How institutions can better support their postdoc fellows
Competition for fellowships can be fierce, but experiences will vary.
2 February 2022
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Because they usually offer recipients greater freedom than salaried postdoctoral positions, independent postdoctoral fellowships are often prestigious and highly sought-after. But there can be significant drawbacks, depending how host institutions administer and support them.
Such fellowships, usually lasting two to five years, are mostly funded by non-profit foundations, research institutions and universities, either fully, or through a co-funding model. Such institutions can also host the recipients.
Compared with salaried postdoc positions, the choice of research project is less likely to be tied to the grants of supervisors at the host institutions. Independent postdoc fellows typically also receive more generous stipends, with additional travel and relocation allowances, and a small research grant for buying consumables and hiring lab staff.
As a result of these benefits, competition for independent postdoc fellowships is often fierce. Horizon Europe’s flagship Marie Curie fellowship, for example, has a success rate of just 15%. Only 7 to 10 applicants are selected from hundreds each year as Branco Weiss Society in Science Fellows, an award administered by the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
To date, independent postdoc fellowships have been mostly offered by institutions in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom, but countries in Asia and Africa are increasingly using these schemes to attract talent.
The success of independent postdoc fellowships can depend on the host institutions. Problems can arise, for example, when an institution is not familiar with a particular fellowship scheme, possibly resulting in delays to payments.
Cara Brook, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, who studies zoonotic bat viruses, had an independent postdoctoral Miller Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) from 2017 to 2020. She transitioned to a Branco Weiss Fellowship in September 2020, which allowed her to continue her research at UC Berkeley.
Brook says there were disparities in the way her different fellowships were administered by the university. “As the Miller Institute had an internal administration system that was used by other Miller fellows, it was easy to access funds,” she says.
“It became more difficult when I transitioned to the Branco Weiss Fellowship two months before my start date, because UC Berkeley was less familiar with that fellowship and its stipulations, and the transition happened in the pandemic summer of 2020, which heightened difficulties in getting administrative approvals. It took several months to clear the paperwork, and my first payment was late as a result of delays in the grant approval process.”
Brook says it would be helpful if fellowship agencies sent their award letters out at least four months in advance of a fellow’s start date to allow ample time for the administrative paperwork.
Having access to research grants is important for fellows to establish independence early in their careers, allowing them to pursue innovative concepts and ideas that are not tied to senior colleagues. Grants can also help researchers to develop the leadership skills needed to build their research projects from scratch.
However, fellows can be surprised to learn they may not be eligible for internal grant funding at their host institution, says Thomas Macdonald, who was awarded an 1851 Royal Commission Research Fellowship at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom to develop nanomaterials for solar cells.
As Macdonald is not considered a permanent member of staff at the institution, he is not eligible to apply for most research grants.
“As fellows, we are doing our best to bring money in for our research, and restrictive policies or limitations on internal eligibility is holding us back,” he says.
Thuan Beng Saw, a recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National University of Singapore, agrees. “Institutions can enhance our experience by giving us the opportunity to participate in research committees/collaborative grants,” he says. “I believe this will give capable young scientists more visibility and make the host country more attractive for budding research talents.”
Mentorship an important factor
The degree of institutional mentorship for independent postdoc fellows differs depending on the host institution and type of fellowship.
Whereas Macdonald says his institution is providing him with excellent support network and mentorship, Kenya-based epidemiology and public health researcher, Emelda Okiro, relied more on self-sourced mentorship from senior colleagues at the institute where her fellowship was based, the Kenya Medical Research Institute. These senior staff supported her by reviewing her application documents and discussing research projects during her fellowship years.
Okiro was awarded a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Training Fellowship for 2009 to 2011 at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya, which is a partnership between the Kenya Medical Research Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the University of Oxford.
In 2016, she became a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellow at the same institute. This fellowship supported her transition from a postdoc researcher to her current role as principal investigator, through which she studies inequalities in child survival and healthcare access in Africa.
Okiro says mentorship by a direct supervisor, as well as by other institutional members, is important to enhance the experience of postdoc fellows who are transiting from being PhD students to a semi-independent position.
“The challenge is that not everyone has this kind of support, as it is not yet built into the system,” she says. “Right now, mentorship seems to be decentralised without clear institutional policies.”