The GrantDoctor: Navigating the Transition Award Maze



Dear GrantDoctor,

I've read your columns Funding for Fledglings, Getting Independent, and Transition Awards; I've been through the K Kiosk; and I've called the NIH program office, but I still don't have an answer.

I am finishing my third year as a postdoc, and my private fellowship will be up in April 2005. I am not yet ready for the academic job market; I figure I need one more year, maybe two. If I could get a bridge or transition grant to cover my salary for that time, it would make the hunt for a faculty position significantly easier later on. I will certainly apply for the Burroughs Wellcome Career Award, but what are my other options?

In those earlier columns, you mentioned R03 and R21 grants; to get one of these may require some change in my postdoctoral status, and even if I do get a change of status, I am not sure that it will be enough of an "independent" position to make me eligible. Also: could I take one of these grants with me to a faculty position, or would it be tied to my current PI?

I could apply for an F32 because, unlike some labmates, I haven't had NIH training support yet, but I can't get a clear answer about how many intermediate to senior postdocs they'll fund; staying in the same place makes it a bit more difficult to explain how one is getting new training.

To whom at the NIH should I direct such questions? From my experience and that of other postdocs, NIH officers for the same award at different institutes often have different thoughts on eligibility or simply don't know. Who decides if you are eligible for a particular type of NIH grant? The K22 would be ideal, except that the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke versions are intramural. I realize that the postdoc position is evolving and that there is discussion of a specific transition grant to help us, but in the meantime, what should the current postdocs do?

Thank you very much for your help and consideration. My labmates and I would greatly appreciate the advice--preferably as soon as possible, because our clocks are ticking. It seems like the postdoc time is stretching out longer than 3 years for most people these days, so many of us are or will be wrestling with the question of ensuring continued funding. We have tried hard to identify appropriate NIH grants from its Web sites and to ask the appropriate people, but we haven't gotten much clarification. Please help.


Dear Julie,

I'm not sure I can solve your problem, but perhaps I can help you understand it a little better. The trick is to think like a program officer.

Your main focus right now is on the immediate future: You're running out of fellowship cash, and you need to find a way to keep paying the rent. It would also be nice if you could, in the process, make yourself more competitive for a faculty position. But the main focus of a program officer, whether for NIH or some other foundation or government agency, is on developing the scientific workforce in a particular area of science. He or she is happy to help you pay the rent, but only if you're doing what you ought to, from a training perspective.

Because you've been at your current lab for (almost) 3 years, a program officer is likely to wonder, "Shouldn't she be moving on to something new? How can we--the foundation or agency that I work for--get the best value for our training dollar? Is it with this candidate (with the proposed training plan) or a different one?" To make your application more compelling, propose to do something different, something that will raise the level of your scientific game a notch or two.

If you're not ready to undertake a whole new training regimen, there are some alternatives. You could try to persuade the foundation funding your fellowship to extend it for one more year. NIH generally limits National Research Service Awards (NRSAs) to 3 years, but exceptions are made, occasionally; perhaps your foundation would also make an exception. Another alternative is to get your PI to pay your salary from a research grant. Although your PI would probably prefer to use that money for something else, you can make a strong case, I bet, that you're worth the money.

Now let's review your fellowship and training grant options. You mentioned an F32--that's the individual postdoctoral Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA. Here's some language from its program announcement (the italics are mine, for emphasis):

"In most cases, the F32 supports research training experiences in new settings in order to maximize the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. However, in unusual circumstances, applicants may propose postdoctoral training experiences at their doctorate institution or at the institution where they have been training for more than a year. In such cases, the applicant must carefully document the opportunities for new research training experiences specifically designed to broaden their scientific background."

If you were just finishing up your first year, you'd be in good shape for the F32. It takes about a year to accumulate enough preliminary data to write a really strong proposal. NIH realizes this.

But after three presumably productive years in the same laboratory, NIH is likely to think that it's time to start something new. With an F32, NIH would be making a 3-year training commitment to you, even if you only need support for 1 or 2 years, so they need evidence of a compelling training plan.

What about NIH training awards? The various training awards (the NIH K awards) require an even better training plan than an F32 does. As for whether you qualify for a K award or not, the test goes something like this: If you don't win the award (or some other outside source of support), will your position still exist, or does its existence depend on external funding? If the position is linked to the money, you're a poor candidate for a K award. NIH is looking for evidence of institutional commitment to you.

What about research grants? Whether it's an R01, an R03, or an R21, research grants have no training requirement. But the scientific standards are very high. You need to propose a new project (which can, of course, be closely related to an existing project) with outstanding scientific merit. Although all three awards have the same basic eligibility requirements, the last two are more appropriate, by their nature and their size, for a scientist just starting out. Yet for any of these awards, your institution will need to support--that is, be willing to submit on your behalf--an application. And you'll need access to all the resources--lab space, core facilities, and so on--that you'll need to finish the work. Can you take it with you when get an offer for a faculty position? The short answer: You'll need approval from both your university and NIH, but your university's approval is expected and the NIH decision is purely administrative. So yes, you can take it with you.

If you're determined to get a fellowship, a training award, or a transition award, you need to focus on the longer term, and you need to convince the foundation or agency that the additional training will make you a significantly better scientist. Changing PIs and institutions is one way to demonstrate that you'll be doing, and learning, something new. But it's not the only way. If you're at a major research university, chances are you're surrounded by interesting, innovative research projects. A hard, critical look at your own research and your research skills, along with a little creativity, should yield several ideas for projects related to yours but involving a new and different set of skills. I bet you've thought of several already. The more coherent, sensible, and forward-looking your training plan, the more likely you'll be to win support. The more it resembles what you're already doing, the worse your odds of success.

Whom should you contact? If you're not getting the answers you require from the program officers at the relevant institute and if this column doesn't illuminate things fully, contact Walter Goldschmidts, acting NIH research training officer, in the Office of the Director. His e-mail address is available on the NIH Web site.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

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