Careers in FastForward

In September 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the first 10 recipients of a new grant mechanism, the Director’s Early Independence Award (EIA), which was designed to facilitate a transition to research independence directly from graduate school, skipping the postdoc. EIA targets a narrow slice of the science-trainee population: Ph.D. students within a year, before or after, of completing a doctorate. Winning scientist-trainees receive $250,000 per year for up to 5 years at a host institution. NIH advises against appointing EIA winners to tenure-track positions, but host institutions must provide space, access to equipment, and all the other resources necessary to allow them to work independently.

“All of a sudden … you don’t have a PI [principal investigator] you can talk to and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?’ Now there are people coming to you asking ifon the right track.” —Carissa Perez Olsen

Carrying the tagline “A Grand Experiment in Catalyzing the Biomedical Workforce,” the EIA program was created to help address a persistent and growing problem in biomedical research: the relatively advanced age at which researchers achieve independence. According to a report presented in June by the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, the median age at which biomedical scientists take their first tenure-track position is 37. The working group report argues that beginning a career so late disrupts starting a family, dissuades many promising young scientists from following through on their career plans, dampens lifetime earning potential, and prevents scientists from working independently during what are often considered a scientist’s most creative and fruitful years.

NIH emphasizes that the program is an experiment, and one very much still in progress. With the awardees approaching the 1-year mark, Science Careers reached out to several of them to find out how the experiment is going.

Smooth transition

James Fraser is studying protein structure and dynamics using computational and biophysical methods. When he was awarded his EIA, he had already begun working at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), as a fellow with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, an applied-research incubator that works in partnership with local companies. With EIA and UCSF support, his lab supports a postdoc, a graduate student, and two full-time technicians.

Fraser says the transition from Ph.D. student to running his own lab has been smooth—or at least not much rougher than the typical transition to research independence. “It was maybe a little more abrupt than normal, but I feel like the growing pains have been pretty similar to what most faculty experience [after] postdocs,” he says. “I think that the transition from managing your own research to leading a research group is one that is quite difficult. We’re all learning to navigate as we do it.”

That, he says, is the only way to make the transition, no matter how much or what kind of preparation you’ve had. “There isn’t a ton of training [for running a lab], no matter whether you’re coming straight out of grad school or out of a postdoc.” To ease the transition, Fraser has relied on senior colleagues in his department and elsewhere. “I’m constantly reaching out for guidance and advice,” he says. “I still talk to my graduate adviser about [issues that come up in the lab] every couple of weeks.”

Carissa Perez Olsen, an EIA recipient and microbiologist working as a research fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, says that her transition to independence has been similarly smooth. “There are definitely parts of it that are really challenging, having to get used to a whole new set of responsibilities, but for the most part it’s been really fun and exciting. But there are definitely aspects of it that I’ve been trying to figure out as I go,” she says. “You don’t ever really get trained for a lot of these things, even if you do a full postdoc.”

Ready to lead?

Olsen says recognizing that she is the authority in her lab has required some adjustment. “All of a sudden … you don’t have a PI [principal investigator] you can talk to and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?’ Now there are people coming to you asking if they’re on the right track.”

Olsen and Fraser both say that learning to delegate responsibility and manage people are by far their biggest challenges. Olsen still spends a lot of time working at the bench—though not as much as she’d like. She lets her full-time technician or her intern carry out the more routine tasks and keeps the more scientifically uncertain (and interesting) questions for herself. “The projects I’m working on myself are the ones I consider the most high-risk,” she says. “[My staff members] can do the projects that are already working, and I can kind of play around and see what might be interesting to follow up on.”

Harris Wang, an EIA winner who completed a biophysics Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he is now a research fellow, staffs his lab with postdoctoral research associates and technicians. In Harvard’s biophysics program, he says, even graduate students are fairly independent, so for him, taking the reins didn’t seem like a huge departure. “Clearly [EIA] is a very different style of academic training than the traditional graduate student-to-postdoc path,” he says, “but it really depends on one’s Ph.D. experience. It might not be the best thing for everyone.”

Fraser says he thinks it takes a certain kind of experience and motivation to make early independence work. “I had really fantastic mentors throughout my graduate career, not just scientifically but also on the career management side,” he says. His professors explained not just the scientific principles behind an experiment but also where materials came from, how grants work, and how to manage departmental politics, he says.

Also needed is a feeling of readiness, he says. “At what point does it become sort of a scientific imperative for you to have your own lab and to direct your own research?” EIA winners are “distinguished by the idea that what we had done as graduate students created that imperative for us right now … and it’s necessary for that problem to get solved by us now,” Fraser says.

No path

NIH discourages host institutions from providing tenure-track positions to EIA grantees. The goal is to allow the awardees to do their research without the pressure of a tenure clock. But because they know a job search still lies in their future, these researchers seem to view EIA as not so much a fast track to career maturity but as a more independent, lab management–focused training phase. Most of the award winners we spoke to were trying to get as much done as possible before their grants expire—as opposed to settling into careers—so they can parlay the experience into a permanent position.

If the EIA period is a new kind of training phase, it seems to be a very effective one: a funded, real-world, 5-year course in running your own labs. “No matter what, all of us who’ve gotten this award are developing skills that people don’t get a chance to develop as postdocs,” Olsen says.

Fraser’s situation is unique. UCSF recently offered him a tenure-track assistant professorship, setting aside NIH’s recommendations. He’s hoping the next several years of research during his EIA will help pave the way for tenure, promotion, and additional research grants. “Four years from now, I’d like this award to have generated some really exciting stuff that makes it so it can become a renewable grant,” he says.

Olsen says, “There’s a certain amount of uncertainty because even if things go 100% great, as good as you could expect, there isn’t a clear path for anyone who’s done something like this.”

Better matches

After visiting the labs of almost all the 2011 EIA scholars, NIH is happy. “Our sense is that these awards are going great,” says Elizabeth Wilder, director of NIH’s Office of Strategic Coordination, which administers the program.

Still, Wilder says NIH is working on one tweak. In the first two EIA classes, several awardees decided to stay at the institution where they received their doctorates. Wilder and other program officials worry that it might be hard to work independently if you’re right down the hall from your Ph.D. adviser. So last month, NIH debuted a matching portal to help EIA awardees and host institutions find each other. “We’re trying to make it easier for young investigators to find host institutions and for host institutions to find young investigators and therefore, make it easier for investigators to move away from their current institution,” Wilder says.

Science Careers will continue to follow the paths of the 2011 and 2012 EIA grantees in the coming years. NIH is accepting letters of intent for its 2013 Early Independence Awards until 30 December 2012, and applications are due on 30 January 2013. You can find out more at the program’s Web site.

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