Repost: Routes to Independence: Beyond Ye Olde Skool Tenure Track Assistant Professorships

June 26, 2008

This is a followup to an older entry I recently reposted following a post from the Mad Hatter on alternate careers. I thought perhaps this was relevant to the ongoing discussion we’ve been having about postdoctoral views on the dismal prospects for transition to independence.

Still not done with the issue of nontraditional entries to independent research positions. “Independent” here being somewhat narrowly defined as the ability to submit and hold research grant 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 startup funds!) advertised halfway across the country. Physioprof is most familiar with the more traditional route to independence but is, I hope, being won over a bit. S/he asks:

Drugmonkey, if you personally have taken a “non-OldeSkool” route, would you mind summarizing your path?

I thought I’d try to outline the various routes to independence with which I am familiar. This may help the postdoc to keep his or her eyes open to opportunity as it presents itself. First, some usual situations in which “the offer” arises. The majority of these are some version of the promote-from-within meaning a postdoc, already present in the University/Research Institute (institution), is offered the chance to write a research grant and thereby launch an independent research career. Your Humble Narrator received such an offer. A second category which is not unheard-of, is a solution struck for the dual-career or two-body problem [Update: Good news on 2-body]. This occurs when one half of a scientific couple is being recruited for a more traditional position and negotiations begin for what to do about the spouse. In some cases (depending on relative negotiating positions, relative career status of the two members of the pair, institutional hardassness, etc) the spouse may receive some sort of non-tenure-track offer. A third category is a subset of the first, in which someone is recruited as a postdoc with a rather explicit arrangement that this will eventually turn into “the offer” of transition to independence. This can work via the actual “postdoc/research associate” solicitation (yes, I’ve seen these) or in the negotiation process for a more typical postdoctoral appointment. In case it is not obvious, one of my goals with this whole discussion is in increasing the number of postdocs on their second postdoc search who are alert to this potential.
The details of the career being offered can vary tremendously. As I mentioned in a footnote to the previous post, the job title matters little to the question of whether a grant may be submitted with a given individual as PI. These details may matter tremendously to your career.

The Deal.

The best version of “the deal” is being offered the chance to go straight to tenure track assistant professor status no different than anyone else. YHN was so fortunate. The reason why this is non-traditional, of course, is that the promotion was contingent upon getting funded, meaning the whole salary funded (we’re generally talking soft-money positions here so this will be common) with one’s own grant. [I will note this is one area where institutions are in a very grey area with NIH. If I have the official NIH line down properly, contingent offers should not be occurring. It is not clear to me whether institutes have staked out wiggle room, know they are violating policy OR whether lower level POs don’t really know the difference between tradition and regulation.] One popular variant is that the transitioning scientist need only figure out how to cover the salary and hold some research grant, meaning it is sufficient to get a smaller award and then participate on someone else’s grant. This is one of the details to understand clearly in your particular situation because it gives you an idea of how possible your transition will be and how long it will take. Not to mention whether to bother with R21s or only shoot for R01 apps. Whether the K01 counts. Whether non-NIH funding counts. Etc.

Slightly Less-Good.

A less good, but still decent category of offer will be for non-tenure track positions. Instructor. Assistant Research Professor, Research Scientist, Project Scientist, Staff Scientist, Assistant Professor (non-tenure track). Different institutions use different terms and sometimes multiple terms to differentiate those with grant-submitting rights from those who do not have such privileges. Apart from the ego thing of what your title is, there is frequently a difference in rights to research space. Not always. In some cases the non-tenure-track thing is similar save but in name. “Tenure” tends to mean little in soft-money jobs, for instance. Some institutions couldn’t care less about extending you your space rights, particularly when you keep pulling in the funding and publish nice papers.
Nevertheless, these categories are going to be more likely to leave you “under” your current PI (or perhaps the Chair) to a greater extent. Consequently there is no real need for a “contingent” offer of promotion, one is just extended the permission (sometimes on a case-by-case basis via Chair letter) to submit a grant. No need to change anything until the grant is awarded. It is obviously more risky for the transitioning investigator to be tied to a bigger PI for space, but then there are no guarantees even with traditional offers. How many times does that promised space suddenly disappear or receive mysterious reclassifications into “shared space”? How often does a loss of funding mean a loss of space no matter what your job title or how long you’ve been using it? The practical on this is that if this is the route available, you are going to have to have pretty full and enthusiastic support of the PI. It also means you are relatively more likely to see this as a very temporary stepping stone, which is ok. Some situations I’ve heard of make this very explicit, as in “we expect you to use this opportunity to get a grant and then get a real tenure track job somewhere else within 4-5 years”. Again, compare this to the alternative of more postdoc’ing and a job search without a grant rather than comparing with the traditional appointment.

A Note of Caution.

Get as much as you can in writing with the appropriate signatures from the administration of your institution. I’ve seen institutions change “rules” many times over the past five years alone. Whether promotions from within are allowed or not. Can go to tenure track or not. Need any research grant so long as it covers the salary (and is fully overheaded!), whoops, no can only qualify with R01 because R03/R21 are not renewable. Any research funding versus NIH funding only. Given that it is going to be a two year proposition from rounding up the appropriate permission to submit until you finally get a fundable score on that A1 revision, well, things can change. I’ve seen some unpleasantness over the old “you promised me a year ago and now you are reneging because of changed institutional policy” resolved in the jr scientists favor because of the paper trail.

Half a Loaf is Better than None.

“I’m not going to bother with all that because it seems too uncertain and I’m outta here in two years anyway”. Error. First, one of YHN’s firmest beliefs is that you should do what you can with where you are now instead of looking over the horizon; you never know what is going to come up. It isn’t the slacking postdoc that is extended these contingent offers, it is the one that is producing for this PI, right now. Sure you are going to look for a job but how much more competitive will you be if you have a quasi-independent position and/or actual grant money. [And yes, you can take research funding with you. Despite the fact that the award is to the institute, in all cases I’ve ever heard of when the PI wanted to take the money they were able to, although this may be pointless if there is less than a year to run on a given award.] But half a loaf is good too. Perhaps you’ll not have a grant but have a score to show a search committee. This should mean something. Heck, just the fact that you’ve written a proposal that you can in good faith say is your own work should be respected. Anything to put you ahead of the next applicant. And, you just never know. It may take your three years on the job market to find anything, maybe more. You might as well also be doing what you can on the home front. You never know when someone might die (I’m not kidding. Freak accidents took big names in neuroscience (Goldman-Rakic) and aging (Thal) in very recent memory. Random illnesses have taken some in the less well known field of drug abuse (Fischman, Segal)) or leave science and open up an opportunity for the best-prepared trainee around…

Stupid Grant Tricks.

There are many ways to skin a cat. I have seen several instances of people getting “their grant” via participation on a big Center or Program Project type mechanism as the PI of a subcomponent, most often a service Core. This has implications, one of the surest killers of your launch is to get loaded with a lot of service work for ungrateful, more senior investigators. On the other hand, sometimes this is the opportunity to launch so whadda ya gonna do? You take it and make it work. This relationship holds in traditional hires too, btw, where sometimes a department is really, really keen to get a new model/technique that the newly recruited scientist brings. Another way is PI-substitution. Remember that the institution holds the grant, not the PI? This means they decide who the PI is. Now, let’s admit that the NIH IC is going to take a strong interest in this and they can refuse to award the grant in the first place or refuse to continue a noncompeting interval. But PI substitution does happen, particularly when someone dies (morbid, yes, but it happens people) or leaves academic science and agrees totally with the swap. It can happen at the competing continuation stage, probably this is one of the most frequent PI swaps. Strategically, the best way is to do the swap formally in an existing year of funding so that the newly transitioning investigator can claim to have been running the show for a year or more. It also presents a fait accompli to the IC. This happens more frequently than you think. A little judicious CRISP searching can tell you some interesting things about who, even of the luminary variety, got launched by taking over a grant or two from an even more senior luminary.

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