Early-Career Psychology

In January, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a new grant program called the "Pathway to Independence" award. The $400 million program will provide five years of funding for 150 to 200 promising new postdoctoral researchers each year. The goal is to help the young scientists begin independent research careers.

The program stems from concern among NIH officials that young researchers might be having trouble competing with established researchers for limited funding, according to NIH Deputy Director for External Research Norka Ruiz Bravo, PhD. "The worry [is] that when the budget is tight, the new investigators will have a difficult time breaking into the field," she says.

Indeed, many researchers find applying for their first independent research grant a daunting task. "It scares people because grant applications can be long and complicated, but also because they worry they'll be judged against more senior researchers," says Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and co-author of the early-career guide The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology (Springer, 2005).

New researchers can get over that hurdle, he says, by taking advantage of the many opportunities offered to them by funders like NIH, individual universities and groups such as APA.

Prinstein and others offer advice to put new researchers on the path to research independence.

Start small

Psychologist David DiLillo, PhD, studies the long-term effects of child abuse and neglect. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Missouri in the late 1990s, he studied the links between people's history of childhood abuse and their later marital relationships.

DiLillo began by applying for two grants offered by the university's research office. Neither grant was large by the standards of a major study--each provided about $10,000--but together they gave him enough money to collect promising pilot data. Such funds, often doled out by university research offices, can be an excellent resource for new researchers who aren't ready to apply for larger grants from agencies like NIH, says DiLillo, who is now a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The university grants can be less competitive, he says, and some may even be held for young researchers.

"A lot of times funds like these are specifically earmarked for junior faculty because they want to help people jumpstart their research programs," DiLillo says. "They're investing in you."

APA divisions and other organizations that focus on specific research interests can also provide seed money for collecting pilot data, says Prinstein. For example, APA's Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging) offers a $1,500 postdoctoral research grant each year, and Div. 53 (Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology) offers $5,000 to one postdoctoral researcher each year. (See the box below for suggestions on where to find these grants.)

Think big

With pilot data and other preparation in hand, it's time to start thinking of going after bigger research grants, says DiLillo. There are several programs that can ease the way for new researchers taking this next step.

DiLillo's first big grant, for example, was a K award: a five-year research award from NIH that can provide up to $50,000 per year for project expenses. There are severaldifferent types of K awards, and DiLillo's--from the National Institute of Mental Health--was a K01, which is a mentored grant aimed at new researchers. DiLillo is working with four mentors, each of whom provides feedback and expertise in a different area of his project, including content and statistical analysis.

Prinstein took a slightly different route. His first major grant was an R01 research grant from NIH. R01 grants are the standard NIH grants that most researchers--including more experienced ones--apply for. However, Prinstein tapped a program that allows scientists to designate themselves "new investigators" on the grant application.

"Then when we're considering the grant, we can adjust our expectations for the amount of previous publications and such," Ruiz Bravo says.

And, of course, there is the new NIH Pathway to Independence program. These grants will provide postdoctoral researchers up to $90,000 for an initial two years of mentored research. Then, after the researchers find assistant professorships or equivalent jobs, the grants will provide up to $250,000 for three more years of research.

"We expect that they won't have trouble finding those jobs, because in effect they'll be coming in with a dowry," says Ruiz Bravo.

The program's ultimate goal, according to Ruiz Bravo, is to develop the next generation of researchers who will be well prepared to apply for future grants.

Prinstein agrees that taking advantage of opportunities likeK awards and other early-career development grants can kick-start a new researcher's career:

"Obtaining an NIH grant early in one's career serves as a record of the quality of one's research," he says. "Getting a foot in the door early on is good for that reason."

Further Reading

Get a jump on grants

For more information on early-career and career-development grants, see: