PREVIOUS ADVICE

Two recent columns have explored the issue of whether postdocs can get research grants, and whether they need them to get tenure-track faculty jobs at research universities. In the first column I concluded that postdocs are awarded research grants only very rarely, and that, consequently, postdocs generally don't need a research grant to get hired. In the second column I reported my discovery that one university--Tufts-- does prefer to hire already-funded scientists and that about 10% of their applicants, typically, have research grants when they apply.

I 've now discovered that these phenomena are much more common than I realized. Although it is technically true, as I reported, that postdocs rarely serve as principal investigators (PIs) on research grants, a large number of biomedical research institutions routinely promote experienced postdocs to "post-postdoc" positions so that they can apply for research grants and improve their job prospects. (It is assumed that any grants they win will be carried with them to the new institution.) Here is a list of institutions and their policies, as reported by deans or managing faculty. I've listed each institution separately to preserve the nuance of their statements.

  • Morehouse School of Medicine promotes postdocs after "several years of good performance, to give them a better shot at jobs and grants, as well as a better salary." Although Morehouse likes applicants who already have funding, it is "not a requirement for the job."

  • The director of the postdoc office at the Medical College of Georgia writes, "We promote postdocs to ... a research associate [position], and to the first level of faculty position. These promotion possibilities were created in part so that our scientists can ... be more competitive for grants and for future job opportunities. Indeed, in faculty hiring, our institutions/centers and departments give preference in hiring to scientists who are already funded."

  • At New York Medical College (NYMC), "We do this for senior postdocs who have demonstrated sufficient ability and productivity. We primarily use the 'research assistant professor' title, but occasionally use 'instructor.' There isn't any institutional policy to distinguish one from the other. Neither title is tenure-track." Does NYMC consider funding in hiring decisions? "Not officially and not as a 'litmus test,' but it is certainly a plus."

  • Thomas Jefferson University doesn't allow postdocs to apply for research grants except, occasionally, for local grants. But in general they do give hiring preference to funded candidates.

  • According to the dean of the graduate school, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center has no formal policy. "However," he adds, "a number of individual departments do 'promote' postdocs to the level of Instructor, specifically so they can apply for grants. In some cases the grants are used at UCHSC, and in others the understanding is that the 'postdoc/instructor' will use the grant to help find employment elsewhere." He indicates that, although having funding may give a candidate an edge, it's not the primary factor in most hiring decisions.

  • The University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), routinely promotes postdocs to research assistant professor positions after 3 to 4 years and allows them to apply for research grants. The UIC rep didn't say whether they gave preference to funded researchers.

  • At the University of Iowa, experienced postdocs are promoted to research investigator and simultaneously appointed as adjunct faculty. The university does not give preference to funded investigators, but, one professor notes, "funding may reflect qualities that make them [the candidate] more competitive."

  • A dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey writes, "I suspect that, all else being equal, any department would prefer someone who already has funding." The New Jersey school doesn't promote postdocs, but they do allow them to apply for research grants.

  • The University of New Mexico School of Medicine allows postdocs to apply for grants "as research assistant professors (not tenure track) if the grant is funded with at least 10% salary support and F&A paid."

  • At Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, permission is granted to "experienced postdocs" to apply for research grants. Also, writes a professor there, "Having demonstrated the ability to secure funding is clearly a huge plus in considering candidates for faculty positions."

  • The School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis does not allow postdocs to apply, and they do not give hiring preference to funded investigators.

Although this survey was hardly scientific, there's no reason to think that my respondents are atypical. It looks like both practices--promoting postdocs so that they can compete for research grants specifically to improve their employment prospects, and giving hiring preference to funded investigators even when seeking "junior" faculty--may be widespread.

So what should we think of this? What does it mean? On the one hand, most senior postdocs richly deserve a promotion (and a pay increase) and are surely well prepared to serve as PIs on National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants. Furthermore, they are likely to receive mentored training in writing these grants together with their postdoc advisors that they might not receive otherwise.

On the other hand, this seems like a subtle subversion of the competitive grantmaking process, in that the "environment" (one of the five criteria reviewers are charged with evaluating) assumed in scoring the grant is that of the old institution, not the institution where the work will actually be done. Official NIH policy says that requests for "changes of institution" are not automatically granted, but such applications are subjected to much less scrutiny than new applications. According to a source at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), such applications are rarely put back out for competitive review and "almost never" denied. As long as the old institution is willing to relinquish their claim to the money (and that is assumed), it's pretty much automatic, except in extraordinary circumstances.

So what does NIH think about young scientists taking their NIH grants "to go?" Most NIH people I spoke to seemed only vaguely aware of the practice. "Well, I've never heard it put quite that bluntly," said my source at NIAID. If NIH has an official policy, I wasn't able to find out what it is. Understandably, no one I spoke to was willing to speak for the whole of NIH (it's a big place), and Wendy Baldwin, NIH's director of extramural research, hasn't yet responded to my queries.

Another reason to dislike these trends is that young scientists and institutions that choose not to play this game are at a distinct disadvantage. The biosciences job market is very competitive, and if you don't already have a research grant you may have a more difficult time getting hired at many institutions.

But what is most troubling to me is the possibility that we may all be present at the birth of yet another mandatory phase in the "training" of biomedical scientists. Not unlike the postdoc, this emerging "training" phase is justified (if it is justified) by fiscal rather than scientific or pedagogic objectives: Some institutions are basing their hiring decisions as much on fiscal accomplishment--which, after all, is much easier to measure--as on scientific accomplishment. If things evolve as they have for the postdoc, it won't be long before the "postpostdoctoral" is a mandatory career phase for aspiring biomedical researchers.

Be well,

The GrantDoctor

The GrantDoctor is interested in your views. Join PostDoc Net, a Next-Wave-sponsored listserv dedicated to postdoctoral issues, and let us know what you think.

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!