Webinar Report: How to get an independent position

Three early-career scientists share their experiences of applying for their first independent positions.

Moderator: Melissa Gymrek, Assistant Professor at University of California, San Diego and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group

Speakers: Megan Carey, Group Leader and HHMI International Early Career Scientist, Champalimaud Neuroscience Program, Lisbon; Gunther Hollopeter, Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; and Emmy Verschuren, FIMM-EMBL International Group Leader at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, Helsinki


There’s no such thing as a standard route to your first independent position. However, anyone wanting to start their own lab should ask themselves the following questions.

Is becoming a PI the right move for you?

Megan Carey admits that she didn’t know if she’d “make it” as a PI until several years after starting her independent position. It’s important to remember the working day of a PI can be quite different to that of a postdoc, with a lot of time spent on tasks such as management and grant writing, and not much time spent performing experiments. To help you prepare, Emmy Verschuren recommends taking a leadership course during your postdoc: “it really gives you a moment to check in with yourself, to realize what your strengths are and to ask for [practical] advice”.

When should you apply?

The job search process is very competitive, and it may take you some time to find a position that’s a good fit for you – particularly if your partner is a scientist at a similar career stage. On the advice of her PhD supervisor, Megan Carey applied early, before she’d had any papers published from her postdoc research. The strategy paid off, and she received a number of interviews from top-tier institutions: “they were willing and able to take risks on somebody who was clearly applying early, but who they thought would be a good fit”.

How do you find a position to apply to?

Adverts can be difficult to find, although naturejobs and the websites of scientific societies are good places to start. The network of scientists you’ve worked with over the years can also be an invaluable resource. If you know anyone at an institution you’d like to work in, ask them whether they’ve heard about any upcoming positions.

Where should you apply?

It can be difficult to know how good a fit you’ll be for a position until you’ve visited for interview. Similarly, what is listed on a job advert may differ from what the search committee is actually looking for, so don’t rule yourself out prematurely. Be flexible about what you’ll consider, but don’t apply indiscriminately – if you know you wouldn’t move to a particular institute, you’re wasting everyone’s time (including your own) by applying.

Putting together your written application

The written application generally consists of a research statement and a cover letter. Both Emmy Verschuren and Gunther Hollopeter kept their research statements largely the same across applications. Ultimately, the research statement must “weave your past experiences into a narrative that shows you are uniquely equipped to lead a group into new scientific territory”.

The cover letter is your opportunity to show why you are the best fit for the department or institution that you’re applying for, so it is crucial that you take the time to tailor the letter for each application you make. When writing the cover letter, think: how can I connect with this department, how can my work help their aims, and how can I incorporate their expertise into my project?

The interview

Although an entire day of interviews can sound gruelling, Melissa Gymrek recommends viewing it as “a bunch of friendly one-on-one meetings with your colleagues”. These are the people who you’ll be working with in years to come so be yourself, find out about their research interests and investigate how you can work together. Remember that the interview process is all about finding out if you’ll be a good fit for the institution, and if the institution is a good fit for you.

After the interview

The competitive nature of job market means that even if you are an excellent fit for a position, you may still not get the job. Assess whether you need to make any changes to your application package for future positions, keep persevering, and good luck!