For most academic scientists, the progression from scientist-in-training to full-blown principal investigator (PI) follows a rigid path: graduate school, a postdoctoral position or two, and finally an associate professorship and the slow climb toward tenure. That middle stage can be lengthy, eating up the better part of a young scientist’s late 20s and 30s, and delaying earnings and major life decisions.
Last August, Science Careers profiled a recently adopted National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding mechanism called the Early Independence Award that is aimed at identifying talented scientists who are ready to run their own labs immediately after earning their doctorates. The program funds their research at a host institution for up to 5 years.
“It’s 5 years to explore, be creative, take your research program in whatever direction you want to pursue.” —Alan Frankel
Since then, we’ve learned that several institutions offer their own versions of early-independence awards (see box). They differ from the NIH awards, and from each other, in various ways, but they share the goal of boosting precocious scientists to the PI stage as quickly as possible. Science Careers spoke to people from two of these programs—the directors from both and a fellow from one—to find out what makes someone ready for early independence and how the experience benefits scientific careers.
UCSF’s Sandler fellows
Alan Frankel, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, chairs the UCSF Sandler Fellows Program, which at any given time supports about 12 recent Ph.D. recipients so that they can develop independent labs studying various aspects of biology. Started in 1995, the program provides around $250,000 per year—funding varies from fellow to fellow—for up to 5 years to recently graduated Ph.D. scientists and research-oriented M.D.s. Anyone from anywhere can apply, but applicants must be nominated by a mentor. Women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply.
Sandler fellows run their own labs, attend department meetings, recruit and manage graduate students, and have the option to teach, but they aren’t on the tenure track. “This is sort of a free time,” Frankel says. “It’s 5 years to explore, be creative, take your research program in whatever direction you want to pursue. And it’s in the context of a very supportive environment.”
That environment is anchored by a mentoring network identical to the one that serves UCSF junior faculty members. Each fellow is assigned a mentor who helps them learn the fundamentals of lab management, purchasing equipment, applying for grants, and so on. Mentoring is structured, with scheduled lunch and dinner meetings, ensuring that protégés receive the face time they need.
Who makes for a good early-career independence fellow, at UCSF or elsewhere? Someone who’s already had a lot of experience with independent research and running a lab as a graduate student, he says. “They’ve been the go-to person in the lab, they’ve mentored students. … What really matters is the skill and maturity of the person and their ability to figure out the ropes.” Frankel notes that, on balance, fellows in the UCSF program experience no more turbulence as they grow toward independence than other junior faculty hires.
Princeton University’s Lewis-Sigler Fellows
Tessa Calhoun is currently doing biochemistry research in a similar program at Princeton University as part of the similar Lewis-Sigler Fellows program. Lewis-Sigler fellows receive $200,000 per year in research support for up to 5 years. Consistent with UCSF’s program, the positions are not tenure-track, and applicants are accepted from anywhere.
Calhoun’s experience as a graduate student satisfies Frankel’s criteria. “My graduate school adviser … gave me a lot of freedom,” she says. “He let me determine my own research direction … as long as it seemed like a reasonable direction. I already had quite a bit of experience in doing that.”
Despite that experience, Calhoun says, when she started her fellowship 3 years ago after earning her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, she didn’t realize how much non-research work is involved in being a PI. “Some … things you’re really familiar with because you’ve done that in graduate school, but you don’t realize all the other responsibilities that go along with it,” she says.
The Lewis-Sigler Fellows program has a teaching requirement, which makes additional demands on fellows’ time, Calhoun says. “We have to teach and even design curriculum, and you don’t realize how much time that takes until you actually do it.”
There are other small things a new PI must learn to adjust to: department meetings, mentoring responsibilities, departmental politics, “and also just the logistics of starting from a completely empty room and getting all the little things and details,” Calhoun says.
In contrast to UCSF Sandler fellows, Lewis-Sigler fellows don’t have a formal mentorship program, but informal mentoring occurs between more senior fellows and more recent ones, Calhoun says. The absence of formal mentoring is one more reason why Lewis-Sigler fellows need to be comfortable with independence right after graduate school—and that it’s not the right fit for everybody. “I think it just depends on your personality and previous experience,” she says. “You have to have some idea about what your direction will be and some idea of how to accomplish that independently.”
Does it work?
The idea of advancing young scientists to independence quickly is certainly appealing—but because they skip the postdoc, they reach independence with less experience and typically fewer publications. Do hiring committees look favorably upon these fellows? Calhoun, who was recently offered and plans to accept a position in the chemistry department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says reactions have been mixed.
“Some people were completely unaware of this position, and I was constantly describing and explaining it,” she says. “I think overall the attitude was, ‘Wow, that sounds really great,’ but there was this kind of mixed feeling because on paper I’ve accomplished less, because I started from an empty room, than I would have if I’d jumped into an established lab. So for them, it was a little unclear how to judge that.”
Frankel says that all the people who’ve gone through the Sandler Fellows program have found jobs in prestigious institutions and departments. And, although the positions themselves are not tenure-track, fellows are encouraged to apply for jobs at UCSF after their fellowships end, Frankel says. Nine of the 16 fellows who’ve completed the program have been hired as tenure-track faculty at UCSF—including James Fraser, who also won an NIH Early Independence Award. Six others have tenure-track jobs elsewhere—some are already tenured—and one is working as a biotechnology consultant.
Besides talent scouting, UCSF also benefits by getting a new group of bright young scientists every year to energize its other researchers. “We’re bringing the best and brightest to our community,” Frankel says. “It’s a way to kind of refresh the community on a continuing basis, bringing in people with different perspectives. Because they are 5-year positions, that’s a constantly renewing resource. It brings real energy to the institution.”
David Botstein, the Anthony B. Evnin ’62 Professor of Genomics at Princeton and director of the Lewis-Sigler Fellows program, adds that while the fellows’ contributions to research are indeed vital, the program values their teaching abilities, as well. The fellows are required to teach in Princeton’s Integrated Science curriculum, an innovative undergraduate program aimed at students interested in a career in science.
“The fellows are one of the major reasons for the success of the undergraduate program,” he says. “In other places, the fellows would be expected to raise their own money, but we say, ‘No, no, if you’re going to do something that’s valuable for us, we’re going to pay you for it by making it possible to not have to raise your own money.’ “
Despite the benefits these early-career independence programs have for both the fellows and their awarding institutions, Frankel cautions against expanding such programs. “The biggest issue, I think, is the question of quality and maturity,” he says. “[H]ow many candidates are there who could really fit the bill here, who are really ready to go right from the beginning? There’s clearly enough to populate a few of these really stellar fellows programs, … but if one were to ask, ‘Is this going to be a model that’s going to work at a broader national level?’ I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
There probably are more institution-based early-independence programs out there, but these are the ones NIH looked at when it was developing its program: