Crashing and Burning


Dear GrantDoctor,I'm in a thesis quandary. My lab is very poorly equipped and is running out of money fast, with no more funding on the horizon. I'm trying to get some work done so I can graduate and not founder in an underfunded, underequipped lab for an indeterminate amount of time. I need to do some microinjections but we just don't have the stuff for it here, so I want to collaborate with other (well-equipped) labs to do it. So far I have a collaboration in the works which my advisor says she'll support (on a good day), but I really, really need some travel money to make sure it happens. Are there any such funds for a graduate student to visit other labs?Many thanks,Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

Grants for student travel exist, but they're rare, and they're typically linked to travel to particular conferences. It's assumed by all the major funding organizations that such fundamental things as research collaborations will be supported by money raised by the PI, in this case your thesis advisor. Your advisor is failing to get the job done, which puts your training and career at risk. It's simply not your job to get funding to support your research, and although your initiative is laudable, that's not the way the system is set up to work. The answer, then, is as obvious as it is, very likely, unpalatable.

Before we resort to unpalatable measures, let's make sure they're necessary. If you're almost done and your work so far is good--if you're well-published, or on the brink of a very good publication and all you need are a few microinjections, just find a way to pay for your travel. Hold a bake sale. Sell your car. Ask your department or the school's administration for a few hundred dollars (the chair, very likely, has a discretionary spending account). Sell a kidney on the black market. (No, I'm not serious about selling a kidney, but you get the idea.) Just find a way to make it happen.

More caveats before proceeding to unpalatable measures: The impression I have that your lab is dying is based only on the evidence of your message. Your advisor's lab may just be in one of those inevitable interfunding phases that many labs--especially young labs--go through from time to time. It's possible that you will be able to do excellent work in your current lab and finish your degree in fine fashion, with the best of prospects. You need to take a good, hard look at yourself, your lab, and your other possibilities; ask around the department and get good information about the lab's medium-term prospects. You need to decide for yourself whether your situation is, indeed, hopeless. One point that is crucially important and often overlooked: It isn't enough to ensure a strong record and excellent credentials. You need, also, to preserve your idealism and enthusiasm for science. Muddling through a seemingly hopeless project is the surest way to destroy idealism and enthusiasm.

Reading between the lines of your message, it sounds like the lab you're in is crashing and burning. You are at a top-rank research university, one that gets lots of support from federal funding agencies, especially in the biological sciences. Your institution has many well-funded labs ... all the more reason to be concerned that your lab is underfunded. Some of those other labs, no doubt, are doing work that is not all that different from the work you're already doing.

My advice (with the caveats listed above): Find a new lab doing work you are interested in that is willing to take you on. You, will, of course, have to start on a new thesis project, and you will lose some time. But with the experience you've already gained, you should be able to make rapid progress, and no matter how unpleasant it might sound to you now, it's far better to take a couple more years to produce excellent publications, a top-rank dissertation, and a very good letter of recommendation from an up-and-coming (or already-there) scientist--your new advisor--than to merely muddle through. Finishing a Ph.D. is a fine accomplishment, but to do really well in science you need to do important work and do it well. This may not be possible in your current lab. Years from now, an extra couple of years in graduate school will seem like a small sacrifice if it significantly enhances your long-term career prospects. And if the work is good and satisfying, you'll look back on the experience fondly.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,"What fellowships and training grants are available to foreign-national graduate students and postdocs?"--Foreign Scientist

Dear Readers,

I tried to make it obvious by the wording that this is not a real question from a real person. I made it up as a proxy for the many similar questions I receive every single week. I get this question--or one very much like it--more often that any other. And although I've answered it in various forms over the years, I've never addressed the issue in a general way up to now.

The most important sources of fellowships for scientists and engineers are federal agencies--the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy, and so on. With very few exceptions, federal agencies reserve their fellowships and training grants for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and noncitizen nationals.

To do a proper job of this, I must start by defining categories. I won't bother with citizenship, because pretty much everybody knows what that means. If you're a citizen, you know it. The "noncitizen national" category is easily dispensed with: a noncitizen national has all the characteristics of a citizen but one: He or she lives in a U.S. territory instead of in a state. People born in Guam are noncitizen nationals.

Permanent residents are people who have been granted the right to reside in the U.S. indefinitely, a right conferred by a document known as a "green card," which, as immigration attorney and FONW (Friend of Next Wave) John Gallini noted in a private communication, is Form I-551, previously Form I-151, which in the 1950s and '60s was printed on light-green paper. Hence the name.

If you are in the U.S.--or expect to be--on a visa that starts with a letter (J-1, F-1, O-1, H-1B, and so on) you are, in immigration parlance, a "nonimmigrant," in the U.S. on a "nonimmigrant visa."

If your visa starts with a letter, you do not qualify for the vast majority of federal fellowships or training grants. As previously stated, you may apply for research grants, but this is only useful, in general, if you already have a faculty position. Nonimmigrant postdocs and graduate students are out of luck. However, if you've applied for a green card and expect to receive it soon, go ahead and apply for government fellowships; most require that you have a green card at the time the award is made, not at the time of application.

So who does provide fellowships that nonimmigrants can apply for? Many private organizations, the majority of which address only a narrow slice of--usually biomedical--science, support nonimmigrant science trainees. Regional affiliates of the American Heart Association offer predoc and postdoc fellowships; these are available to foreign nationals in the U.S. on all the common student and scientist nonimmigrant visas. These disease-related private foundations are too many and diverse to enumerate and describe here, but anyone with an Internet connection can find all the information they need on these organizations, at GrantsNet and other places.

Do exceptions exist to the no-federal-fellowships-for-foreign-nationals rule? Not many. NIH has a few intramural fellowships for foreign scientists--fellowships for foreign nationals working in NIH's own laboratories. These are often co-sponsored by NIH and foreign governments. The National Health Service Corp Loan Repayment Program for underserved communities helps young doctors willing to work in underserved rural and urban areas repay their medical school debt. There is no residency requirement. If you have heard of other federal fellowship programs that are open to foreign nationals, please let me know.

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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