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.