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Research Careers

Promoting the Transition to Independent Scientist: A National Career Development Program

Bruce, Martha L. PhD, MPH; Bartels, Stephen J. MD, MS; Lyness, Jeffrey M. MD; Sirey, Jo Anne PhD; Sheline, Yvette I. MD; Smith, Gwenn PhD

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182254399
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New investigators are the innovators of the future—they bring fresh ideas and technologies to existing biomedical research problems, and they pioneer new areas of investigation. Entry of new investigators into the ranks of independent, NIH-funded researchers is essential to the health of this country's biomedical research enterprise.

—National Institutes of Health, “Statement of Commitment to New and Early Stage Investigators,” 2010

In the 2005 report “Bridges to Independence,” the National Academy of Sciences described the loss of new investigators from academic science as a “crisis” and one of the most critical problems facing the National Institutes of Health (NIH).1 This loss has social and economic costs, and it places the development of the next generation of scientists at risk. Contributing to high rates of attrition from the NIH-funded academic career path are difficulties in obtaining independent research funding as well as a growing time lag between completion of training and receipt of funding. By 2004, investigators receiving their first independent research project grant from NIH (known as an “R01”) were, on average, 42 years old.2

The NIH and other organizations have initiated programs to address many of the systemic barriers to the successful transition to independent scientist. These include educational loan repayment programs designed to reduce the impact of financial disincentives on pursuing a career in academia over accepting a position in private practice or industry.3 Similarly, NIH recently strengthened its career development programs by implementing new policies and funding opportunities to facilitate investigators' receiving R01 awards earlier in their research careers.3,4

One key to reducing the individual-level barriers to the transition to independence is mentoring, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and others.5 The National Advisory Mental Health Council report “Investing in the Future” stated that “effective mentoring, which is often lacking, is one of the elements essential for the development of a successful research career.”6 Mentors are usually described in the literature as senior individuals who are willing to give their time, interest, and emotional support to further the career of a junior person.7,8 The NIH also recognized the importance of mentoring and systematically addressed it in earlier career phases through predoctoral and postdoctoral training programs and mentored career development awards (“K” series awards). In addition, research has shown that having a local and/or long distance mentor contributes significantly to the productivity and success of mentees who are more advanced in their careers9–11 and reduces attrition of junior medical school faculty, especially among women and minorities.12,13 Mentors can help new investigators plan and negotiate their career paths. Although mentors cannot “fix” the systemic barriers to career development, they can help their mentees respond strategically to these challenges, build the skills to overcome individual-level barriers, and make themselves more competitive relative to other researchers.

The Advanced Research Institute (ARI) in Geriatric Mental Health is an ongoing, innovative research career development program for new investigators across the United States. Based at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, ARI matches promising new investigators (e.g., NIH mentored career development awardees and comparably prepared junior faculty) with mentors from other institutions during their vulnerable period of transition to independent investigator.

In this article, we describe the goals, faculty, participants, and major components of ARI, as we believe the program could be adapted by other institutions and other fields of research. We then report NIH principal investigator funding outcomes (R01 and comparable NIH grant mechanisms, e.g., R34) for the first four ARI cohorts. We also investigate whether ARI participants in these cohorts were more likely than others with National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) mentored career development awards to achieve funding as independent investigators. We conclude by analyzing the program's strengths and generalizability.

Description of ARI

Background and goals

ARI is organized around a unifying theme with public health significance: late-life mental health and illness. The rapid aging of the U.S. population and the increasing life expectancy of individuals with mental illness underscore the acute need for research that will reduce the public health and family burden of mental illness in older individuals.14–16 The IOM has emphasized the importance of strengthening the scientific workforce required to meet this need.16 Timely research questions with high public health impact span the spectrum of biological,17,18 interventions,19 and services research.20

ARI was established in 2004 (supported by an ongoing NIMH R25 grant) to address critical shortages of independent investigators in geriatric mental health. It is multidisciplinary, and its faculty and participants span the spectrum of translational, interventions, and services research in late-life mental health. ARI's short-term objective is to promote new investigators' career advancement by providing mentoring; its tangible outcomes are mentees' achieving independent research funding (e.g., R01, R34) and assuming more responsibilities of scientific citizenship such as mentoring, service to the scientific community (e.g., peer reviewing grants and articles), and leadership (e.g., organizing symposia, serving on scientific advisory boards). ARI's long-term goal is to expand U.S. capacity to conduct research on the significant, complex problems related to mental illness in the rapidly growing elderly population.

Program leaders, mentors, and other faculty

ARI mentors and faculty members represent a wide range of disciplines, which helps the program provide more perspectives on scientific critiques and development, promote translational science, and be consistent with the direction of science and the kind of reviews new investigators can expect from NIH study sections.21–26 This breadth offers participants greater access to consultants with a range of expertise beyond that which may be available at their home institutions.

ARI is led by a program director (M.L.B.) and a five-person steering committee (S.J.B., J.M.L., J.A.S., Y.I.S., G.S.). The program director recruited the original eight mentors from senior NIMH awardees who conducted research in geriatric mental health and had demonstrated a commitment to mentoring. Additional mentors have been recruited as needed and have included ARI graduates. Additional faculty provide ad hoc consultations, often at the annual retreat described below.

As of February 2010, ARI had recruited 17 independent investigators from 12 different institutions to serve as mentors. In total, 28 independent investigators had participated as ARI mentors or faculty, representing 17 different institutions.*

ARI participants

ARI targets new investigators who have potential to achieve R01-level independent research. ARI participants, known as “scholars,” fit the NIH definition of a new investigator as an “individual who has not previously served as a principal investigator on any Public Health Service-supported research project other than a small grant (R03), an Academic Research Enhancement Award (R15), an exploratory development grant (R21), or certain research career awards.”27 Almost all scholars have also met NIH criteria as an Early Stage Investigator—that is, a new investigator who is within 10 years of completing his or her terminal research degree or medical residency (or the equivalent).27

To apply to ARI, new investigators submit their CV, a draft grant application or prospectus, two letters of reference, and a letter describing their goals for participating. Applicants vary in their readiness to apply for their first NIH principal investigator grant; some are in the conceptualization phase, whereas others are planning to resubmit a previously reviewed proposal. The ARI steering committee reviews the applications, looking for commitment to geriatric mental health research, strong recommendations, evidence of scientific citizenship, and a significant track record of early-career competitive funding, publications, and awards. During the selection process, potential mentors review applications and agree to proposed matches before applicants are accepted. Scholars may participate in ARI for up to two years, and there are 16 active scholars each year.

From the program's inception in September 2004 to January 2010, ARI enrolled 69 scholars in seven cohorts (12, 9, 10, 11, 8, 9, and 10 scholars, respectively), representing 35 different institutions. These scholars typically held the academic rank of midterm assistant professor in a department of psychiatry. Among these 69 scholars, 42 (61%) were women and 17 (25%) were ethnic or racial minorities. Thirty-four (49%) had MD degrees (including 5 MD/PhDs), and the rest had PhDs or other doctoral degrees. The majority (47, or 68%) held NIH mentored career development awards. These awardees typically applied to the ARI program in the third or fourth year of their K award.

Program components

ARI focuses on three general individual-level barriers to the transition to independence, which can be addressed through mentoring and consultation with experts: (1) grant-preparation skills, which medical school faculty have reported as the greatest career development need regardless of gender, department, or academic rank28,29; (2) time-management skills, including day-to-day negotiation of competing demands and attending to grant preparation and career timetables7,8,30; and (3) access to statistical and other expertise needed to address the increasingly multidisciplinary aspects of biomedical research.1,31 ARI helps scholars overcome these barriers through the program components described below.


ARI mentors provide general guidance to scholars on career development, paying specific attention to grant preparation.32 For example, mentors guide scholars in formulating scientific questions and study design, acquiring preliminary data, identifying needed consultants (e.g., biostatisticians, economists), preparing grant applications (e.g., critiquing drafts), drafting a work strategy (e.g., balancing clinical and research activities, following promotion timetables), and developing as mentors to junior colleagues.

Each scholar–mentor pair develops a mentoring plan that structures their responsibilities and sets a timetable with deadlines for both the scholar and the mentor. Each pair regularly updates its plan, which is monitored by ARI leaders. ARI also supports an annual face-to-face meeting for each pair.

Annual spring retreat.

ARI's annual spring retreat is the formal forum in which scholars meet in person with their mentors, other program faculty, and consultants (e.g., statisticians, NIH program officers, senior advisors). The 3.5-day retreat provides group and personalized opportunities for scholars to make significant advances in the development of their NIH research grant applications and, more generally, to hone their grant development skills, engage in career planning, and receive technical consultation (see List 1).

List 1 Components of the Advanced Research Institute (ARI) in Geriatric Mental Health Annual Spring Retreat
List 1 Components of the Advanced Research Institute (ARI) in Geriatric Mental Health Annual Spring Retreat:
List 1 Components of the Advanced Research Institute (ARI) in Geriatric Mental Health Annual Spring Retreat

Web-based research presentations.

Throughout the year, scholars are encouraged to convene, with ARI's assistance, a Web-based meeting of a group of ARI mentors augmented by their home institution mentors or others to review updated applications or responses to grant summary statements.

Targeted networking workshops.

ARI's biannual “NIMH Day” provides scholars with opportunities to meet individually with NIMH program officers for research guidance. In alternative years, ARI supports workshops at professional meetings to facilitate scholars' networking with relevant experts. Most scholars attend at least one targeted workshop during their time in the program.

Other resources.

ARI makes available a limited amount of funding for use by scholars. These funds are most commonly used to support collection of extra feasibility data and consultation with methodologists. ARI leaders review scholars' funding requests for consistency with their mentoring plans.

Milestones and oversight

Scholars are formally reviewed twice each year. Each scholar submits a self-evaluation to the steering committee in the fall, and mentors and faculty assess each scholar's progress daily during the spring retreat's faculty meetings. The program director also monitors the mentoring plans and holds an end-of-year telephone discussion with each mentor. The overarching purpose of these reviews is to identify ways in which the program can further meet the scholar's needs. The first-year evaluations also assess whether the scholar is taking sufficient advantage of the program to be invited to continue a second year. A general expectation for retention is that scholars have submitted an NIH grant application by the end of the first year or will be prepared to submit one within the next six months.

ARI tracks the progress of past participants via annual surveys addressing academic promotion, leadership roles, mentoring activities, grant funding, and publications. The program also obtains objective information on federal grant funding from public databases.

Scholars' Perceptions and Completion of ARI

Our analysis of the annual self-evaluations of the first seven cohorts showed that scholars uniformly reported that the amount of mentor contact met their needs and that mentors were fast to respond when contacted and generous with their time. Scholars reported that their ARI-supported, annual in-person meetings with their mentors typically occurred at the mentor's lab or professional conferences, but scholars communicated regularly with their mentors via telephone and e-mail. Scholars' local mentors often participated in the telephone conversations as well. All scholars described concentrated periods of communications when mentors were reviewing their research plans and grant applications for upcoming deadlines.

Of the 69 scholars in the first seven cohorts, 42 (61%) remained in the program for two years. Fourteen (20%) successfully achieved grant funding in their first year and graduated from ARI after one year. Thirteen (19%) decided to withdraw after consulting with their mentor and the program director; such decisions usually reflected changes in the scholar's immediate career priorities (e.g., maternity leave, changing institutions, competing demands). Scholars were occasionally matched with new mentors in their second year, usually to expose them to a different type of expertise. (Just one such change was due to interpersonal issues.)

NIH Grant Outcomes

To evaluate ARI's success, in February 2010 we extracted and analyzed information from the NIH RePORTER database on NIH grant awards for the first four cohorts of scholars as of January 2010.33 We also extracted and analyzed data on all NIMH mentored career development (mentored K) awardees' NIH grant awards during the same period. We analyzed NIH grant data using chi-square and logistic regression analyses; we used SAS software version 9.2.34 We considered P values ≤ .05 to be statistically significant. This research, as well as our analysis of scholars' self-evaluations, was approved as exempt by the Weill Cornell Medical College institutional review board.

NIH grant funding among scholars

NIH grant funding achievements for scholars in the first four ARI cohorts (n = 42) are shown in Table 1. These scholars entered the program between 2004 and 2007, and all graduated from the program by January 2009. By January 2010, 19 (45.2%) of the 42 scholars had achieved an R01 and 29 (69.1%) had obtained some NIH grant funding (not including career development [K] or R03 small grants). With the exception of the first cohort, cohorts' funding success rates tended to increase with the amount of time since graduating from ARI. Grant funding outcomes did not vary significantly by academic degree (MD versus no MD), gender, self-reported minority status, or history of a mentored K award (data not shown).

Table 1
Table 1:
Receipt of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Principal Investigator Grants by Scholars in the First Four Cohorts of the Advanced Research Institute (ARI) in Geriatric Mental Health, as of January 2010

Funding success rates also did not differ significantly by type of research (categorized as biological, interventions, or services research). We found a trend showing that biological scientists were more likely to achieve an R01 than were ARI scholars in other disciplines (7/11 biological [63.3%] versus 12/31 other [38.7%]; P = .16). However, there was no evident difference when the outcome included the R34 mechanism (63.6% biological versus 54.8% other; P = .61) or any NIH grant (63.6% biological versus 71.0% other; P = .65). This finding is consistent with the purpose of the R34 mechanism—to support intervention and services development, which makes it less relevant to biological scientists. Indeed, the biological scholars in the first four ARI cohorts obtained only R01 funding from the NIH. Thus, we view R34 funding as a meaningful outcome of ARI, especially as R34 and R01 grants have been equally difficult to obtain: The NIH 2004–2009 average annual success rate for R34 applications was 19.5% and for R01 applications was 18.4%.35

Grant funding of ARI scholars versus other NIMH mentored K awardees

To evaluate whether ARI participation increased new investigators' likelihood of obtaining NIH R series grants, we sought available observational data on an appropriate comparison group in the absence of a randomized trial design. To minimize selection bias, we compared the subset of ARI scholars who were NIMH mentored K awardees with other investigators who had comparable NIMH awards during the same time period. Our rationale was that all individuals with mentored K awards had been selected through a competitive process that evaluated their potential for achieving R series funding. A residual limitation to this strategy is that the mentored K awardees who apply to ARI represent the larger subgroup of mentored K awardees who remain committed to a research career midway through their K program. We partially mitigated this potential bias by including in the comparison group the small number of mentored K awardees who achieved their R01 funding in the early years of their award and would not have been eligible for the ARI program.

Using the NIH RePORTER database,33 we identified the 404 NIMH mentored K awardees whose first year of funding was in 2001–2005, the time period equivalent to that of ARI scholars in the 2004–2007 cohorts who applied to ARI during year 3 or 4 of their K award. We compared the subset of ARI mentored K awardees (n = 24) with other mentored K awardees (n = 380). We also determined NIH grant funding as of January 2010 using the NIH RePORTER database.

Table 2 compares success rates of ARI scholars and others with NIMH mentored K awards with respect to achieving funding as a principal investigator on an NIH grant. Among NIMH mentored K awardees, a significantly higher percentage of ARI scholars achieved R01 funding than did other awardees (13/24 [54.2%] versus 126/380 [33.2%]; χ2 = 4.41, P < .036). In logistic regression analyses controlling for year of first K funding, ARI scholars were 2.36 times more likely to obtain an R01 than were the others (P = .048). As the table shows, this pattern persisted when the outcome was expanded to include the R01, R24, and R34 mechanisms, with 14/24 (58.3%) of the ARI scholars versus 139/380 (36.6%) of the others achieving one of these grants (χ2 = 4.54, P < .033; OR = 2.42, P = .045, controlling for year of mentored K award). Similarly, when the outcome included any NIH grant (other than a K series award or R03 small grant), 16/24 (66.7%) of the ARI scholars versus 169/380 (45.5%) of the others were successfully funded (χ2 = 4.48, P < .034; OR = 2.42, P = .047, controlling for year of mentored K award).

Table 2
Table 2:
Receipt of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Principal Investigator Grant Funding, as of January 2010, Among the 404 National Institute of Mental Health Mentored Career Development Awardees Whose First Year of K Funding Was in 2001–2005

Strengths of ARI

Whereas success in achieving grant funding is the most tangible indicator of ARI's impact on new investigators, the program's overall goal is keeping people in academic research careers and equipping them to assume the responsibilities of academic citizenship. As of this writing, 67 of the 69 scholars (97%) in the first seven cohorts remain in academia, are rising through the academic ranks on schedule, and are contributing to the peer-reviewed scientific literature and serving as grant reviewers, leaders of national organizations, and mentors of junior trainees and new investigators.

Three factors are essential to ARI's success. First, the program mentors and faculty—a national network of researchers in geriatric mental health—are committed to working across disciplinary and institutional boundaries with the goal of advancing the careers of the next generation of investigators. They give generously of their time and expertise, thereby contributing to the overall field of geriatric mental health research and serving as role models. Their impact is evident not only in the funding achievements of ARI scholars but also in the many former scholars who serve as mentors locally and in ARI or other national mentoring programs.36–39

Second, ARI mentors, faculty, and consultants focus on scholars' development in three specific skill areas that are consistent with recommendations of scientific leaders40 and other successful programs.32 Scholars strengthen their technical grant-preparation skills and learn the art of designing innovative but methodologically sound approaches to problems with public health significance, ensuring adequate pilot data, providing reasoned arguments, and engaging departmental and NIH program support. Scholars also improve their time-management skills, including day-to-day negotiation of competing demands to ensure sufficient time is devoted to research-related activities and adherence to timetables associated with grant preparation (e.g., pilot data acquisition, writing, internal review) and with academic promotion.7,8,30 In addition, scholars are able to access statisticians and other experts. ARI integrates opportunities to interact with experts into every aspect of the program, from mentor matching and the annual retreat to consultations arranged for individual scholars.

Third, ARI's structure combines an intensive annual retreat with ongoing mentoring that is sustained over a sufficient period of time for the scholar to complete the steps needed to accomplish the transition to independent investigator. Individualized opportunities for consultation and supplemental resources for grant development are provided as needed. This structure—as well as the organizational infrastructure needed for recruitment, planning, and implementation—is made possible by NIMH funding.

Organizing an advanced career development program around a specific subfield of mental health such as geriatrics is useful because it promotes multidisciplinary science that spans the translational spectrum, thereby potentially accelerating scientific progress and impact. We believe that the key elements of ARI, as described above, and the program's organizational focus should generalize to many subfields of the health sciences.

Summing Up

ARI provides a potentially generalizable model to promote new investigators' successful transition to independence. ARI provides an infrastructure for an interdisciplinary, national network of senior investigators to mentor the next generation across the spectrum of translational, interventions, and services research. As tangible evidence of the program's success, ARI scholars were 2.36 times more likely to obtain R01 funding than were comparable new investigators during the study period, and all but two scholars have remained in academic careers. Thus, ARI is meeting its long-term goal of promoting innovative research and provides a model for the development of independent scientists who will have a significant impact on the problems of mental illness in and the delivery of mental health services to older adults.


The authors dedicate this article to the memory of Thomas R. Ten Have, PhD—friend, colleague, and committed mentor to scores of early-career investigators.


Funding for the Advanced Research Institute in Geriatric Mental Health comes from the National Institute of Mental Health (R25MH068502; Bruce). Other NIMH support includes K24MH06628 (Bartels), K24MH07150 (Lyness), K24MH079510 (Sheline), and K02MH001621 (Smith).

Other disclosures:


Ethical approval:

This program evaluation was approved as exempt research by the Weill Cornell Medical College institutional review board.


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*ARI mentors and faculty represented these 17 institutions: Dartmouth Medical School; David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Duke University School of Medicine; Emory University School of Medicine; Harvard Medical School; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Smith College; University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine; University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine; University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine; University of Massachusetts Medical School; University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry; University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine; Washington University in Saint Louis School of Medicine; and Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.
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