NSF's Discovery Corps and Other Transition Awards


Dear Readers,

For U.S. citizens or permanent residents in the training phase, fellowships may be challenging to attain, but they are not so difficult to locate... if the goal is to become a research scientist.

But what if you intend to leave research behind? Regular readers of Science's Next Wave know that scientists can earn a living in many satisfying and valuable ways. Exceptions exist--AAAS's policy fellowships come to mind--but generally, if you want to leave the bench and pursue a new career, you'll end up training on the job or paying for training yourself.

The Discovery Corps (DC) postdoctoral fellowship program, from the chemistry division of the National Science Foundation (NSF), provides a means for scientist to use their training to affect society in important ways. Often, these projects end up propelling DC fellows into new careers. "Discovery Corps Postdoctoral Fellowships," reads the most recent program announcement, "are intended to support the development of new postdoctoral models that make different types of experiences and skills accessible to the fellow. These 2-year fellowships may provide valuable perspectives for traditional careers in the chemical sciences, or lead to new independent career opportunities." Think of it as a design-it-yourself postdoc fellowship to support creative career transitions instead of research training.

When you read the fine print, it's clear that career transitions were very much on the minds of the creators of the DC program. Proposals are evaluated based on their likely impact to three entities: the nation, the host institution, and the fellow's professional development. These three factors are weighed differently for different applications; naturally, for DC postdoc fellows--there is also a senior-fellow category--professional development carries a lot of weight.

Not all DC fellows are career-changers, but even those who aim to pursue an academic science career, the DC program offers opportunities to do things other than research, as long as those activities are consistent with sound professional development.

Jim Austin, the Editor of Science's Next Wave, served as a reviewer and panelist for the last Discovery Corps competition, and his experience has made him a fan of the program. So, I asked Jim for a little advice for applying for DC fellowships. Here is what he said:

One reason I like the DC program so much is that if you approach your application as you would approach writing a research grant, you can benefit even if you don't get the award; just carefully planning your next career move can be very helpful. Applying for a postdoc DC award requires you to think hard, not only about your career goals and how they might benefit society, but also about how best to attain those goals. Just as in research, an effective DC application requires a sound work plan, an outline of a coherent and promising strategy for answering a particular question, or set of questions. It's just that, in this case that question may very well be, "what am I going to do with my life?"

Not every Discovery Corps fellow uses the award to make a career transition; some fellows propose to remain in academic science. Either way, the first step in competing well for a DC fellowship is to figure out exactly where you want to end up. Then you need to come up with a step-by-step plan describing how you intend to get from where you are to where you want to be. You really have to convince the reviewers that the route you propose is the best one possible. And it all must fit together: if you're your goal is a faculty position at a research university, panelists are unlikely to reward a proposal involving, say, conducting workshops for local schoolteachers. Even for those who wish to remain in academia, the DC program is for people who want to do creative things, like developing research programs that will involve minority undergraduates--but only at an institution where such activities are likely to be rewarded.

NSF plans to make about 10 DC postdoc awards in this round. Applicants must be fewer than 2 years out from their Ph.D. The award pays $100,000 per year for up to 2 years, including a stipend of $50,000 annually, a $10,000 institutional allowance (in lieu of overhead), and project expenses.

Best of Luck,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,

I'm finishing my third year as a postdoc studying malaria and would like to go on the academic job market in the next 1 to 2 years. I would like to have some kind of transitional grant to take with me. I applied for a Kirschstein in December, and while I got some nice comments and a fairly good score, I did not get funded.

Since I do not want to continue my postdoc for another 4 years (a year before the funding would kick in and then 3 years for the grant), I am not planning on resubmitting the Kirschstein application. But I don't qualify for a K series transitional grant from NIAID, since I don't have my own Kirschstein, I'm not funded on a T-32 (although I did find a T-32 I might qualify for), I don't work at NIH, and I'm not on a Diversity supplement.

If I can get funded by the T-32 training grant for next year, I will look into applying for the K series. If that doesn't work out, is there any other type of grant besides the Kirschstein I could apply for? An R03? A K from another institute (I work on anti-malarial drug discovery)? Should I just work on writing an RO1 so there's one less thing to do when (if) I start my faculty position?


No matter what field you're in, fast-turnaround, short-term funding is difficult to find in science, especially when it comes to fellowships. A transition award is a better bet, but they are few and far between, and--as you've discovered--the various NIH institutes place a range of restrictions on their training awards.

You seem to have missed one non-federal transition award, however, and it may be the best one of all. The Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (a sponsor of Science's Next Wave), is the model on which other career awards are based--though other organizations, like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, have been making similar awards for years. This is the classic transition grant, awarded to postdoctoral fellows with between 1 and 4 years of postdoctoral experience. The post-award portion of your postdoc should last between 1 and 2 years, with the balance of a cool half-million paid out during the award's faculty phase at a U.S. or Canadian research institution. For more information, check out the description on the BW Fund Web site. In the transition-awards category, that's the only one I can suggest. There's talk of expanding the NIH K-22 program, but nothing has come of it yet.

Generally, short-term support--that is, anything less than 2 years--is easier to find the closer to home you look. Administrators of institutional training awards can often locate a year's support for a valuable early-career scientist who is ready to go on the academic job market. Research grants can also help pay the salary of an advanced postdoc, as can a part-time teaching stint, which can also provide valuable training for that aspect of your career. Finally, writing an R01 or an R03 application is a great idea if your institution will support your application. It's a long shot for someone at your career stage, but it will be a great experience, you'll learn a lot, and if you succeed the payoff will be huge.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

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