What constitutes a real job in biomedical science?

July 5, 2007


A couple of exchanges between YHN and PhysioProf in comments following a post at Galactic Interactions bear further examination. I’ve mentioned before that in the biomedical research career, the most important thing is to get a job which allows one to submit* independent research grants to the NIH. In other words, the ability to compete with your fellow scientists to fund the research you think is important. In my view, this is the essential place where you want to be, all else is gravy. Sometimes, perhaps frequently these days, that “job”may be different from the stereotypical tenure track assistant professorship with hard salary and startup package across the country from your current postdoc. As I mentioned…

YHN: In current NIH-funded biomedical science there is a very big category of scientists who get at least the first grant with something other than a traditional “job”. There is a diversity of non-tenure track positions called “instructor”, “staff scientist”, “research (asst, assoc) professor” and the like that are permitted to apply for and hold grants.


PhysioProf: you think that in the current funding situation, these non-tenure-track people are able to compete for R01s?

who cares if you can compete if there is no real chance of success?


YHN: Yes, these people demonstrably DO compete successfully for R01 funding. In good times and in bad. They may be at a relative disadvantage in some cases but with the recent emphasis on helping out New Investigators from the Program perspective they now have some advantages too. They may be under the expectation that they get a “starter grant” like the R03/R21 first, which they do, but in some Universities this is enough to be launched.

then we get into the kind of assumptions and perceptions that I wish to combat.

PhysioProf: Interesting. I would have predicted that non-tenure-track investigators’ grants get discounted by study sections relative to those of tenure-track investigators. This could occur as part of the analysis of investigator “independence” and/or “institutional support”.

Certainly, the non-tenure-track applicant is disadvantaged relative to standard tenure-track positions. And yes, you will hear the StockCritiques of “independence” and “institutional support” mentioned in review. I am certainly not suggesting that someone should necessarily opt for non-tenure-track all other things equal. I am, however, suggesting that someone should opt for non-tenure-track yet grant-writing positions over non-grant-writing positions.

First, because this puts the person in a place to surmount what I think is probably the highest hurdle, getting the first grant. If you can’t apply, you can’t get a grant. The experience of my peers is one example. At least five or six of the first dozen people I think of as the new generation of my most closely-described subfield got (or are getting) started through some non-traditional appointment. I am in an academic unit in which the vast majority of first grants are acquired without a priori, hard money, assistant professorships. The experience in my study section is another example. We see lots of research grant applications from people with other than tenure track jobs. Not all of them are successful but some of them do quite well. There are StockCritiques of “independence” and “institutional support” levied in some cases but somehow this doesn’t come up with the really great proposals, go figure. And in fact some people have stated that they mean the “institutional support” critique as a help to the applicant in seeking a better deal locally. (And this does work in some cases, at least to get a letter from the Chair or Dean. But I submit the better “help” to the promising New Investigator is to give ’em the money!)

Second, because this step puts one in a substantially better position to acquire a tenure track job, if desired. One of the more positive developments in biomedical science in past decade and a half is the increased fluidity of employment. The most obvious change was the academics who returned from sometimes lengthy stints in industry- this never used to happen. The second change is an ability for people to move from non-tenure-track to tenure-track positions even within one’s own University. One of the more negative trends is the increased qualification of those fighting for the hard-money, startup package, tenure track position. Postdocs on the job market these days return horrified to say that “the competition are all in possession of R01 funding” which is, increasingly, true. There are a couple of obvious conclusions here. First, that other top people are figuring out how to get in the grant game before landing the type of (eventual) job you are really after. So you should do it too. Second, that the first job is now even less likely to be the last job than it has been in the past.

UPDATE: The status of various non-tenure-track job designations varies tremendously from University to University. The permission to write grants also varies, is often unwritten policy and in many situations is done on an individual case basis. The key is to figure out how it can be accomplished in your institution. Figure out who “has money” without an obvious tenure track appointment and ask how they did it. Check with multiple sources, don’t just take the HR flunkies word for it. Ask the Chair how an exception can be made. Ask your peers at other institutions and come prepared with “University X has this job category writing grants, why can’t we?” if necessary. Obviously for most, if not all of these situations of promote-from-within, you are going to need the support of your current PI. She or he will likely need some educating too…

*One important footnote. Although we often discuss grants as if awarded to PIs, this is not technically accurate. NIH grants are submitted by local Institutions (University, Research Institute) on behalf of a given Investigator. NIH grants are awarded to local Institutions, not PIs. There is one critical consideration for this discussion which is that the local Institutions decides who can submit a grant. The NIH is not the gatekeeper in this respect, nor are study sections.

9 Responses to “What constitutes a real job in biomedical science?”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    That is very enlightening. I have come through the traditional grad school -> post-doc -> tenure-track assistant professor track. And so have pretty much all the PIs at my current institution (which is a well-respected, well-funded Ivy League university).

    Your comments really point out the limitations of my own perspective.


  2. PhysioProf Says:

    “Second, because this step puts one in a substantially better position to acquire a tenure track job, if desired.”

    In all of the job searches I have taken part in at my institution for entry-level tenure-track positions, the possession of non-fellowship grant funding by the applicant–R01 or otherwise–has never played any positive (or negative) role in the perception of the applicant. It just hasn’t been considered relevant.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    One thing that I’ve found interesting to do is to really read Biosketches for the grants I review and also CVs circulated for seminar speakers. Not just for current appointment but with an eye to that persons’ history. This is one way, for example, to disabuse yourself of the notion that one “must” move to a different city at each stage to be taken seriously. One subplot of the nontraditional route is often a “promote from within” circumstance in which one does not leave one’s postdoctoral University/Institute.

    With regard to new hiring, I’m sure that there are departments, maybe even whole subfields or strata of Universities that have distinct practices. Some OldeSkool and some a little more as I describe. My thought is that most trainees think the OldeSkool way is the ONLY way and it is demonstrably not.


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    “My thought is that most trainees think the OldeSkool way is the ONLY way and it is demonstrably not.”

    I am increasingly becoming convinced that this is the case, and I will begin to try to incorporate this concept into my mentoring. Drugmonkey, if you personally have taken a “non-OldeSkool” route, would you mind summarizing your path?


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Sure. Thought I’d expand a bit on nontraditional paths, the short version is , promoted from within, offer contingent upon getting a grant funded.


  6. […] funding (not just fellowships) as a Principal Investigator. I’ve been advocating postdocs to look beyond the traditional route to independence, i.e., applying for hard money salary, tenure track assistant professorships (with […]


  7. BB Says:

    Sorry I didn’t see this post sooner. Sometimes the non-tenure track folk are that way because they are part-timers holding VA appointments (me for instance). They are certainly eligible for NIH grants (I have one).


  8. bikemonkey Says:

    You know the DM decamped for greener pastures, right?


  9. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    I am a drug abuse/neuroscience researcher. I was initially promoted from within. I went from post-doc to asst prof after I got my first grant then got promoted to associate with tenure after a second. Then a year later, I moved to a new place and got promoted to full professor after only 20 months as an associate. I have been at the second place for about 4 years now, and I am about to take a job at another tier 1 research university as a department chair. I have done this with decent research, well cited but not in CNS level journals. You just have to learn how to write a grant (I have had 4 NIH grants not including fellowships over the past 10 years) and make yourself indispensable from within. Then when you get what you want, sell yourself somewhere else. Just work your shit baby.


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