Give Input on Strategies to Enhance Postdoctoral Career Transitions to Promote Faculty Diversity

NIGMS has a longstanding commitment to train the next generation of biomedical scientists and support the training of students from diverse backgrounds, including groups underrepresented in biomedical research, through fellowships, career development grants, and institutional training and student development programs. These programs, and other efforts, have contributed to a substantial increase in the talent pool of well-trained biomedical Ph.D.s from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. However, increasing evidence shows that transitions of these talented scientists from postdoctoral training into independent faculty positions at research-intensive institutions is a key point at which they exit the NIH-funded research workforce. Similarly, women have earned a majority of biomedical Ph.D.s since 2008Link to external web site but approximately one-third of NIH-funded principal investigators are women.

We have undertaken a number of efforts to facilitate the career transitions of postdoctoral scientists from diverse groups into the professoriate including Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards and research supplements to promote diversity in health-related research and re-entry into biomedical research careers. Additionally, we administer the NIH Common Fund’s National Research Mentoring Network, a nationwide consortium of biomedical professionals and institutions collaborating to provide biomedical trainees from all backgrounds and at all levels with evidence-based mentorship and professional development programs. While these efforts have supported the development of highly-trained biomedical scientists who have the necessary knowledge and skills to pursue independent biomedical research careers, we need additional strategies to promote transitions to independent faculty positions at research-intensive institutions.

We are seeking input from the biomedical research community and other interested groups through a Request for Information (RFI) on strategies for enhancing postdoctoral career transitions to promote faculty diversity at research-intensive institutions. Specific topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The barriers scientists from underrepresented groups face as they progress from postdoctoral training into faculty positions at research-intensive institutions, and potential strategies to overcome these barriers.
  • The qualities and perspectives that scientists from underrepresented groups bring to the research enterprise, and how these can be drawn upon to encourage and promote career transitions into the professoriate at research-intensive institutions.
  • Approaches key stakeholders (e.g., faculty advisors, institutions, scientific societies, etc.) can use to promote the successful career transitions of postdoctoral scientists from underrepresented groups into the professoriate at research-intensive institutions, and how these can be coordinated and sustained to maximize impact.
  • Current strategies that have been successful in promoting the transition of postdoctoral scientists from underrepresented groups into independent, tenure-track faculty positions.
  • Any other comments or recommendations for NIGMS to consider with respect to programs to enhance career transitions of postdoctoral scientists from diverse groups into the professoriate at research-intensive institutions.

Responses can be submitted via an online formLink to external web site and can be anonymous. The due date for providing input is July 20, 2018.

4 comments on “Give Input on Strategies to Enhance Postdoctoral Career Transitions to Promote Faculty Diversity

  1. Here in NYS, there is a program to aid faculty recruitment of underrepresented minorities. I serve on the committee to evaluate candidates for positions in the biological sciences. You can read about this program here: https://www.suny.edu/media/suny/content-assets/documents/diversity/2016-17_FDP-Guidelines.pdf

    I am also the current chair of our departmental faculty recruitment. We have recruited 6 new faculty in the last 8 years as researchers and teachers of medical and graduate students, with expectations of substantial Federal funding success the main criteria to achieve tenure.

    The biggest problem with the minority recruits is they are given a faculty position too early in their scientific development. They are not yet ready for independence. They lack the experience and body of work work to compete for NIH funding at the investigator level.

    I would suggest programs be aimed at extending postdoctoral training periods rather than facilitating entry into faculty positions.

  2. While I laud your efforts, unfortunately, this is just another in long line of band-aids NIH has tried over the past decade. Sure, you get people into faculty positions earlier but, in many cases, it just delays the point at which they leave academia by a few years because they can’t get a renewal or another grant due to heavy competition that the rest of us face. If you really want to make a difference, reduce the size of the grants and go back to funding in the 20-30% range. That level of funding worked for 40+ years without all kinds of gimmicks. It is unlikely that research funding is ever going to reach the relative levels seen 20-30 years ago. Acknowledge that fact, take a look at what is available, and adjust the size of grants so you can fund more labs. Don’t forget, there has to be someone to train the upcoming generation and the mentors have to be diverse as well, if not in ethnicity, etc. then in different ways of thinking, viewpoints and approaches. Who will do the training if experienced mentors are closing their labs because THEY don’t have funding?

  3. First, let me say that my comments apply not only to efforts to enhance the transition to faculty positions for minority candidates, but also to the Early Independence Award.
    Unless graduate and postdoctoral training specifically provide instruction on how to write successful grants, how to manage time, how to run a laboratory, how to manage laboratory personnel, etc., etc., etc., etc., paving the way for earlier entry into a tenure track faculty position seems less than ideal, and may be detrimental to the very intent espoused. This is particularly true since the elimination of the funding mechanism for new investigators.
    Unfortunately, with the shortfall in funding, and the increasing tendency at all of the Institutes to support fewer and fewer labs with larger and larger budgets, the reality is that more researchers at all stages of their careers are struggling to continue funding their research. And that funding is critical, not only for continued research progress and the funding which allows it, but for tenure and promotion for junior faculty. Thus, I would argue that moving minority candidates (or early post-docs without real experience in how to run a laboratory and navigate a career in academic science) more rapidly into a tenure-track position may make them less likely to succeed, rather than positioning them for success.

    Suggestions:
    Re-institute a funding mechanism for new investigators (and just checking the box on an RO1 isn’t the same thing)
    Develop more K-type mentored grants for these junior investigators
    Give serious consideration of how to better distribute the limited funds more broadly so that more investigators at all career stages can continue to conduct first rate research—after all, the more senior investigators will be the ones who will train and mentor the junior faculty, post-docs, and graduate students.

  4. Comment on URM Postdocs not seeking faculty positions.

    Background.

    This is a complex issue which is very easy to understand, and may actually be fairly easy to fix. The main reason that there are not very many URM faculty is that by and large these scientists of color as postdocs, are simply not attracted to academic positions (along actually with a high percentage of white postdocs). This is because they not are not excited by the stresses and strains they see in their own grad school and postdoc mentors. Faculty today at many schools find themselves in the position of being required to generate a goodly fraction of their salary. As a consequence they are extensively stressed because of the vagaries of the grant competition and the uncertainties of being able to achieve their goals. And of course if you have to make the mortgage payment in a regular fashion one can see the source of their concerns, and its impact on their family life, which is frequently more or less non-existent. Also the scientists of color see an individual who has trained all his/her professional career to have technical and investigative skills and who may have his/her entire career collapse because of a period of minimal supports.

    Another negative factor in discouraging URM scientists is simply the climate in what are mostly white only faculties. We see this concern in surveys that we have taken within our own graduate programs. There is no doubt in my mind but that URM trainees describe pressures on them that are not felt to the same degree by majority trainees. Implicit bias is something these student have to live with every day and I don’t believe that they think it would be any less in a faculty environment. In fact it is clear that at least when one is the first person of color in a white only department, then they will be establishing their role in a very difficult situation, where any shortfalls can be perceived as a color-related failure.

    Solution.

    Clearly the issues are complicated, but it seems to me that the biggest disincentive to scientists of color seeing themselves in a tenure track faculty position, is the concern with funding. Actually most new assistant professors usually have sufficient start-up funds to establish their labs. The problem comes at a somewhat later stage in the career process.

    Let me start by saying that a new program which offers additional funding selectively to URM faculty is not a good idea. It is discriminatory and will not benefit science in the long run. Also in my conversations with scientists of color who are productive and creative, I do not believe they feel such approaches serve the purpose of establishing themselves in positions of respect from their colleagues.

    So how can we reduce the stress level, and at the same time lead to a more rationale and equitable funding situation? I believe that the problem lies with the decision making process involved in funding RO1s. We all know that many excellent grant proposals are reviewed by study sections. And having served on many such review groups over the years, I know well that a grant proposal which ends up in the 1-5 percentile range is really not more or less likely to yield exiting new information than an application which end up in the 30-35% range. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, ignoring facts.

    The problem is that award of RO1 support is quantized. It is either yes or no, with nothing in between. And this I believe is the heart of the problem. From running my own lab for 35 years I also know that it is possible to run the lab on much less than the typical award level for an RO1. How do I know this. Over the years I have seen many of my colleagues lose grant support. Their major concern then become keeping the lab (and its productivity) going. Economies of scale and overall goals are reduced to extreme parsimony. Letting a tech go and doing the ordering and lab cleaning yourself! Minimizing unnecessary expense! It is possible to maintain a degree of productivity with much reduced support (but not with no support, which is what they feat most).

    Here is my solution; a mechanism to extend NIH support to a much broader swath of researchers, which will include a fraction of URM faculty which reflects to number of such individuals in the postdoc pool. I propose that some one scoring in the 1-5% range should get 100% of the requested support. A review putting someone in the 5-15% might get 75% of the requested funding; a score in the 15-25% might get 60% and someone in the range 25-40% might get 50%. Of course you can play with the numbers and the relative support to include a much larger group of overall faculty out to , say the 40th percentile level. Note this is no way discriminatory and does not offer special points to any designated groups. Also I stress that these numbers are illustrative of the concept and not specific proposals in and of themselves. They would of course have to be adjusted depending on budget availability.

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