Monday, August 04, 2008

Fortune Cookie: NIH is more broken than ever.

Well, my spiritual random draw (tarot card, in this case) tells me I need to have more Faith and Hope in myself.

Been trying that as a mini-mantra this weekend, "Faith and Hope, Faith and Hope, Faith and Hope."

Might have, at the very least, helped my cloning. I'll let you know when I get the sequencing back.

This morning I'm having a bit of an anxiety attack. I think it's the new vitamins I'm trying, they have a lot more B complex than I usually use. It has definitely helped my energy level, but the flip side is disrupting my sleep and making me feel more stressed out, rather than less.


In other news, more postdoctoral fellowship atrocities!

We already knew that postdoctoral salaries have been frozen, despite a previous agreement to raise them gradually over several years up to a reasonable wage for a PhD-holding adult.

Now, the latest word on the street is, if you get a borderline (or maybe not even close to borderline) score on an NIH NRSA, call them or have your PI call them. I'm not sure this was always the case, but it's definitely required now.

This is especially important for younger PIs, who might not have as much of an established track record and might not even know you have to do this.

DO THIS. Keeping in mind, of course, that more established PIs have a major advantage.

More NIH loopholes that set back young faculty members from the outset...

At one institute (which shall go unnamed for anonymity of my friend), they wouldn't even report what NRSA scores were fundable, just who got the grants and who didn't.

Yeah, that's scientific all right.

AND - because wait, it gets better - they've changed the rules on how many years of postdoc funding you can have.

In the past, it was 3 years, regardless of when you got it. So if it took you a year or two to get a fundable score (or a phone call from the right person!) you still got 3 years.

Now, they say you can only have it within the first 3 years of postdoctoral experience. So if you stay in your thesis lab for a year, and get your NIH NRSA the year after, guess what? Only 1 year of postdoctoral funding!

And you know what they say when you tell them this is unrealistic?

You only need 3 years of postdoctoral training.

Um, sure, we agree with that, actually. SO WHERE ARE ALL THOSE PHD JOBS?

I've actually seen faculty positions advertised for Assistant Professors requiring a minimum of 6 years of postdoctoral training. I mean seriously.

Another friend raised a funny point. He said, Can you imagine if they did that for R01s? "Like, sorry, it took you two years to get a fundable score, so now you only get 3 years of money!"

Yeah, that would never fly. Why do postdocs put up with shit like this?

Oh, right, we have zero power. Hey NPA, where are you when we need you to bargain for something?

Maybe we need a union after all.

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At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another friend raised a funny point. He said, Can you imagine if they did that for R01s? "Like, sorry, it took you two years to get a fundable score, so now you only get 3 years of money!"

Oh man. Please don't tell the NIH this idea. It sucks that post-docs don't have any power. Unfortunately, faculty (especially new faculty) don't have any either.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this is unreal.

Research!America, where I work, doesn't deal with the specific plight of the post doc, but we do advocate for more NIH funding, which would ultimately help this bizarre reality.

We have tools on our site to help advocates (and postdocs!) contact their members of Congress about NIH's budget and how flat funding and real cuts are so detrimental. Sharing your story with them would be a good first step toward correcting the situation.

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of unions... the UC system just got their up and running.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

Utterly ridiculous situation. It's even worse if you aren't a US citizen or permanent resident ... I couldn't apply for ANY of the NIH training grants although I can apply for R01s and the like. I did qualify to apply for the K99/R00 though ... but was told that the competition was so strong that you had to be able to walk on water to get one ... and that I shouldn't bother.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With respect to the ticking training clock, that aspect for one institute is old news.

Obviously, it is bad news, but old news nonetheless.

The news about hidden paylines completely blows.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger ena7800 said...

i know this grad student who was awarded an R03 even though he hardly ever does any work and is a complete arrogant ass. he is a complete and utter moron and is one of the least deserving individuals. my boyfriend and fellow labmate has determined that the less work you do the greater chance you'll have of getting an NIH funded grant. therefore there is an inverse relationship between the two. makes me want to quit.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So...when I call NIH, what exactly am I supposed to say? Whats the funding cut-off? Why the eff didn't you fund my grant that got rave reviews? (only semi-kidding on the last one)

Just curious, since I got my score (its good but not great) and I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be funded this time around.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Dr. J said...

The whole thing just defies belief really doesn't it?! We have the 3 year rule at our university, after which you have to become a research associate. This is complete and utter nonsense (or at least it would be were there not benefits to being an RA...well some benefits at all is an improvement over a post-doc). But the notion that you need only 3 years as a post-doc is now so out of date as to be worthy of study with dinosaurs. Yet they peddle this garbage. This sort of thing is part of the rot that is poisoning of the whole system. How one is supposed to have respect for the intellectual integrity of the system when we are asked to swallow this is beyond me. As for ethical integrity...well!

As for unions. I think we should be unionised. The sad truth though is whilst we collectively have the power to bring about change, as a collective we will never do the things that are required to make the powers that be focus their time on us - ie affecting their reputation or bottom line. Collectively we would have to go on strike for some time for that to have any impact. I'm still trying to figure out if voting with my feet is the best plan and if so where to go.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:51,

Exactly. Don't worry, I won't!


See, much of this blog is about how it's not the BUDGET that matters, it's that there IS NO SCIENTIFIC SYSTEM IN PLACE FOR DETERMINING WHO GETS THE MONEY.

Anon 11:32,

Thanks for the heads up, will check that out.


It's funny because lots of people told me to apply, but it's not just about walking on water anymore. You have to walk on the right water with the right people by your side!


As far as I know, hey haven't always enforced that rule. It has only been since the last year or two that I've started hearing lots of stories of people getting screwed.


Indeed. me too.

Anon 1:58 pm,

1. What's the funding cut-off?
2. Can you help me understand my reviews? My feeling was that they were very positive?

The reality is that your SRA should have been in the room during the discussion of your grant, and will often tell you things (off the record of course) that went on in the discussion that were not recorded in your reviews.

This happens for RO1s all the time. In most cases with postdoctoral fellowships, the criticism is something DIFFERENT than what was written in the reviews, e.g. it usually has to do with the "Mentor" or the "Institution" or both.

Dr. J,

Actually I think 3 years should be plenty, if we weren't wasting our time in poorly-run labs where we're constantly having to re-invent the wheel; wait a week to place an order for something we ran out of but nobody ordered more of; and if our advisors ever actually wanted to publish a paper or make time to meet with us.

I agree, lately my feet are itching to vote NO on this whole academia thing, they just haven't figured out where to go or quite when.

Today, for example, I am thinking jump + ship = happy feet

At 2:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will have a total of 3 years of PD experience when I start my TT job. I have to say I'm worried I won't have enough preliminary data for some of the grants I want to write, and I am concerned I won't be as broadly published as some in my cohort of assistant professors, who will have more extensive PD experience. But if the NIH thinks 3 years in enough, maybe they'll put their money where their mouth is ;-).

At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From July 22:

The thing is, that one fellowship can make ALL the difference in who gets what job later on. The right fellowship can lead to all kinds of opportunities. It opens doors.

Because they have this nice line on their CV, everyone just assumes they're smarter and more capable than the rest.

Maybe that is why the approach of cutting years from fellowships is a good idea. The program officers probably aren't using the rest to buy beer, they are funding more fellowships. And that means more people get the shiny line on their CV.

At 4:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some thoughts on this post:

PIT: Well, why should the american government fund postdocs (when there are too few phd jobs as it is) for non-citizens? People who clearly have an investment in staying in this country (ie, citizens and residents) should have a leg up over those who may return overseas after their training.

anon 1:58pm: Its like they say, if you have to ask what to ask... I mean, seriously! Plus the program officers will tell you flat out that you can call them. They are nice people, and they'll tell you what they can.

PIT and People are getting these K99 grants. I know two postdocs personally who've gotten one, and another who got one and lost it due to not finding a faculty job. None of these people walked on water, although they were certainly good.

Ms.Phd 4:41pm, re in reply to dr J: Running out of reagents unexpectedly is terrible, and the lab design (and the plan of experiments, ideally) needs to be such that that doesn't happen. If the advisor won't help though: in a former lab, I simply announced that I would be ordering all standard supplies for the lab. Did it suck up time, yes... but overall it was a vast improvement, and it also kept my reagents from changing unexpectedly mid-experiment. Just a thought.

At 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked at the fine print of microfool's link:
Extension of the award period beyond three years in the sponsor's laboratory may be requested for an unusual circumstance such as an unforeseen new training opportunity.

I suspect this isn't much different from long term policies. The longer you are in a specific postdoc, the more they weigh the additional training factors of your NRSA proposal. YFS, Is this fine print the same in the institute where you apply? Could you contact your training officer and clarify this detail?
If anything, this is making explicit the need to enlarge and add details to the training section of the grant (the part that sunk my NRSA application since no one told me this).

As for unionization, I was in UC for the first unionization attempt. UAW was utterly terrible and had no clue about anything postdoc related from the types of hours postdocs work, where salaries come from, and pretty much anything else they'd need to know to be successful advocates. UAW hid behind anonymous webpages and the people going into workspaces to get signatures (illegally) were not even postdocs. The reason the attempt failed was the massive protest of postdocs against the unionization drive. If it's succeeding now, I can only hope it's because UAW got its act together and did some serious research. Otherwise, I wouldn't be surprised if postdocs are worse off post-unionization (at the very least it's a minimum of 1% of current salary levels straight to the union)

In general, unionization is only good if there are clear goals of making a union. What should the goals be for postdocs? A union couldn't affect anything relating to grants any more than a non-union advocacy group with many postdoc members. It couldn't set maximum or minimum work hours in any reasonable way for postdocs. Perhaps it could formalize vacations or health insurance if the university already didn't have a system (UC does). As an example, the UC grad student union isn't actually a union of grad students. It's a union of grad student instructors. The contract benefits all grad students with a health insurance option, but the rest of the contract only relates to hours and regulations regarding teaching and not research.

For the union advocates here, what could a postdoc union change?

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Jonathan Jacobs said...

Nice post. This may be a bit off topic, but I believe the problem is that the job market is flooded with postdocs and phds. Its a bottom up problem (i know, this is an old story), a giant pyramid scheme. Lets face it: grad students are cheap. Postdocs are somewhat more expensive, often more productive. Both are cheaper than higher dedicated technicians (aka professionals). So, the whole market is set up for universities to have as many grad students as possible. This then creates a wave of postdocs, all looking for a tiny number of PI positions. Its good for science (lots of bodies doing research) but its bad for career issues and/or quality of life. I mean... we don't even get benefits, let alone professional level salary. I love it how, in my mid-30's, I'm still considered a "trainee" by the NIH.

At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 9:08 AM, Blogger Kristi said...

This is outrageous. Is there some documentation that we can link to that states the conditions for these awards. I have some friends here at the NIH that I would like to bring this too. We can all sit among ourselves and complain, but maybe its time to do more than that.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger chall said...

Even if I had the opportunity to stay in my present lab for another 2 years so I get 4 years of post doc I'm not sure that it would help with me finding a job. It might help with me applying for grants?! But still, not really sure on that since the grant issue is cut throat.

What I do know though, after applying for a bunch of industry positions, is that it seems to have been better for me if I had applied for industry before doing a PhD... or maybe before post doc.

funny that, I am over qualified for most jobs and under qualified for the group leader since "you have only been a post doc". Go figure.

I'll try and come up with something smart but in the mean time I'd like to know where all those jobs are that we, the PhDs, are supposedly training for...

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 2:15 AM,

If you have the High Impact Paper, that should help you get a grant. But you might get hit with the usual hypocrazy, they'll give you the job but then say you're lacking experience. Let us know what happens, please!


Um, no. The other money does not go to fund more grants, and even if it did, that is not necessarily a good thing.

Not to beat a very dead horse, but they're cutting grants b/c the NIH budget is shrinking, because all our tax dollars are going to fund the military, because of the war(s).

If you thought they wouldn't cut postdoc fellowships when they're cutting R01s, think again.

Anon 4:08 am,

I have to agree, since I've been paying taxes all these years, but I get very little benefit from being a citizen.

But I think it's totally ridiculous that you're expected to know what to ask?? There should be NO UNWRITTEN RULES. And no, program officers are NOT nice people. They are administrators.

re: the K99 grants, there are about 100 K99s awarded per year, and about 50,000 postdocs in the US. Even if only 10% of the postdocs are eligible, that's still worse odds than getting an R01, PLUS the application is actually LONGER, and the restrictions on who can apply (re: years as a postdoc, institutional support) are MUCH harder to meet. Fuck that. K99s are not a solution.

re: ordering, that is a perfectly reasonable suggestion and wherever possible, I have done my own ordering in the past. Unfortunately our department has some ridiculous policies in place now where only 1-2 people are allowed to place orders, and they have to be staff (e.g. the administrative assistant) who taken a 2-day training course to get certified to use the ordering system. NO JOKE. It's ridiculous how much this slows things down.

Kay thanks!


I guess the main goals for postdocs would be better salary, guaranteed vacation (not this bullshit about negotiating with your PI off the record!), benefits including retirement (!), and the most important one, being considered an employee instead of a 'contractor' or whatever that basically just means the only record of your work is your PI's recommendation letter.

Just a thought.


yes. me too.


thanks, will check it out. by email it's yfsblog at gmail if you want to reach me that way.


yes, exactly. this is what frustrates me, too, since everyone keeps asking me why i don't "just go to industry", like there are tons of interesting jobs just waiting for postdocs to grab. not so!

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re unionization
I guess the main goals for postdocs would be better salary, guaranteed vacation (not this bullshit about negotiating with your PI off the record!), benefits including retirement (!), and the most important one, being considered an employee instead of a 'contractor' or whatever that basically just means the only record of your work is your PI's recommendation letter.

UC postdocs (at least on my campus) already had set salaries, guaranteed vacation, retirement benefits, and status as an employee... which is why I wouldn't be surprised if there's additional postdoc pushback against the union.

As for complaining about citizen vs. non-citizen isn't that against what seems to be your core belief on this blog that it should be about the science. If a non-US citizen can do better research, why shouldn't they be able to get money?

If you thought they wouldn't cut postdoc fellowships when they're cutting R01s, think again.
I think the complaint could work the other way too. If they kept the same number of postdocs and fewer space for faculty, the complaint would be it is keeping an underclass of researchers with no future. Why would anyone expect postdoc fellowships remain untouched?

At 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess the main goals for postdocs would be better salary, guaranteed vacation (not this bullshit about negotiating with your PI off the record!),...

My postdoc salary is so low (about the same as a call centre job) that I don't give a damn about not having specified vacation time. I just walk out when I feel like. What have I got to lose? :)

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK. got it.

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Instead of fighting over crumbs (postdoc or science PhD jobs) why not leave altogether. Who (USA citizen) in their right mind would pursue a science career? Poor pay, unbalanced life, everything is about getting govt welfare ( NIH grants) etc... It is so sad to see "adults" bickering and complaining over their lot in life. DO something over than science. Leave it to the CHinese, the Indians and Germans to love the test tube and seem to enjoy studio apartment living.


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