Moving on From Your Postdoc Position: Negotiating the Transition

The Early Careers Committee hosted a panel atthe 56th Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, in February to discuss negotiating the transition between postdoc and faculty positions. Four recently appointed assistant professors answered questions about taking the necessary steps to move on from a postdoc position. Ken Campbell, University of Kentucky, moderated the discussion, and Sudha Chakrapani, Case Western Reserve University; Sakthivel Sadayappan, Loyola University Chicago; and Tanja Mittag, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, served as panelists. The highlights from the session are summarized below.

Is age discrimination common?

Age discrimination is illegal in the United States, with a law protecting workers over the age of 40. To learn more about the protections provided by the government, visit The average age of PIs at their first R01 is 45 years old. Most faculty departments focus on scientific accomplishments, rather than age, when considering a new addition to the team.

I currently work as a research associate –between a postdoc and faculty position. I’m not currently permitted to apply for federal grants, I cannot get anything published because I am not faculty, and I have no teaching experience. I’d like to move on from my current position. What can I do?

Try looking for grant options outside of R01s. Foundations sometimes offer grants for which you may be able to apply. Work to differentiate yourself from your mentor to make you more competitive. The research associate position is a great first step if you want to teach at a small college, but it is not likely to get you a research position. Determine what you want to do – and then negotiate with the people above you. If they can’t help you, move. The NIH K-99 and R00 awards are designed to facilitate the transition to independence for postdocs and research associates and are usually targeted to candidates who have held their PhD for no more than five years.

Do you need funding prior to being hired? How long can you go unfunded?

Funding expectations vary by department. In general, medical research schools usually exert greater pressure to acquire substantial federal funding (via the R01 mechanism or comparably sized awards) than colleges focused more on teaching. Certainly, starting to apply for funding before you secure a faculty position can be beneficial in either situation. It is difficult to get an R01 grant, and postdoctoral fellows are usually not eligible to apply – one must typically hold a research associate professorship before applying. The K-99 or R00 grants, and similar career transition awards available from other institutes, such as the American Heart Association, are preferable mechanisms to pursue. These allow the candidate to remain within their postdoc/research associate laboratory for a short period of time, while working on their own research program and gathering preliminary data and publications. This funding can also be used as evidence of independence to help secure a faculty position. Make sure the proposed work is suitably different from that ongoing in your mentor’s laboratory in order to demonstrate independence.

How many papers do you need versus the quality of the papers?

There is no magic number – sometimes two papers can get you a job, while friends with 20 struggle. Typically, search committees are looking for solid, high quality papers, a productive number of papers each year, and no gaps between papers. A high number of papers might get you an interview, but you will need to defend each one as your own work to land the job.

It helps to network with potential employers and work your network to help learn of new positions and gain recommendations. Interacting with other institutions through networking, attending events (including the BPS Annual Meeting), and giving talks will give you many opportunities to make impressions on potential employers.

How do you start independent research if it’s not what your lab is doing? Where is the time to get preliminary data?

Consult with your mentor first to ensure that time and funds are available. Having made appropriate arrangements, you can begin to produce preliminary data for use in applying for transition awards.

How important is name recognition of institution or advisor? Will it put some candidates ahead of others at or with lesser-known places or people?

The chalk talk, or oral exam you face during each interview, is your chance to shine – regardless of the prestige of your institution or advisor. The committee will be able to tell the difference between your work and your advisor’s work, and knows in the first few minutes of the chalk talk if you are a good candidate.

Is there a stigma attached to frequently switching topics? Is consistency better?

Switching topics too much can look flakey and make it difficult to network and build relationships. Use your preliminary data to show what you’re doing now and how it points to new directions. If you must change topics, find a common thread between the studies to highlight, such as a common technical approach. Bridging fields can be good, but having vastly different fields will make it tough to compete for R01 grant with people who have spent the majority of their time on one thing in one field.

Bottom line?

Show how you can fit in with the department and work well as a member of the team. Having a good attitude can be the difference between those who get the job and those who don’t, regardless of your science.

September 2012 Table of Contents