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THE BLACK HOLE

The case for scholarship and fellowship eligibility windows

They lead to more stability and may force early career scientists to stop waiting to make that next “substantial” contribution.

By DAVID KENT | February 17, 2017

Last week, one of the world’s biggest funders of biomedical research removed its restriction on the maximum number of years post-PhD that an applicant remains eligible for a grant. While I applaud the justification provided by the Wellcome Trust – removing an artificial time barrier for excellent research applicants – I don’t quite agree with the statement accompanying the press release:

“The change will not disadvantage researchers who are in the early years of their career – applicants will be judged on achievements according to their experience.”

First of all, if there are more applicants, then the competition will be harder for those allowed to apply under current rules (i.e., a disadvantage) – that’s a simple numbers game. Second of all, I have yet to see any evidence that a peer review panel is capable of valuing a young researcher’s “potential” against publications already in black and white from someone more senior. I therefore fear that this will stimulate yet another move in the direction of an ageing population of “early” career researchers.

Currently the “time post-PhD” benchmark is one that numerous early-career researchers use to determine whether they are going to find success as an independent group leader. Anecdotally, I’ve had several colleagues tell me that the best thing they ever did was try for fellowships at the last eligibility window, fail at getting them, with the end result being a swift (and very productive!) move out of academia into really excellent jobs.

Anecdotes aside, though, I thought it would be useful to put some thoughts together on the advantages and disadvantages of such timelines – hopefully useful fodder for funding agency staff who peruse our blog.

Advantages:

  • Applicants go in with their heads up – They understand the competition, they have a target window and they can make educated decisions about their future (which may not involve staying in academic research!)
  • Comparing apples with apples – Defined windows allow researchers (especially younger ones) to be evaluated against others at their stage of career.
  • Helps define a career trajectory – It might sound silly, but the career path of an academic researcher in biomedical science lacks any formal structure. Having defined and well-recognized benchmarks can only help.

Disadvantages:

  • It is totally arbitrary – The Wellcome Trust hit the nail on the head here in their press release. The problem is not just non-traditional career paths (which they do cite), but the fact that people’s research careers don’t actually start post-PhD. Some people will have master’s research, while others have PhDs of different lengths – this results in huge discrepancies between candidates’ CVs (and ages!).
  • Differences amongst funding agencies – If there is no consistency between different funding agencies, then things start to lose meaning (how does a fellowship compare to a scholarship or to a new investigator grant?).
  • Differences amongst fields – Researchers in biomedical sciences often find themselves 4 to 7 years post-PhD when they search for an independent position. This is not the case in physics, chemistry or engineering, though, and if a funding agency is trying to cater to multiple fields, fair time windows are extremely difficult to define.

Overall, I lean on the side of clearly defined funding structures – I think they lead to more stability and force early career scientists to stop waiting for “one more big paper” before making the perfect application. If you haven’t made a substantial contribution by 7 years post-PhD, I don’t know how much years 8 to 10 are really going to help. I fear that removing such timelines will lead to what is already happening at the PhD level in North America – an arms race that simply leads to longer training times and which just delays the inevitable exit of the vast majority of researchers from the academic stream. Removing these timelines might be good for a handful of researchers, but the cost in human capital in the form of those that don’t get lucky is alarmingly large.

That said, in order for timelines to work, some exceptions need to be built into the system. As an example, periods of justified leave (parental, familial, health, etc.) need to be properly accounted for. The European Research Council has incredible policies around parental leave that I’ve praised here before – if a scientist mom had two babies in the first seven-year window, her eligibility window gets extended to 10 years (and her next window is 10 to 14 years, etc.).

In my mind, biomedical funding agencies have the following career windows to fund and should do their best to have programs which address them all in order to avoid leaky career pipelines:

  1. Undergraduate research funding (summer programs, part-time laboratory funding – opportunities like NSERC, USRA or the Amgen Scholars Program).
    Eligibility window: be in an undergraduate program
  2. Graduate research funding (master’s and doctoral funding).
    Eligibility window: be in a graduate school program
  3. Early postdoctoral funding (immediately out of graduate school, funding to take to a new lab.
    Eligibility window: up to 12 months post-PhD to allow for some time to finish things up or to relocate
  4. Transition funding/first grant (end of the postdoctoral period, the first grant).
    Eligibility window: up to 7 years post-PhD
  5. Second grant.
    Eligibility window: after that first 3-5 year grant

Again, enter the European Research Council – a very sensible model for the latter stages. They have a starting grant (apply up to 7 years post-PhD), a consolidator grant (7 to 12 years post-PhD) and then an advanced grant for everyone beyond that. Something for everyone and an inevitable (and healthy!) attrition at each stage. That said, funding rates often hover around 10 percent, so there is an obvious need for alternative national or charitable funding mechanisms!

What do readers think? Are strict policies on timelines a good thing? Will they help us curb the length of training for the average researcher? We’d love to hear your views.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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