Saturday, May 15, 2010

Say it ain't so.

Recently heard another story about a postdoc whose NIH fellowship application was triaged. No score, no rank, it really was that bad.

This person got a named fellowship.

The thing about named fellowships is, they are very prestigious.

Why? I don't really know. Because there are fewer of them, I guess, it is assumed that they are more competitive, and therefore reflective of more ability, more hard work, or more achievement.

But it seems like hard work and achievement have nothing to do with it. It seems like these awards are very political. From what I can tell, they are based entirely on pedigree.

It's almost like they're awarded more to the PI than to the postdoc.

Now, we can debate the wisdom of awarding "training" funds to the PI vs. the postdoc, but I like the way the NIH and some other agencies treat postdocs as almost-independent investigators.

The NIH fellowship application is about as close as you can get to writing a mini-R01 at the postdoc level (before the K-grants, which most people don't apply for initially anyway). The NIH application is pretty involved, and it's great practice for writing a K or an R01.

So here's my thinking: if you can't sit down and put in the time and effort and come up with a passable NIH fellowship, how are you going to do with writing R01s?

I'm guessing you'll do pretty badly.

Then again, with an expected 5+ years of postdoc experience, you should have plenty of time to take workshops on grantwriting, and practice by writing grants in your PIs name. Right? After all, you're there for the training (ha ha ha).

I'm not saying that government funding is necessarily better, or that we shouldn't also have private funding agencies.

I'm just wondering why we still revere these private fellowships as if they reflect more ability, hard work or achievement in science, when in reality they're really only reflective of pedigree and politics.

I was talking to MrPhD about how I was writing this post and he asked, "Does anybody even track whether the people who get those named fellowships are more likely to succeed in academia?"

Does anybody track that, indeed. (I don't think so?)

Most of the people I know who got named fellowships have since dropped out of academia to go to industry.

I'm wondering if this phenomenon of placing too much emphasis on named fellowships also contributes to the stories I've been hearing about junior faculty not being able to get grants.

Some departments have been taking extreme measures to try to protect themselves from making the mistake of hiring people who have no chance of succeeding at getting R01s.

Here's what I think has happened in the past. Let's say we have a person called Person A.

1. Gets pedigree - famous grad school, famous advisor, etc.
2. Gets named postdoc fellowship based on pedigree
3. Gets interviews for faculty positions based on prestige of named fellowship
4. Gets large startup package
5. Can't get grants funded
6. Doesn't get papers published
7. Doesn't get tenure/leaves academia

Here's a different scenario, one that seems to happen more often. Person B:

1. Gets an NIH fellowship
2. Fellowship runs out
3. Does not get interviews for faculty positions
4. Quits science.

Nowhere in here are we comparing scientific achievement. I'm assuming these people have equivalent publication records. Things have become so competitive now, and departments so wary, that it seems to be all about funding.

If anything, it seems like named fellowships are great in the short term for the people who get them, but dangerous for everyone in the long term. These funding mechanisms seem to encourage political games and contribute to the devaluation of grantwriting skills - supposedly one of the most important parts of being a PI and having your own lab. It's bad for the awardees, and it's bad for the departments who want to hire them. They haven't completed the training!

Nowadays, of course, we have to insert an additional step: applying for career transition/pseudo-independent funding.

Who do you think is more competitive for that? In theory, if the money is coming from an NIH K-grant, it should be a pretty level playing field, between the named fellowship person As who can't write grants, and the non-pedigreed person Bs who write grants really well.

Still, from what I can tell, career transition awards are a minefield with the worst of all worlds. They require recommendation letters and career development plans with all the right catchwords. And they require an entire grant in the format of an R01.

In that sense, a named fellowship is just one step on a long ladder, and I'm not sure if it provides the same kind of boost than it once did. But usually they pay more, and they still have more prestige, which still looks better on a CV at the job application stage.

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At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in the physical sciences so I don't run in the NIH circles, but I fit the second scenario (just replace "NIH fellowship" with some other relevant fellowship for my field).

but I question your first scenario for Person A, in particular:

5. Can't get grants funded
6. Doesn't get papers published
7. Doesn't get tenure/leaves academia

Seems to me that if this Person A has got the pedigree from grad school and PhD advisor, and based on that got prestigious fellowship and then a job with large startup package, seems to me that this just goes to build up the pedigree even more and the grants and papers follow automatically from that.

At 8:43 AM, Blogger Balancing Act said...

I'm confused.

Someone wrote an awful grant, and got it funded for a named fellowship? How is it justified if there is no score?

I'd hope there is a third class of people - those with pedigree and good grantwriting skills.

I think I need to re-read this post 3 or 4 more times to "get it." Or maybe I don't want to get it because it sounds like either way, I'll have troubles finding funding, therefore moving forward.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


You're right, in some ways pedigree can be enough to get you papers and grants. But I would guess that it's maybe a 50-50 split among people with pedigree: half can get the help they need from their mentors, so with that and the pedigree, they do pretty well. The other half take longer to figure out that they need help and/or are never going to get it, and then it's too late.

My point was more that people without the pedigree are just screwed.

Balancing Act,

You're not confused. It's called cognitive dissonance.

It's an illogical phenomenon in a field that's supposed to reward the ability to think logically.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you sure the submissions to these two funding agencies were, in fact, the same? Grant deadlines and requirements can vary pretty extensively. I submitted a pretty half baked application in November (2 weeks after picking a postdoc position and project) and then submitted a substantially better version two months later for a private deadline.

There's a lot of hypothetical without much hard information on the particular situation.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon - fair enough. I can't be sure in this particular case.

But where was the "mentoring" when you submitted a half-baked proposal to NIH? How is that good training?

This example is also relevant WRT other cases where I saw the version that was submitted & funded & shouldn't have been funded at all.

Of course that happens at NIH too, not just with named fellowships. =p

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm on Track B. It's exactly what is happening to me and it's freaking scary. I have some savings that might tide me over for a couple more months but I'm definitely out of a job. My postdoc "mentor" wants me out asap.

Shitting in my pants!


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