Fellowship awards, timing, academic credit and moving on
February 1, 2011
We live in interesting times, those of us in NIH-funded science careers, do we not? I’m sure there has always been change that looked dramatic but still. There is a lot on our plates.
- Historic low paylines, verging down below 10%ile in a sustained way
- Endless churning of revised grant applications
- A fight between local Universities, desperate to support themselves on Federal funds, and the NIH, hapless to respond to the unilateral abandonment of the old “shared cost” collaborative arrangement.
- The closing of three multi-decade Institutes/Centers of the NIH to make way for two new ones
- A halving of the length of the research grant application
- A sudden realization on the part of the NIH that postdoctoral wheelspinning prior to independent positions simply must be shortened
There are other factors, many of them with far reaching implications.
The one on my list for today is the individual postdoctoral fellowship, the NIH’s NRSA / F32 award.
The NRSA award has changed in the past decade, in my view, along with regular research grants and for the same reasons.
My perception is that they used to be fairly easy to get, particularly if you were associated with a reasonably well established laboratory. Funded on the first try, none of this revision nonsense. Candidates would wait until they had a little traction in the lab, generate a plan in collaboration with the PI and boom, funded. Within two years, launch on a 3 year NRSA plan and there you have it. A five year postdoctoral stint.
Not great, but pretty much par for the course. Five years of post-doctoral training and then a job isn’t too bad.
Then they started to suffer the “revise and resubmit” fate, along with everyone’s R mechanism research grants.
Problem. The first revision throws at least another eight months into the mix, by the A2 revision it ends up being over a year and a half from when you start writing the first version until the NRSA starts. If you are so lucky.
At this point, some postdocs have been on an institutional T32 grant for 2-3 years. So the total duration of federal training time has to be negotiated (oh yes, you may ignore the supposed rules and negotiate for more training time, my friends.)
And maybe, just maybe, the postdoc is ready to move on to another laboratory. Three years in one lab can be enough, frequently is, and often times it is best to jump to a new lab. Better for that person’s development as a scientist to do so.
But…the NRSA application is in progress in this lab. And if it is awarded, at long last, what the heck is the poor postdoc to do?
Refuse the award and move on? This is an option of course. But there is a small degree to which winning the NRSA is a career credit. It goes on your CV as evidence of winning competitive support for yourself. It has prestige.
So what are your options?
Put the refused award on your CV anyway. Veeeery risky, say I. As far as I know, if you tell the NIH “No Thanks” after they’ve made it clear they intend to fund it but before a Notice of Award is issued, there is no proof anywhere that it ever happened. So you look like you are just BS-ing and anyone who sees this on your CV is going to scoff (and wonder WTF). Not an option, as far as I am concerned. After all that work? pshaw.
Let it fund, then leave the University anyway, quitting the award mid-year with whatever paperwork is necessary. This way it is recorded as having been awarded in RePORTER, you’ll have a copy of the Notice, etc. This is slightly better in my view. There are some payback clauses in the NRSA that you need to attend*, but I think (don’t trust me, check if you plan to do this) that just so long as you stay in science you are covered. (*If you bail science you may actually have to pay back the money)
Take it with you to a new postdoctoral appointment. Yes, this is possible. Just like moving an R-mechanism grant, it is possible to move an NRSA. I know folks who have done exactly this. You have to get Program to go along, tell them a good reason for the move and convince them that the training will still be excellent, but it can be done. This is the strongest move, in my view.
I personally think that moving your NRSA award with you should be even easier than it is now. Think about it. This is supposedly an award to further the scientist’s training. You have to write in there a bunch of happy talk about how much NEW training the postdoc is going to acquire. This gets really tricky (from the reviewer side and the applicant side) as the revisions go on and on and the person has been in the laboratory for 2 years now and is well on her way to success.
There is a fair bit of Kabuki theatre going on when it comes to evaluating the alleged training potential, and need thereof, in the NRSA application. Admittedly.
I’d rather see the process lean back toward recognizing the promise of the candidate as her career is moving along, rather than focusing on some fixed notion of the candidate in the specific training environment. This would emphasize the ability to move the award to another institution, either prior to actual award or anytime during the course of the award.
The current alternatives are not good. They include staying longer than necessary or ideal in the current lab, just to gain full advantage (and credit) from the NRSA award or refusing the award and losing CV cred for having successfully competed for it. Or, alternately, having some weird CV shenanigans that are going to raise eyebrows in some quarters about why you would refuse an allegedly awarded NRSA or why you would quit one in the middle of the interval you proposed as being ideal and necessary for your academic training.