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Training awards increasingly important for future funding and landing a faculty job

Earning a training fellowship seems to be an increasingly important component of a successful faculty job search, according to a recent study. The study used winning a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grant—the agency’s bread-and-butter research funding mechanism—for the first time as a proxy for having landed a faculty position. Between 2000 and 2017, first-time R01 winners increasingly received NIH training fellowships earlier in their careers, although they were still in the minority. The results suggest that such training awards may be playing an increasingly important role in bridging the transition to independence, whether via training, a shot of prestige for the faculty job search, or a combination—but that doesn’t mean that they’re a requirement for a faculty position.

“People that have training awards have had a successful experience in the NIH grant-making system, and I think universities value that experience,” says Chris Pickett, director of the nonprofit organization Rescuing Biomedical Research and author of the study, which was posted on the bioRxiv preprint server earlier this month. But institutions factor in other aspects of a candidate’s CV, too, he emphasizes.

Pickett looked at NIH’s F-series training awards—which includes the predoctoral and postdoctoral versions of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, otherwise known as the F31 and F32, respectively—as well as K-series career development awards that can go to postdocs as well as junior faculty members, including the K99 Pathway to Independence Award. Approximately 37% of faculty members who received their first R01 in 2017 had also received a prior F or K training fellowship—that’s up from 23% in 2000. And those numbers are likely even higher when training fellowship requirements for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency are taken into account: About 15% to 25% of biomedical faculty members are foreign-born, so it’s estimated that about half of first-time R01 recipients in 2017 who were eligible had received a prior training fellowship.

The percentage of first-time R01 awardees with a prior K award increased from approximately 10% to 29% between 2000 and 2017. This is likely due to a combination of increasing overall abundance of K awards—K99 grants, for example, were first awarded in 2007—and greater interest in these awards by those making faculty hires, Pickett says. The trend was the opposite for F awards: Across the same timeframe, the percentage of first-time R01 awardees with a prior F-series fellowship declined slightly, from 14% to 12%. The reason for this drop is unclear.

Different types of institutions also appear to weigh these awards differently relative to other factors, such as where a scientist was trained. After dividing institutions into quartiles based on the number of first-time R01s they received—intended to reflect how the universities recruit and support junior faculty members, not institutional prestige—Pickett found that fellowship recipients who trained at top quartile institutions later received R01s, and jobs, across the whole research enterprise. But those who trained at institutions in the third or fourth quartiles rarely got jobs at institutions in the first quartile. “This probably reflects how hiring committees value different aspects of someone’s application,” Pickett says.

The study documents an important trend, says Misty Heggeness, a labor economist at the U.S. Census Bureau who co-authored a 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper showing that F32 recipients are more likely to receive future funding. But causal inference is difficult to nail down, she adds. For instance, there is no information available about the proportion of F and K fellowship recipients in the pool of unsuccessful first-time R01 applicants, so it is possible that the proportion of fellowship recipients may have increased across the board. “This work still doesn’t tell us … whether or not NIH training funds are more relevant today than they ever were before,” she says. “That is the crux of the question.”

The danger in overstating the importance of training fellowships is that it could lead to more extended training periods, Heggeness warns. “When we have that thinking that if only there was more training and better training grants available, we get into this space where we’re just encouraging people to linger in training.”  

Pickett agrees. “Talking to postdocs, there’s this sentiment of ‘I have to get a K99 before I can even go on the job market,’” he says. “Once that thought spreads through the pool of postdocs, that changes how they approach going on the job market—they’re going to stick around in their postdoc until they get that funding.” 

“Training awards are a boost to your ability to get a faculty position, but they are not required,” Pickett continues. “You can get a faculty position without having these training awards. Half or more of all first-time R01 awardees in 2017 did not have a prior NIH award.” So if you didn’t get one, “there’s no reason to be afraid to go on the job market.”

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