Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants. Today we'll be discussing consideration for postdocs moving into independent careers with our special guest Dr. Milton Hernandez.
Megan Columbus: Hello and welcome to today's edition of All About Grants. I'm your host Megan Columbus, from the NIH Office of Extramural Research. Today we'll be discussing considerations for postdocs moving on to independent careers in biomedical research. I have with me, Milton Hernandez, the director of the NIH Loan Repayment Program, who I'd like to welcome to the show today.
Dr. Milton Hernandez: Hello, Hi, How are you?
Megan: Fine. Thank you very much for coming today. Milton has spent 18 years in charge of training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and before that, he was a successfully funded NIH researcher. So, let's move on directly into what constitutes a good postdoc?
Milton: Ok, well that's a pretty broad question that involves quite a few things. I think, first and foremost, you want to pick a lab that's a strong lab in your chosen field. Obviously, you don't want to pick a lab where you're not interested in going that much. You want to be passionate about choosing your lab, and so you should pick the strongest lab that you can in your area. That said then, the second most important thing is the mentor-who's going to be the mentor, who's going to be the principle investigator that's going to be leading you on this postdoc? That person should be well known in the field, with a strong publication record and a good track record in training grad students and postdocs. There are lots of people that are very good, highly accomplished scientists that are not good trainers, stay away from those. And then what I think is very important, and I think very few postdocs actually do is, as soon as you get to that lab sit down with that mentor and agree on what the postdoc is going to be like. In other words, establish some guidelines as to where you're going to be in 6 months, 12 months, 2 years, that sort of thing. Also, be careful what kind of project you pick. You don't want something too open-ended that might to be unproductive. You might have two years and decide that this isn't going to lead anywhere. That's not a good project, and that's not a good mentor if they give you that sort of project. You want something that is doable. There should be some challenges there. You might have to develop some techniques, develop a model, etc., etc. But you don't want something that's like a wild goose chase. And finally, you know you should agree with your mentor that you want something that can lead you to become independent in a reasonable amount of years. There's different ways of doing postdocs. You can stay with the same postdoc for a longer period and become independent. Or you can do several postdocs, hopefully not more than 2 or 3, and accomplish the same thing.
Megan: What would be the expectation in terms of time you should stay in a postdoc then?
Milton: Well, that varies. That's very variable. The NIH has established postdocs the limit to be 5 years. If you're a postdoc for more than 5 years, you're not eligible for the transition awards that we're going to talk about at some other time. Now, 5 years may not be enough for you, but what you don't want to do is get into a postdoc situation where you're going to be doing a postdoc for 8-10 years because then you're stuck, and you're probably being using and/or you're just not cut out to be an independent investigator.
Megan: So, as a postdoc, my goal is being independent investigator, what do I need to do to make sure I get there and to prepare myself and to pave the way?
Milton: The purpose of a postdoc is for you to do research, research, research. That's the main thing. That's going to be your focus, and obviously, the end product is going to be papers, papers, papers. That's the most important thing in a postdoc quite frankly-the number of papers and the quality of those papers. The other thing is seeking out good mentors. Ideally your supervisor, the person that runs the lab, whose lab you're go to postdoc in, will be your mentor. That may or may not work out. I've seen lots of cases where that person is not that great of a mentor because they're just too busy, or they're just not that good a mentor.
Megan: So what should you do in that case?
Milton: You seek other mentors, and you should never be without mentors. Actually, no matter where you are in your career, you should always have mentors. Seek them out. There's probably some collaborator, maybe your ex-professor, maybe your PhD advisor, maybe somebody down the hall, maybe somebody that you've established a collaboration with at another institution that's more senior. All these people can give you good mentoring.
Megan: So, Milton, you've talked about the importance of finding a good mentor in the institution, and maybe more than one mentor in the institution, and that sounds like a great idea. Certainly I also understand the value of looking outside your institution for mentors. What about other connections that will set you up to put you in a good place to move forward. What about contacts at NIH or contacts in collaborators in your field?
Milton: That's a very good point, because postdocs tend to be very focused on their research, and while that's good, you don't want to be so focused on your research that you neglect the politics of being a scientist. I mean, you have to go out of your way and learn how to network, talk to people at NIH, talk to people at other funding agencies, talk to your mentor and your mentors, or your colleagues, or the people down the hall about how grants are reviewed, learn more about the process. I mean you need to do that and you need to be proactive actually. Just going back a little bit to the mentoring thing, nobody is going to come and offer to be your mentor. You have to get the gumption enough to go and approach a senior person and you know, sort of unofficially ask them. I've never asked anybody "will you be my mentor?" But, you know, you sort of wrangle yourself into that sort of situation.
Megan: You establish those sorts of relationships.
Milton: Right, right. Nobody's going to come and tell you "I want to mentor you."
Megan: What should the relationship of a postdoc be to NIH at this point in time? What should they be looking at, who they should be talking to?
Milton: Well, one really good place to start is to go, seek people out at scientific meetings. NIH staff, even though we are science administrators, we go to scientific meetings. We go to the FASEB. We go to the American Heart Association. We go to this or that meeting, the American Society for Microbiology. We're always there, chat with us. Just like you've had to seek out mentors by going and getting in people's faces, get in our face at a meeting, go talk to us, tell them "Oh, I've seen you from the National Institute of whatever and actually I'm interested in research that's right down that area, and can you give me some advice, I'm thinking what should I be doing?" and just establish a conversation. Later on it's going to be really, really important because as an applicant chances are you're going to be, hopefully you'll be a funded applicant, but I guarantee you're probably going to be a failed applicant at times. And if the NIH staff doesn't know you, how are they going to help you if they don't know you? You have to be known, so you have to establish these networks, these contacts early in your career.
Megan: Well, and I guess that's one of the things coming to NIH I was quite surprised by, which is the NIH staff are really here to help people out there get funded.
Milton: That's correct.
Megan: And so, I think that partnership is a really important message that we should get across.
Milton: I think for example in the training community that from what I see from my colleagues all over the other institutes at the NIH we're people people. We want to help young people and get started. We were young investigators. I remember very well when I was a postdoc and when I was writing my first R01 grant. So we want to give back to the community. We want to make it easy. We don't want to just be like robots and communicate Web sites. We want to give them insights and advice, so a lot of us, many of us do that quite frankly. Also as a postdoc I think you want to stay focused though, you want to stay focused on the research and the papers, there's no question about that. Sometimes there's temptations to do committee work and get involved with outreach activities, etc, etc. I would advise against that at the beginning. Get yourself established because that's not going to give you any papers, and it's not going to make you do good research. It's going to make you feel good because you're giving back to the community, but when it comes back to looking for jobs or later on if you're a professor, an assistant professor looking for promotion or tenure that's not going to count at all. That's the way it works unfortunately.
Megan: So, right now we're really working on establishing ourselves as a researcher doing research, getting papers, making connections, understanding the system.
Milton: Yeah, and another thing you could do is establish the good relationship with your mentor or mentors. These individuals are all funded by the NIH. They have R01 grants and probably big, big center grants and program projects and cooperative agreements and things like that. Ask them if you can read some of their funded applications.
Announcer: Learn more about NIH grant funding and processes at grants.nih.gov
Megan: So, we're here with Dr. Milton Hernandez talking about considerations for postdocs who are interested in moving on to an independent career in biomedical research. We've talked now about what constitutes a good postdoc and what you need to do, the kinds of connections you need to make, what about what people are really interested in, which is what awards are out there, what am I eligible for, how do I find those?
Milton: Yes, so how do I get funded? Well, there are several mechanisms. The first one that comes to mind is the National Research Service Institutional training grant. Now you don't get those as a postdoc. I always chuckled a little bit, smiled a little bit to myself, when I got a call from a postdoc saying that they wanted to apply for a training grant. I said "I think what you really mean is a fellowship." A training grant is given to a big investigator, a big name investigator in the field. It might be in basic immunology or microbiology or HIV or pathogenesis of X or Y condition, and they are multi-slot awards so that the training grant director has in his or her possession basically to give out any way they will, they want to, to either predocs or postdocs. So if you're a postdoc you can go at the institution, now obviously, these training grants are usually at institutions that are very research intensive.
Megan: So, how do you find out what institution has these training grants?
Milton: First of all you can do that many different ways, you can go to this new grant information data base called RePORTER, which replaced the old CRISP and find out about training grants at Yale or Southwest in Texas or University of New Mexico.
Megan: So, RePORTER's the OER resource, which is projectreporter.nih.gov
Milton: That's right, that's a good source. Another way is when you go to your institution is to ask your mentor, the person that's invited you to come to his or her lab "is there a training grant here at this institution?" Or sometimes it's not "is there a training grant?" but "how many are there?" and in many departments in the big schools there's a number of training grants. Some of them have training grants for similar areas in the same department, funded by different institutes-Heart and Lung, NIGMS, that sort of thing.
Megan: And there will be a process within the institution for applying for those grants?
Milton: Yes, now when I say that the program director is free to appoint in any way that he or she wants, that's not quite the way it is. All training grants probably have a process, an application process that probably has some sort of review committee that decides on what postdocs or what trainees to appoint on the training grant.
Megan: And so you'd work through the institution?
Milton: Yes, they want the best ones on the training grant because when they come for re-competition the training grants, they're going to be evaluated on how well these postdocs did, so they want sure thing kind of postdocs. Another way is to get your own individual fellowship. Very often, a postdoc will start on a training grant at an institution and then a year or two later gets his or her own funding on an NRSAF 32 postdoc.
Megan: And so, that's a good way to get your feet wet in grant writing?
Milton: That's actually the best way to get started because, and actually starting off in that process where you write your own application for your own fellowship is not only a great experience but it also turns out if you get it, it's a feather in your cap. You have gone to the altar of NIH peer review and gotten funds and that counts for quite a bit. Actually, it will give you quite a bit of experience as to how to write things, you'll have to interact a lot with your mentor in writing this application. It'll give you a real good sense of how to get funded. You know, just because you get a postdoc fellowship doesn't mean you're going to get your R01's funded automatically. That's not what I'm talking about, but it will give you a real good training. It's much better than having no experience at all. There are other mechanisms; there are diversity supplements for individuals that come from underrepresented groups, or people with disabilities.
Megan: And how would I pursue one of those supplements?
Milton: Well, if you're a grantee and you have an R01 and somebody like me, a Mexican-American postdoc comes along and says, "gee, I'd like to come to your lab but I don't have any money" then the PI, the principal investigator can say "okay, well I will apply for a diversity supplement for you" and basically I will come free.
Megan: Is there anything else you should be thinking about?
Milton: Well, there are these newer mechanisms that are called transition awards that are designed to take postdocs from the position of postdoc to make the transition to assistant professor. Some of the mechanisms involved are K22's, but not every institute has those, so you need to call around and find out. And the newer one is the pathway to independence award the K99/R00. They are very similar in what they accomplish. The K99 has a mentored phase. The K22 usually doesn't. But eventually they are meant to help you make the migration from a postdoc position to a position of assistant professor and with a nice tidy sum of money to get started.
Megan: That sounds like a great idea for somebody.
Milton: Yeah, it is a good idea. I know that I chaired the evaluation of a K22 mechanism a few years ago, and all those individuals got very good positions as assistant professors and a very high percentage of them were very successful in getting R01's. The K99 program is too young to be evaluated, but I'm sure the results are going to be very similar.
Megan: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for coming today!
Milton: Well, thank you very much!
Megan: For NIH and OER, I'm Megan Columbus, until next time.
Announcer: Conduct a key word search for "training" at grants.nih.gov, to receive a listing of opportunities and training-related information, again that's G-R-A-N-T-S dot N-I-H dot gov. And to search for NIH-funded projects visit projectreporter.nih.gov, again that's P-R-O-J-E-C-T-R-E-P-O-R-T-E-R dot N-I-H got gov.