You can connect postbacs to research opportunities in biology!


It’s hard to be a newly graduated student who is trying to get into grad school. Some advisors don’t realize how hard it is to gain access to opportunity once you’ve left the institution. Postbacs can’t participate in summer research opportunities, are not regularly interacting with students, don’t have access to a university writing center, and probably even lost their library access. Just being on campus on a regular basis provides momentum and support towards grad school.

It’s so much worse because of the pandemic. The people who graduated last year, and those who are graduating right now, really need access to opportunity and support. What can we do?

This is where NSF-BIO has stepped up. They’ve launched a new program this week: REPS: Research Experiences for Post-Baccalaureate Students. Here’s the blog post about this on main BIO blog for NSF, and here’s a post with a bit more information on the BIO-DEB blog. And here’s the official Dear Colleague Letter for this opportunity, which is numbered NSF 21-085.

To make the long story short, if you have recently received your bachelor’s degree, then you have the chance to get funded to do research project that is very similar to an REU. You can even participate in an existing REU site!

The hook here is that NSF isn’t creating new awards for postbacs — that’s a huge bureaucratic process and wouldn’t be fast enough to meet demands of the current situation. Instead, they’re awarding supplements to existing BIO awards. Which means that if you’re a postbac* and you want one of these REPS opportunities, you’ll need to get set up with a currently funded PI. This might sound really daunting, but it’s really do-able, it just involves a little bit of hustle.

The unfortunate side effect of this funding mechanism is the potential for a huge Matthew Effect. Postbacs who already have access to opportunities are probably the ones who are best positioned to get access to support through REPS. So, I think it’s important for all current PIs in BIO to be proactive in seeking out postbacs who aren’t already involved in their laboratories, and instead reach outside of their circle — especially to support institutions that have few or no active PIs in BIO. There are many accomplished and capable postbacs who simply don’t have any connection to people who are funded. Please reach out by tapping into your personal network, to colleagues who aren’t actively funded but can recommend students to you.

It’s not that much work for PIs to submit this supplemental funding request. They just need a resume or CV of the postbac who they’re planning to fund and a short explanation what they’ll be doing and how they’ll be mentored. The real work is to make sure that the student is receiving appropriate mentorship using this REPS funding. I imagine that the program officers at NSF will be very busy fielding these REPS supplement requests, and I say, let’s keep them busy! The deadline is July 2nd, so there’s still several weeks to find a PI to work with.

How do you find a PI who is willing to advocate for you to get this REPS support? One way is to search the NSF website for everybody who has a current award through the BIO directorate. If you look at this list, it’s HUUUUUGE. NSF funds a lot of biologists, so you’ll want to narrow your search based on your constraints (research field, geography, whatever). Another way to approach this is to contact people who you think you might want to work with. If they’re not currently funded, they might have a colleague who is and might be willing to submit a request for you. The way these things work, it’s about informal networks and who you can convince to advocate for you. So you just gotta ask. Sending a cold email to someone is just fine. The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll ignore you, but you hopefully will get lucky.

Postbacs probably have a professor from their undergrad who want them to succeed, and even if they haven’t been in touch for the past year, I hope they’ll get in touch with one another. This is why NSF created this program — for folks who have graduated and are in need of opportunity. You’ve just got to find someone who is going to ask NSF on your behalf, and wants to work with you on NSF’s dime.

So, fellow biologists, do you know someone who graduated during the pandemic who is in limbo and could use a slot in an REU or a summer or a semester in someone’s lab? Please reach out to them and see if you can hook them up. I really hope that these REPS awards help students who are in most need of opportunity. This is a structural challenge that is not easily fixed, and to make this program work best, it will take our whole community to work together to make opportunities, one person at a time.

Maybe if this is program is really successful, we can convince NSF-BIO to consider postbacs support after this post-pandemic period is over. Because this is a time when a lot of talented researchers leave, especially those who attended underresourced universities. The more we make avail of this REPS program and make it succeed, the greater chance we have of landing more supporting postbacs in the future.

Update 27 May 2021: This post has been revised with a correct information about eligibility. NSF is not specifying any graduation cutoff date. The program is designed to support students who have been affected by the pandemic, but of course you could have graduated several years ago and still have had your access to postbacs research opportunities harmed by the pandemic. If you’re a postbac and wanting to gain research experience to ramp up for applying to grad school, then don’t let your date of graduation stop you from seeking support. (I also updated the post because I noted one place I referred to postbacs as students and changed that to ‘participants’– the whole point about this is that you’re not longer students!)

*Note that participants need to be current US citizens or permanent residents. This means that DACA and undocumented students in the US can’t be funded this way, but if you’re in a well funded lab that means maybe have access to enough discretionary funds for these students, perhaps? How do you spend your sliver of returned indirect anyway?

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