Should K99 awardees continue the R00 phase at the current Institution?

March 26, 2014

The FOA for the K99/R00 says that a different institution is “encouraged (but not required)“.

I will confess I thought this was somewhat stronger in tone but the original announcement was similar.

Applicants are encouraged to consider independent positions at departments and institutions different from where they conducted their mentored research. Should an awardee wish to activate the independent phase of the grant award at the same department or institution at which they conducted their mentored research, the individual must provide justification addressing the decision to remain at the same institution.

Still, I guess we can bench race what this would mean in our personal interpretation or recommendation. I would think this an exception for extreme circumstances… so more like 10%?

Well, a comment on a prior thread asserted that something around 25% of R00 awardees had remained at the same Institution in which they had been “training” under the K99 phase.

Naturally, I was interested in what my ICs of greatest interest have been up to. Of currently active R00 grants, one IC came in at 21% at the same institution as the K99 phase and another came in at either 29% or 35%. This latter one had a single award for which the K99 phase moved in the second year and then the R00 was continued in that new location.



Color me surprised.

I am no big fan of enforced academic nomadism. Were I the Boss of Science I may have omitted that little “encouraged but not required” clause, frankly. Maybe. But the clause is most assuredly in there and it gives an indication about intent. Nice to have exceptions for unusual circumstances, yes, but I would tend to interpret that statement as meaning rare.

At 25% of the awardees, clearly the NIH does not agree with me on this meaning.

Either that, or the reality of the (lack of) academic nomadism under the current system has essentially overcome the NIH’s intent.

Here we have a fancy grant award that gives postdocs some negotiating room in where they would like to be. As we’ve been discussing, these are presumably some top-quality candidates, going by the usual academic seals of approval. And a quarter are disregarding the expectation of nomadic dispersal at the transition to faculty level independence.

To me this underlines the opinion I have on nomadism.

There is something seriously wrong with the expectation that academic scientists travel all over creation for their jobs, in the current era of dual-career families and “training” phases that extend well into the third decade of life.

Quite some time ago I started scrutinizing CVs of visiting speakers, grant applicants, etc to see their trajectories. I didn’t formalize it but I came to the conclusion that a substantial (20-25% would probably have been my estimate prior to today’s exercise) number had violated the “expectation”. Yet it persists. Here we have fairly accomplished scientists (grant winners and invited speakers) violating the truthy truism of academic careers. Substantial numbers of them too. Yet the culture is to sneer at this as an intentional trajectory when it comes to advising junior scientists.

Shaking my head.

24 Responses to “Should K99 awardees continue the R00 phase at the current Institution?”

  1. mytchondria Says:

    I served on K99/00 study section for about 3yrs so I’m The Boss of Science, Ted.
    The strong sense was that the funded candidates were not folks coming out of good labs. They were coming out of GREAT labs. I’ve seen folks publish in S/N/C then be told by their bosses to scat and leave the field of (whatever drug/disease) so they won’t compete with their former lab. That’s sort of fuckked up IMO. Go start a lab and learn a new disease/model/technique? YOUCH. But it happens… a lot.
    For those who could/do stay on campus, the study sections I was present for were concerned about independence. K99/R00 applicants mentors were such monsters on the campus’ they inhabited, the fear was that they trainees would never be able to be truly independent of mentors political or scientific influence. I would argue this could be offset with a strong independent mentoring committee which could bitch slap an overly controling senior PI or arrange for science divorces if things went south.
    This is not to say everyone wants to be around their old boss. But for the folks who are enjoying really good reciprocally beneficial relationships, forcably dissolving this ties can be fuckken disaster and leads to the bigger question….why tenure committees care if you interact/publish with your former mentor?
    You learn to do 37-photon imaging, then you damn well better have your own rig in your start up package, but for you to succeed, you need to be in proximity to where the technology is evolving and sometimes that means staying put.
    We live in a time where we have a far greater sense of scientific community than ever before leading to a much clearer understanding of who is doing what. This is facilitated by the last 20 year rise in small meetings, internet dialogues, and group gaming sites. (That was a joke) Add together with the rising cost of technology and shrinking amount of institutional $ and I say fuckke this as something we should view as important.
    I’ve always picked mentors who had complimentary interests and technques but they in no way overlapped by more than 30% with my own interests. While I could still have high impact papers with folks who have served as mentors, having them on my CV is forbodden. I’m not sure science is being served by this model. Which is why I’m taking over science. Well, that and the boot budget I’m giving myself.*

    *Sorry National Eye Institute, you’re getting axed…eyes are the asses of the brain and boots need to be bought.


  2. Ola Says:

    I forget the exact numbers from national postdoctoral association, but something like 60% of post docs are married and 30% have kids. WTF are they supposed to do, just uproot? The number of R00 awardees staying put was inevitable. My trainees have been on the receiving end of this total BS “why didn’t you move” critique. We take every opportunity possible to educate reviewers about the new reality.

    Now, if someone stays in the same place and has “500 sq.ft. of shared space” or “resources in the center for whatever” (run by the former mentor), or no papers as senior author and some still with the old mentor, then that’s a problem. But if they’re striking out and have a good letter from the chair/dean and senior author papers without their old boss, and the science is in a new area now occupied by the old mentor, then give them a frickin’ break already!


  3. Ola Says:

    Fukkin auto-correct! “New area NOT occupied by the old mentor”


  4. iGrrrl Says:

    So, I’m going to disagree somewhat with you on the nomadism. Enforced nomadism? Yes, I agree one can cite problems with that expectation. However, from my perspective, staying in place creates its own problems.

    The extreme case: After one workshop, where I worked with a cohort of ~20 faculty from Aims to full proposal over several months, the dean asked what one thing I would recommend to improve their overall research environment. I told him to stop hiring their own graduates. They were putting newly minted PhDs from their own departments into their TT assistant professor slots. These poor folks had NO idea of how the world worked outside their bubble, and it showed in their grant applications.

    It’s one thing to hire a post-doc into the department where they trained, but getting the rest of the faculty to mentally make the shift from ‘trainee’ to ‘colleague’ can be tough. People do this in medicine quite often, though, where an MD trainee gets offered the faculty position. “How else would you know who is good?” is the usual justification. I also see cases where the new PhD does a post-doc either in their PhD lab or in the department. If you stay in the same lab as a post-doc, reviewers wonder what you would learn as a post-doctoral trainee that you didn’t learn as PhD trainee. If you change labs within a department, it can be better, but it’s harder, in my observations, to make the mental switch from grad student to post-doc if you’re in the same environment and around the same people. You don’t need extended grad school; you need the next level of training, both scientific and career skills. If you can get that across campus or down the hall, fine, but think about what you want out of the post-doc to set you up for longer-term success. Will it do that?

    tl;dr Moving can accomplish a number of actual positive things, not just avoiding the ‘they haven’t moved’ criticism from reviewers. There are reasons reviewers developed that particular heuristic.


  5. Jo Says:

    Put me in the camp FOR academic nomadism. I think the cultures of different academic institutions are extremely different from one another and you need to experience that to figure what kind of you culture you want at the academic institution you eventually settle at. The protracted career trajectory junior scientists face these days is an issue, and we should do more to fix it, but doing so by allowing people to remain static seems like a bad solution.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    So Jo, you are saying that a 35+ year old individual, who has a working, likely professional career (not particularly transportable), spouse, maybe with kids in schools, maybe with a mortgage should not be “allowed” to have a career as an independent scientist? Just for these nebulous benefits of the proper “culture” of an academic institution?

    This person should be forced, should she or he desire a tenure track position, to demand their spouse find a new job, uproot their kids, take a bath on a house if the market sucks, etc.

    Do I have that right?


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    we had a poll on geographical stagnation before, btw


  8. neuropop Says:

    @mytchondria “why tenure committees care if you interact/publish with your former mentor?”
    Somehow they do. That’s what torpedoed my tenure despite a solid funding record, publications on projects that did not include the former mentor, a collaborative relationship with the mentor (who is a pleasure to work with) where the ideas and work was clearly delineated. If the work moves science forward (if nothing else, evidenced by the number of citations of the joint papers and its impact generally), why is that a problem. I must add that I was at a different institution from the mentor. A post for another day perhaps


  9. anonymous postdoc Says:

    You are not going to get me to agree that the pressure to move institutions is an equivalent negative influence on diversity and family in science as implicit racism and sexism in hiring.

    Indeed, I do not see many people getting positions at their postdoc institution because of family issues. The people being retained at their postdoc institution are the ones the institution, department, or mentor decided was such a star that they didn’t want them out of their grubby little hands.


  10. rxnm Says:

    I don’t think there should be any rules here, but like everything you ever do, and whether or not it’s fair, you WILL be judged by others if you don’t move. There will be the impression of nepotism and that you are an ittle-wittle baby bird who can’t fly on their own. It’s going to be tougher to convince your field and possibly your P&T committee that you’re independent and not the pawn of the asshole who got you your K99 or whispered sweet nothings in the dean’s ear on your behalf.

    If that keeps you up at night in comparison to not having a job or having to sabotage your spouse’s career, you can either live with it or not.


  11. Jo Says:

    To DM: No, I’m saying that the problem is that we have 35 year olds who are still not in faculty positions. Unless you have the same objection to <30 year olds being forced to move?

    Yes it's easy to dismiss nebulous things like culture (you know, because they're nebulous) but its also easy to talk to people with very insular views because they've not moved.

    I don't thinks its unreasonable to expect 20 somethings to gain a diverse scientific experience and then settle down somewhere in their 30s. Its a trajectory favored by many careers. The problem is that in science we're pushing that settling down into the 40s.

    In other words, tackle the cause of the problem, not the sequela.


  12. qaz Says:

    Jo – Historically, the human life cycle included family and kids long before 30. This has been changing over the last decades as we move “scientific adulthood” later and later. But my non-scientist friends were long settled by the time they were 30. It was only the academics who were still wandering in their 30s. And watching our graduate students (who are in usually their late 20s when they graduate), they are usually settled with family, including a spouse and often kids, by the time they graduate.

    That being said, in my anecdata, the departments that have problems with hiring their own are not trying to solve a person’s family problem. I think the “I’m too settled to move” is a red herring. The real problems are that there are departments that have empires, and want little ducklings to be working in their empires. Not surprisingly, these are also the BSDs that have the star power to get their kids K99s.

    In many (but not all!) cities, there are multiple options. What would be interesting would be to see how many New York City departments or Boston departments are internally K99’ed as compared to great departments in cities with only one major university/research center. If it’s about family, we should see more internal graduate->faculty in the isolated universities. But I’ll bet that there are actually more in the big city centers, where there are lots of local universities to transfer between.

    IMHO I think that there are very good reasons for academics to do UG, grad, PD, and faculty at different institutions. But I am also sympathetic to the family situation. When reviewing NRSAs or K99s, I have a higher bar for staying local, but I don’t think it should be a deal-breaker. The ones that I’ve seen be successful staying local have all made very explicit how they were changing the training path.

    PS. In praise of academic cross-pollination, there is a fascinating history-of-physics book on how Feynman diagrams were carried from lab to lab via postdocs called “Drawing Theories Apart” by David Kaiser.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Unless you have the same objection to <30 year olds being forced to move?

    My distaste for an industry essentially forcing people to uproot is certainly scaled by the age at which this is required. I am a very HUGE fan of 18 year old kids leaving their home area to go away (far away) to undergraduate education. I am in support of suggesting that another move for graduate education is in order. At this point, however, we are no longer talking people who are 18, or 24 and have moved the discussion into the late 20s/early 30s. By the time a postdoc is completed and a candidate is competitive for a faculty level job we’re in the mid 30s, maybe late 30s. We all know what the fertility curve for women looks like.

    In the mid 1970s, faculty level jobs were being obtained by people straight out of grad school in many cases and certainly within about 2 years of postdoc-ing. These are the members of the Academy that have been pushing this requirement for scientific nomadism (and endless “training”) for three decades.

    So yeah, my objection to the trend is most certainly tied up in the age at which people are currently being seen as competitive for permanent(ish) jobs. Crank that back down again and my objections will be muted* in proportion.

    *the dual career thing still contributes, however.


  14. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Academic nomadism is a cultish meme that serves to obscure the fact that science is just a profession that some adults do.

    This pernicious idea is outdated not only because of the demographic shifts described by DM, but also because of the shifts in the culture of science, increasingly involving multi-institutional, interdisciplinary collaborations.

    I have known plenty of scientists who move geographically but retain their parochial blinders, and I have known several who have stayed put but manage to constantly expand their scientific horizons.

    Better to judge the scientist based upon the quality of the science they do, rather than where they do it.


  15. ClearlyTrolling Says:

    Drugmonkey, you claim that you never went through the 2 body hire thing, but you are part of a two body couple at the same university (as I read on your blog). During the Bora drama, you said Don’t F where you eat, so I’m trying to reconcile how that works. Any insight?


  16. rxnm Says:

    dual hires = using your professional position to seek sex partners. ok.


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    qaz- excellent to raise the point about larger research communities. I counted a couple of within-town changes as institutional switches because technically they are. However on the nomadism front, we should count these as geographical stickiness.

    Heck, I even know of several lengthy-commute situations adopted to prevent moving the household.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    CT- that’s Isis’ little maxim, my version is cleaner. But as with rxnm, I’m having trouble seeing where dual-hire situations have anything to do with initiating de-novo romantic relationships at the workplace.


  19. dsks Says:

    “During the Bora drama, you said Don’t F where you eat, so I’m trying to reconcile how that works. Any insight?”

    There’s a good reason why that phrase is common, but that it is rarely said, “Don’t fall in love where you eat”. Life does not provide one with the same flexibility of choice in the latter matter, so it goes. And while workplace romances are still vulnerable to the power differential, they are nevertheless entered into with mutual consent. They are in no manner remotely comparable to some geezer slinking around looking for any Fine Young Thing he can coerce via the power differential into scratching an itch.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    And while workplace romances are still vulnerable to the power differential, they are nevertheless entered into with mutual consent.

    yeah, no. Not a sufficient argument for dismissal. The power differential is always going to be a problem. This is why it is the best advice to do your seeking of romance outside of your workplace. Where “outside” is scaled in a very significant way with the power dynamics. What is critical here is the degree to which your romantic entanglements can affect your work. A direct supervisory relationship at work is a clear case of one of the worst sorts of scenarios. This makes it into my annual managerial training on harassment, probably yours as well. Conversely, two relatively low-level, institutionally powerless employees in vastly removed areas of a company, university, government entity, etc, have many fewer opportunities for workplace trouble.

    DFWYW is a nice handy aphorism but don’t let the truthy simplicity of it delude you that you aren’t still responsible for thinking through the complicated issues behind it.


  21. dsks Says:

    I don’t disagree that work place relationships inhabit a veritable minefield in re ethics. I was merely responding to CT’s implied comment that there was an equivalence to be drawn between unsolicited and professionally inappropriate advances (what Bora has admitted to) and work place relationships period. A not uncommon derailing technique deployed in order to infer that opponents of harassment in the work place are joyless, cynical and unrealistic puritans who believe men and women should be forcefully segregated.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    opponents of harassment in the work place are joyless, cynical and unrealistic puritans

    Oh, but I am. Not the “forcefully segregated” part though. Just the “Dude! get the heck outside of the workplace and develop some alternate interests and social circles FFS!” type.

    (Besides, aren’t all the kids these days finding the love of their lives on the Internet dating sites?)


  23. qaz Says:

    I totally count changing universities within a single city as “academic nomadism”. On every study section I’ve ever been on, you count as “moving” if you are in a new university.

    Because big empires tend to be in those big-city coastal schools, we can test this question. That’s why I think we (someone) could do a study to see if these K99 to R00 same-school situations tend to be in schools where there are other options. If they tend to occur at places like Wisconsin or Michigan or Minnesota (where there is one excellent school and no other equivalent R1 universities), then the problem is students with family situations. If they tend to occur at places like Columbia or MIT (where there are other R1 research universities in the same city), then the problem is empires and ducklings.


  24. ClearlyTrolling Says:

    In general, I find you pretty reasonable and just wanted to make sure that you weren’t one of those “The only good couple hire was my hire/my spouse’s hire”. Also, it made me think you were not in favor of spousal hires before you posted positively about them, confusing me. Cheers!


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