Sunday, April 18, 2010

More NIH anti-postdoc shenanigans: WTF is this?

While struggling to find bridge funding to "finish" my postdoc and get a faculty position, several people suggested I look into career re-entry funding sources.

There are several options for these, mostly tiny grants geared toward women who took very extended maternity leave, aka several years off to take care of her husband's career and raise children.

But, there is almost always exclusionary language that makes it impossible for a postdoc to apply if she hasn't had children or doesn't meet the extremely specific requirements.

Take for example this funding mechanism, which is much less restrictive in that it's not limited to women or for having children, and it also sounds like it would cover your entire salary (!). This grant claims to support individuals with high potential to reenter an active research career after taking time off to care for children or parents or to attend to other family responsibilities.

Does attending to sexism count?

No, of course not, I'm just kidding!

Seriously though, what about divorce? Extended international custody battle? What are "other family responsibilities"? Sounds fishy to me. What would count, short of taking care of a sibling or spouse or uncle or aunt with a fatal disease?

Point being, I think there should be grants like this. I'm sure there are people who really have had to deal with these kinds of things (I have a couple of very close friends who have had to).

Still, they wouldn't qualify. Because it looks like NIGMS figured out a ridiculous way to make it virtually impossible for almost anyone to be eligible.

To me, it sounds like they want this grant to be for a minuscule number of people who interviewed for a tenure-track position, got an offer, and signed on the dotted line:

must have qualified for a faculty appointment at the assistant professor or equivalent level at the time of leaving active research.

What's "qualified"? How do you prove that? An offer letter? And what's equivalent to assistant professor level? Research track? Give me a break.

And then you would have had to suddenly leave with a major emergency - for a while?

The duration of the career interruption should be for at least 2 and no more than 8 years

I mean really. How many of these are they going to fund? This grant reads like something created by a program director for his now-dead brother's wife.

A teeny bit too specific to make much of a dent in the hordes of women who have "chosen" to leave sometime during the postdoc, or who have been openly forced out.

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At 12:54 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Odd. I'd really be interested to hear if one of your readers has received one of these... although the terms sound so specific, I'd be surprised if anyone has.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Heh, I'd like one of those grants! Any poor kids out there want a crazy foster mum? Come on! Free physics and mathematics and mountaineering tuition for life. Er, OK, they might not fall for that one. Duh. What was I thinking? I'll just get back to the isolated poverty that I CHOSE when I left my postdoc ...

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be really curious to find out who the recipients, if any, are of these awards. Is there a way to find out?

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole point of the postdoc system is to exploit your labor and then force you out. Grants of the type you mention would seem to be going against the whole system---and why?

Also, many more men are forced out than women, because there are more male postdocs.

At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not surprising that what starts out as a good idea (helping people re-enter academic careers) in the end gets tainted with more of the same academic culture.

This program is basically dictating what is and is not a valid reason for having left academia in the first place. I don't see what business it is of theirs. And according to them, the only valid reason is to care for kids or parents or other family responsibilities.

What if you had a personal circumstance that was not related to other members of your family?? I guess that doesn't count.

What if you left academia to explore other career options or start your own business (rather than starting a family)? These experiences may well make you a better academic and leader if and when you re-enter, but this grant program would say you're not eligible cos that's not a valid reason for having left academia.

Or what if you left due to accommodating a significant other's career plans? What if they are not your spouse but are "only" boyfriend/girlfriend? I guess they don't count, since the program is worded so specifically.

I'm not in the biological sciences, I'm in the physical sciences so this funding mechanism wouldn't apply to me anyway. But this irks me because it is still perpetuating the academic culture that there is only one valid career trajectory for academics, even in their so-called "re-entry" grant program.

At 11:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you checked out the American Association of University Women? They have a number of grants for women in a variety of career stages.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

UR and Anon 3:48, I suspect that's the only way we'll find out.

I checked on NIH RePORTER and I couldn't find any. Supposedly this mechanism started in 2008, so either they're not listed or no one met the criteria (surprise, surprise).

Kea, that sounds like a plotline for a comedic movie. I just saw an ad for one where two girls need money, so they decide to announce fake engagements so people will buy them gifts like you get for a wedding.

Anon 5:04 wrote: many more men are forced out than women, because there are more male postdocs

That's an interesting point, but no. Actually there are approximately equal numbers of male and female postdocs across all of science. And I was referring to women being forced out by misogynist bullshit.

Anon 7:28, that's why I find it so funny. But I think there are some signs of internal conflict within academia, which may be our only hope that things won't continue on the same way forever?

Anon 11:11, Did you actually go look at those? There are 5 funding mechanisms, but since four of those are for international or pre-doctoral degrees, there's only one that looks relevant to me.

There's no information whatsoever on how or when to apply for that one, or if they're even doing it again next year.

It says they gave out 10 postdoctoral fellowships in the 2009-2010 cycle. If there are 90,000 postdocs in the US, let's say 60,000 of them are European, and half of them are women, so let's say there are 15,000 eligible women postdocs? They said they got ~1200 "eligible" applications last year. Maybe if we swamp them with applications they'll expand the program?

Yeah, let's all apply for that. That'll fix all our problems.

At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if there would be any gender bias in this grant, given their emphasis on supporting people who took time off due to family reasons and no other reason. if two (or more of course) postdocs took the extended time off from academia to start families and are now seeking the re-entry grant, but one postdoc is male and another is female, would there be any gender bias in who gets selected?

one can argue that since it's much more common for female postdocs to leave academia to start families since male postdocs would have wives to make that sacrifice, if there was the odd male postdoc who left academia for the express purpose of caring for children or elderly parents (since that is the stipulation for eligibility for this grant), would he be favored over the larger number of female applicants cos it is so unusual for a male scientist to do this? but if that were the case, would this just spark more sexism outcry?

is this meant to be a "women's grant" even though it's not spelt out that way? If so, is that in and of itself sexist?

it would be very interesting to see the data on who the awardees are.

At 7:25 AM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

I've noticed a similar problem in undergrad scholarships. It's like they're afraid to give to someone who doesn't need it, so they put in all these restrictions (must attend school full time etc) that would obviously restrict a lot of people. So while there are a lot of "adults returning to school" scholarships, most are for stay at home wives going back to school and not working, and cut out a whole heck of a lot of people who have to keep working their normal jobs.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 7:12,

Seems to me that almost all of the potential sexism in funding, publishing, etc. would be ELIMINATED if we stopped attaching everyone's identity to their work or grant proposals. Double-blind review would allow for a fairer fight, and help us fix any achievement/training discrepancies by giving credible, results-based feedback. As it is now, we drive ourselves nuts wondering how many of our setbacks are political, and how many are really reflective of competitive talent and hard work.


Good point. Actually this is a common catch-22 in all kinds of charity or welfare support. Read "Nickel and Dimed on Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich, if you haven't already. I read another one about homeless women years ago, wish I could remember the name.

The gist of it being, it's not enough money to actually pull yourself up by your bootstraps or even get by, but they put in these ridiculous rules because they want you to be 100% focused on working for THEM. Homeless women get penalized because the shelter only has 1 phone, or no phone, or they can't list it as an address. People working minimum wage jobs don't get time off, and don't have transportation, to visit government offices to obtain the other support services they're entitled to receive.

Similarly, the NIH rules say you can't have any other jobs during grad school or postdoc. They really don't pay enough to get by - grad school stipends are still borderline poverty level, legally speaking. But especially if you have car debt, healthcare debt, or want to have a family or buy a house before you're 42! And this is for people who went to college and are working more than full time. What business do they have, to officially prohibit you from doing anything else to help yourself financially, when they can't even guarantee you employment afterwards???

Not fair. Not capitalistic. Not very American, really, if capitalism is supposedly our national religion.

At 6:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, frequent lurker here. I don't think this grant sounds too bad. Most of us know women who leave science during their postdoc to care for their children (a lot of those women wouldn't leave science if they had better postdoc advisors, but that's a separate issue). I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a few years off to have children, but I was told that a gap would look bad on my CV. A re-entry grant might negate the black mark that a gap in the CV makes, and if it allows women (or men) to take time off and come back to science, I think that's a great thing. Two to eight years is a reasonable amount of time to have a couple of kids and raise them out of infancy.

Many of the comments are saying that there are other life-altering events that happen, and maybe there should be other grants that address those events. But parenthood is a common enough event that it deserves to have its own grant.

I do agree that the "qualified for faculty appointment" is fishy. Requiring an offer letter for a faculty appointment is just too over the top, and I just don't believe that it's necessary to get the grant. I'm not sure who they're trying to exclude with that statment, since applicants are required to do at least two years as a postdoc.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know any women who left their post-doc to care for children. But I know two who left because of the crappy job outlook. One is me. I resent not having a fellowship available to me because instead of following my postdoc boyfriend around and having children, I chose to be independent.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know quite a few women postdocs who left their postdoc positions to have kids, and who never made it back into science after that. This was a combination of two things: (a) the bleak job prospects, or spinning their wheels in endless postdoc limbo and getting nowhere career-wise.

(b) after a few years of doing this, the biological clock is ticking.

Thus, these two forces worked together to finally pressure them to give up their careers (their decade or more of postgraduate training) and have babies instead. none of these former womenpostdocs that I know, have gone back to work yet, they are still stay-at-home moms or housewives. No matter how 'fulfilled' they claim to be by motherhood, I find this depressing. It is sort of reinforcing the cultural stereotype that women should be fulfilled only by motherhood so it's OK to push them out of their careers.

None of these women I know would qualify for such a re entry grant either because of the stipulation that you had to have qualified for a TT job prior to leaving academia. If these women had qualified for a TT job way back when they would have taken it first and then had children. Rather than having children as "something to do that will move my life forward" since the science career is going nowhere. So this is sort of moot.

This grant is worded to imply that the ideal candidate is one who would have interviewed and gotten a solid TT offer, then suddenly decided to turn it down to have kids instead. That makes no sense unless it was an accidental pregnancy. this grant is worded quite strangely or else it seems the program managers didn't really think it through very thoroughly.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Therapeutic Ramblings said...

It sounds like the grant writer(s) swung too far to the left with their requirements. It amazes me how vaguely specific they can be.

If the intent of the grant is to fund women who take time off for family, then they should explicit write that. If the intent was to address people who had to leave for family reasons, then don't add all of the extra qualifiers, as they seem to act as tiny judgments of what is a good reason and what is not.

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in an awkward position last year, where my postdoc finished and I had nothing lined up. In fact, it was hugely worrying to me. I also needed to write papers and complete work. I ended up doing a small amount of teaching part-time to look good on my CV for 8 weeks, while writing. While doing that, I started looking on the net for volunteer positions, and in fact found one, in a different country for 3 months. I figured the experience was worth chasing even if I got no money. It was not only a great experience, it looked great on my CV, to the extent that I believe it helped me to get another postdoc offer in a lab that I really enjoy. As well, I managed to get another paper submitted and accepted in a good journal, which I think was also a bit of a turning point. Of course it was difficult financially (although I then managed to get a grant to support travel to this place, we ended up borrowing a lot of money) and difficult for my family situation, it proved to be a really good way of staying within the scientific community and a stepping stone. I don't know if there is something similar you can do, but lateral thinking about how you might achive your goals is always a good thing in my view. Best of luck MsPhD.


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