic writing. We could also say that practice molds your voice. You will notice that, as you gain more practice writing papers, and will receive less and less feedback from your coauthors, you will start to feel comfortable writing about your research in an authoritative voice that is distinctly yours.

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