Getting a fancy TT job without big money – it can happen!?

The results are in, and I’ve had way too much fun drawing scientific-type conclusions from my non-scientific and poorly-designed survey. Based on the propaganda with which I had been littered prior to this survey, the data from yesterday’s poll are somewhat surprising, indicating you CAN get a tenure-track faculty position at a top-tier institution without big bucks already in your back pocket. The survey questions and results:

Question #1. Do you know anyone who has secured a TT faculty position at a top-tier research institution without R01 funding in the past 5 years?

The vast majority (~83%, based on 69 votes) of people who came across my blog yesterday know somebody who got a tenure-track position at a top-tier institution without first securing an R01. Good to know. But just how many of these lucky souls are there? One? A couple? Which leads us to…

Question #2. If you work at a top-tier research institution, how many junior scientists have been hired onto the tenure track without R01 funding in the past 5 years?

Wow, well more than half of you who work at top-tier institutions have witnessed 3 or more faculty hires lacking R01 funding in the past 5 years. I didn’t specify if these hires were all in the same department or institution-wide, and it’s possible that all 42 voters in this poll work at the same one or two institutions. I’m still impressed, but exactly what field do you guys work in? Ahem…

Question #3. Those who have seen junior scientists hired without substantial funding in the past 5 years, what field are you in?

Okay, an overwhelming number of yesterday’s respondents to Q#2 are in biomedical sciences, so it’s likely the majority of this anecdata is based on medical or other professional-type research institutions. Sooooo… it turns out you can get a TT position at a top-tier biomed institution without money, right? But wait just a minute – late breaking data throws a bit of a wrench into this idea. Anon asked what the data would look like if we removed those pesky K grant recipients from the mix. I simply had to oblige with two additional questions:

Question #4. Do you know anyone who has secured a TT faculty position at a top-tier research institution without ANY funding in the past 5 years?

Okay, so quite a different story than if you ask the question about R01 funding, but not terrible news for the unfunded. Just over half of the respondents know somebody who has secured a TT faculty position without any money. And how many of these hires have there been?

Question #5. If you work at a top-tier research institution, how many junior scientists have been hired onto the tenure track without ANY funding in the past 5 years?

Again, these data are a little less hopeful for those without any funding. Only a third of the respondents at top-tier institutions have seen more than one person hired without funding. The data are also highly stacked at either end of the spectrum, with two thirds hiring 1 or no faculty without money, and another third hiring more than three. This data is indicative of a long-held theory of mine: that the culture of a department/institution – one that takes pride in supporting and mentoring young faculty versus one that’s more interested in maintaining the most highly productive scientists they can – largely determines the candidate pools they’re willing to consider.

Of course, these last two polls have a much smaller sample size, so the significance of the data is not as tight as for the first three questions. But these data do indicate, as one might expect, that having funding, even in the form of a K grant, gives you a pretty big boost when trying to secure a TT faculty position (well duh, right?). CPP indicates this bias is due to the fact that clinically-focused departments have less hard money than basic science departments to spend on start-up packages, and therefore depend on researchers with funding. I’d like to add that the basic science department I currently work in, at a medical school, has very little hard money to support their basic research faculty. This may explain the perceived bias that *all* medical schools focus their faculty searches on individuals with funding. But the data and comments from yesterday suggest there are still plenty of big-time institutions willing to support younger scientists.

I know many scientists who have secured TT spots at smaller institutions with and without funding, and they are VERY happy, well-supported, and likely to produce a lot of good science throughout their career. I also know a couple of individuals who have made it over the med school hurdle without any funding, and they don’t appear to be the exception to the rule. Bottom line – the biomed hiring climate is tough, but remains open to mentoring up wee junior profs, if you’re interested in fighting your way in.

So where do we go with this data? It would certainly behoove any tenure-track-bound postdocs out there to do their best to acquire some sort of funding, but also don’t feel like you have to get the big R01 bucks to grab the prize. Go for K grants if you’re still eligible, and pay attention to some of the smaller foundations that fund research in your field. As for me, I’ll keep this data in mind the next time I hear a colleague complaining about the fact that tenure-track faculty positions at large biomed institutions are only available to fat tenured cats. And who knows? I may even provide a little evidence to the contrary myself…someday.


8 thoughts on “Getting a fancy TT job without big money – it can happen!?

  1. We have a job search for an assistant tenure track position in my dept (top 20 med school). I am on the search committee. We are not hiring anyone without a major career development award (K01, K08, K99, Burroughs, Pew, Searle, CCFA, etc.).

    In fact, assistant profs are being fired 4-5 years after starting if they can’t get their R01.

  2. In this funding climate, that is just downright disturbing. Other than having a huge pool of applicants to choose from, I can’t help but feel that the depth of the dpt would eventually be lacking.

    Feeling really happy at my less prestigious, but still kickass institution.

  3. @Physician scientist – I’ve heard the same horror stories, but I’ve also heard the opposite. What I take from these anecdotes is that what search committees, and by extension depts, are looking for varies greatly.

    I’ve also seen some institutions (even top med schools) begin to shift their expectation away from grant funding (somewhat – $$$ still drives the lab), and I’m hoping that will translate toward my job search (purely for selfish reasons). In my limited contact with Dept chairs this is also beginning to translate to TT decisions, but the jury is still out.

    Bottom line – it seems critically important when interviewing to figure out what their metric of success is, and to make damn sure you measure up.

  4. Dr. O – This is good news to me. I’m starting my first round of TT applications right now, but it’s hard not to feel a little uncertain about my job prospects. I’m currently on an NRSA and going for a K99, but nothing is guaranteed. My current job search is more of a plan B in case the K99 isn’t funded, but It’s good to know that I’m not totally wasting my time and may actually be hired “as is.”

  5. It’s stories like these that are chasing a lot of great scientists out of academia. I have no doubt that this kind of stuff is going on out there, but I don’t believe it happens everywhere. And it’s certainly not good for morale of the department, building a strong research program, or training of future scientists, IMVHO.

  6. Dr. Dad, I bet you’ll be in good shape. There were plenty of places interested in me before I found out about my K award, and I think I would have (eventually) found something really great without it. Keep in mind, too, that the places enacting these types of *money only* policies are usually pretty intense institutions, and may not be ideal for junior faculty. I’ve know plenty of well-funded, great scientists at smaller institutions – they’re generally the ones at meetings with smiles on their faces. 🙂

  7. This is a culture issue. In some places, the dept. works hard to make sure that the junior faculty they hire will be successful. In other places, assistant professors are a dime a dozen. There are some places where more than 1 asst prof will be hired for one tenure line. In these places you are given a little bit of lab space and expected to find a way to win (of course, more lose than win). Just know what culture you are entering before you start. The only thing you can do is try to know what the expectations are.

  8. Pingback: Some final thoughts on grants, big-wig universities, and competition « The Tightrope

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