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Sunday, February 17, 2008


Fellowships for Older Postdocs

Q. Hi,

I have found that most postdoctoral grants are for those just starting in their 1st year or up to their 5th year but nothing beyond that. Do you know of any grants that would be for more senior postdocs (i.e. beyond 5 years)? Thank you for your time and help.



A. Dear Holly.

U.S. (and international) labs are full of senior scientists that still go by the title "postdoc," and get paid proportionately. I meet these people whenever I visit a major research institution: graying, in their late '40s or even their '50s, highly skilled, doing good science, whether independently or as part of a team, but still earning--if they're lucky--just a little more than a first-year NRSA fellowship stipend. And unlike their more junior colleagues, they have to pay the social security tax and unemployment tax. At least they've got health insurance--usually.

It is very hard for a sixth, seventh, or eighth-year postdoc to get a fellowship, and for a very good reason: If you've been doing science for that long, you're a senior scientist, not a trainee. Beyond the fourth or fifth year it's hard to keep up the illusion that you're still in training. So while your institution may call you a trainee (it's implicit in the “postdoc” label) to justify how little they pay you, the panel that's reviewing your fellowship proposal is unlikely to be fooled, even if the fellowship rules allow you to apply, which they often don't.

You’re a professional scientist now, so you ought to get paid like one. That not only means that you ought to get paid more than a typical postdoc fellow (though a few postdoc fellowships pay pretty well), it also means that you ought to get paid more reliably, to have a stable income source. It's fine to pay a long-timer from a research grant, but there should be some assurance of stability from the department or institution: If your fellowship ends you shouldn't have to sell your children to stay afloat. After 5 years, in other words, you ought to start looking for--and expecting--something a bit more secure. You may not get it, but you should keep your standards high.

But I digress. You wanted to know if you could get a postdoctoral grant. Technically, you still qualify for a postdoctoral NRSA (F32), unless you've already used up your (typically 3-year) eligibility.

Let's assume that you have never had an F32 award. Do you, as an experienced scientist, have a realistic chance of getting one now, in your sixth postdoctoral year? There is undoubtedly a bias toward younger people; still the answer is "yes"--but only if you'll be making a major change. If you wish to win an NRSA, you need to become a trainee again, and that means doing something new. Here's how NIH puts it: "In most cases, the F32 supports research training experiences in new settings in order to maximize the acquisition of new skills and knowledge.” There's an assumption that if you've been working in the same lab for 2, 3, or 5 years, you've probably learned just about all you're going to learn there.

So if you've never had an F32 and you want to get one now, you'll need to change labs and research directions. You will need to provide evidence, in your narrative, that you have a plan to get out of your 5-year rut and get yourself moving again up the career ladder. So figure out what you want to be when you grow up--when you finally get your first fully independent position--and make sure it's something new. This new field must build on what you already know, but it must be something quite different. Then go out and find a new mentor, in a new lab, who is willing to help you acquire the skills you need to work in this new field. If you can state a clear career objective and present a well-conceived training plan--and if you've published steadily and well over the last 5 years--your application will be competitive. And this is not just for NRSAs; any postdoc fellowship you qualify for is likely to require a change of direction and a serious training plan.

Other possibilities? You might look into applying for one of the K awards. The K-22 transition award is out in your case because you've been around the block too many times, but you might qualify for a K-01; contact the appropriate person at the appropriate institute.

In summary, many postdoctoral fellowships have an explicit experience limit, but even those that don't will require that you demonstrate that your work during the fellowship will in fact be spent in training--or retraining.

But let's get back to that digression. Fellowship or no, work with your department and advisor to see if you can get a promotion to non-tenure-track faculty, along with a guarantee of salary support if the grants don't come through. Soft-money professorships aren't the greatest situations in the world, but a promotion like this would provide evidence of progress, which will help you meet your long-term career ambitions. If your current employer isn't willing to help you, take a chance and move on. Lives are complicated and, with kids and such, moving is hard. But for better or worse, a career in science presumes a certain amount of mobility. With rare exceptions, you need to be prepared to move around if you want to move ahead.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Source: Science Careers from the Journal Science

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