Otto Muskens Otto Muskens 6 April 2009

Starting up your own research group

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Posted in PhD life, Research and education, Tips

So here we are. Made it, got through the rat race, and found a safe haven in a Physics Department in a different country. They even offer state-of-the-art lab space and a small startup package (not sufficient to do anything substantial in photonics). So where to begin? Here is a brief description of my first steps as a university lecturer, which has little to do with science as I knew it.

1. Know the right people

Being in a new institute in a new country without any equipment, my first strategy is to get known and make friends among institute directors and clean room managers. It is amazing how friendly most people are toward new academics. The well-trained scientific paranoia however stirs in the back of my head. What do they want of me, why are they giving me free access to clean rooms and laser equipment, who do I have to put on my papers later on? For now I forget this voice in the back of my head and hope for the best, as there is nothing to loose and a lot to gain.

2. Define your research

For some people defining a research programme is easy, as they will simply extend what they were doing so far and use their existing network. If not, you will have to start from scratch, which can be hard in a field where people don’t know you. So a good strategy may be to combine areas of expertise from previous posts without directly colliding with your respective supervisors (see ‘Territorial Disputes’ ). Of course this is a personal decision.

3. Establish the network

The next step is to give presentations at institutes all over the country. Setting up a country-wide network will be vital for putting in large-scale grants which appears to be one of the few ways of getting funded. Potential grant referees are everywhere, and it will help if they have seen your face or talked to you. When talking to group leaders it is inevitable to reveal part of your research interests. You may have to deal with people around you doing similar things or having similar interests, or who believe they own the field. In my experience, the worst response is ‘We have activities on this in my group as well’.

4. Get funded

Probably the hardest part of it all; without funding there is no science (unless you want to prolong your postdoc period and work in other people’s labs). Well, the timing could not be worse. The major funding agency EPSRC has just decided to cap their starting grant to £125k and without the invaluable international PhD position, and an already highly controversial ‘blacklisting’ policy is being introduced banning repetitively unsuccessful ‘losers’ (even though the reviewers found 75% of these grants worth funding). At least the scientific idea is original so let’s hope for the best.

5. Get a student

Actually this may be even more difficult than getting funded, as many group leaders will know from experience. I have only a university-funded (DTA) studentship, which means I can only hire UK students. This will in fact become the major bottleneck so far.

6. Teaching and more teaching

Of course the staff membership comes along with a good bit of teaching, which is a kind of pleasant activity after being in a research institute for so long time. Unfortunately the scientific community does not seem to have a high esteem of teaching, as real researchers should minimize this part of their workload. In fact I think it is essential to keep our discipline alive and I am happy to interact with the students who are still unaware of the mine field out there.

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