The average age for an academic researcher to receive his or her first NIH R grant is 42.
Like many of you, I am concerned about this for a few reasons. First, it reflects an ever-increasing “training” period, with investigators not truly achieving independence until they have their own dedicated source of funding. Second, it suggests that as scientists we are not getting the benefits of a “real” job until our early 40s, including getting established in a stable location, retirement benefits, and the like.
This number has held steady for the past several years, leading to calls for change in supporting younger investigators to drive this age down, and is now even drawing attention from Congress. One way the NIH has supported new, young investigators is by giving them special consideration, with study sections focusing less on preliminary data and previous accomplishments, and more on the proposed research plan. New investigators may also be funded at a higher payline than established investigators. For example, the 2014 payline for the NHLBI is up to the 12th percentile, but Early Stage Investigators will be funded up to the 22nd percentile. This varies widely by institute, though. While this approach has helped increase the number of early-stage investigators receiving grants, it has not driven down the age at which investigators get their first grant.
Another way the NIH has tried to facilitate earlier transitions to independent research positions is through the introduction of funding mechanisms specific to individuals on a fast track to independence, including one program to bypass postdoctoral training entirely.
In this time of intense competition for faculty positions and grants, a career development award, such as a K award, can be a huge advantage. These are designed for experienced postdocs who are ready to transition to an independent position, and provide them with a period of mentored support, time, and money to develop their own projects. When it comes time to apply for jobs, this type of grant will set an applicant apart as evidence of success in grant funding.
These are all laudable efforts to try to ease and accelerate the transition from mentored postdoc to independent investigator, and hopefully help scientists start their independent work earlier in their lives. However, many factors make the age issue more complicated than it appears. For example, many new investigators are supported by startup funds or other funding sources prior to writing an NIH grant. Also, this age may be driven up for those who work prior to starting graduate school (which is one of the best ways to predict success in graduate school, and to help make an informed decision about going into academic research ).
However, one of my greatest concerns about the efforts to push down the age of the first R01s is the imposition of arbitrary time limits on eligibility for grants. For example, the Early Stage Investigator status described above only applies to applicants within 10 years of completing their terminal degree. A K22 grant from the NCI is only for individuals with fewer than 8 years of postdoc experience. A K01 from the NIDDK is designed for those within 5 years of completing their PhD. And the highly desirable K99/R00 grant is only open to those within 4 years of completing their terminal degree.
These time limits are intended to accelerate the transition from postdoc to faculty. To be sure, these awards are highly competitive, and those who receive them are very deserving. But I believe the end result is actually the exclusion of countless highly qualified individuals, who are blocked from eligibility for reasons completely independent from the quality of their science or the creativity of their ideas. There are many reasons, both professional and personal, why individuals take additional years to be in a position to apply for their own R01. Scientific reasons include a change in fields, changing postdoctoral labs (for personal or professional reasons), developing a new model system, working toward a “big” paper or project, or changing projects during postdoctoral training. Any of these factors could easily extend a “training” period by 2-3 years, and strain the already limited eligibility for early career awards or funding opportunities. However, none of these factors should count against long-term success.
Similarly, personal reasons, such as changing labs, accommodating a spouse’s career, having children, dealing with a health issue, or exploration of other career options also add time to the clock. Similar to the scientific reasons described above, none of these personal factors necessarily work against the ultimate success of a scientist or the quality of his/her research program. Many universities have already reached this conclusion, with the extension of the tenure clock becoming more common for academics (both men and women) who have had children. If we want academic research to continue to be a sought-after position that draws the best scientists from diverse backgrounds, we need to encourage more flexibility, not less, in how people enter the system.
I propose that we move away from these arbitrary, hard, deadlines, and bring the focus back where it should be, on the quality of the science and the likelihood of a candidate to succeed as a scientist.
Statistically, by the time I get my first R01, my life will be half over. But I’m okay with that. I have made personal and professional choices in building my career (including several from those listed above), and those choices might not fit in with the “one-size-fits-all” model of progression, from student to postdoc to faculty in a nice tight window. While this model works really well for some people, we must remember that there are multiple routes to success. Rather than artificially driving down the age at first R01 in the current system, let’s focus instead on how we can improve the system to allow scientists at all ranks to work creatively, improve the status of “trainees,” and ensure that we can all do our best science.