If you were perusing opportunities on job boards recently, you may have noticed a somewhat unusual listing: a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Intramural Research (OIR) ad for recent doctorate recipients interested in partnering with an intramural research institute to apply for the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (EIA), an extramural program we have written about in the past. The program’s objective is to get the most promising and scientifically mature young scientists from all over the United States into independent research positions immediately after graduate school, skipping the postdoc. The award pays up to $250,000 in direct costs each year for 5 years, plus applicable overhead. NIH expects to make about 10 awards next year.
As far as Science Careers has been able to determine, other institutions don’t advertise their interest in acting as sponsors for EIA applicants. Instead, they team up with applicants already at their institutions, form partnerships through the program’s online matching portal, or sit and wait for early-career researchers to reach out to them. But Charles Dearolf, NIH’s assistant director for intramural research, decided to advertise opportunities at NIH’s intramural labs. “Why not?” he says. “It reaches the type of people that we feel are good candidates and is a cost-effective way to spread the word about our programs.”
In past competitions, Dearolf says, NIH has received between 25 and 50 applications for EIA sponsorship by intramural labs. Under the contest rules, each participating institution—including NIH institutes—can sponsor up to two candidates, but NIH only puts forward applications they expect to be competitive. In past years, “only a few” have been sponsored. “It’s not just a judgment on the quality of the candidate; a lot of individuals are really strong. The consideration is whether the person is in a position to be independent and has the drive,” Dearolf says. Candidates chosen for NIH sponsorship then work with the institute to prepare the application, which is submitted to the general pool and evaluated alongside the other applications. In the program’s 4-year history, only one intramural applicant—Gregory Alushin of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute—has won the award. “There’s no special anything for us,” Dearolf explains.
The 5-year EIA is not intended to lead directly to long-term employment at the host institution, although that does happen sometimes. Instead, it is meant to give awardees an opportunity to independently explore research questions that excite them without first doing a postdoc, before moving on to a new, more permanent independent research position. “We hope that we are providing the opportunity and environment for the scientist to be successful and then be competitive for a faculty position, either at NIH or at another research institute,” Dearolf says.
If you’re interested in applying for an EIA with NIH this year, you’d better hurry. Although letters of intent for the main competition aren’t due until 30 December, candidates interested in sponsorship by an NIH institute must submit applications, including a cover letter, a CV, a three-page statement of research interests and future plans, and three letters of reference, to Dearolf by this Friday, 12 December.