Going It Alone Post Your PhD

Academic research is increasingly collaborative across all disciplines. 1,2,3,4 Yet being more collaborative does not necessarily increase productivity – certainly not on a per-author basis.5

Thus, as an ECR or PhD student it is a legitimate question to ask – should I join a team, build a team or go it alone? 

Go it alone

Going it alone could be considered a stepping stone to building your own team. You’ll need to do many of the same things – be productive as a researcher, write successful grants, and publish peer reviewed papers. The main difference is that the “team” is just you. But regardless you’ll likely need to collaborate and/or work with others when it comes to making progress.

For most people, you’ll need to actively make the choice to go it alone. However, some of your peers might encourage you to do so. And in some fields this approach might be impossible (where research is high cost). In other fields this might be the default (where research is low cost).

Regardless of how you end up moving in this direction, you’ll need to have your own goals. They’ll need to cover general research and career goals as well as specific achievements relating to your research questions. And of course you’ll need to devise your research questions.

You’ll need to think about how to achieve your goals, and the timeframe for each. You should also pay attention to likely cost. It is also worth considering what professional and/or personal development you might undertake, and setting aside time and funds for that.

For some, going it alone is best and most safely initiated within someone else’s group. That provides a kind of safety net should you miss out on a grant or publication. And certainly will help cover your salary costs, but not necessarily your research costs.

In going it alone you’ll be forced to use many skills that might take years to develop. And thus, this could be a sink or swim approach. For example:

  • Grant writing – will need to be competitive immediately. You won’t be able to go it alone without your own grant.
  • Journal writing – a track record will be essential to overall success and is highly regarded when it comes to grant applications. Although in some schemes, and countries reviewers are asked pay less attention to track record6 (to allow more grants to be awarded to early career researchers), longer term you won’t have that luxury.
  • Collaboration – although you are working alone, you will still need to collaborate to get things done. And this will mean you’ll need to be the chief negotiator for team you.
  • Budget management – the finance department will let you know when your account is empty, but they won’t tell you you’re spending too fast or don’t have enough for that crucial experiment or that trip overseas.

Going it alone could be the first

step to building a larger lab

– but what are the steps?

How to go it alone

If you intend to go it alone immediately following your PhD, you’ll need to take steps to make that possible during your PhD:

  1. A track record of achievement – in terms of grants and publications this will be essential. Not to mention successful completion of research projects. So, make sure you publish as early as possible. There’s also data to suggest those who publish early in the career end up publishing more often.7
  2. Independent funding – Going it alone will mean you have some independent funding to undertake your own research. Research that you solely control and are responsible for. And I mean a grant where you are CIA, not one you wrote with your boss or supervisor. One you can claim ownership of on paper and in real life. This funding will need to cover your salary (at the least). Depending on the costs involved in your research you’ll also need some funding for that. That’ll mean you’ll need a fellowship – that’s funding for your salary – as well as project or program funding – funding for the research itself. It is possible to get awarded a fellowship/grant with one organisation supporting the application and then take it to another. So, don’t feel locked in to the place where you made your application. But you might need to remain in the same state or country (depending on the conditions of your grant/fellowship).
  3. Employer – none of this is possible without an employer And, of course, you’ll need a university or research institute to employ you. And that might mean you need to join another group to make that happen. Or perhaps get a fellowship via a granting body or from a university or research institute taking on independent researchers. As above, it is possible to get awarded a fellowship with one organisation supporting the application and then take it to another. So, don’t feel locked in to the place where you made your application. But you might need to remain in the same state or country (depending on the conditions of your fellowship).

Going it alone essentially involves being self-sufficient as a researcher. So the sooner you can get to that point the better. In some cases, you might find a role within a group that allows you to develop your skills and transition to going it alone following your PhD – rather that within it.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1Crouching Authors, Hidden Pitfalls: Collaboration in Research, Studi di Sociologia, 2018, DOI: 10.26350/000309_000041, https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=492099070121004121114094107071071102096038020065064007072116070005075109067102016073103004116122038058047068002120123092000003041057031008018117013121089114004022021075033006127123117091071115009005081006003099077074079007023067117013099070006118082&EXT=pdf, accessed 5 Aug 2019

2A Bibliometric Study of Authorship and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30 Years in Four Major Musculoskeletal Science Journals, Calcified Tissue International, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00223-018-0492-3, access 5 Aug 2019

3Comparative Analysis of Bibliometric, Authorship, and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30-Year Publication History of the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma and Injury https://journals.lww.com/jorthotrauma/Abstract/2018/08000/Comparative_Analysis_of_Bibliometric,_Authorship,.18.aspx, accessed 5 Aug 2019

4Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

5Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

6See, for example, the NHMRC Ideas Grants, https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/funding/find-funding/ideas-grants, accessed 21 Aug 2019

7Predicting who will publish or perish as career academics, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/predicting-who-will-publish-or-perish-as-career-academics-18473 accessed 19 Aug 2019.