iJobs Virtual Career Panel: Careers at the NIH

By: Gina Sanchez

Pursuing a job opportunity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can appear ambitious, especially as competition for federal funding and resources increases every year. In this iJOBS virtual career panel, iJOBS trainees were able to meet with four current NIH employees to discuss various career opportunities at the NIH, how to effectively apply for these jobs, and overall biomedical science career advice.

Aerial view of the NIH

Dr. Leia Novak is a program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH. Prior to this, she had received her PhD from Rutgers University and originally did not wish to pursue post-doctoral work. However, during her research into potential jobs, she came to realize that in both academic and non-academic careers, a post doc is required for you to be a competitive applicant. Therefore, she decided to complete her first post doc with the NIH at the National Cancer Institute and her second at the Federal Drug Administration. Dr. Novak eventually became a Program Manager for the NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute focusing on HIV/AIDS. In this position, she developed funding opportunity announcements while leading a team that prioritized and recommended grants for funding. Additionally, she analyzed portfolios, attended conferences, and coordinated seminars/workshops to raise awareness in HIV-related research. Currently as an NIH program officer, Dr. Novak is highly involved in grant-related activities including managing and attending grant review meetings, presenting grant applications, and developing funding opportunity announcements.

NIH panelist Dr. Caroline Pantazis is a scientific project manager at the NIH within the Center for Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias. In her role, she “manages large, multi-laboratory projects . . . to develop therapeutic strategies.” Like Dr. Novak, Dr. Pantazis also earned her PhD from Rutgers and knew that she was ready to leave the bench. During her post-doctoral work, she realized that she wanted to play a more supportive role in research. Dr. Pantazis is a contracted employee hired through a third-party agency. She noted that becoming a contracted employee in the NIH is a faster process than applying directly but provides less job security than a regular full-time employee.

            Dr. Ashlee Van’t Veer is a Director in the Office of Research Training and Career Development in the Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science at the NIH. She told us that in her role, she “supports research training at the pre-doctoral, post-doctoral, and early-stage investigator levels to ensure that . . . highly-trained research investigators will be able to address basic research questions.” She believes that regardless of your intended path, a post doc is beneficial. In her division, program officers work with grantees prior to and upon submission, as well as during resubmission seeing as they monitor the award progress. They also make funding recommendations. Program officers can additionally foster initiatives that they develop, drawing attention to specific niches. As Dr. Novak mentioned, program officers here also plan meetings and workshops to bring the community and experts together. While doing all of this, they maintain their own scientific expertise by staying abreast of active research in the field by reading grants and papers as well as attending meetings.

Dr. Hugo Tejeda is a Stadtman Investigator in the Unit on Neuromodulation and Synaptic Integration at the National Institute of Mental Health within the NIH. Similar to a PI in an academic institute, he helps trainees develop their careers. However, Dr. Tejeda does not do formal lecturing. He did note that many people in his role at the NIH have adjunct teaching roles at nearby universities, so formal lecturing is still an option. He also advised that graduate students start looking for a potential post doc mentor approximately 1.5-2 years from completing their PhD. The sooner you start communicating with mentors, the more likely they are to remember and potentially hire you.

Dr. Van’t Veer made an important point: the responsibilities for the same title vary between programs within the NIH.

During the Q&A session, attendees had many questions for the panelists. One of the first questions was regarding the potential to develop skills that would facilitate a smooth transition to the NIH. Dr. Novak discussed that there are many opportunities at the NIH to develop skills, including the ability to shadow someone in your position of interest. Dr. Tejeda also shared with attendees that desirable skillsets go beyond benchwork to include interpersonal communication, effective time management, organization, and critical problem solving. Dr. Pantazis also stressed the importance of developing communication skills regardless of your intended career path in science. It is critical, even outside of academia, to foster various communication skills – written, oral, or anywhere between. There are many opportunities for this at Rutgers that we should be taking advantage of such as elective classes, writing for the iJOBS blog, or joining Science Policy and Advocacy Rutgers (SPAR).

The application process was also a common theme throughout the event. Dr. Van’t Veer told attendees that she had applied for a position different from the one she had interviewed for. Essentially, anyone that is hiring within the NIH can look at applications once the applicant has passed through HR . She noted that for a program director position, a post doc may not suffice, and that R01-level funding may also be needed. Dr. Van’t Veer recommended doing informational interviews when you still have sufficient time left in your current position, as this will lower the stakes and prevent it from becoming a job interview. She explained that it is hard to know what happens in a position without doing it, which is why informational interviews are very helpful tools. As for the job interview itself, Dr. Novak emphasized that we should not be shy! We need to interview the interviewer as much as they need to interview us. It is essential to ask your questions, but also to talk to other lab members – current and past. This is how you will gain a more honest insight into the lab as well as where you can go after it. A tool that she advised using is NIH Reporter, which allows you to see what kind of funding the lab currently has. Finally, she advised looking into the publication record of your potential PI to ensure that you will be able to successfully progress through your career.

The panel concluded with a series of comparisons between a research job at the NIH vs academia. In terms of getting a post doc position, Dr. Pantazis told us that the process was very similar between each environment: reach out to a potential mentor and demonstrate that you have done solid and productive work in graduate school. Dr. Novak noted that the PIs do not apply for grants at the NIH. They are restricted to the number of students, post docs, etc., that they can have based on the total sum of funds that they are allocated, which is why it’s good to reach out early. Dr. Tejeda also spoke about his role as a PI at the NIH. He explained that the main source of tenure-track positions at the NIH come from Stadtman or Lasker applicants. For Stadtman, basic scientists across biological disciplines apply and meet with various NIH institutes. During this meeting, individuals and NIH institutions go through a match process where both parties rank each other. Once a list of finalists is generated, anyone on that list can be hired by the NIH institutes. Lasker applicants have a process more similar to academia. Here, applicants generate a statement of research of their vision for their independent program, their vision for teaching, how do they see themselves integrating into the NIH, and why their research belongs in the NIH. While research at the NIH is similar to academia, there are some differences that must be kept in mind.

Before ending, Dr. Van’t Veer and Dr. Novak wanted to make sure that we connect with our program officers! Talk to them when you have ideas at any point during the grant process. They are involved in the application and overall funding process, so use them to your advantage.

Overall, there are many types of jobs at the NIH to consider. It is a prestigious workplace with many opportunities to take advantage of.

This article was edited by Junior Editor Zachary Fritz and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.

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