The GrantDoctor: The Birth of the Postpostdoc


Dear GrantDoctor,

I am a zoologist who has received an invitation to undertake a postdoc at Harvard. I am trying to find my own funding. I am an Irish citizen completing my Ph.D. at Oxford.

Do you know of funding for non-U.S. citizens in zoology? Also, is it common practice to receive a short-term salary from a principal investigator (PI) until one finds a fellowship? Or to prepare a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant?

Lastly, does the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fund such research? I wish to work on ants.

        - David

Dear David,

Congratulations on your invitation to study at Harvard. It should be a great experience.

Does NIH support ant research? Yes, but not a lot of it. Currently it lists one postdoctoral fellowship and one research grant in its portfolio containing the word "ants" (as opposed to the acronym ANTS) in the abstract.

In the United States, it is very common to receive salary support from a PI, and not only in the short term; as in the United Kingdom, the majority of postdocs in the United States are supported by their PI/adviser's research grants, often throughout the postdoctoral phase of their careers.

Here's the lowdown on U.S. postdocs: The United States has a rather complex system for classifying postdoctoral, pre-tenure-track scientists. You might even say that there isn't any system. For present purposes it's reasonable, although oversimplified, to say that most postdocs fall into one of two categories: postdoctoral fellows and employee-type postdocs.

Postdoctoral fellowships are considered prestigious (and winning one would be quite a feather in that Oxford cap), but they have their disadvantages. Due to the peculiarities of the U.S. health care system, as a postdoctoral fellow you're likely to end up paying more for health insurance, and the insurance plan you qualify for may be less generous than the employee plan.

There's one other problem with postdoctoral fellowships in your case. The majority of U.S. postdoctoral fellowships come from the U.S. government. And in contrast to research grants, postdoctoral fellowships from the U.S. government are almost always reserved for U.S. citizens, nationals, and permanent residents. For you the postdoctoral pickings are slim.

As an import, your best bet by far is to be an employee-type postdoc. Employee postdocs are paid by their employers, the money almost always coming from PI research grants. (One important exception: Universities sometimes provide new faculty with money to hire postdocs as part of their startup packages. But in this case, too, there are no nationality restrictions.)

Despite resembling them in every discernible way, even employee-type postdocs aren't always classified as employees, but even so, they tend to be treated more or less like employees. For example, they often have access to group health insurance and a typical employee benefits package.

So option one, and the best option by far, is for your new boss to support you. Your new PI isn't just a scientist but also an administrator and a manager of people (as you will be someday), and in this capacity should take care of you while you're working in his or her lab. You are a talented, highly trained professional, and your work will accrue to the benefit of the PI and the host institution. So your PI should work hard to find money to support you. Discuss this with your PI right away, if you haven't already.

Then again, despite a PI's best intentions, sometimes money just isn't available. Some PIs are willing to offer bench space to qualified scientists even if they can't afford to pay them; some postdocs are willing to accept such an arrangement, even if no money is in the offer. After all, most young scientists aren't in it for the money. If a way can be found to pay the rent, situations like this can work out very well for everyone.

If this is your situation, where should you turn? Start by asking your new boss for guidance. The GrantDoctor can tell you about one or another fellowship program that may fit your needs (see below). But your prospective PI is likely to be well connected, to know where the money in the field is concentrated, and to know which programs and program officers are likely to be excited by your work. Not only can the PI help you find a fellowship, it is to his or her advantage to help you earn one.

Because NSF and NIH fellowships are available only to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and so on, so your fellowship options are quite limited. But a few fellowships exist, most supported by private foundations, that don't discriminate on the basis of nationality. Among the unrestricted fellowships are the prestigious and competitive Fulbright Awards.

Your choices are better if you can find a legitimate biomedical angle to your research. The fact that you intend to study ants makes that unlikely, but it doesn't make it impossible. You'll need to be creative, and you may need to repackage your research in order to convince a sponsor that your work meets its criteria. You needn't be cynical about it; chances are your work does have implications you haven't thought of. Check out this ant-related NIH-funded National Research Service Award postdoc project if you need some inspiration (NIH sponsors only research that it judges to be relevant to human health and disease).

The Helen Hay Whitney Foundation offers prestigious and competitive fellowships to international biomedical scientists. Currently, Whitneys support postdoctoral scientists for up to 3 years. They pay an annual salary of US$36,000 for beginning postdocs (with a $2000 supplement to offset research expenses) and offer substantial pay raises for subsequent years. The Whitney Foundation lists zoology among the research topics it funds, but since its goal is to increase "the number of imaginative, well-trained, and dedicated medical scientists," your work has to be explicitly connected to human health and disease. The application deadline is 15 August.

Many disease-specific and subject-specific fellowships are available from private foundations and professional organizations. Check GrantsNet for a listing and description of grants related to biomedical sciences. Remember to check the box at the bottom that says "Limit to awards without U.S. citizenship requirements."

What about writing your own research grants? If you read this column regularly, you know that postdocs and grants have been very much on my mind lately. I've discovered that many postdocs do write grants and that NIH unofficially supports the practice (see below). Nevertheless, you won't be applying for research grants--not in your own name, anyway--until you've had a bit more experience.

Good luck,

--The GrantDoctor

Postdocs and Grants: NIH speaks

Dear Readers,

The GrantDoctor has extracted comments from two NIH higher-ups on the subject of postdocs and grants. At issue are two questions: Should postdocs be allowed to apply for grants while still postdocs, then take them to their new institution when they get a faculty offer? Should institutions give hiring preference to already-funded scientists?

Both Anthony Demsey, senior adviser for policy to NIH extramural head Wendy Baldwin, and NIH training guru Walter Shaffer note that there is no official NIH policy on grants and postdocs, and there isn't likely to be really soon. "It's an internal institutional policy that so far doesn't seem to have impacted NIH and its peer review either positively or negatively," writes Demsey via e-mail.

Shaffer sees the practice of senior postdocs writing grants while still under the wing of a postdoctoral advisor as a valuable mentoring opportunity. "I don't know of any NIH position on the practice," he writes, also via e-mail, "but I personally support the idea that postdocs should apply for their own research grants. It is important for new investigators to demonstrate their ability to compete for external funding and to begin to test their own research ideas."

Fair enough, but I have three separate, albeit interwoven, concerns:

  • Peer review. The practice of getting NIH grants "to go" subtly subverts the NIH review process, which can only evaluate the environment of the postdoc?s current institution and not the institution to which the postdoc moves to do the work.

  • Equity. Some institutions prevent postdocs from applying for grants in their own names, eliminating them from contention for a significant fraction of the available jobs.

  • Time. Expecting new hires to come with their own research grants, in combination with the practice of promoting postdocs before they're allowed to apply, threatens to give birth to a new mandatory career "training" phase, which I've called the postpostdoc.

Postdoc grantwriting indeed provides an excellent mentoring opportunity, and as long as NIH isn't worried about the subversion of the peer-review process, I'm not either. The second and third concerns can be addressed by encouraging all institutions to let senior postdocs apply for research grants and eliminate the practice of promoting postdocs to postpostdoc positions. If every experienced postdoc, regardless of institution, is allowed to compete for R01s while still classified as a postdoc, everyone will benefit--except, perhaps, for NIH, which will have to process a larger volume of grant proposals. And NIH doesn't seem to mind.

[Postdocs: You are invited to send the link to this column to your postdoctoral peers, your departmental chairs, and your institution?s grants administrators.]

Be Well,

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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