My adviser is clipping my wings!

Ask Alice

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your questions to Alice’s attention via

Dear Alice,

“By forbidding you to establish any degree of independence, [your adviser] is intentionally blocking your career. His behavior is unethical. You should not honor his prohibition.”

Q: I am a foreign national, currently in my sixth year as a postdoc, and I expect to win permanent residency soon. I recently started applying for faculty positions, but I haven’t heard back from most of them, and the replies I have received were negative. I have published 12 papers so far and will publish at least two more in the next few months. 

The problem seems to be that I do not have a grant of my own. I applied for postdoctoral grants a couple of years ago but was told I was overqualified because I was in the fourth year of my postdoc and already had eight papers. Program officers suggested I apply for faculty positions instead. I also applied for a couple of low-budget foundation grants, but those applications were unsuccessful.

Most of the funding agencies require that I already have a faculty position in order to apply for grants, while faculty recruitment committees prefer candidates who already have a grant. It’s a chicken-or-egg situation. I have no way of making them understand that people from outside the United States have limited opportunities to get independent funding due to their immigration status, which, in turn, severely cripples any opportunity to get a faculty appointment. I am aware that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), since late last year, allows nonresidents and noncitizens to apply for R03 and R21 grants—but they require significant preliminary data and publications in the field of proposal. That’s a problem for me because my principal investigator (PI) prohibits postdocs from working on anything that he is not working on. 

I am in dire need of help and advice at this juncture.


—Wings Clipped

Dear Wings,

A: There are few immigration-status restrictions on research grants from the major funding agencies and they do not require that you have a faculty position. If you have the full support of your institution, you can, if you wish, apply not just for an R03 or an R21 but even for a full R01 grant. The key phrase there, though, is “full support of your institution.” A common approach is for senior postdocs to get a small promotion to a position from which they can write grants and fund their own research. The support of a faculty adviser is usually essential. You, it seems, don’t have that.

That leaves fellowships—but most U.S. postdoc fellowships are federal, and most federal fellowships are open only to citizens or permanent residents. An important exception is transition awards like the K99/ROO award offered by NIH. These start out as postdoc fellowships (K99) then morph into research grants (R00). In contrast to most postdoc fellowships, there is no citizenship requirement. The only restriction related to your immigration status is that you must be eligible to stay in the United States for the award’s duration. But there’s one more eligibility requirement that defeats you: You must be within 4 years of receiving your terminal degree.

The big issue here—much bigger than independent funding—is your unsupportive adviser, who seems to view you (and the other postdocs in the lab) as instruments for his own success rather than as protégés whose career success he is responsible for. By forbidding you to establish any degree of independence, he is intentionally blocking your career. His behavior is unethical. You should not honor his prohibition.

You will not succeed at establishing independence as a researcher in this laboratory. So go find another lab—a new postdoc or a research associate position, with a better PI or adviser. Your chance of finding another job may be highest with colleagues or competitors of your current adviser. It is high time to get out of your current position.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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