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Dear GrantDoctor,

Do you need an R01 grant to get a job at a tier-I research university? I know serious numbers of people who have not found jobs specifically because they do not have grant funding. Good friends of mine are being told not to bother applying for positions unless they are bringing money with them.

A friend's pink sheets just came back, and in her discussions with her granting agency, the real problem was her perceived lack of institutional support (even though our institution wrote a glowing letter saying that she would have support if she received the grant).

Thanks,

Kim


Dear Kim,

True or not, the idea that you need a research grant to get a job is, apparently, an entrenched part of the postdoc mythology. If it's true, then young scientists--not to mention research administrators and people serving on hiring committees--need to know it. So what gives? Is it a myth, or is there truth to it?

The first question that needs to be considered is whether a postdoc can get a research grant. There are, of course, transition awards--the NIH K08s and K22s; Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards (BWF, by the way, is a sponsor of Next Wave's Career Development Center); and others--but the number of these awards is much smaller than the number of new biomedical hires each year. The coin of your realm (the biomedical sciences) is research grants, and in particular R01s. So can a postdoc get an R01? I asked a source at NIH for the lowdown. "The PI submits an application that describes his/her research plans, but the award is made to an institution," wrote my NIH source, "not to the individual. So before someone can write a grant, he/she has to be an employee at an institution. Therefore, even though one could write an R01 grant while still a postdoc, it couldn't be submitted until that person has officially begun employment."

I doubt that very many postdocs will find that answer convincing. It misses the key point: The majority of postdocs are supported by research grants administered by the institution. They are, in this respect, identical to secretaries, technicians, and professors. They are, in effect, employees. Institutions, funders, and PIs may choose not to view them this way, but this is merely a technicality. Institutions could, if they chose (and if they could afford to) sponsor postdocs' applications for research grants, even if it meant changing how postdocs were categorized. As Next Wave's Postdoc Network editor Laure Haak explains, "Graduate students, supported by federal funds, are classified as employees by federal order, but there is no standard for postdocs. A postdoc on a PI grant can be (and is) called an employee, a trainee, a fellow, a faculty member, a student ... it is a mess, really."

Some institutions do consider some of their postdocs employees, but that doesn't necessarily mean they can apply for research grants. And these categories are not mutually exclusive. At Johns Hopkins, for instance, a postdoc is often classified as both a student and an employee.

So are there institutions out there that will allow postdocs to apply for research grants? Perhaps, but the GrantDoctor couldn't find any. Johns Hopkins's policy is typical of my distinctly unscientific sample. According to Michael B. Amey, Johns Hopkins University's assistant dean for research administration, even though some JHU postdocs are classified as employees, "the only postdocs who would be allowed to submit an independent research grant proposal (as opposed to a fellowship grant) would be those who had been offered faculty positions that would begin no later than the proposed start date of the grant proposal." That is, JHU is willing to submit a grant application for all of its new faculty hires, even while they're still employed elsewhere. But they have to get a job offer first.

Even if some institutions do allow postdocs to apply for grants, postdocs are rarely competitive, because they don't have the "institutional commitment" of a tenure-track professor, and they haven't won the endorsement of a major university hiring committee. Postdocs typically have no dedicated lab space, limited access to institutional resources, no dedicated equipment, and no multiyear employment commitment.

Furthermore, even if you manage to get a research grant at your postdoc institution, it isn't a trivial matter to get it transferred to the institution that hires you; after all, as my NIH source pointed out, grants are made to institutions, not to scientists.

But one correspondent--a postdoc at a major southeastern research university--was adamant: "I can definitely vouch for [my institution]. Both recent hires related to our center brought money. Of the three men considered for the department of psychology, I know for a fact that two brought money. ... The amount of money they had was considered and discussed."

So I did another informal survey. I asked around to see if I could confirm this postdoc's claims. A new faculty member at Carnegie-Mellon responded: "I am sure it would help to have a grant in hand, but I didn't and neither did the other fellow who was hired at the same time. Two other postdocs from my former lab who recently got jobs also did not have a grant before they got a job offer. In fact, I don't know a lot of people who did have grants before they had a faculty appointment."

A young scientist who sits on a search committee at Georgia Tech wrote: "Grants are not required, but it's very helpful to show some sort of grant-writing skills via national or international postdoctoral fellowships, or funding from private/industrial sources. It is also wise to show the search committee that you have begun to write grant outlines or even a grant itself. ... Showing promise in obtaining $$$ is a huge plus."

And from a new hire in the Northeast: "As far as getting a nontraining grant as a postdoc and maybe taking it with you, that's usually not possible. However, if one gets 'promoted' to a research assistant professor (glorified postdoc), that usually means that the university/department has made a commitment to that person in terms of research space. In that case, one could apply for an R01 or other more 'real' grants."

A department head at Johns Hopkins chimed in: "We don't pay much attention to whether people have a grant or not. We now have a search in progress, and we didn't invite anyone with a grant. If people are good, they will be able to get a grant, and if they aren't good, they will lose the grant even if they have it. It could be that at some schools, in which few are funded, they consider having a grant as a sign of the scientific stature of the candidate. So, I'm not saying it's not important at other schools, but we don't take it into consideration at all."

A senior researcher at Stanford added: "None of our hires brings money, nor do we look at that. We cover their salaries and a tech until they get a grant. Stanford does not permit postdocs to be lead PIs. They can be co-investigators with a faculty member, but this is not in any way advantageous to them in terms of faculty job searches. All we care about is the quality of the research."

An NIH program officer wrote: "Maybe it's possible for a postdoc to get R01 funding and then look for a job, but that scenario is hard for me to imagine. The review panel would have to give an excellent priority score to someone who doesn't even have a position or laboratory yet. But, maybe this goes on and I don't know about it."

So what's going on? Here's the GrantDoctor's opinion; take it for what it's worth. The myth of the candidate arriving at an interview with an R01 in hand is exactly that--a myth. Occasionally a new junior hire may be coming from a faculty position elsewhere, but that doesn't happen very often. In, fact it's very rare for a postdoc to earn a research grant, and even if one manages it, taking it to a new institution is a complicated business, usually impossible. So why the confusion?

I believe that most of the new hires who "bring money with them" are probably holders of NIH K08s and K22s, BWF Career Awards, or similar "transition" grants. Many other successful applicants will have received prestigious postdoc and predoc fellowships--success, after all, breeds success. And while a fancy fellowship isn't a necessity to get hired at most institutions, it's a big feather in a fledgling scientist's hat--just one of many possible feathers, but a feather nonetheless. And every feather helps.

Be well.

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!