Archive for: February, 2013

K99 eligibility limited to 4 years and you better not be out on the job market

Somehow, the changes announced in this Notice are supposed to help postdocs make a "more timely" transition to independence.

I think the main problem will be that reviewers are already largely biased with the mindset that a certain publication profile is necessary to make someone competitive. Meaning a certain number of papers in a certain "level" of journal. In order for the timing of this process to work, postdocs will need to start applying for the K99 in about year 2, by which time it is very unlikely that anyone but the ultra super productive (which is often aided by the good fortune of having a PI who lets you choose quick-to-paper projects over those that they might WANT you to be working on), or those in big-name labs, will have such a profile. Since reviewers won't have as lengthy of a publication record to go by, they will almost surely fall into the habit they do for every other kind of NIH grant and go instead on other aspects of the CV (and the CV of the mentor), further pushing this towards a "glamour" award. The "rich get richer" situation will be exacerbated, in contrast to what I have always seen as an advantage of the K99 award (that even the not as "fancy"--like myself in a lot of ways, lol--can have a fighting chance).

Also, year 2 is when a lot of people become most competitive for the F32, so it might become a choice between F32 or K99, which seems kind of stupid. Is F32 going to end up as some kind of consolation prize for not being fancy enough for a K99?

Not only that, but this will disproportionately disadvantage women (and men who are primary or co-primary caregivers) who have children during their postdoc years. So far, the longest extension on K99 eligibility that I have heard of anyone getting for family leave is the actual number of weeks/months they were out on parental leave. Anyone who has had a kid knows that the effect on your productivity goes FAR beyond those few weeks/months. If they want to avoid this kind of bias, they will need to get real about extension times--people should get at least a year per kid, just like in the tenure clock stoppage situation.

Lastly, I think it is paternalistic and invasive for Program to be making judgements about someone's need for a K99 award and readiness for the tenure track based on their job application timelines. A large proportion of postdocs go out on the job market before they are truly ready because their PI won't or can't pay them anymore. Making that the postdoc's FAULT by now also telling them they are no longer eligible for one of the best options to win their independence from that PI is just gross and unhelpful. This treats postdocs like they are little kids who say they want dessert now even though they didn't eat their vegetables: "Well then, you must not need any dessert because you must not be hungry." Well, guess what: your reviewers are scoring highest the people who already look ready for an independent position. So you're going to have to figure out how to get them to change their mindsets--something that so far, nobody has figured out how to do very effectively. How is that going to be reconciled with the new rule that:

"Individuals who are close to achieving an independent faculty position, and cannot make a strong case for needing a minimum of 12 months of additional mentored training, are not ideal candidates for this award"?

I wonder if they have even thought about this. I also wonder if these changes are based on any actual metrics about applicants and awardees, or just some vague, poorly thought-out knee jerk idea to make postdoc-hood shorter. If you can show me Jeremy Berg-style data demonstrating that there will be some benefit to candidates, fine--but it just doesn't look like this is going to be a good thing.

25 responses so far

Why academia is still hemorrhaging women in this day and age

Feb 09 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

I just read a comment from an anonymous person on this post at Academic Jungle:

"This post really hit home for me. I am an early career PI (3 yrs in) at a soft money institution and am currently facing the (very real) prospect of having to close my lab, due to a combination of a major institutional financial crisis and the horrific federal funding situation. I have a young (<1 yr) baby and work 90 min from home. I rent a small apt in the town where I work and during the week I am a single parent to my daughter so deal with absolutely everything related to her needs, daycare, doctors, etc etc. I also manage our "real" household and do all the finances and other boring organizational crap. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to salvage my career, get papers out, apply for jobs elsewhere, write as many grants as possible, try not to drop the ball for people in my lab. Husband is also working very hard and is sensitive to any criticism that he's not doing his part because he feels like working hard is what he can do to provide for our daughter's future. What's happening though is that his career is doing OK while mine is collapsing. I have the academic pedigree but now I'm getting the lack of productivity critiques...gee...I wonder why that might be considering birth and 3 mo of maternity leave. No body cares why the papers haven't come out, just that they haven't. I absolutely feel like I've failed to live up to both what I expected and what other people expected of me."

This--this is why it's such a struggle to keep women in the leadership ranks of academia. This is very similar to my experience in many ways, although my husband made a career change recently, so that he could move to the town where I work and was living with our daughter, to make this easier for me. These situations are the practical reality for many women at assistant professor age, and disproportionately, the women end up taking the career hit because of so many social pressures (direct, indirect, conscious, unconscious, from spouse, from family, from friends, from wider culture) while colleagues look on disappointedly as if they can't do anything about it.

Well, we as colleagues CAN do something about it. We can actively work on changing our mindset about what "counts" as productivity in a given amount of time based on extenuating factors. We can start putting our attitude money where our policy mouths are regarding flexibility in the tenure clock--get out of the rut of thinking that the productivity allowance ONLY counts at the year you're supposed to come up for tenure, and actively recognize that it is a continuous process of a slower rate (driven by the higher activation energy of producing without the catalyst of an "easy" lifestyle with either no family involved or a spouse who organizes it all). It's going to take all of us (including BOTH the oldsters AND youngsters) changing our perceptions, dialogue and defensive reactions when challenged about it.

The current model of how academic performance is evaluated is a construct of what our own internal culture has decided is important, and it is based on a system that grew out of the old Victorian model of the footloose and fancy-free affluent young man trying to "make his way in the world" by spending years and years at the university putzing around. The values of that system were defined by that dude's ability to live and breathe the lab, the pub, and his smoking lounge. Let's get over it, wake up to our different culture, and work on adjusting the way we measure success to take a whole picture into account.

WE (us all scientists and faculty) are the only ones who can start this, and it's our responsibility to change the way we think.

11 responses so far