The GrantDoctor: Getting a Fresh Start



Dear GrantDoctor,I am a 52-year-old Ph.D. zoologist who received tenure approval then gave up that position to raise my children. Now I would like to return to a tenure-track position but find my age is a problem. I am mostly interested in undergraduate teaching but do have some research interests in ornithology, ecology, environmental biology, and so on. I thought that I might be more competitive if I could obtain a nice grant to begin a program or support some research.Currently, I am a lecturer. Here is my question. If I obtain a grant while in my current position, could I take it with me if I did get a tenure-track position?Thank you,Kathleen

Dear Kathleen,

To answer the question at the end of your message: If you can get a grant, you usually can take it with you when you move on to a tenure-track faculty position, although the details depend on the policies of the granting agency and, to some extent, the institution. But getting a research grant while holding a non-tenure-track, nonresearch position is difficult. Furthermore, it might not be the best strategy. If you really want to get back on the tenure track, you need to develop an aggressive strategy for career development.

Although it isn't a research grant, the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE program (I tried and failed to figure out exactly what, if anything "ADVANCE" stands for) has a component--the Fellows component--that is intended to assist the reentry of scientists, particularly women scientists, who "experience career advancement limitations because of child-rearing or eldercare responsibilities, the relocation of a spouse, or extended postdoctoral status."

Whoever thought up this award agrees with me about strategy: Scientists applying for ADVANCE Fellows awards are expected to present, as part of their application, a "coherent career-development plan that describes specific research and education activities likely to improve his or her career status." For more details, see the program's Web page. Apply for one of these; you sound like the ideal candidate. But even if you get it, the substance of your career-development plan and its effective execution--not the money--will get your career back on track.

I have no doubt that your age is an issue. But what's really holding you back, in my opinion, is a perception that with your focus on teaching, you are already in the "postresearch" (i.e., "dead wood") phase of your career. You may be interested mainly in teaching, but most potential employers are looking for an effective teacher with strong research credentials. A skilled teacher without research savvy is like a good-field-no-hit utility infielder--valuable to the team but unlikely to ever win a starting job on a good team.

Not many colleges or universities these days are interested only in teaching. Even predominantly undergraduate institutions typically look for a strong research record in deciding whom to interview for a tenure-track position. Perceived teaching ability counts for something--demonstrated excellence will be a major plus--but you're unlikely to get the offer, or even the interview, unless you can clear the research hurdle.

So the key ingredient in your career-development plan should be a really good mentored research experience--a good postdoc position, or its equivalent--in a really hot lab.

As an older scientist with a positive tenure decision in your past, you might manage a more prestigious-sounding title, like "visiting scientist" or something, but it amounts to the same thing. Your age may be a disadvantage in some circumstances, but most experienced PIs will recognize that the time-management skills you've accumulated in those years--as a professor and as a mother--are likely to make you much more productive than you were when you were younger, as long as the commitment is there. Choose a lab with a PI you know you'll enjoy working with, and excel. With demonstrated excellence in teaching and a demonstrably renewed commitment to research, you'll be a very strong candidate for many tenure-track faculty positions.

Doing another postdoc may not make you any younger--indeed, like the rest of us you're getting older all the time--but it will make you seem younger, and that's what's likely to get you hired.

Be Well,

--The GrantDoctor


Dear GrantDoctor,What is available for senior scientists who want to sharpen skills, get a new perspective, get out of a rut? Two senior scientists are interested in the answer.Suzanne

Dear Suzanne,

People usually write to the GrantDoctor to ask about science-research funding, and that's probably what you had in mind. But I often find that questions that seem to be about funding aren't really about funding after all. Sometimes another career-management issue lurks. This is one of those cases.

What is available is a sabbatical.

Both of these senior scientists need to locate researchers who are very active in research that they--these senior scientists in a rut--can get excited about. And they both need to join these laboratories in junior positions, coming into the lab every day and working at the bench, just like they did when they were postdocs and grad students.

Almost every major university offers periodic sabbaticals to their tenured faculty. While the term implies a period of rest, a sabbatical is an opportunity to get refreshed and reinvigorated in a different way--not by resting, but by working hard.

I believe that the practice of providing at least partial salary support to faculty members on sabbatical is nearly universal. If the institution offers full support, they're covered. If it offers only partial support, they're probably still covered, since the labs they'll want to work in will be vibrant and well-funded, and they'll seem like quite a bargain at, say, half their usual salaries; their home institution will, or should, pay the balance.

As long as they are willing to throw themselves into their new research, these senior scientists--with the skills they've accumulated over the years--will seem a great bargain. But that commitment--a real, deep, and vigorous commitment to the science--is key. They must be willing to make changes, to take chances.

If either the home institution or the host institution can't, or won't, provide sufficient salary support, there are a few grants out there for this purpose. Many universities offer sabbatical fellowships for faculty members seeking to enhance their research skills. The American Chemical Society also offers sabbatical awards--one of these might work for the biochemist--as do a few other professional societies. And if they can't raise their whole salary from any of these sources, they may just have to work for less. It'll make the "postdoc" experience all the more authentic.

There are several key elements to doing a successful research-intensive sabbatical. The first is a willing and appropriate mentor. The second is to leave home; staying close to home is too easy, and ineffective--department politics, committee meetings, and so on, will continue, and it will be difficult to shake that feeling of sameness ... the feeling of being in a rut. The experience should feel like a vigorous new beginning.

How much time will it take to get reinvigorated? It depends on the researcher and the situation, but a full year, including the summer, ought to be about right; any less and it may not be possible to produce the results that will make the stay worthwhile for both visitor and host. Any longer and financial support may dry up.

Reinvigorating a career is not, at its core, a funding issue. It's an issue of commitment. Researchers who aren't interested in working hard to rekindle the research flame won't get it done. Those who are willing are likely to rekindle not only their own flame, but also the flames around them.

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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