Friday, December 14, 2012

On postdoc funding

Bashir has a post up about postdoc funding where he says that it’s weird that it takes a long time (~year) to apply for funding (i.e. the time between applying and hearing whether you’ve got the money) and that it’s hard that funding is rarely for longer than 2-3 years whereas the average postdoc length is more like >5 years. So you either have to stitch several grants together or (like me) be lucky enough that your PI supports you. I am currently applying for grant #5, the previous 4 I didn’t get. 

In the comments Drugmonkey suggests a system in which you can only apply once within the first year after getting your PhD. This is actually exactly the system that the home country funding agency has for handing out postdoc grants, and I don’t really like it for the following reasons:

First, the fact that you have to apply within the first year after your PhD, and the fact that this funding agency looks at CV (meaning: number of papers published) a lot, means that you should preferably wait as long as you can to apply to get as many papers from your PhD out. However, the funding agency also prefers it if you’re not yet at your host lab when you submit your grant, meaning that the only way around this is to stick around in your PhD lab for another year (or take a looooong time getting your PhD so that most of your papers are already published). I’m not so sure if that’s something you want to encourage.

Second, I think the transition between PhD and postdoc is the best time to switch fields or learn a new technique. When you choose the lab to do your PhD in, you may not be aware of your interests, or all the techniques that you can learn. Or you may switch interests during the course of you PhD. And during your postdoc you should form ideas about what you want to do when you have your own lab, so that doesn’t seem like a point in your career to make any dramatic changes to what you’re doing (or am I wrong? Please discuss!). However, if you need to learn a new technique (like I did, I only started doing slice electrophysiology during my postdoc), it’s very difficult to write a grant about experiments when you don’t have a clear idea what exactly those experiments are and how much time they will take. So a grant like this will either favor people who stay in their field and keep doing what they know or people who’s PI writes their grants for them. I’m not sure that is something you want to encourage either.

Also, being able to apply only once takes away the opportunity to learn from the review comments and improve your proposal in a next round.

Anyway, this comes from someone who thought that she had very strategically waited to apply for this grant until the last possibly option for her (a year after defending my PhD), because by then she had most of her papers from grad school published. However, then the government of the home country decided that this round of said grant was going to be the last, so all of a sudden many more people applied but they only handed out the same number of grants, meaning that the funding rate dropped to about half of what it normally is. Next round they said:”Haha we were just kidding, here is another round of this same grant”. So I may be a bit disgruntled about this.


  1. Am increasingly wondering whether it would be best to most individual fellowship funding into operating grants (and earmarked as trainee support). My rationale being the following:

    1. As you mention, adjudication of applications is largely based on CV/papers published rather than on the project proposed.

    2. Success rates for fellowships is much lower in most cases than grants (!)

    3. There can be disconnects between fellowship funding and ability to do research if the host lab is under funded.

    4. It would strip out another layer of program overhead (administration and reviewing).

    I'd protect the envelope for training abroad - to encourage experience of other jurisdictions. There are obviously other caveats with this approach such as the loss of the prestige associated with a fellow winning a fellowship but I would bet there is a poor correlation between awardees and actual achievements.

    Fortunately perhaps, I don't have any authority over the granting agencies so these ideas have little chance of implementation but I wondered what postdocs would think.

    1. I'm not sure eliminating postdoc fellowships this way is a good idea. Because all this experience writing grants has improved my grant-writing skills a lot I think (if only I could prove this by getting a grant funded....). And I think the current situation is already a situation in which many postdocs are supported by their PI's funding. I think that people already acknowledge that a funded R01 for example will probably pay for at least one postdoc's salary, right?

    2. Yup, but that is the point. It's a zero sum game in terms of research funding and if funds for fellowships were put into grants, then grant $ would increase. The question is whether adjudication of fellowships is better than adjudication of grants (I'm generalizing, but I think the quality of fellowship reviewing is lower than for grants simply because of the volumes and the dependence on "metrics").

      Good point on getting writing experience but ALL investigators should work with postdocs in prepping their grant apps as it should be part of their training. If they expect/trust you to write fellowships, why not involve you in grant writing. You both have a stake in the success!

    3. But as a post-doc you can't be a co-investigator on an NIH grant for example (at least at my institution). So that would mean that you're part of writing a grant that your name cannot be on.... Not sure if I would want to do that as a post-doc.

  2. I fully support your position! Thank you!

    It is somewhat similar to the "justice vs happiness" scale I have just described in my blog. The more competitive you make the system at the beginning, the less fair it becomes to those who started low, or realized that they started in a wrong field, or made a mistake of some kind... Having this grace period around the beginning of postdochood is actually a blessing. The only real and useful part of this whole postdoc experience, in a way.