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.

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.

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36 Responses to “Fellowship awards, timing, academic credit and moving on”

  1. miko Says:

    Here’s a good one: the institute that funds my PI’s R01, which pays for everything I do every day, wouldn’t accept my F32 application because it wasn’t closely enough related to their mission. (I suppose they are happy to be acknowledged on my publications.) They asked me to rewrite the abstract (or whatever inane NIH term is used for the paragraph describing the project). I wrote some BS which they then said was too SIMILAR to the R01 (which funds my project). Finally I get to study section and 3 out of 4 asshats say I should have applied earlier…I have TOO MUCH PRELIMINARY DATA for an F32. (The 4th thought that research on invertebrate models was useless. Ahem.)
    So I got a private fellowship and fuck the NIH. I am only applying for jobs in wealthy autocracies that are still building universities. That or go to trade school to learn a skill.

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  2. anon Says:

    I really fucking hate people who say invertebrate models are useless. Ignorant fuckwads like that ought to go back to school or find a different line of work. They certainly should NOT serve on study sections, although I wouldn’t know how to screen for that.
    Just venting on miko’s comment (#1).
    I had an NRSA back in the dark ages. The NIH would not permit me to take it to another lab when I wanted to switch. I had to give it up.

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  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    invertebrate models are useless.

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  4. neurowoman Says:

    This seems like a no-brainer to me. I had an NRSA & moved it. I wrote an explanation at how I was changing model systems to improve prospects for the main intellectual gist. It did not seem like a big deal. It also helps get you into a new lab if you have your own money. Moving the fellowship is also the call of the program officer, doesn’t need to be re-reviewed as far as I know, so having a good relationship there helps. You should just give them a good scientific justification (even if it’s not the real reason you’re moving!)

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  5. Dr Becca Says:

    I realize this isn’t possible in all geographical locations, but one strategy that worked really well for me with my F32 was to write it with co-mentors at two institutions in the same city. That way, when the money finally came after almost 2 years in, I was able to spend time in another lab for Aim 2/3 and get a “2nd post-doc” experience without having to jump through hoops and fill out a ton of paperwork. Good for all the normal reasons, too–breadth of learning, networking, more peeps to write you letters of recommendation down the line!

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  6. Let it fund, then leave the University anyway, quitting the award mid-year with whatever paperwork is necessary.

    This is the absolutely worst possible thinge to do. Why on earth would you want to provide solid irrevocable evidence that you don’t have the fucken persistence and focus to fucken finish something you started, especially something that was identified via the extremely selective and stringent NIH peer-review process as being worthy of F32 funding? Doing this basically telegraphs as a default assumption–yes, there may be some legitimate reasons to abandon an F32 and the project it funded–that you are a fucken quitter, and not only someone who will quit something that is failing, but someone who will quit something that is *succeeding*! That’s not something you want on your record.

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  7. whimple Says:

    Postdocs shouldn’t waste time applying for chump awards like an NRSA. The only award that really counts is a K99/R00. Anything else is a gift to the PI. Spend your time and effort getting high quality pubs instead. Don’t go to a lab that needs you to get an NRSA to pay your salary… that lab is going out of business soon anyway.
    Also, notice the very nasty NRSA payback clause: http://grants.nih.gov/training/payback.htm

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  8. expat group leader Says:

    @ CPP#6
    Don’t be a worthless schlep. I terminated by NRSA for a faculty position. Having it on my record hasn’t hurt my career progression. Get with the program.
    @ Whimple#7
    The payback clause is quite easy to meet. Anything remotely science related qualifies.
    I don’t see why this is so hard for you people to understand 😦

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  9. expat group leader Says:

    You guys are also forgetting the most important limitations:
    NIGMS has the following limitation:
    Length of Support
    NIGMS policy is to provide support for three years minus any time that the fellow has already spent in the sponsor’s laboratory at the time of the award.
    NIAID (and other institutes) do not.

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  10. Don’t be a worthless schlep.

    Don’t be a ridiculous dumfucke. Of course, taking an independent faculty position would be an excellent reason to terminate an NRSA. Not everything is about you and your dumshitte personal concerns, stupie.

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  11. Anonymoustache Says:

    @DM —“invertebrate models are useless”—
    WTF? Care to elaborate?

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  12. me Says:

    True that a K is better for obtaining a faculty position, but these days reviewers want EVEN MORE and the person who already has an NRSA has an advantage in getting a K (NIDDK website actually states this).
    I also transferred an NRSA and it was not easy–in fact, the P.O. told me it wasn’t worth trying because to change projects, mentor and institute was 3/4 criteria for getting the award. I did transfer the NRSA and it looks like I’ve got the K… Bottom line: persistence!!

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  13. The timeline for obtaining NRSAs leaves something to be desired. I applied 6 months into my postdoc, had to revise, and then got caught in an inexplicably long gotsa-wait-for-the-new-budget hold. I didn’t start on fellowship until exactly TWO YEARS after my initial application. Aiy! And of course they cut the support from 3 years to 2.
    This situation is not dissimilar to a good 2/3rds of the other NRSA awardees that I know. I’ve often wondered about whether or not there is a remedy to these long waits for training fellowships. Take away the chance for revision? Doesn’t make a lot of sense. Make study section move faster so you can turn around and resubmit/get yer award next cycle? Hahahahahaha.

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  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    Actually Candid I think a one-shot-only rule for the F32 would be a good idea.

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  15. jekka Says:

    (oh yes, you may ignore the supposed rules and negotiate for more training time, my friends.)
    What? My 2-year NRSA ends in April. It’s only 2 years because of the T-32 I was on my first year as a postdoc. I have yet to meet someone who knows how to get around this, although I know plenty in a similar situation. Should I have just applied for three years, while stating my current T-32 funding, and hoped that no one noticed?

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  16. DrugMonkey Says:

    Yep, jekka, exactly. And then if they did make a mention that you should be cut down and/or if Program notices and wants to cut the award you should beg and plead for how you need the full three years because of blah, de blah.
    Kinda like the way manuscript length limits for certain GlamourPubs are routinely ignored by the BigWigs when submitting, only to be forced into final shape only when and if accepted. Suckers who submit manuscripts which conform to the eventual limits are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs….

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  17. anon2 Says:

    Maybe someone else can slip by this way, but it did not work for me. By acknowledging my T32 support in the required place, they cut my funding. I begged and pleaded for one more year, to no avail.

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  18. femalephysioprof Says:

    An alternative strategy from the postdocs’ point of view is to plan on two postdocs, make the first one short and done in a lab that can fund you from research grant. During first postdoc, write NRSA for second (new lab, new training opportunity). Get NRSA, move to second lab. Voila. Training from two mentors complete with NRSA funding.

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  19. anon3 Says:

    “No individual trainee may receive more than 5 years of aggregate Kirschstein-NRSA support at the predoctoral level and 3 years of aggregate Kirschstein-NRSA support at the postdoctoral level, including any combination of support from Kirschstein-NRSA institutional research training grants and individual fellowships.”
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps_2010/nihgps_ch11.htm#_Toc271265125

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  20. Here’s another little hitch for those applying to NIGMS:

    NIGMS policy is to provide support for three years minus any time that the fellow has already spent in the sponsor’s laboratory at the time of the award.

    So if you don’t get your award through NIGMS on the first round, even if you applied immediately upon starting (or even before) starting in the lab, you’re down to ~18 months support, give or take?

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  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    Yep, that’s what the *rules* say, anon3.

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  22. Regarding my earlier comment (#20) and anon3’s (#19), NIGMS does explicitly allow for a little play in the rules:

    Extension of the award period beyond three years in the sponsor’s laboratory may be requested for an unusual circumstance such as an unforeseen new training opportunity.

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  23. Pinko Punko Says:

    I see no issue in putting declined awards on a CV. If you are full of shit, you are full of shit. Reviewers can decide if they want to give it any weight.
    One and done would be almost punitive given the paylines, and given what these sorts of fellowships mean to both the lab and the applicant.
    If we want to increase the rate at which good scientists are converted to sausage, that would be fine.
    Sometimes it comes across that Drug Monkey treats the process as if it is an actual meritocracy and that wonderful grants are funded and those that are not are from scientists that need to be shitcanned. Of course this isn’t true, and half the posts here seem to be very attuned to the problems that individual scientists may face, yet most of the solutions or opinions regarding funding mechanisms seem to ignore the above.

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  24. whimple Says:

    Sometimes it comes across that Drug Monkey treats the process as if it is an actual meritocracy and that wonderful grants are funded and those that are not are from scientists that need to be shitcanned. Of course this isn’t true, and half the posts here seem to be very attuned to the problems that individual scientists may face, yet most of the solutions or opinions regarding funding mechanisms seem to ignore the above.
    Ok, I’ll bite. What’s your solution?

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  25. DrugMonkey Says:

    Sometimes it comes across that Drug Monkey treats the process as if it is an actual meritocracy and that wonderful grants are funded and those that are not are from scientists that need to be shitcanned.
    Since this is diametrically opposed to most of what I have to say on the blog I am really curious as to how you come to this conclusion.
    most of the solutions or opinions regarding funding mechanisms seem to ignore the above.
    My solutions you mean? It is true that I think that generating solutions based on the apparent goal of most people that criticize the NIH system (i.e., “whatever is good for me is the solution, those OTHER folks are the ones causing the problem”) is a dismal way to go about it.
    One and done would be almost punitive given the paylines, and given what these sorts of fellowships mean to both the lab and the applicant.
    “punitive”? That implies that you think any half decent postdoc somehow deserves a NRSA. I think one-and-done might go some ways to deconstructing “what it means” to the applicant, i.e., the reification / reward aspect of it as opposed to the actual training benefit. Maybe we could come up with some late-postdoc official NIH merit prizes to make up for the blue-ribbon part?

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  26. Pinko Punko Says:

    I don’t think every half-decent post-doc deserves a shot, but the criteria skew heavily towards training potential, and therefore if a post-doc factory PI does a very good job writing training plans and getting awards for their post-docs, while simultaneously getting jobs for those post-docs and cannibalizing them, what was the actual training potential? The bar for NRSA is much higher for smaller labs with younger PIs. Given this kind of bar, I think at least two shots would be extremely meaningful for many candidates that do not have pre-fab data from a data factory to base their document on.
    A post-doc working on developing a system will look less productive than one that can plug in as a middle author on three 20-author Science papers.

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  27. I am extremely well acquainted with someone who asked for and received a fourth year of funding on an individual NRSA, although this was not from NIGMS, and it was quite a few years ago (during the doubling). My lab has trainees with NRSAs from various ICs, and it is definitely true that NIGMS is pretty strict about cutting from three to two years if you’ve already been in the lab for at least a year prior to award. However, one of my NIGMS-funded trainees did receive a three-year award after having been in my lab for about eight months.
    Other ICs have always given three full years to my trainees if they have not had T32 postdoctoral funding.

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  28. DrugMonkey Says:

    Punko, the problem you describe is a real one, and I noted something about this on the blog recently. Not seeing where allowing revisions really helps…big labs do well on revision also. The key would be to focus on need and training delta caused by the award.

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  29. MRI Postdoc Says:

    I wrote my own F32 last year (no help from advisor). I’m really happy that it’s getting funded now because my lab is running out of money. If it wasn’t getting funded, writing a resubmission would be pointless because I’d be laid off long before it could possibly get funded. Also, the study section comments were worthless. I agree with having only one submission for F32s because they’re so short that it’s futile to resubmit (at least in my situation).

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  30. Pinko Punko Says:

    I favor more institutional training grants, but this also favors big places, and I think medical schools as well. Writing a training grant is a massive amount of effort and time is much more severely limited in departments with undergraduate responsibilities. The feedback from actual peer review and the experience of improving an application I think is also useful for training scientists. How can you ask someone to stick to a difficult task if the lottery aspects are reinforced by limiting revisions. Funding in many labs is a natural cap, so many people would be gone anyway.
    My post-doc was long, and I successfully obtained an NRSA after one revision, though funding was cut to a single year. It still meant a lot to my career, even if it was just mentally.

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  31. Arlenna Says:

    I think they should let the F32 be considered for competitive transition to an R00 award. So that postdocs who already have one can apply for an R00-level transition package to bring with them to a faculty position. However I also think they need to keep the K99/R00 two-phaser intact, and not just replace it with something like this.

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  32. adsense hack Says:

    Punko, the problem you describe is a real one, and I noted something about this on the blog recently. Not seeing where allowing revisions really helps…big labs do well on revision also. The key would be to focus on need and training delta caused by the award.

    Like

  33. DrugMonkey Says:

    Arlenna, I have argued from the start of the K99/R00 program that the NIH should expand that while contracting the F32, perhaps even replace it altogether. Even if this means a serious reduction in the number of postdocs being supported on fellowships (although maybe Institutionals could be increased).
    and the idea of a pure transition mechanism, the R00 by itself is intriguing. But the notion of limiting competition for such a thing to F32 awardees doesn’t sit well with me. Before the K99/R00, didn’t they have something like this limited to *intramural* postdocs? I thought that was really dumb when that was the only genuine transition mech in tue NIH stable.

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  34. and the idea of a pure transition mechanism, the R00 by itself is intriguing.

    If this becomes widely available, it’ll just turn into the R29 program, and be a disaster for the same reason.

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  35. whimple Says:

    Too late. We don’t interview anyone unless: a) they have a K99/R00 and/or b) they have a MD degree. Why? We require upfront evidence of fundability. In the case of the MD, we don’t really care what they do research-wise, because when they fail to get grant support we’ll farm them off to the clinic. What really scares us is getting stuck with (tenuring) a Ph.D. that winds up underfunded.

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  36. pinus Says:

    They had a K22 was basically what arlenna described…to apply for it, you either had to have an NRSA or be intramural.
    It is actually still around (I think?)..but shortly after it was started, the K99 program started up. I actually know 2 people who had gotten it. Based on the scores I have heard that were funded…this is much less competitive.

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