Repost: Are Stable Research Career Tracks the Solution to "Structural Disequilibria" in the NIH Racket?

Mar 02 2011 Published by under NIH Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Jennifer Rohn has a nice bit up at the Nature News entitled "Give postdocs a career, not empty promises" which overviews an issue of scientific careerism that is dear to my heart.

Consider the scientific community as an ecosystem, and it is easy to see why postdocs need another path. The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30–40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between.

The bit is an expansive argument for the problem, no doubt, and Rohn carefully outlines the need for something else in the nature of careers for doctoral-trained scientists. Something other than professorial rank, lab-head (aka PI) positions as the end game. She makes this rather explicit:

I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.

I ran across this on the Twitts via laudatory forwards from Ed Yong and David Dobbs earlier today. Then some jerk rather snarkily observed that : "when I've made that proposal on blog, at least I've put up a mechanism, rather than pipe dream..."

What I meant by this is that the Rohn piece leaves us hanging. It is all well and good to describe the problem. But in some senses this is an obvious problem. It is discussed endlessly. The solution, some career-type position at less-than-PI level, is not a flash of unique brilliance. What the real question is, in my view, is how our business could be tweaked to accomplish this goal. How can we create these positions within the Universities in our respective countries and under the general funding mechanisms available to us?

I have a specific proposal in mind that could easily operate within the US NIH-funded atmosphere. I probably first alluded to my solution here at the old blog (before DrugMonkey sold out and went all corporate) and most recently in a comment over at the OER blog. As far as I can recall (ok, Google), the fullest description of my proposal was in an entry that I'm reposting, below. My point for today is not that this is the correct solution, rather that it is a solution. A specific proposal that could be acted upon. Perhaps you would like to supply similar proposals, large or small, that could accomplish this goal which has been described so nicely by Jennifer Rohn.

This entry first appeared Aug 6, 2008.


A Policy Forum piece by Michael S. Teitelbaum in Science opines at length on the so-called "structural disequilibria" in biomedical research [h/t: writedit]. This is mostly a recitation of all of the familiar NIH funding woes (including reference to the NIH budget undoubling analysis); if not entirely novel in theme, at least there is a new focus here since Teitelbaum is arguing that until serious changes in the structure of the biomedical research/funding enterprise are put into place we will continue to experience boom/bust cycles no matter what the NIH budget may be. Much is familiar so your eyes may have glazed over after the first or second sub-sections. I wish to draw your attention to something interesting Teitelbaum mentioned right at the end.


He ends the piece with a series of recommendations of which one is that we may need:

New mechanisms to better align the Ph.D.-postdoc systems with demand in the labor market for their graduates, e.g.,
-snip-
b. Allowing increases in NIH research funds to support career-path biomedical research positions (e.g., professional staff scientist positions) at research institutions rather than depending on temporary students and/or trainees.

This is a relatively common theme of disgruntled post-doc'ing. Some people come to the realization at some point that their career ambitions would be well served by a stable position as a research scientist. Someone who toils away at the bench, in the field or equivalent, conducting and overseeing studies, analyzing data, writing papers without the many, many headaches of being an independent PI with a professorial appointment.

The fact of the matter is that many, many Ph.D. wielding individuals are in the process of serving out such a career. The trouble is that it is not a stable, formal job category. So anyone who makes it to retirement, does so by matter of a series of accidental or lucky steps in joining a lab or labs that can sustain the stable level of funding that is required to maintain very senior Ph.D. level non-PI scientists. This makes this particular ambition a fairly dodgy one.

So what do people with such ambitions do instead? Well, some people jump to industry positions of one sort or another...BigPharma or big/medium biotech. Some just grit their teeth and jump from lab to lab if they have to. Others try for faculty / PI jobs...even though they may not actually want to do so.
I think Teitelbaum's point is that particularly this latter issue increases the pressure with respect to the stream of new PIs with new labs which must get funded with NIH grants. Pressure which might be alleviated by creating a way for individuals who do not want to be PIs with big labs to have a reasonable expectation of a professional career doing the science that they love.

I'll need to be convinced of that. What I do not need to be convinced of is the value of having a stable career path for people who just want to be scientists (in academic labs) without the pressure to jump up to PI-dom. First, because I know quite a number of such people and can see how their contributions to science are great- while recognizing there is no way they are cut out to be PIs. Second because selfishly as a PI, I'd love to get a whack at such an individual in my own lab.

Let me just jump up even higher on my soap box here for a minute and remind you all. The time is still ripe for things to change at the NIH. A fair review would have to admit that much of the hot air of the past two years has started to result in tangible alterations. NIH is listening and many things that turn up in opinion pieces in the GlamourMags have a way of becoming themes for much additional discussion- including from NIH powers that be. So start talking about this issue if you think it is of value.

I have a modest suggestion, of course. The K05 mechanism. Or rather, something much like the K05. The NIAAA and NIDA version of the K05 is the "Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award" of which the Executive Summary says:

The Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award (K05) is intended to provide protected time for outstanding senior scientists who have demonstrated a sustained high level of productivity conducting biomedical research relevant to the scientific mission of the appropriate institute to focus on their research and to provide mentoring of new investigators.
It is expected that most candidates will request five years of support; requests must be for a minimum of three years. Awards may be renewed one time for up to an additional five-year period.
The K05 award will provide salary support of 75 percent of the institutional base salary (up to the current Federal salary cap limit for NIAAA applicants; up to $90,000 for NIDA applicants) for up to five years based on a full-time, 12-month staff appointment, plus fringe benefits. The candidate must devote a total of 75 percent of full-time effort to the proposed program, with at least 25 percent of that effort directed towards mentorship activities.
Candidates must be outstanding established senior scientists and recognized leaders in their field of research, and be able to demonstrate the need for a period of intensive research focus as a means of enhancing their research career and a need for protected time to conduct their mentoring activities.
Candidates are expected to have independent, peer-reviewed research grant support at the time of submitting the K05 application. Additional funds will not be provided to support the applicant's research activities.
[emphasis added]

The NCI version says similar things but this is the only other announcement I'm finding at the moment.

What a schweet deal. The K05 is apparently for well-funded PIs to leverage their position by gaining what is essentially salary support and/or buy-out from other institutional responsibilities (like teaching or clinical duties, I assume). Let me tell you that from the perspective of a soft-money investigator this would be a VeryGoodThing to acquire. Ahem. But I'm off track.

Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as essentially a fellowship. Without any requirement for a professorial appointment and minimal actual research component. The important point being that it is applied for, awarded to and evaluated for renewal by the career scientist with every expectation that this is a career award. There would be details of course. You'd have to have a host lab at most times- but allow for transition if one lab loses grant support or something. Nice and easy for the supported career scientist to find a new lab, don't you think? "Hey, PI Smith, I have my salary supported and I'd like to come play in your lab..." would go over quite nicely. Progress could be evaluated just as with any other award, keeping the pressure on for the individual to publish.

But that's just one way it could work. What say you Readers? Any other ways to support career bench scientists? Where are the pitfalls?

20 responses so far

  • Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the mention of my Nature piece, and for reposting your thoughts on this important point. I was not claiming that my solution was a 'flash of unique brilliance', and I was editorially constrained from making an exhaustive list of solutions. In fact my purpose in writing the piece was not to propose detailed solutions, but to bring into wider view a discussion that, up til now, at least in the United Kingdom, has been prolific as an undercurrent but yet has been otherwise unfocused.

    We all know it's a problem and spend many hours fretting about what to do about it, but up until this point a serious discussion about making changes has not been on the table, in this country at least. It is my hope that this piece might start a conversation among the major stakeholders (PIs and postdocs, but also universities, funding bodies, scholarly societies and possibly economists), through which we might actually be able to propose - and more importantly, implement - solutions. You and I and others have blogged about this ad infinitum, but I was banking on the fact that the powers-that-be who actually control such things would be more likely to see the argument if it were in a venue like Nature.

  • Are "Research Assistant/Associate Professors" able to apply for at least some NIH/NSF funding?

  • Dr. O says:

    @TJ - depends on the institution, but I think most are.

  • icee says:

    YES!!! Thank you all people who are discussing this! I just commented over on drdrA's recent post on this topic: http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/postdoc-oversupply/#comment-13551.

    This type of job is my ultimate career goal and has been for years. I've deliberately tried to steer my training in this direction; whether that was wise or not, I've yet to see. I'm hoping to scrap together something resembling a job like this, and have felt a lot of anxiety about it, as it seems to be viewed as an anomaly or second-rate, or only for people who couldn't hack it as PIs. I WANT this more than any other job. It's not my plan B.

    I am so pleased to hear that many PIs want to formalize and legitimize this type of position. I am sincerely hoping it can be integrated more fully, and that someone like me could be considered a valuable (and STABLE!) component of running a successful lab, and not just a big expensive risk. I'm willing to sacrifice a PI salary and tenure, because I would be participating in only a subset of the duties a PI usually has. However, those of us who want these positions would need to make a high enough wage (not big$, just medium$ instead of trainee$), and have enough stability to give up the typical gypsy trainee lifestyle, and I know it's VERY hard to figure out how to find the resources to make that possible. I am thankful to those with influence who are thinking about it and trying to find solutions that could be implemented (YAY!!!!). This actually makes me hopeful about my prospects.

  • I'm trying to get my heard around US/UK funding differences but the proposal to create career researcher positions (non-PI), with funding focused on the individual is certainly an interesting one. However, such career researcher positions would have to be clearly distinguished from what we know in the UK as career-establishment fellowships which fund junior researchers — most of them on the way up — who have no teaching duties.

    I confess that up to now I'd mostly been thinking about the issue from the perspective of the PI looking for some quasi-permanent staffing in his lab (selfish, I know). I'd like to see funds diverted to institutions to pay for such positions in PI labs — reviewed every 5 or so years for productivity. This would provide stability and reap efficiency benefits by smoothing over oscillations in lab funding. Such positions do occur rarely in the UK but these are mostly found at research institutes (with intramural funding), not universities (which have funds for administrators — and some tech support —but not usually postdoc-level scientists who work in labs).

  • drugmonkey says:

    TJ- The local institution (University, Research Institute, Company) decides who gets to be the PI on an application. The NIH does not care what the job title is.

  • whimple says:

    The NIH does not care what the job title is.
    The study section cares. That means the NIH also cares.

  • anon says:

    whimple, what do you mean by that? In most RFA's I've seen at the NIH (including the parent RFA for an R01), the extent of eligibility is this:

    "Any individual(s) with the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to carry out the proposed research as the PD/PI is invited to work with his/her organization to develop an application for support."

    What job title limitations are study sections imposing on applicants?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes whimple but as you know these are different questions. There is no point in someone with other than a professorial appointment worrying about how she is going to be treated by study section if her University won't let her submit a grant anyway.

    What job title limitations are study sections imposing on applicants?

    Study sections are looking for standard straight-forward Olde Skoole Assistant/Associate/Full Professors. Any divergence from that is going to raise eyebrows.

    Still, it is true that people with something other than standard Professorial rank titles have won fundable scores on NIH grants. As with just about everything, YMMV. Some reviewers are going to punish nonProfessorial PIs, some will take it totally in stride.

  • Allowing increases in NIH research funds to support career-path biomedical research positions (e.g., professional staff scientist positions) at research institutions rather than depending on temporary students and/or trainees.

    Allowing increases? And where the fucken fucke is this money supposed to come from, if not be diverting it from the support of other individuals?

  • ecogeofemme says:

    How about changing it up even more (long term) by having small groups of PIs who work together on collaborative projects instead of one PI with subordinate research associates? One person takes the lead on Project A, another takes it on Project B, etc. but they all contribute to everything. This is sorta how it works at my institution, and I like it very much. It spreads the rewards, but also the work and the risk. Of course, there are many drawbacks to working at my institution, not least of which is no tenure.

    You know DM, the longer I read your blogs, the more I like your perspective and your blog persona. :)

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    As noted previously, the problem is the perverse incentive structure to keep bringing in cheap, noob "trainees." This must be choked off at its source. In the short run, it may be easier to cut down, and ultimately eliminate, mechanisms that fund new Ph.D. students than to create a new mechanism to pay for expensive research scientists.

  • Alex says:

    I think Neuro-conservative is right. Consider a few things:
    1) Students know that the odds of becoming a PI in an academic environment are quite low. That doesn't stop them from trying. What if they find out that the "back up plan" is still a semi-independent position in basic research in a university environment? On the margin, will this increase or decrease the number of people trying the game of roulette?

    2) Say that faculty have at their disposal some very skilled lieutenants who may not be PI material but can nonetheless play a useful role in the technical training of students. On the margin, will this make PI's inclined to take on more grad students or fewer grad students?

    3) Suppose that the issues raised in 1) and 2) lead to an increase in the number of PhD's graduated. These PhD's are now looking for something to do. These very desirable positions exist, but there's a growing pool of people gunning for these positions. Will competition increase or decrease? Will people need to spend more time in temporary training positions and other CV-building roles before landing one of these semi-independent research scientist roles? With all of the competition and all of the time needed to build the CV to the requisite level of impressiveness, how old will people be before they land one of these coveted positions?

    If you want to stop a system from growing exponentially, you have to stop feeding it. Some grad programs should be more selective. Some grad programs shouldn't exist. Many should do a better job of triaging students into those sent away after a year, those sent away with an MS after 2-3 years, and those who get their PhD. And most should be more cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of their students will NOT be faculty at research universities. (In fact, most will not be faculty at any sort of college or university, judging from the 100 applicants per open position.)

  • whimple says:

    Many should do a better job of triaging students into those sent away after a year, those sent away with an MS after 2-3 years, and those who get their PhD. And most should be more cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of their students will NOT be faculty at research universities.

    What is the incentive for the programs to do this? There would need to be some centralized controlling authority regulating the process, but this authority does not currently exist. Further it does not exist because there is no incentive to set one up. This is also why the various "professional postdoctoral associations" that spring up from time to time have all ultimately failed to make any real difference. The mandate of the NIH is to get the most science done for the best price, without regard to human factors. The mandate of the Universities is to suck as much indirect cost money out of the NIH as they can. That usually means more gullible underpaid chumps, er, "trainees" I meant to say. :)

  • I am not in biomedical research, but rather in a physical science field where there is strong demand for PhDs in industry. At least half of my PhD cohort had no plans for academia when we started our program, and this was probably closer to 75% by the end, so perhaps I have a different perspective. I posted about this several months ago, and I still think that reducing the number of grad students would be a mistake. As I said then, my fear is that if we restrict admissions to PhD programs, we will go backwards on the progress we have made towards diversity. Tightening admissions requirements would screw over the disadvantaged in our society. I would much, much rather allow people to make their own choices and roll the dice on a TT job if they so desire.

    I can say that the most popular post I have ever made, by a huge margin, is this one on "alternate" careers for PhDs. From my perspective, the problem isn't really an oversupply of PhDs, but rather that we produce in our students the idea that academia is not only the best place to be, but that it is the "normal path" and that anything else is "alternative", when by the numbers that should clearly be inverted.

  • Alex says:

    And the mandate of the NSF seems to be to plump for sending more people to grad school.

    I am a strong believer in getting undergrads in the research lab and teaching them some science the way it is actually done. To me, that does not mean that they must then go to grad school. It just means that we should teach them in an environment where answers are not known, where equipment must be built and code must be written, rather than an environment where there's a target to reach with the equipment prescribed in the manual. Seems like it would be good training for lots of things.

    HOWEVER, whenever I see any NSF-funded program that gets undergrads into research, one of the stated or implied aims is sending them on to grad school, and one of the metrics for success that everybody brags about is "Look how many we sent to grad school!" Nobody ever says "Look at this kid, I taught her how to do experiments and analyze data, and now she's in industry making as much as I made after nearly a decade in grad school and postdoc!" Nobody ever says "This guy learned how to write really good code in my lab, and now he makes as much money as me with only a B.S., while working fewer hours!"

    I'm so happy that the undergrad who's about to graduate from my group is planning to get an MS and then go into industry. [He's in a field where that is quite feasible.] When he does, I'm going to write a Broader Impact statement that says "As part of the PI's mentoring approach, research group lunches are spent reminding students that there's more to life than getting a PhD. In keeping with this approach, the PI regularly brings students to local meetings of industrial scientists and encourages them to network. As evidence of success, Mr. John Doe (BS, 2011, MS, 2013) has landed a job in the private sector, making more money than the PI, while enjoying relaxing vacations in locales that the PI cannot afford. An external evaluator will be hired to assess the factors that led to this outcome, and encourage more students to do likewise."

  • will nesse says:

    Perhaps the solution is much simpler than changing funding rules and making new employment/rank or non-PI classifications. New grad students must be told up front that the whole adventure they are about to start is most likely temporary. By its very design, the scientific industry produces two things: new knowledge, and highly skilled people that must go to the private sector. Its just that after the PhD, maybe a postdoc or two, these people leave for the private sector kicking, screaming, and disillusioned. Its a tough break, but its reality. Much of the resistance to leaving academia is that most postdocs have never been outside the ivory tower and were told they would never have to as long as they worked hard. There's a lot of psychic pain involved in leaving and so many stay on wayyyy past their expiration date. And that's not to say that these people are bad at what they do. Its just that its a complete crap shoot.

  • Principle Investigator says:

    I agree with neuro-conservative too. Why not do both - divert funds from training grants to grants for the sort of permanent senior scientist positions that you suggest. This will simultaneously reduce the number of incoming PhD students and postdocs destined for disappointment and provide more stable, decently paid positions for folks whose dream it is to do what they do best - work full-time at the bench*.

    And to those who argue that this would not be the most efficient use of our research dollars, I'd like to see some numbers. Don't forget how inefficient grad students generally are for the first couple of years at least, or how long it takes even a new postdoc to master a novel system/set of techniques. Here you'd have a mature, experienced individual cranking out data, able to plan ahead and troubleshoot with minimal supervision, etc.

    *Not my own dream, btw, but that's why I'm t-t at a SLAC.

  • Susan says:

    I'm with icee. As much as I'd love the carrot I've been reaching for all this time, I could also be very happy in a secure senior-scientist job. I truly love working in the lab, working out and doing experiments, mentoring and training youngsters. I'm very, very good at what I do. I have "good hands" as they say, and it will honestly be a shame if they end up glued to a keyboard. I write reasonably well, both papers and grants. I'm hella good at analysis. My current PI values me highly, I know, and if she could keep me permanently I'm fairly sure she would - I do a lot. Yes, I'm the person you'd want. But I need a real salary one of these days.

    One real problem I forsee is cultural - as I apply for grants as a senior postdoc, am I "stale"? Will preference be given to those who actually head a lab? Or to younger postdocs who "still have a shot"? In many cultures, there are "old maids" on whom resources aren't wasted, and that would be a bias to deal with, in many ways.

  • [...] Scientists / nonPI stable careers. As you know, a topic on which I have opinions, DearReader. Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as [...]

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