Is an NIH intramural postdoc worth it?

In your field, does it come with any particular value? Good or bad?

Is there something about the "NIH name on the CV" that advantages a trainee?

Are there critical connections of lasting worth? Or perhaps critical career opportunities- the K22 or the chance to stay intramural for ever?

Are there other Universities or research institutes that are more valuable?

Or are you best off just going lab by lab, with no particular concern for the host institution?

A letter to the blog wanted to know and I can't offer more than anecdotes and a dose of "it depends", both of which are not helpful. Any thoughts, Dear Reader?

25 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    In my field, no one knows what university you did your postdoc in, but everyone knows what lab you did your postdoc in. If someone says they are in intramural at NIH, the next question is inevitably "in whose lab?". At the postdoc level, we are beyond universities and into the individual networking level.

    I would argue that this is generally true at the graduate level as well, but less so. In a sense, when one starts graduate school, one is accepted into a university, when one leaves it, one leaves a lab. By postdoc, it's all labs.

    The danger of NIH intramural, however, is the remarkable restrictions because you are on "the governments dime" - travel, for example, is highly restricted. But in terms of the cachet, it's all advisor and lab.

  • At the postdoc level, we are beyond universities and into the individual networking level.

    This is the case in my field as well. In my field, there are almost no intramural labs at NIH that would be considered an asset to one's CV. Another issue is the perception that scientists who have received all of their post-doctoral training at NIH have zero contact or experience with what is going to be a huge part of their reality when they exit the NIH intramural system: extramural NIH grants.

  • RJ says:

    @PhysioProffe That last bit is exactly what I'm worried about. I'm being offered an NIH postdoc, and was told that they recognize this problem and have developed mechanisms for trainees to address this issue , i.e. providing support for external grant writing....that they understand most postdocs won't be able to stay on for a tenure track position, so they focus on building your network and research program foundations. By this 'providing support' I think they just mean offering grant writing courses, because I don't see any other mechanism besides the few internal awards you can compete for.

    This sounds good at first - but if I leave a NIH postdoc for an academic job, with lots of NIH contacts, how can I use them to write an extramural funding application? It seems I'd need contacts beyond the NIH sphere to make that happen.

  • Alex says:

    I was an NIH intramural postdoc. I'm in a physical science, and I wanted to go into biomedical applications. I also wanted to live in that area for family reasons.

    1) I was in a good group, I learned a lot, and I worked on interesting problems.
    2) Unlike my previous training, I was in an environment where everyone and everything was biomed, which was good for changing fields.

    1) At least back then, intramural labs didn't write grants. Funding was done via an internal process that involved presentations. Totally different world.
    2) Bethesda in August.

  • Joe says:

    "Or are you best off just going lab by lab, with no particular concern for the host institution?"
    I don't know of anyone good in my field at NIH. I think "It depends" is the right answer on whether host institution matters. If your grant is at study section, then it matters more who trained you than what institution you were at during that training, since those people may know, or know of, your post-doc advisor. However, when we have people come interview for new asst. prof jobs in the dept, chances are that I will not know the post-doc advisor, so things like the institution where the person trained and where they published have to stand in as correlates of good training. Of course, if the person can't give a good seminar or talk enthusiastically one-on-one, it won't matter where they trained.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I agree with qaz @1. It's about "who" not "where".

    In my field there are a few big shots at NIH.

  • Advantage: you get paid about 10k a year more.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    At our uni, we only care what labs you came from, not what institutions. That said there are some good labs at the NIH, but they are not the rock stars of our field. But for NIH postdocs they usually want to see some kind of K award that may not be necessary for extramural postdocs. The faculty here seem to be worried that the intramural postdocs are not prepared to swim in the deep and fast flowing extramural waters when they have likely had no experience with NIH grants.

  • Ex-Academic says:

    As we've seen with various recent events of Congressional motherfuckery, working at NIH or any other government institute does run the risk of having to throw away long investments of experimental time if the government shuts down and one is barred from going to work on critical days. This and a lot of the other additional political maneuvering/distractions associated with government institutes seems like a liability if trying to transition back into the academic game afterward. It can be sold, I'm sure, but it's a vastly different atmosphere...

    Do people run around cautioning would-be NIH intramural trainees that OMG You Will Never Get Back Into Academia? I'm curious.

  • drugmonkey says:

    They do, yes, but also "Having NIH on your CV is a feather in your cap, youngster!"
    This latter I associate with the current emeritized generation.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Intramural can go through shakeups too. Groups that seem to have a bit more life in them disbanded. They often seem to have a hierarchy in which very senior and accomplished people are not a lab head with their own Z grant listing.

  • meandertail says:

    I was an intramural postdoc, and I thought it was good. Because we have few graduate students (at least at my IC), there was a big focus on supporting postdocs. It is true that there is little to no push for you to write for extramural funding, but if you're motivated to do so you can. I wrote an F32, and a lot of people write K99/R00 (and are successful). Another positive for me was that this position had me in the right place/right time/right skillset for the position I have now, on the extramural side - something I would not have even known about as being a career possibility if I hadn't already been at the NIH.

  • fjordmaster says:

    As an intramural postdoc in my third year, I would say it has been a net positive for me so far. I'm applying for tenure-track positions this year, so I'll see how positive. I agree that people in my field are more concerned with who you worked with as opposed to where. That being said, if you are in a lab that is not well known, then I think "NIH" on your CV would carry less prestige than a highly-ranked extramural institution.

    The main disadvantage for me has been the lack of direct exposure to success and failure in the extramural grant game. A lot of the senior people have been here for a long time, so I don't think they really know how things are on the other side. The training office here is very sensitive to this and do a great job of providing seminars and other career development events. I don't think they have enough data yet on how these programs have affected the success of postdocs after leaving.

    The positives for people going for a tenure-track type position really will depend on the lab. NIH (Bethesda-campus) is very attractive if you have career goals outside of a PI-type position. There are tons of opportunities for involvement in policy, consulting, and other science careers associated with proximity to DC.

  • poke says:

    I spent some time at NIH before grad school. It's sort of a funny place, but a lot of good work in my field is done there. As others have said, institution doesn't seem to matter so much at the post-doc level. Much more important is the lab one is working in, and beyond that, the papers that one is publishing.

    While I was at NIH I concluded that it would be non-ideal for grad school (they do have a PhD program, partnered with several universities) but a great place for doing a post-doc. Of course, this would depend greatly on the topic you're pursuing, but the cluster of labs I worked around were very collaborative and congenial; it was a nice atmosphere that I haven't really experienced as fully in the university setting (although that's probably particular to me).

  • Hermitage says:

    @fjordmaster: Postdocing with people who are insulated to the realities of extramural research, and then springboarding into a policy/consulting position ... I wonder that helps explain the general obliviousness of NIH head honchos on the state of academic research outside of Bethesda.

  • gerty-z says:

    In my field, it is also "who" not "where". There are some great labs in NIH, and I see trainees from these labs successfully launch into academic, TT careers. I know that, as a member of the search committee, any postdoc (NIH or otherwise) that hadn't gotten some funding would be a little screwed, though.

  • fjordmaster says:

    @Hermitage: I don't think postdocs moving to the policy side are the cause. To the extent that there is a lack of awareness among high-level NIH administrators, my hunch is a different bubble plays a role. Cross-check the the roster of the Advisory Council of your favorite IC with NIH RePorter. The researchers that high-level administrators would converse with on any kind of regular basis are those winning in the funding arena.

  • Jonathan says:

    I don't know how much of an impediment it is to getting funding, I know several postdocs in our intramural program got K99/R00s, and they only give out ~200 of those each year, so they must have been doing something right.

  • Jonathan says:

    @hermitage as someone who now works in policy at NIH and spent extensive time before that working on workforce issues and the postdoc problem (including 2 years on the board of directors for the NPA), I think that's a completely off-base accusation.

  • Jonathan says:

    @fjordmaster - agreed 100%. If you don't think the IC directors aren't on first name terms with the BSDs in their field you're not paying attention.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Join the 'lab', not the prestige (perceived or otherwise) of the institution.

    As a former Intramural post-doc, I offer the following:
    1. Follow the paths of the trainees from the lab of interest**. Are they doing stuff now that you want to do later? Great! Then the lab head knows how to mentor towards that success.

    2. Keep your contacts in the extramural world-and expand upon them. There's no excuse for not understanding the realities of extramural funding or the difficulty in getting TT jobs (if this is your goal-for example).

    3. Don't whine about not having the opportunity to write grants. Seriously. Enjoy the fact that you can have unfettered ordering abilities and BE PRODUCTIVE.

    4. Take advantage of NIH training sessions: grant writing, mentoring, managing folks, conflict management, etc. with your super helpful OITE office.

    **You should do this no matter where you are applying to....

  • bsci says:

    Lab quality & fit is obviously the top priority and there are many great labs at NIH (though some areas have higher focus than others).

    Granting writing experience is an issue, but the grant writing course is very good (with feedback from people who really see a lot of grants and you can apply for a K99/R00. The positive of minimal grant applications is, instead of spending 30%+ of your time writing grants, you can be doing research. If an intramural postdoc means you have X more top quality papers on our CV, it's not that same as a grant, but it definitely can help. The freedom to just collect data without worrying which grant it is funded by can be huge.

    You also can easily attend public extramural talks and sometime interact with top institute people to get a better understanding of funding priorities (A lot of this is online, but not all starting postdocs know where to look & reading documents are different than informal conversations)

    If you work in an area were an intramural program made a big investment in core/shared resources, those resources are often superb and it means that there a strong community of labs to work with.

    RJ's concern about connections outside the intramural program is needless. There are so many big names that visit the intramural programs that one would could spend entire days attending talks. Also, senior intramural labs have many alumni in respected positions that become part of one's connections. I've personally met people who visited from all over and have made lots of connections. At least in my lab, travel budget is still good enough that I get to network at sufficient conferences for me.

    One negative that hasn't been mentioned yet is there are restrictions on outside activities, particularly outside jobs. You can get paid to teach as long as you do it on your own time with your own resources (unpaid teaching within NIH is possible & easy). Consulting on something relating to your area of expertise is difficult or impossible. Unless you really need some consulting money on the side, this probably won't be a critical decision factor, but it is worth knowing in advance.

  • Hermitage says:

    @Jonathan: I didn't know wondering out loud/speculating was accusatory? I asked a question and got an answer, thank you for your and fjordmaster's opinions.

    I have no doubt directors are on a first name basis with BSD researchers, but BSDs with multiple sources of funding aren't sweating the same issues as a solid single R01 lab, are they? That's like telling small business owners that your policy advisers are BFFs with Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg.

  • miko says:

    This awesome... it's great to finally see an example of all this crystal clear information students can use in making informed career decisions just by googling instead of their usual feigning ignorance and whining about "career path."

  • Spiny Norman says:

    In my field contemporaries who did postdocs at NIH did about as well as those in good academic labs. I didn't see any strong bias in the outcomes, positive or otherwise.

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