Repost: What constitutes a real job in biomedical science?

June 24, 2008

Mad Hatter has a post up proposing a blog-based forum for alternative careers.

I noticed a long time ago that the top Google hits to this blog are on three posts I wrote on alternative career tracks in academia for PhD scientists*. I’ve also been contacted in real life by people at my institution who are interested in learning about my position and other non-traditional careers for PhDs. It seems that even though academia is becoming less hostile to alternative careers, there is still a dearth of open and honest discussion on a PhD scientist’s options outside of the academic tenure-track.

The post and the ensuing discussion reminded me of a couple of observations I had up on the old blog regarding perhaps not truly alternate careers, but alternate paths to the prize of independent, NIH-funded investigator. Today’s retread is on the importance of a grant writing position, regardless of academic title.

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.

No Responses Yet to “Repost: What constitutes a real job in biomedical science?”

  1. neurolover Says:

    DrugMonkey — I disagree with you on this view of science. I agree that if you want to be a PI you should pick the position that lets you submit your own grants as a PI over the one that doesn’t. But I think this, and the way it operates at universities is a crutch that’s allowing universities to expand (bubble-like) on NIH’s dime. But, of course, I feel this way about all soft money positions. In particular, we’ve seen universities go through a “education” process about percent effort on grants, and what someone can do if they’re paid 100% off of federal grants. The rules are quite restrictive, and, frankly, do not allow one to write another grant while paid 100%. Our university is trying to handle this by paying 5% — but, we all know this is ridiculous, to suggest that grant-writing efforts will take 5% of one’s effort.
    (and, incidentally, if you think you can do this calculation by giving 40 hours to the government, and sparing the rest for your other activities, our university guides us, under no uncertain terms, that this is unaccepatble. We even have to do little calculations — like Cindy works 80 hours/week, and 80% of her salary is paid for by a federal grant. How many hours must she work each week on that project? Answer: 64.)
    My advice to young scientists is that you must get your university to invest in you. If one can’t find a university that’s willing to invest in you, I recommend moving on. (I know you won’t agree with me, but, that’s the point of the blog, right?)


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    DrugMonkey — I disagree with you on this view of science.
    I think you might be conflating the issues of what is good/bad for the biomedical science enterprise as a whole with what is good/bad for an individuals’ career in the here and now. I would indeed prefer a system in which most promising investigators were able to land hard money jobs with startup. This is not the system we face at present and I would not encourage any motivated people trying to transition to hold up their own careers in an attempt to make a point about the system at large.
    My advice to young scientists is that you must get your university to invest in you. If one can’t find a university that’s willing to invest in you, I recommend moving on.
    Oh yeah. I disagree and in spades. This to me is a pie-in-the-sky attitude that does not recognize reality. First and foremost it doesn’t acknowledge that if we switched overnight to a system by which the NIH didn’t accept applications from anyone other than in a proven hard money, startup support provided position, the number of opportunities would seriously diminish. Bad for careers. And, IMO, bad for science. I’m all about letting the selection be at the grant review of ideas, rather than the vagaries of institutional selection processes (when it comes to getting at the best science).
    Second, it doesn’t acknowledge the realities that people are substantially older and deeper into life when ready for transition to independence than ever before. They have put down community roots in many cases and/or are tired of facing yet another cross-country move. Related to this is the current reality that said older individuals are also now more likely to have professional spouses, further complicating moving out of town. Sometimes you have to take non-optimal situations and make them work for you as best you can. Soft money job opportunity is sometimes the best compromise.


  3. neurolover Says:

    “I’m all about letting the selection be at the grant review of ideas, rather than the vagaries of institutional selection processes (when it comes to getting at the best science)”
    This is an interesting point. Who makes better selections (study sections or search committees)?
    My problem with your advice is that I think it allows universities to make risk free decisions to hire, to the detriment of the individuals (I’m not sure about the science). It’s the same problem facing adjuncts. Your scenarios describe individuals with bad BATNAs (best alternative to a negotiated solution). They are ripe for exploitation, and universities are exploiting them (as, I guess is NIH, and perhaps we, as consumers of the science they do). I can’t argue that this is necessarily bad for the science (unless it drives people to other professions). But it does create a free-lancing environment for science. Perhaps that’s the future of all employment, but I don’t have to like it.
    And, I do think that the current system actually encourages people to lie about the rules (most particularly with the argument that a 100% of their effort is contributed to the grant), which is an entirely different questions.
    My solution would be to require that anyone who applies for an NIH grant have 20% of their salary paid for by some other source. I’d also stop paying grad students off grants, and require training grants/individual fellowships for them. I think not doing both of these things builds our science on exploitation of labor.


  4. Mad Hatter Says:

    Thanks for the link, DM. I think you make a very good point about the benefits of choosing non-tt positions which allow one to write grants over those that don’t. Even for those who do not intend to switch back to the tenure track, being able to submit and get grants is hugely advantageous in negotiations on salary, promotions, job description, etc.


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