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Career Benchmarks From the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Early Faculty Career Development Awards

McGovern, Victoria PhD; Kramarik, Jean MS; Wilkins, Gary

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182a83172
Research Reports

Purpose Documenting the career characteristics of a highly selective group of researchers provides some insight into how a successful career begins. This knowledge is of value to early-career faculty and those who evaluate them, as well as trainees who aspire to the professoriate and those who educate them.

Method In 2010, the authors extracted information by hand from the curricula vitae of 196 basic scientists who have been supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s early faculty career development programs from 1982 to 2010. Data were collected on awardees’ education, awards and honors, funding, promotion, publication, service, and training activities. The end point for data was December 2010. Analyses quantified participants’ time to terminal degree, faculty appointment, and first R01; determined their publication productivity; and calculated their rates of training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Results This group moved into jobs and gained first R01s faster than average. Surprisingly, those who train the most students and fellows do not publish the most. Women and men trained different numbers of undergraduates, PhDs, and postdocs. Women awardees had fewer publications on average than men.

Conclusions Researchers who are highly competitive at the early faculty career stage have generally been both timely in their arrival at important benchmarks and productive in terms of their scientific output. Newly trained researchers and the people and institutions that train them share responsibility for attaining expeditious progress, developing a substantial track record, and staking out fertile intellectual ground from which to grow an independent faculty career.

Dr. McGovern is senior program officer, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Ms. Kramarik is senior program associate, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Mr. Wilkins is research technician, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Funding/Support: None.

Other disclosures: None.

Ethical approval: Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) awardees agree in writing that in the interest of transparency and public accountability regarding foundation-supported research, BWF may share information about its awardees in a variety of venues, including its Web site, annual report, and other publications. Awardee CVs and the data used here are maintained in BWF’s secure awardee grants servers. These data and the conclusions of this paper have not been used to evaluate individual awardees, and collection and analysis of these data does not put any awardee’s funding at risk. Risk to the awardees whose data are presented in aggregate here is minimized by focusing on quantifiable known information. Selection of participants was equitable: All of those funded by a well-defined subset of BWF grant programs were asked to participate, but there was no penalty for not complying with this request.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. McGovern, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, 21 T.W. Alexander Dr., Research Triangle Park, NC 27709; telephone: (919) 991-5112; e-mail:

The rewards of early faculty grants are more than financial. Most provide formal and informal networking that helps recipients to access knowledge and resources, build their reputations, and develop relationships that will enhance their success. The career impact of having funding, connections, and flexibility is substantial and is beginning to be described in the literature.1–3 Several reports on evaluation4–7 and outcomes2,8 of early-career awards are available. These early grants are prestigious and, relative to the number of assistant professors, rare. Programs available to biomedical scientists include Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering9 (16 in 2011), Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences10 (22 in 2011), Searle Scholars11 (15 grants per year), and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) Director’s New Faculty Innovator12 award (49 in 2011).

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), an independent private foundation that advances biomedical science by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities, focuses many of its programs on the career development of investigators in the United States and Canada. Current programs include the assistant-professor-targeted Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease (PATH), which continues a 30-year tradition of early faculty career support. The PATH program, which was launched in 2001, followed a series of career development awards offered from 1982 to 2001.

Early faculty awards can support development of preliminary data and new lines of research, including high-risk/high-reward exploratory projects. The PATH award is flexible, supporting new projects as initial work gains other support. Many of the other early faculty grants are targeted to support neglected or pressing fields or problems. For example, the Ellison Medical Foundation supports assistant professors working in aging research.13 The American Heart Association’s National Scientist Development program supports work on cardiovascular disease and stroke.14 The American Liver Foundation, the Arthritis Foundation, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and many other disease-focused charities similarly have elite early faculty grant programs. BWF’s PATH program supports assistant professors working on problems where human and microbial biology intersect. In ten cycles since 2002, it has funded 108 investigators from 1328 proposals submitted, yielding an application success rate of 8.1%.

Because talented researchers have opportunities to attract other early faculty grants, identifying one funder’s impact on an awardee’s success is not straightforward. A 2011 study of the impact of NIH research grants showed that a funded or unfunded R01 award’s effect on a laboratory’s productivity is small: about one additional publication over five years.15 This is not because R01s are unimportant but because if one grant is not funded, researchers seek another.

Those faculty competitive for one prestigious award often compete well for others. At least 10 of BWF’s awardees have had Searle Scholar Awards supporting “outstanding” new faculty within the first two years of appointment,11 at least 10 have had Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowships supporting early-career investigators “of outstanding promise,”16 at least 13 have had Beckman Young Investigator Awards supporting “the most promising” new investigators in the chemical and life sciences,17 and 8 have been Ellison Medical Foundation New Scholars in Global Infectious Disease.18

At the time of data collection, 201 researchers had been supported through BWF assistant professor programs, including 78 PATH awardees funded between 2002 and 2010. (Another 330 researchers not included in this study have received BWF support through the postdoc-to-faculty bridging Career Awards mechanism, which has been described elsewhere.)2

The PATH award carries a grant of $500,000 distributed over five years. Over its history, the program has averaged 9.8 awards per year. The number of awards made in a year varies with the foundation’s endowment and has ranged from 6 awards just after the 2008 stock market crash to 16 awards at the stock market’s peak the year before. The program was suspended for a year in 2003/2004 following the “ bust” and in 2009/2010 following the market crash. The earlier career development awards provided three-year grants that grew from $40,000 per year in the 1980s to $70,000 per year in 2001.

Though we cannot readily examine the impact of BWF support, looking at the career progression of our awardees can provide insight into how these very capable scientists build their careers. Do researchers identified early as “promising” advance faster than others? How much do they publish? How many people do they train, and at what level? Is the idea of building a field-dominating “postdoc factory” laboratory that generates protégés and publications at a breakneck pace an urban legend, or is it a strategy we would see developing in the labs we support?

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To better understand the course of BWF awardees’ careers, in 2010 we asked for full academic curricula vitae (CVs) from the 78 PATH investigators who had been funded at that time. All 78 complied. When we quantified their career statistics, we noticed differences between awardee men’s and women’s publication rates as well as differences in how men and women staffed their laboratories, as reflected by the numbers of students and/or postdocs trained. This led us to seek more data by asking for CVs from the 123 researchers who had been supported by BWF’s now-discontinued assistant-professor-focused career development programs that ran from 1982 to 2001.

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Data collection and analysis

From the time of an applicant’s first grant submission, applicant and awardee contact information, demographic information, and data connected to an awardee’s BWF award(s) are maintained in BWF’s freestanding grant management system, which uses MicroEdge GIFTS grant management software, a package widely employed in philanthropy. Contact information for past awardees is used throughout the year for mailing and electronically communicating new opportunities and other news, and awardees are periodically invited to be involved in BWF networking opportunities and other activities. No past awardees in the programs discussed here have been lost to follow-up. Awardees who are currently funded submit updated CVs each year as part of the annual progress report required under the terms of the award. We e-mailed awardees whose awards have been completed with a request to submit an updated CV, which was followed two weeks later by a reminder e-mail.

We classified awardees as “clinically trained” on the basis of the degrees listed on their CVs. “Clinically trained” awardees included all awardees with doctoral-level degrees in medicine or veterinary medicine, including those who have also earned PhDs. None of the awardees held other clinical degrees—for instance, in dental science, osteopathy, or optometry.

CV data collected included dates and institutions for each awardee’s baccalaureate, graduate, and postdoctoral education; awards and honors; research funding including grants from government and from private sources; dates of first faculty appointment, promotion to associate professor, and promotion to full professor; number of publications in the scientific literature after appointment to assistant professorship; and the number of undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students and/or postdoctoral fellows the awardee has trained. Data from other funders on time to various career milestones came from published sources cited below. Some CVs collected were in the abbreviated NIH format and did not list all publications. Some long-form CVs did not include all expected categories of information. There is considerable variability in whether and how grants are reported on CVs, so we obtained data on awardees’ NIH funding from the NIH RePORTER.19

We hand-calculated standard deviations in the data presented (and did not use a statistical software package). The numbers presented in some of the analyses here are too small to be reliable. Where numbers are small, we hope to present a portrait of what we do see, without arguing that it reflects a statistically significant picture of the average high-achieving early-career principal investigator. Though using awardees’ CVs made collecting data convenient, information on degrees attained, publications, and public and high-profile private funding are publicly available.

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Ethical considerations

Because BWF did not have access to an IRB, we took a number of steps to ensure the ethical treatment of our participants. As part of the terms of their grants, awardees agree in writing that in the interest of transparency and public accountability regarding foundation-supported research, BWF may share information about its awardees in a variety of venues, including its Web site, annual report, and other publications. BWF also informs awardees that we may share data about the investigator including name, training background, degrees, and institutions. In collecting this consent, we state that demographic data may be shared but only reported in aggregate. Awardee CVs and the data used here are maintained in BWF’s secure awardee grants servers. These data and the conclusions of this paper have not been used to evaluate individual awardees, and collection and analysis of these data do not put any awardee’s funding at risk.

Risk to the awardees whose data are presented in aggregate here is minimized by focusing on career milestones (time to degree, time to first R01) and other quantifiable knowns (students and postdocs trained, number of publications) that are largely in the public record. We do not view time to any career milestone, number of publications, number of trainees, or any other data category discussed here as a marker of career success in and of itself; thus, awardees are not viewed differently on the basis of any data collected and analyzed here.

Selection of participants was equitable: All of those funded by a well-defined subset of BWF grant programs were asked to participate, but there was no penalty for not complying with this request. Any risks to an individual from compiling these data are small, and the benefits of understanding the aggregate picture of participants’ early careers are substantial. Aside from information gained from friends and recently promoted colleagues, few assistant professors have access to data on how their accomplishments compare with those of others at their career stage, and trainees have little information on time to independence beyond the time to R01 data available from NIH. The data collection here will be a valuable addition to the small literature available documenting successful early faculty achievements.

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We sought CVs from 201 awardees, and, with follow-up, 196 were obtained (97.5% response rate): 132 from men (67.3%) and 64 from women (32.7%). Over time, BWF’s early faculty programs have funded 133 (66.2%) men and 68 (33.8%) women. Since 1990, applicant pools have been similarly proportioned, with 1,211 (69.9%) men and 538 (30.1%) women applying over that time. Applicant numbers from before 1990 are no longer available.

Researchers’ increasing age at faculty appointment and first R01 is of concern to policy makers, academic institutions, and funders.20 Because BWF early faculty awardees began their careers as far back as the late 1970s, we focused only on the career progress of the most recently funded group, the 78 people supported by PATH. Before getting the award, all had passed one of the important milestones of an early career—getting a job. At the time the data were collected, most had passed a second milestone, becoming R01 funded, and many have passed a third, promotion to associate professor (Table 1).

Table 1

Table 1

Of the 78 PATH awardee CVs, 76 included undergraduate degree dates. Fifty-eight awardees (77%) entered graduate or professional school immediately after their undergraduate educations. Within two years after first degree, 69 (91%) had entered training. Those who indicated how they spent the short gap time primarily were involved in laboratory research or in language courses. By five years past first degree, 73 awardees (96%) were in training. Three (4%) went in other career directions for 8 to 14 years before returning for a PhD.

Assuming the average person completes college at age 22, the average PhD PATH awardee earned the terminal degree at an estimated age 28.6. The NIH reports that the median PhD trained with their support earns the degree at age 30.21 PhD PATH awardees moved into faculty jobs an average of 11.9 years after college at an estimated age of 33.9, compared with a reported national mean age of 37 for PhDs.20 A study of Pew Scholars reported that their 1985–1989 awardee cohort landed faculty jobs at an average age of 33.1 and the 1990–1995 cohort did so at 33.4.8 A study of BWF Career Award recipients found the 1995–1999 PhD cohort averaged age 33.6 at faculty appointment and MD/PhDs (clinician scientists), 36.4.2 This suggests that for researchers gaining highly competitive early-career grants, age at faculty appointment has remained fairly stable over the past 25 years.

BWF awardees with PhDs received their first R01 at an average age of 36.6, compared with NIH’s 2001 overall average age at first R01 of 41.7.22 The median time from faculty appointment to first R01 was 2.0 years for men and 3.0 years for women (Figure 1A) and 2.5 years for both clinically trained researchers (MDs, MD/PhDs, and DVM/PhDs) and those whose only terminal degree was a PhD (Figure 1B). Of the 65 PhDs supported by the program, 59 had a first R01, 4 worked in Canada where R01s are rare, and 2 based in the United States had not gotten an R01. One of the 2 researchers unfunded at the time these data were collected got his first R01 in 2012. Thirteen clinically trained researchers are supported by PATH; 12 had received their first R01, and 1 worked in Canada.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Because PATH has funded just 13 clinically trained researchers (MDs, MD/PhDs, and DVM/PhDs), we combined these groups. They finished their terminal degrees at an average age of 29.2 and, on average, landed faculty jobs at 36.5, close to the mean ages at appointment for MDs and MD/PhDs reported from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) data in the National Research Council’s Bridges to Independence report.20 Their first R01 came at an average age of 39.5, compared with the NIH’s averages of 43.4 for both MD/PhDs and MDs.22 Clinically trained PATH awardees were promoted to associate professor at an average age of 42.6. The median time to faculty promotion for all PATH awardees, 6.0 years, compares well to the AAMC’s measure of 6.2 years for PhDs, MDs, and MD/PhDs who began faculty appointments between 1987 and 1996.23

Because PATH awardees are relatively early in their careers, we looked at publication patterns across the history of our assistant professor programs. Though we had CVs from 196 awardees including the 78 supported by the PATH program, only 173 CVs representing 116 men and 57 women included full publication lists. The remaining CVs contained abbreviated publication records and were not included for full analysis.

Throughout the history of these programs, women on average have published less than men. Because the records of those who publish unusually much or unusually little can distort understanding of how the group performs, we looked at the publication productivity of the middle 50% of awardees ranked by the number of their publications. The number of awardees at each milestone decreases because newer awardees have not yet been on faculty for 10 or 15 years. At five years after faculty appointment, the middle 50% of male awardees (58 awardees) had published 28.4% more papers than the middle group of 29 female awardees. Ten years after faculty appointment, the 40 men who represent the middle 50% had published only 18.1% more papers than 22 women in the middle 50%, but by 15 years, the middle group of 30 men published an average of 35.8% more papers than the 17 women in the middle group. It is tempting to speculate that family choices affect women’s early publication rate, but we have no data on awardees’ personal lives to enable comparisons. The middle 50% of clinically trained and nonclinically trained scientists (14 and 73 people, respectively) published about the same number of articles in their first five years, with the clinically trained publishing 3% or 0.4 papers more than PhD-only awardees. By 10 years, the clinically trained group (11 people) fell behind the PhD group (51 people), publishing 14.6% fewer papers, similar to their 14.0% fewer papers by 7 clinicians and 40 nonclinicians by year 15. Clinically trained grant awardees with and without PhDs published similar numbers of papers over time. Future work will analyze the impact of awardees’ publications.

There is a striking difference in the reported average training patterns of male and female awardees. Within the complete set of 196 CVs that included earlier programs and PATH, 142 awardees (96 men and 46 women) included information on training others. On average, per year, women trained more undergraduates (1.25 for women, 1.16 for men), more master’s degree students (women, 0.42; men, 0.29), and more PhD students (women, 1.00; men 0.72), whereas men trained more dual-degree (MD/PhD or DVM/PhD) students (men, 0.19; women, 0.16) and postdocs (men, 0.73; women, 0.62) (Figure 2A).

There was considerable variation among trainees so that for each of these numbers, the standard deviation was approximately the same as the average. Among women, the 5 individuals who made up the top 10% of PhD student trainers produced 2.0 to 3.1 students per year over a range of 8 to 16 years. The 10 people who made up the top 10% of male PhD student trainers produced 1.2 to 3.5 students per year over a range of 3 to 21 years. The most prolific female trainer of PhDs had produced 40 degree holders by 2010; the most prolific man, 46. They began their faculty careers in the same year. The top 10% of women postdoc trainers produced 1.0 to 1.3 postdocs per year, and the top 10% of men, 1.3 to 2.7. The most prolific male postdoc trainer had turned out 43 postdocs by 2010, and with 7% more time as an independent investigator, the most prolific woman had trained 21.

Thirty-six women and 59 men reported training undergraduates, but awardees from the same institutions and sometimes from the same schools within institutions differed in whether they included undergraduate laboratory trainees in their CVs. Of the 4 women who made up the top 10% reporting training undergraduates, 3 were at private research universities outside their colleges of medicine; the fourth was at a land grant university without a college of medicine. The 6 men in the top 10% included 2 at public medical schools, 2 at private research universities and outside their colleges of medicine, and 2 at a land grant university outside its college of medicine. They trained a range of 2.5 to 6.2 undergraduates per year. The top 10% of men who reported training undergraduates trained a range of 2.5 to 7.7 students per year. The most prolific male and female undergraduate trainers began their faculty positions in the same year. She had trained 86 undergraduates; he, 54.

Focusing on the middle 50% of awardees ranked in terms of the numbers of each category of students they train provides a different picture (Figure 2B). Women and men differed most in rates of training graduate students and postdocs. The 23 women who made up the middle 50% of graduate student trainers produced an average of 0.8 students a year (8 PhDs trained to completion each decade), 33% more than the middle group of 48 men, who produced 0.6 PhDs per year. Training postdoctoral fellows was reported by 139 awardees: 63 women and 76 men. The middle group of 38 men trained 0.7 postdocs per year—17% more postdocs than the 0.6 trained by the middle group of 32 women (Figure 2B).

Researchers published at different rates and structured the trainee makeup of their laboratories differently. Some but not all highly successful researchers published at high rates compared with their peers. Most PATH awardees published one to three articles per year (Figure 3). We do not have sufficient data to understand whether or how training and publication rates are related. However, looking at the top 20% of PATH awardees in terms of their publication rate allowed us to at least ask whether the most frequently published awardees train more people than their peers.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Looking at publication rate, rate of graduate student training, and rate of postdoctoral fellow training for the top 20% of men and top 20% of women provides some surprising observations (Figure 4). Those who produced the most postdocs did not generally publish the most. In fact, in this sample, men and women who trained the most graduate students outpublished those who train the most postdocs. The women who published the most had, on average, labs that trained more graduate students than postdocs, and the men who published the most on average had labs that trained more postdocs. We had anticipated that a small group of awardees would have published more papers, trained more postdocs, and trained more graduate students than most other awardees in the group. To our surprise, no awardee came to the top when ranked by all three measures.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The most productive 20% of female publishers (5 individuals) had published an average of 39.8 articles since faculty appointment (range 3.4–4.8 articles per year). They averaged 9.4 years on faculty (range 8–10). Their first R01s came an average of 3.2 years after faculty appointment (range 2–4). Two did not report on number of students trained. The 3 individuals who provided information on doctoral training have educated 34 students, producing an average of 1.2 PhDs per year or 12 new PhDs graduated per decade (range 0.63–2.00 per year). The 4 individuals who reported on training postdocs advised 19 postdocs between them, an average of 0.5 postdocs per year (range 0.1–1.0).

The most productive 20% of male publishers, 11 individuals, had published an average of 57.2 articles since faculty appointment (range 4.3–12.6 papers per year, average 6.3). They averaged 8.8 years on faculty (range 5–13) and received their first R01s an average of 2 years after faculty appointment, with a range from the year before beginning the faculty appointment to 8 years after. One works in Canada, where R01 funding is rare, and has not yet received an R01. Three did not report on training. Another had not trained graduate students. Forty-six students had been trained by the 8 individuals who provided information on doctoral training, at an average of 0.6 PhDs per year (range 0.2–1.6). Two who reported training graduate students did not report training any postdocs. A total of 43 postdocs were trained by the remaining 6, an average of 0.9 postdocs per year (range 0.3–1.7).

The most productive 20% of female PhD trainers, 4 women, had published an average of 22.3 articles since faculty appointment (range 1.8–4.8 papers per year). They had been on faculty an average of 7.5 years (range 4–9), getting first R01s 1.8 years, on average, after faculty appointment (range from a year before appointment to 4 years after). At an average of 1.6 PhDs per year (range 1.2–2.0), this group has trained 48 PhDs. Three of the women reported training 10 postdocs between them at an average of 0.4 postdocs per year (range 0.1–0.6). Only 1 of them was among the most active women publishers.

The most productive 20% of male PhD trainers, 8 men, published an average of 32.4 articles since faculty appointment (range 1.3–8.9 papers per year). They averaged 8.6 years on faculty (range 7–13). Their first R01s came an average of 3.1 years after faculty appointment (range from the year of appointment to 9 years after). Eighty-three students have been trained by this group, an average of 1.4 PhDs per year (range 1.1–2.0). They have trained 44 postdocs between them, averaging 0.8 postdocs per year (range 0.3–1.7). Two of them were among the most active male publishers.

The 4 researchers in the top 20% of female postdoc trainers published an average of 21.5 articles since faculty appointment (range 1.4–4.1 papers per year). They had been faculty members 8.3 years, on average (range 7–10), and gained R01s an average of 2 years after faculty appointment (range 1–4 years). They trained 24 PhD students at an average rate of 0.7 PhDs per year (range 0.4–0.9) and 29 postdocs, at an average of 0.9 postdocs per year (range 0.7–0.9). None were among the most active PhD trainers. Only 1 was among the most active women publishers.

Eight awardees formed the most productive 20% of male postdoc trainers. They published an average of 24.3 articles since faculty appointment (range 0.9–8.9 papers per year). Their average time on faculty was 8 years (range 3–11). Seven received R01s an average of 3.1 years after faculty appointment (range from the year of appointment to 9 years after). The eighth, in Canada, has not yet had an R01. Seventy-seven postdocs had been trained by this group at an average 1.2 postdocs per year (range 1.0–1.7). They trained 63 PhD students between them, or an average of 1.0 students per year (range 0.5–2.0). Three of the most active graduate trainers among men were also in this group. Only 1 of the 8 was also a top male publisher.

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Support from early faculty grants goes to researchers who are on their way to career success and gives them resources that increase their advantages. However, these awards are rare, and many excellent researchers never get one. That early success at getting funding pays off is already known. Most awardees of the PATH program outpace national statistics for time to first job, first R01, and first promotion. This is likely true for other elite grant programs aimed at outstanding early investigators. Nearly all of our awardees do well and emerge as leaders in their fields.

What is perhaps most surprising in this analysis of early-career scientists is not how extraordinary most awardees are but how ordinary. At selection, BWF’s assistant-professor-level awardees generally have had a productive training period, moved into a faculty position, and achieved independence. Although some awardees are extraordinarily productive in terms of publications and training, the high outliers are likely different from other researchers in highly individual ways. Most of our awardees’ careers progress steadily at a pace that is attainable by focused, dedicated trainees. Our observations here remind us that there is no single right way to have a scientific career.

That most emerging leaders and rising stars are doing it at a moderate, achievable pace is useful news. We can enhance the success of trainees by helping them develop the resilience needed to achieve this kind of productivity. Trainees who will someday lead academic research laboratories as primarily NIH-funded principal investigators are building their chances of success from the time they begin working in the laboratory. In the course of a few years, a person goes from graduate school, where published articles can seem like the grand prize, to the tenure track, where articles are one’s bread and butter. Timely progress through the training period and into the faculty position is essential, as is productivity demonstrated by publishing. Perfectionism and frustration must be overcome, and high levels of resilience must be developed.

We may be scaring off students and postdocs who are truly well suited for the health science professoriate by not giving them a good sense of how attainable success is. Researchers who do well, including in today’s difficult climate, are mostly not wunderkinds. Many of the factors that make a successful scientist come from within, and a researcher who cannot or will not move forward productively will not do well. But it is the responsibility of those who train graduate students and postdocs to ready them for success, including by ensuring that they truly understand how to turn their data into manuscripts and their manuscripts into publications. Judgment of what to publish, when, and where; what is enough work to move forward to the next career step; and how to build a compelling grant comes from knowledge passed from person to person in the laboratory and at the desk.

Academic departments can improve trainees’ preparation by showing them how established scientists overcome setbacks at the bench, turned-down papers, unfunded grants, and the other disappointments, annoyances, defeats, and disgruntlements that are part of professional life. There are no morbidity and mortality conferences on academic life, but perhaps there should be. Faculty should be frank about the challenge of staying productive, especially when circumstances beyond the normal workflow cause slowdowns or complete disruptions of progress. Retrospective discussions can improve trainees’ understanding of how to move from postdoc to faculty start-up to independence, how and when new lines of research are launched, how small stories unexpectedly bloom into big ones, and how collaborations begin. Students, postdocs, and junior faculty would all benefit from hearing how childbirth, parenthood, being pressed unexpectedly into substantial service or teaching roles, marriage, divorce, natural disaster, health crises, and remarkable opportunities that sometimes arise have shaped the careers, outlooks, productivity, and the science of those around them.

Here, we have focused on numbers, but we have not examined the impact of BWF awardees’ publications, the success of their trainees, their standing within their fields, or whether they are viewed as leaders. Future work will explore whether, when, and how these productive researchers drive their fields forward, and will look at how they move into institutional, national, and international leadership and service roles. That analysis may provide insight into the differences between men’s and women’s publishing rates at midcareer. Another interesting question, but not one that we are well positioned to answer, is what goes wrong with faculty careers? Although some careers implode in fascinating but not illuminating ways, there may be much to learn from looking for patterns in the career development of researchers who struggle with launching independent careers and of those who are unable to reestablish productivity after interruptions.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank Ruth Reynolds for her assistance and John Burris for critical reading of the manuscript.

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