Volume 85 Issue 36 | pp. 62-64 | Career Tools
Issue Date: September 3, 2007

Fellows Are An Independent Lot

Non-tenure-track research positions offer alternative career paths
Department: Education
Shaw Team
Shaw (far right) and his team at the Broad Institute. Shaw recently moved on to join the faculty at UC Davis.
Credit: Ralph Mazitschek
Shaw Team
Shaw (far right) and his team at the Broad Institute. Shaw recently moved on to join the faculty at UC Davis.
Credit: Ralph Mazitschek
Rau Group
Rau (seated and in striped shirt) and part of his team at NCBS.
Credit: NCBS
Rau Group
Rau (seated and in striped shirt) and part of his team at NCBS.
Credit: NCBS

Academic researchers generally get their jobs by earning a doctorate in their field, perhaps serving as a postdoctoral associate for a senior investigator, and then applying for a tenure-track position at a college or university. For some time now, however, a select group of young scientists have been taking a different path. After earning a Ph.D. or completing a postdoc, they have become independent research fellows.

Independent fellowships are not well-known in chemistry. But for some young scientists, they provide a quick route to research independence and are considered excellent launching pads for future tenure-track academic careers.

Independent fellowships are non-tenure-track faculty-like positions that give young researchers the ability to run their own labs, manage a small group of grad students and postdocs, and carry out their own research agendas. The fellowships are better known and more common in biology than in chemistry.

An advantage of fellowships is that they give young investigators a chance to carry out independent research as soon as possible, at an exceptionally creative and productive point in their careers. Fellowships can also serve as way stations, giving young researchers who have failed to obtain a tenure-track academic appointment an opportunity to reapply later.

Sometimes fellows go on to accept tenure-track faculty positions at their fellowship institutions, but in most cases they accept appointments at other academic institutions and in industry.

Independent fellowships demonstrate that "productive research and rewarding career experiences can exist outside of a tenure-track position," says chemist Jared Shaw of the University of California, Davis. Shaw used an independent fellowship at Harvard University/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Broad Institute as a stepping stone to his academic position at UC Davis, where he just started working this semester. Previous Broad Institute chemistry fellows have moved on to take positions in academia, as Shaw did, and in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

Independent fellowships are not new. For example, chemistry professor Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University was a Harvard fellow in the early 1960s, when he worked with Robert B. Woodward to formulate the Woodward-Hoffmann rules—research that provided a basis for Hoffmann's shared 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for theories "concerning the course of chemical reactions."

Hoffmann says that in his Harvard fellowship he "had absolute freedom for three years, not working with anyone, but on my own, with a salary not different from that of an assistant professor." Harvard's independent fellows are formally called Junior Fellows and are members of Harvard's Society of Fellows. The university's fellowship program "goes back to the 1930s," Hoffmann says. Woodward himself was a Harvard Junior Fellow—as was Harvard chemistry professor Dudley R. Herschbach and other notables in scientific and nonscientific fields.

Independent fellowship-type programs are found at places like Burnham Institute for Medical Research, La Jolla, Calif., and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Peter S. Kim, president of Merck Research Laboratories, is among those who have served as fellows at Whitehead Institute.

At Janelia Farm, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's new research campus in Ashburn, Va., there are currently eight independent fellows, and the institute plans to appoint perhaps a dozen more. "We envision they will come from a wide variety of backgrounds, such as chemistry, physics, engineering, and neuroscience," says HHMI Associate Director of Communications James E. Keeley Jr.

Shaw says he accepted a fellowship at the Broad Institute because he "had completed a postdoc and wanted to stay in research. My wife, who was three years behind me, was starting her postdoc. So a temporary position, where I was doing independent research for a period of time, worked perfectly for me."

Shaw's fellowship was initially funded entirely by the institute, but he later got grant support as well. For example, when he and several colleagues applied for and obtained a shared National Institutes of Health Chemical Methodologies & Library Development grant, that "became one of my main funding sources," Shaw says.

One frustration of independent fellowships, however, is that "many grants are only available to tenure-track faculty members," Shaw says. He hopes that that practice will change in the future, especially if independent fellowships become more common.

Independent fellowship programs are also found at non-U.S. institutions, such as the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), in Bangalore, India. Kaustubh Rau, who specializes in biological responses to mechanical forces, including laser damage to cells and tissues, is one of several independent fellows at NCBS. Major goals of the center's fellowship program are "getting young people on a research track as quickly and with as few hassles as possible and seeding new areas of biological research by attracting people with diverse backgrounds," Rau says. The fellowships also enable the center to fund risky projects without committing long-term resources to them, he notes.

At NCBS, each fellow "has an appointed mentor they can interact with, but the scientific questions they can study are completely their own," Rau explains. A review committee consisting of the center's director, an academic dean, and the fellow's mentor "oversees progress on a yearly basis and offers criticisms, comments, and suggestions," he says.

Fellows are free to accept grad students and postdocs into their groups, and "teaching responsibilities are minimal to nil," Rau says. "Research is funded by NCBS through a start-up grant that allows you to set up your lab," he adds, and fellows are given funds for consumables each succeeding year. They are also welcome to apply for grants to supplement their funding. Rau's group is currently funded in part by a Fogarty International Research Collaboration Award from NIH.

Looking toward his future, Rau says, "One can imagine that having been a fellow at NCBS, a prestigious research institute in India, your job prospects are enhanced."

Shaw believes his job prospects were also enhanced by his Broad Institute fellowship. "The fellows program gave me a tremendous opportunity to gain experience as an independent investigator while learning about new aspects of my field in the area of chemical biology," he says.

"I was able to get a head start on new independent projects, grant writing, and working with academic collaborators in other fields, which are all areas that present big challenges to new investigators," he adds. "The opportunity to work in this environment without also having to juggle committee obligations, teaching, and all of the other responsibilities of a tenure-track position was a perfect fit for my career trajectory."

As a result, "I have been able to hit the ground running at my current position at UC Davis," Shaw says—which just goes to show that the road not often taken can often be the road best taken.


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