Negotiate your start-up package and apply for grants early.
Transitioning from postdoc to faculty is never an easy step, which is made no easier by the severe competition for funding. Kim McCall chose to set up her postdoc lab based on what would be “hot” when she was looking for a postdoctoral job. “But I also looked for a research topic that I thought would be NIH-fundable,” she says. Most importantly however, McCall looked for something that she was passionate about: “when you start your own lab this is what you’ll be doing so it’s important to choose a topic that you will continue to be excited about.”
Once you know what your research focus is and where the money might come from, you’ll need to negotiate your start-up package: the funding that the institution offers you to get you up-and-running (buying equipment, materials, pay postdocs, etc) for the first 2-3 years. This money is finite, and the institutions will expect you to find your own financial resources as soon as possible. Many advise to submit your grant proposals as early as possible after you’ve transitioned from postdoc to faculty. This way you can still use your postdoctoral work (if it was significantly independent work) as your preliminary results.
The start-up package values differ between the US and the UK. In the US, the start-up package ranges from anywhere between US$500,000 to US$1million. In the UK, it’s more like £50,000 (approximately US$75,000). For those moving from the USA to the UK to set up a lab, this can come as quite a shock. Another difference is how this money is spent. In the US, new PIs will have to organise everything themselves: buying equipment, managing equipment, maintenance etc. In the UK, there is some room for manoeuvre here: you can negotiate with your host institution that they might cover some of the costs. Which comes as a nice suprise as you haven’t got as much money in the bank. “But wherever you are, you will need to apply for grants as soon as possible,” says Stephen Goodwin, associate professor of biomedical science at Oxford University. All funding bodies will have dedicated funds put aside for new faculty.
As this start-up package is limited, it’s crucial that new PIs manage their budgets wisely. Here are a few things you can do to help see you through:
Your lab: Arrive early so that you can work out what you’ve got. Find out your square footage and how much desk space you’re going to need. Work out how much of the space will be communal and where the desks will go. Does it need renovations?
Scout for equipment: See how other labs in your field are equipped. Speak to colleagues and collaborators to find out who the best vendors are. Get quotes from multiple sources. Establish relationships with critical vendors.
Negotiate: Calculate how much money you are going to need and get any quotes you can for equipment. Get your institution to cover your salary and lab renovations (if needed). Get all promises in writing.
Teaching: Keep it to a minimum. You’re already going to have a lot on your plate.
Staff: Do you need postdocs, graduate students or undergraduate students? Start recruiting as soon as possible.
When it comes to getting your own funding, there are many schemes across the world and in all disciplines that can help. The R01 grants from the NIH or the European Research Council for start-up grants in Europe can be a good place to start looking. Unfortunately, the success rate of getting a research grant like this isn’t high (17% for the NIH in 2013), so to make things a little easier, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Simons Foundation have recently launched a new Faculty Scholars Program for early career researchers. A total of US$148million will be invested by the philanthropies for the first five years of the programme, to be divvied between 70 grants every 2.5 years. You have until July 28th 2015 at 3pm EDT to apply. You are only eligible if you have a minimum of four years of research experience, but no more than 10.
But Gregory Petsko, professor of neuroscience at the Weill Cornell Medical College and Chair of the National Academies’ report on the postdoctoral experience, believes that getting funding to set up your lab is relatively easy compared to renewing it. “When you’re trying to get that grant renewed, or get that second grant, the one that turns a research project into a complete research programme,” he says. “That’s where we lose people and the biggest levels of anxiety arise. That’s where the fear of not being able to get that shapes the culture for the junior faculty.”
So if this academic track doesn’t sound appealing, there are alternative options. Ethan Perlstein’s last postdoc ended in 2012. At the time, he had an opportunity to work on a crowdfunding project for a lab in Columbia, USA. “I was the campaign manager for a collaborative project that was looking for US$25000,” he says. “That was how I got my first taste of non-traditional funding.” Instead of applying for grants to set up his own laboratory once his role at Columbia ended, Perlstein decided to look for investors. Using Twitter as his main networking tool, he discovered a research field that could work in a commercial setting: rare diseases. “I met rare disease community advocates and learnt about their stories and needs. I found that there was a scientific match between my interest in the model organisms and their needs.” So Perlstein and his business partner (and brother) found investors to back their research plans. The investor profiles included those who had a personal stake in rare diseases. “For example, one of the investors has a daughter with a rare disease that we were studying,” says Perlstein.
Working outside of academia is of course an option as well. This is something that we will explore in the next part of this series.
From speaking to more researchers than I could fit into a blog post, it seems that getting funding, whatever sector you’re in, is going to be tough. And it only gets tougher the further up the academic career ladder you go. But if you’re creative, can show independence and have a good publication record behind you, you’ve already got one foot in the door.
If you’ve only just come across our Postdoc series, you can catch up on all the other posts here: