“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”
Much has been made of the impact of declining funding on early-career researchers, as demonstrated in Daniels and Rothman’s recent Wall Street Journal article, How to Reverse the Graying of Scientific Research, and the letters received in response to the piece. As I mentioned in last week’s posts, In Case You Missed It: NIH Amends Resubmission Policy and Changes to Biographical Sketches for All Federal Agencies’ Funding Applications, there are some interesting recent changes in the research funding arena that can benefit the strategic early-career researcher.
In order to strategically leverage these changes and develop a competitive proposal, new researchers first need to know what they don’t know. The art of the gap analysis and its importance in strategy is often not explored in the grantsmanship context, but it should be. This lack (of gap analysis or formation of strategy) often is the case simply because the whole iterative process of developing a research program and research funding is a step-wise process that can appear a bit overwhelming from the perspective of someone new to the process.
When asked to speak to a group of early-career faculty recently, I asked what I should discuss. “How to start,” was the answer. The group had had no formal mentoring, and many had not had informal mentoring to any degree, either. I can attest that I benefited greatly from the insightful guidance and expertise of my mentor, Dr. Max Nickerson. As the beneficiary of such wonderful mentoring, I am always curious as to how new researchers function without this valuable guidance, but I find this lack of mentorship is increasingly common. Without this mentoring, many early-career researchers simply do not know which string to pull first to begin to unwind the concepts of beginning and developing a research program and the requisite pursuit of funding to support a research program.
While grantsmanship is a skill that can be developed independent of a mentor, if necessary, there is no doubt that scientists, from students to early-career faculty, gain from mentorship. Traditionally, funding for mentorship in biomedical research training has been in the form of NIH K, F, and T awards. Last week, Dr. Sally Rockey, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the NIH, blogged about the importance of mentorship in the biomedical workforce. She outlined some NIH programs designed to foster mentorship, including:
- NIH’s intramural research program—provides experience and mentoring to a wide range of emerging researchers, from high school students to post-docs and fellows
- Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST)—focuses on career-path exploration for graduate students and post-docs
- National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN)—provides access to mentorship for scientists from undergraduate level through to early-career faculty in order to promote diversity in the biomedical workforce
- NIGMS’s Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training (IPERT)—facilitates mentorship for the range of emerging scientists from undergraduate students through early-career faculty (NIH centers and institutes like NIGMS have developed their own mentorship programs, of which this is just one example)
In a resource-scarce environment, there are no obvious opportunities for easy success, and profits are made at the margins, often in small increments. Likewise, in an environment of shrinking research and institutional funding, it increasingly becomes incumbent on the individual to investigate and stretch for the available opportunities for career development. Those who wait for opportunities to land at their feet will quickly find themselves left behind.