On the two R01 threshold for tenure

Sep 06 2011 Published by under Academics, NIH Careerism

...or any tenure threshold tied to NIH grant success, really.

I think I polled you all or at least asked about tenure standards evolving in response to the dismal NIH funding climate in a prior post. Well, the topic reared its ugly head again on the Twitts:

I had the "how to get tenure" and "this is what we expect in grants from you" talk. 2 RO1's per PI average is the goal

The only think I have that is new to contribute is related to this observation from Cackle of Rad:

I'm working the beat trying to get this in the collective conscious of peeps in the dept first

University level Promotions and Tenure (P&T) Committees deal with disparate expectations all the time. Humanities versus Science. Social Science versus Biomedical Science. School of Medicine "Biology" versus College of Arts and Science "Biology".

What they rely upon in changing times, so I was just hearing, is a strong and clear description from the Chair of the department in question. The Chair (or head of the Departmental Promotion Committee) must be able to communicate clearly in her recommendation-for-tenure letter that the current candidate has been performing admirably and that grant success today looks much different from grant success five or ten years ago.

It is clear to me, however, that bluehairs and even the merely salt-and-pepper bearded may not always recognize that things have changed. Or if they do understand this, they may think it is obvious to everyone.

This is where Cackle's comment comes in handy. It is the job of all young faculty, if they expect to hang together, to edumacate their elders. To discuss the latest grant funding news, rebut the self-involved ranting with the NIH numbers and just generally throw down on the topic of NIH grant-getting.

As non-whinily and non-self-servingly as you possibly can.

15 responses so far

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Because of the climate, we get points for 'trying'. They like to see if an app goes unscored, that it gets at least scored the next go around. They like to see that you are applying, early and often... The last few peeps who didn't get tenure, did not get tenure based on a +/- on the R01 scale......

  • AcademicLurker says:

    At my institution I've noticed a divergence between what they say and what they do. The official line is still 2 RO1s, but when I look at recent tenure decisions, it's clear that it's not being strictly enforced.

    So I guess reality is sinking in...

  • drugmonkey says:

    Glad to hear that AL....

  • Fred says:

    At my place, it still takes a *minimum* of two. The last person to get tenure (biomed dept) has 4 active R01s/equiv (and more in the pipeline). But that's comparing everyone else here to a Rock Star.

  • Beaker says:

    Blatant hypocrisy occur when a committee of blue/gray beards judges whether the candidate has two big grants--at a time when few, if any, of the committee members themselves meet that standard in today's funding environment. This is not 1999, and the beards entertain the illusion that it is. That is because they wish to remain happy about their job security.

  • I worked hard to ensure that my administrative and P&T committee peeps were clear as to how difficult the current funding climate is for newbies. The fact that I have funding now just makes me look like an even greater rock star than they thought when they did my third year review.

  • My medical school seems to have fully understood that they need to adjust their grant thresholds for tenure, or they will end up shitcanning 90% of their untenured faculty when they come up for tenure. (And they have apparently realized why that would be a hideous and pointless destruction of capital, both human and financial.)

  • Martini says:

    It is very unlikely that any but a few institutions can ask assistant professors to get 2 R01's for a 6-year tenure decision.

    NIGMS in particular has started to put shots over the bow that 2 R01's is more than enough.

    Heck, even in good times, <30% of PIs have multiple R01 grants and of the 30%, 20% of those are 2 R01's.


    I was recently a post-doc and en elite soft money research institute. It was quite rare for a PI up for promotion to have more than 2 R01's. With all the resources we have, out of 15 or so faculty who were recently granted promotion, only 2 had 3 or more R01's.

    That being said, at most academic institutions across the country, you can be assured tenure if you:

    1) Apply for grants and get one or two, consistently get good scores
    2) Publish papers, anywhere from 3-10 depending on authorship, impact factor etc.
    3) Make sure that in general people in your department value you being around (probably more important than you might think)
    4) Have people other than your very best friends and frequent co-authors able to say that your work is important and that having you in the field is important (MUCH more imporant than many realize)
    5) Don't suck at training grad students
    6) Don't suck at teaching
    7) Do a small bit of service work

    Most tenure/promtion denials have not been a surprise. If anything, if you have selected a good department/institution, your chances of getting tenure should be known by your 3-4th year. If you aren't 80+% confident you will be tenured, you are doing something wrong and need to fix it ASAP.

    The denials I have seen typically break down into (at a typical institution):

    1) Didn't publish enough, less than 3-4 articles.
    2) No one knows who the person even is
    3) Personality/compatibility problems with the department (probably shold be #1, but usually this one manifests as a combination of #1-3)

    The denials I have seen at the elite institution I did my post-doc at were always

    1) Not going to win a Nobel prize
    2) Not going to be a member of the National Academy
    3) Publishing to frequently in journals other than Cell, Science or Nature

  • NIGMS in particular has started to put shots over the bow that 2 R01's is more than enough.

    This is manifestly untrue. They have a "well-funded investigator" policy that requires extraordinary justfication for awarded a new grant (it doesn't apply to competing renewals) to a PI if awarding that new grant would take them over $750,000 in direct costs from NIH per year. It would be extemely rare for a third R01 to take the PI over $750,000 direct costs per year, particularly given that NIGMS imposes the most draconian administrative budget cuts of any IC that I am aware of (which is why they have the corresponding most generous pay plans, evidenced by someone who just reported at Writedit's place that they received an R01 with 18%ile, and are not an ESI).

    And I am aware of PIs who have been awarded third R01s this FY by NIGMS. Also, NIGMS's own statistics actually demonstrate that the peak of scientific productivity per grant dollar is right around the three-R01 range. So no, NIGMS has not started to put any policy shots over the bow that would limit PIs to two R01s.

  • The denials I have seen at the elite institution I did my post-doc at were always

    1) Not going to win a Nobel prize
    2) Not going to be a member of the National Academy
    3) Publishing to frequently in journals other than Cell, Science or Nature

    HAHAHAHAH! Yeah, that is an excellent place to do a post-doc. The normal mortal junior PIs who I know there are the most sadly stressed-out motherfuckers I've ever seen.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    That sounds like a shitty place to do a postdoc OR be junior faculty.

  • pinus says:

    Where I am, the standards are shifting. I think once upon a time, 2 R01 was required with at least 1 renewal....but now...not sure. We shall see when I go up!

  • boehninglab says:

    In my experience, having unequivocal support of the Chair and the Departmental APT committee (if there is one) is the most important factor. Having 2 R01s help as well, but not essential. Service is also critical at this Uni.

  • Martini says:


    Yes, it is miserable for junior faculty. Scratch that, there is no tenure there. It is miserable for everyone, until you are in the Academy or have HHMI. Otherwise you are on a 5 year contract renewal. Promotion to professor, just increases your salary and is just like tenure (if you don't make it your are out).

    For post-docs it is a mixed bag. You have to know up front that if you aren't going to be publishing in CNS, you aren't going to be publishing. Even worse, you probably will have to do a second post-doc if you aren't in CNS. On the contrary, for almost all post-docs there it is the one time in their career where they will work with the best-of-the-best. It is a huge risk to post-doc there IMHO, but it can work (it did for me).

    @Comrade PhysioProf

    My post-doc lab had 3 grants proposals score below 15% in the last 1.5 years and none have been funded because the lab has two R01's and most post-docs are on F32's or other fellowships. My PO says that at council they are having to justify why multiple RO1's are justified. NIGMS has also historically championed new investigators and now ESI's. A lot of the extra push for ESI's comes at the expense of labs going >2 RO1's. At the end of the day, I think this is the correct choice. However, this does vary by PO and does vary by study section. Don't forget that POs have considerable leeway in funding recommendations, especially for their favorite PIs.

    It could be worse, it could be NSF where one is too many these days!

  • drugmonkey says:

    "where they will work with the best-of-the-best."

    It is adorable that you still believe this.

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