I have to pay back what?!

As if it isn’t difficult enough to be in your mid-thirties starting a family while living on a postdoc salary and waiting to move yet again before finally getting a “real” job, some of us also have to worry about making career changes that don’t result in having to pay back up to a year’s income. Yes, you read that right – I could be made to pay back a year’s stipend if I don’t follow through on a commitment to stay in research or select other related positions for a set amount of time.

If you’re unfamiliar with this payback agreement, here’s an article that covers most of the issue and risks, but in short: certain NIH training grants (i.e. institutional T32 or postdoctoral individual F32) require a signed contract that you must “pay back” the time you are sponsored by the grant, up to one year, either by working at least 20 hours per week in research or a related position (including teaching, working in industry and many others at the NIH’s discretion), or by literally paying back the money that was granted to you.

To some degree, I get it. The NIH is trying to fulfill a mission, and in spending money on training researchers as part of that mission, they want to ensure  that they benefit from those investments as much as possible. And, as they will tell you, most people accomplish paying back the first year of training by fulfilling a second year or more on the training grant. Others find related jobs or receive alternate funding for research, which fulfills the obligation.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to go into all the possible scenarios that put someone in a difficult position to pay this back – you can imagine a laundry list of nightmares (needing to quit working for medical reasons and having to owe a year’s income?!?) – but I will focus on the situations for starting and wanting to get out that are most relevant for my situation.

First, it is often the case that a postdoc can only join the lab they want (or find any position at all) if they are sponsored by funding other than the PI’s grants – this is typically going to be a T32 or F32. So right away, one could be faced with the decision to either take a job with this sketchy payback agreement, unsure of what their feelings will be in 1-2 years, or not have a job (in the academic research career path) at all. I actually was given the option and, thankfully, had a boss who was thoughtful enough to bring up the payback issue and discuss it with me. Some people get blindsided with this once they’ve already settled on a position. I accepted it, thinking that I would be staying in my current position at least as long as I needed to fulfill the payback obligation.

So now I find myself in the early phase of my payback year, searching for jobs and leaning more and more toward a new career path that will certainly not fulfill the payback obligation. And a great opportunity has come up, in a place that would be perfect for my family to relocate to… but what do I do? Apply and (if offered a position) ask to delay starting for another 9 months? Accept a position and incur a huge loss in my net income as I payback my training stipend? Not apply now and just hope that another perfect opportunity will present itself when the time is ripe?

And there’s the rub. By being paid by this funding mechanism with the intention of supporting my training for my career, my ideal career path may actually be blocked. I try really hard not to make choices based solely on financial reasons, but this time it really matters, as the financial aspect would immediately and severely affect me and my family, and there is no apparent remedy or even band-aid.

The thing (well, one of the many things) is that there’s no way to demonstrate to the NIH how destructive this may be. There’s no way to measure the lost potential or even count the number of people who haven’t started the career they wanted because they felt stuck in research due to their financial obligation. There’s no way to know how many people signed on or stuck it out because it was the only option for making a living. Importantly, those trainees are really not serving the NIH’s goals in the long run either.

Now, not only am I losing out financially just by doing a postdoc, as this recent heartbreaking article describes, but I am also losing financially and/or in potential career happiness by having signed this payback agreement. I know, it’s never too late and I’ll give the new career direction a try when the timing is right, but I want to be able to make that decision on my own terms, not for fear of owing someone money. In a career path where I’m constantly reminded that the cards are stacked against me, I don’t think this is too much to ask.

This entry was posted in academia, finishing postdoctoral training, funding, money, postdoc, transitions. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I have to pay back what?!

  1. This is such a daunting scenario that is on my mind as I apply for my first postdoc fellowships. One of the things I have thought about is whether the jobs I might want to pursue if Plan A doesn’t work out would be flexible with startup timing, and whether that is a thing one can negotiate for…


    • SweetScience says:

      Good for you for thinking about it in advance! Many jobs are flexible, but you just can’t know and it’s so hard. I’m reading a lot into your brief comment, but the way you phrased it made me think that you are pretty committed to a research track for Plan A, and another path at this point sounds like a less optimal plan for you… if that’s the case then I think in most postdoc situations it would be good for you to stick it out for at least two years (the first year in any new place/job is always difficult) to be certain that that isn’t the path for you.


  2. StrongerThanFiction says:

    UGH! I totally felt the same way about this. Actually, at first I felt totally guilty for possibly not fulfilling my obligation. The first payback I had to do was going from a grad school training grant to a postdoc, so that was built in. Then, I was on a training grant my first year of postdoc, so I owed another complete year. Buuuuut, I got a job offer outside of academia 3/4 of that year through. I was teaching that quarter, so it was easy to push the start date off a little for that reason. But, still, I was two or three weeks shy of fulfilling my obligation. So, I was on the hook for a payback. It sounds like a really short period of time, but because of the stipend, health care, and other university overhead, it was substantial – way more than I would have gotten paid if I had stayed those extra couple weeks.
    I was stressed about it, so I took my time filling out the paperwork for the payback. The job I took instead of staying that 2-3 weeks was very borderline as far as meeting the seemingly very specific descriptions about what type of job counts as payback. It has to be science, and it has to be directly related to x,y, and z. I don’t quite remember all the details now. But, my strategy was like that of applying for a grant. I wrote a statement about how what I was doing was impactful, and should be considered to fulfill the remaining payback I owed NIH. I took creative license and attached it under “other”. Luckily, that worked, and I didn’t have to pay back several thousand dollars.


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