NIH to Postdocs: You Have Ten Years to Get Your R01

Sep 26 2008 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Mentoring, NIH

Well that was quick. I was just appreciating that the "Early Stage Investigator" (ESI) designation is significantly different from the older "New Investigator" (NI) designation in NIH-speak. There is now a Guide notice out to clarify.


The NOT-OD-08-121 tells us:

The NIH will continue to encourage all New Investigators to apply for NIH R01 awards. However, under this new policy, those New Investigators who are within 10 years of their terminal research degree or within 10 years of completing a medical residency, will be identified as Early Stage Investigators. Their applications will be identified and their career stage will be considered at the time of review and award. It is hoped that by providing an advantage for ESIs, the NIH will be able to directly encourage earlier application for NIH research grant support.

(A little more detail, just for those that aren't up on the NIH speak. )

Definitions
New Investigator: An NIH research grant Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI) who has not yet competed successfully for a substantial, competing NIH research grant is considered a New Investigator. For example, a PD/PI who has previously received a competing NIH R01 research grant is no longer considered a New Investigator. However, a PD/PI who has received a Small Grant (R03) or an Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award (R21) retains his or her status as a New Investigator. A complete definition of a New Investigator along with a list of NIH grants that do not disqualify a PD/PI from being considered a New Investigator can be found at http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/resources.htm.
Early Stage Investigator (ESI): An individual who is classified as a New or First-Time Investigator and is within 10 years of completing his/her terminal research degree or is within 10 years of completing medical residency (or the equivalent) is considered an Early Stage Investigator (ESI).
Extension of ESI Eligibility: The 10 year period after completion of the terminal degree or residency may be extended to accommodate special circumstances including various medical concerns, disability, pressing family care responsibilities, or active duty military service. Guidelines for requesting and considering such requests are being developed and will be announced.

Translation: "We will be focusing our pickups on those within 10 years of terminal degree".
Actually this is nowhere as bad as I had anticipated, frankly. The K99/R00 PI award limited the awardee to 5 years out from the terminal degree and I was suspecting they'd go with that. Ten is much more realistic at present for picking up someone who is an independent investigator and competitive for an R01 in the current environment.
One wonders how much real effect this will have, however. Once you clip off those NI types who skate in by the narrowest of technical criteria (longterm productive NSF or foreign-funded investigators) and the within-10yrs individuals, are there really that many competitive PIs left? With the NI pickups in the past couple of years, have these not been going to the within-10yr crowd? Have they been funding only the technical-criteria people? Why are they never up front about this stuff?
I'm also very doubtful this will "encourage early transition to independence" in any meaningful way. The transition to independence that is most important is the acquisition of a professorial-level (at minimum grant-writing) appointment. This is still very much in the hands of the local Universities and I see nothing in this reclassification that encourages them to hire new faculty with fewer postdoctoral years under his/her belt. How many places are offering positions to people with 9yrs of postdoctoral training (for starters) and are going to start hiring at 6-7 years out from degree? I don't see the prospect of increased "consideration" for funding being much of a motivator.
Oh, and how has that K99/R00 thing been going, anyway? Now THAT is a real transition mechanism that actually encourages Universities to pony up positions. My sources rumour that while sure, there are some hires taking place there are also a lot of people not getting offers. Also, a fair number are simply staying where they were as postdocs and ascending to the research and/or tenure-track faculty tracks. How about it NIH? Is this program working as intended or not? If so, expand it. Me, I suggest replacing all current postdoctoral fellowship mechanisms (Individual and Institutional) with this. If it is not working, well...the designation of the ESI isn't going to do much about "early transition".

26 responses so far

  • pinus says:

    re: K99/R00
    I was awarded one, and I think it was instrumental in getting me several outstanding offers. Honestly, I think it was the extra push that made institutions/departments want to bring me in now, instead of holding off a year for some 'seasoning'. I have see a few people who have moved up internally after getting one, not sure if the NIH cares or not, as long as the start-up package is competitive.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    People getting K99s are competitive for positions in general without them. I think the difference is likely both in offers and maybe perhaps in interviews. I don't think the mechanism does a whole lot besides be another avenue for senior post-doc funding (like the second fellowship).
    In a way, I think K99s kind of increase the class disparity between the very top pool of candidates and the next class. I think it just acts to solidify some stratification.
    I think it is funny how someone doing a really long post-doc is penalized for it, above and beyond being in a really long post-doc.

  • Liam says:

    There are a couple of things that make the K99/R00 a bit tricky as I have learned from my experience and those of others. First, the department has to pony up 25% of the salary -no problem unless you have E. Scrooge for a department head (it happened to a friend of mine). Second, the 5 year cutoff is for all submissions, the first as well as any revisions at least at the time for my institute. They announced the K99 mechanism while I was into year 4 of my post-doc, so basically I had one shot at it. Additionally, I had completed 3 years on an institutional training grant, so an individual training grant award was not a possibility. So, as a post-doc, I was stuck without any other options to find a bit of my own funding and build a track record.
    DM mentioned in his post "Eyes on the Prize" that it is imperative for post-docs to get into a position that allows them to write and submit grants, even from within your current institution. I couldn't agree more. Ultimately I was able to take a faculty position in my department and get a grant as a PI, so things have worked out for me.
    However, I can't help but wonder if NIH could develop another mechanism through which Post-Docs can get a bit of seed money for a project that helps them develop some small measure of independence. It could help someone progress into an Early Stage Investigator.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Ultimately I was able to take a faculty position in my department and get a grant as a PI, so things have worked out for me.

    In departments like mine, massive weight is against permitting post-docs to rise up through the ranks and ever enter the tenure track within the same department.

  • Liam says:

    "In departments like mine, massive weight is against permitting post-docs to rise up through the ranks and ever enter the tenure track within the same department."
    No question about that, the same is true in my place, even if you are trying to get into a low level faculty position. I am research track, not tenure track. All the same, I am writing my grants, managing projects at a high level, and setting myself up to take a TT position somewhere in the near future....

  • pinus says:

    I think that most departments are similar to PP's regarding post-docs rising through the ranks to tenure-track. However, I have come across a few departments that ARE doing this. But to me, it seems more that some 'big-name' PIs are establishing little mini-empires by muscling their post-docs in to faculty positions. I sure hope that if the assistant professor members of the empire are able to establish independence enough to get tenure.

  • pinus says:

    (pardon the aside)
    Liam,
    NIH allowed you to activate the R portion of the grant as a research track investigator? Or are you still on the K part?

  • Liam says:

    "NIH allowed you to activate the R portion of the grant as a research track investigator? Or are you still on the K part?"
    No, I don't have a K99. It is an R01 in response to an RFA. It was definitely a team effort to get the grant, but nonetheless I am a PI on a Multi-PI application. Given our internal agreements about experiments, authorships, etc this grant is clearly the launching point for my independent career.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    If you aren't at a giant coastal heavyweight, many very good departments will try to keep quality talent.

  • PhysioProf says:

    If you aren't at a giant coastal heavyweight, many very good departments will try to keep quality talent.

    This is exactly correct, and why I qualified my comment with "In departments like mine".

  • pinus says:

    Liam,
    that sounds great! Although, I thought that applying for ANY 'R' while on the K99 was a negatory. Silly rules if you ask me!

  • neurolover says:

    I look forward to seeing how "extended to accommodate special circumstances including various medical concerns, disability, pressing family care responsibilities, or active duty military service. Guidelines for requesting and considering such requests are being developed and will be announced. " is going to be interpreted. I understand the motivation for "up/or out" policies, of which this is another example. But, they have a significant negative outcome on women. I presume that they'll try to build in some kind of guideline, but, I think attempts at extending eligibility on these kinds of grounds usually end up failing, once a firm deadline has been established.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I was just baiting the other PP. I should have even gone more over the top. "If you aren't at an Institutional Academic Colosso-Behemoth Bestriding the Universe of Knowledge with Gas-giant Destroying Thought Beams...etc"
    Other PP: "Yes, like I just said."
    :)

  • crystaldoc says:

    "are there really that many competitive PIs left?"
    Well... with average age of 30 at PhD receipt for biological and physical sciences (NSF statistics from 2003), and average age of 42 at first R01 for PhDs (per current NIH statistics), it seems that those of us around 10 years out and still struggling to get that first R01 may be fairly typical new investigators, and not just a handful of losers who were never going to be competitive candidates anyway.

  • Liam says:

    I will add that is is nice that NIH is recognizing that, as crystaldoc said, folks approaching 10 years out are "not just a handful of losers who were never going to be competitive candidates anyway." We all know that this business of science is incredibly difficult for many reasons and not every scientist-in-training, no matter how talented, is going to land a TT position after 3-4 years of post-doc'ing and be immediately competitive for a grant.
    Echoing what DM said in the original post, it is also my opinion that in order to transition to independence for the majority of scientists, you have to land a position of some type that allows you to submit a grant (including low level faculty appts). That gives you more control over your future...not necessarily complete control...but enough that you can control deadlines, writing, etc to get a grant submitted as a Principal Investigator.

  • Arlenna says:

    It's my impression that about 20-30% of K99 awardees are getting both job offers and K99 awards at the same time. In other words, the same people who are competitive for positions are also the prime K99 candidates in the same year or their lives. That's what happened to me, and so I will never know if having it would have helped me get interviews elsewhere because my dream job department wanted me regardless of the money. So GETTING this position was not as much affected by it, but, as I have been told by many in my department already, KEEPING it is almost definitely going to be hugely aided by starting out with this funding.
    I've talked about the K99/R00 application a lot, and I feel strongly that it helps you become a better TT candidate just by putting together the proposal and the application. It makes you map out a five-year plan, come up with training and mentorship strategies for yourself, and network with other senior scientists in your field to get some strategic collaborative support.
    I totally agree with combining this in some way with all the other postdoctoral mentored training fellowships. I had an NRSA before this, and many of the complications of my job offer/new institution/K99-phase transfer would have been simplified by allowing me to call my NRSA a part of the K99 phase. I'm definitely not complaining, because it means I end up with more funding for more years, but it would have saved the NIH some money and still been as good for my plans and CV.
    Bringing all of these issues together (getting postdoctoral funding support, developing independence in a mentored environment, obtaining a tenure track position and getting tenure in the end) in a more 'holistic' academic career-track funding support mechanism will need a wider scope for it to really benefit postdocs who want to, and can, do this job, and add productively to the research system. Right now it's probably still too limited, and the complexities of the transition definition are not consistent enough from person to person for the mechanism to be smooth.

  • msphd says:

    The K99/R00 PI award limited the awardee to 5 years out from the terminal degree
    This is what they say, but it actually means something different.
    Inside the 'eligibility' section they define it further, to say that K99 awardees are supposed to need 2 more years of mentored training.
    So let's do the math together:
    5 years max - 2 years training = last time to apply =
    3rd year of postdoc
    I was like Liam, I had 1 shot at it.
    One of the main criticisms that I got was that I didn't seem to NEED 2 more years of mentored training.
    OOPS. I called my SRA - they said I seemed too independent already in terms of my skills and research plans.
    OOPS. What was I thinking??? I guess applying was, in some ways, a waste of time I should have being spending on, whatever, publishing C/N/S papers.
    And my university also refuses to give me a job title from which I could apply for any other grant-level funding. And I'm not eligible for postdoc-level fellowship-type funding anymore (been a postdoc too long).
    So yeah, I agree that NIH needs to do some assessment on whether the K99 is doing what they intended for the next generation of postdocs.
    It was too late in coming to help someone like me.
    My impression is that most PIs are unaware of how fast their new postdocs should be getting fellowships and then applying for K99.
    Most postdocs are unaware of how any of this works when they first start out. Postdoc associations are working hard to get the word out and have grantwriting workshops for postdocs, and that is helping.
    But graduate programs are not doing nearly enough grantwriting instruction, so new PhDs are arriving at their postdoc appointments with no idea where to begin or what a grant should look like. If your local postdoc association has a grantwriting workshop once a year, that's not always soon enough.
    It doesn't help that more than half the postdocs in the US went to school outside the US, where the programs are even more unlikely to teach a class on "How to write an NIH grant."

  • CC says:

    So let's do the math together:
    5 years max - 2 years training = last time to apply =
    3rd year of postdoc
    Isn't that 5th year of postdoc?
    Otherwise, I concur with MsPhD. A lot of PIs haven't realized that strategies have changed since the days of three year postdocs, a couple of decent papers and then a job offer.

  • postdoc says:

    So what's the verdict with the k99 with regards to eligibility?
    Do the 2 years of K99 training need to be completed within the 5-year "eligibility window?" Or do just the initial applications and the resubmissions?
    Thanks for the clarification!

  • pinus says:

    postdoc,
    no, you have to apply for a K99 before you hit the end of year 5. Those two years of mentored training have nothing to do with the 5 year elgibility window.
    Furthermore, you don't have to do a full 2 years of mentored research on the K99. The FAQs associated with the K99 state that there is a 1 year minimum..and even that minimum is soft...or so I am told.

  • neurowoman says:

    I think I shall commit sepuku now (joking - really! geez). Guess I shouldn't have wasted that time waiting for spouse to get tenure, working on the experiments in my R03, preparing for job talks instead of R01, or having that baby...

  • postdoc says:

    Thanks pinus!
    What about suggesting a change on institution for the k99 portion (I'm currently at a foreign institution)?
    Thanjs for the advice?

  • pinus says:

    I would ask your program officer about that. If you don't have one that you have worked with previously, look at the K99 announcement and find the name of the contact person at the institute that you are hoping to go through.
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/contacts/pa-06-133_contacts.htm

  • cs says:

    I have talked to a few K99 awardees and they are finding the transition to the roo phase to be a headache. the mechanism is new enough that people at nih don't have the answers to a lot of the questions that they are asking about the transition. plus with ARRA nobody at NIH has time to get back to them about the questions. it's hard to understand what type of acceptable position they have in mind when they wrote the announcement. I've heard people have problems because they get offers from departments that pay 9 month salaries, others who got offers from medical schools that don't offer tenure track, and other situations that don't exactly fit the "full-time, tenure track or equivalent" requirement. i don't know anyone who had their first offer approved,sometimes for good reasons, but sometimes for very small things that didn't have much to do with whether they would be able to do good research. then a one of them had had potential employers tell them that they couldn't buy out 75% of their time so if they were hired, they couldn't bring their k award.

  • cs says:

    I have from about 3 K99 awardees and they are finding the transition to the roo phase to be a headache. the mechanism is new enough that people at nih don't have the answers to a lot of the questions that they are asking about the transition. plus with ARRA nobody at NIH has time to get back to them about the questions. it's hard to understand what type of acceptable position they have in mind when they wrote the announcement. One person had problems because they get offers from departments that pay 9 month salaries, another got offers from medical schools that don't offer tenure track, and neither situation exactly fit the "full-time, tenure track or equivalent" requirement. None of them had their first offer approved--one for good reasons, but two for very small things that didn't have much to do with whether they would be able to do good research. One got a great startup package and then was asked by his program officer why he was requesting so much money when he already was getting so much equipment in his startup package. another had had potential employers tell her that they couldn't buy out 75% of their time so if they were hired, they couldn't bring their k award.

  • pinus says:

    I had to deal with some 'growing pains' when trying to transfer my K99 to an R00. But...it would see as if my 1st offer was good enough and acepted. Still waiting on the money to officially come in, but two program people, one fairly high up on the totem, told me it is a done deal, and they are working on the paper work.
    I think the basic problem is that the people who wrote up, and are managing, the K99 mechanism, don't understand the faculty search process. The ones I know and speak to are trying to smooth things out though. We shall see.

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