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.

18 responses so far

  • anon says:

    I'm curious. Has anyone been called upon to actually pay these back? I know several people who have left science completely. As far as I know, no one has ever asked them for the payback.

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes. This was specifically designed for clinicians who could make a lot more money outside of research. I know MD's who weighed this & did pay back.

      • sweetscience says:

        I do know people who've been asked to pay back, but they were all in fields where their work served the function and they did not have to pay money. I haven't heard any first-hand stories of having to pay back money (or of being allowed to not pay back when not in an approved position).

        • EPJ says:

          Some people actually say it in a sort of codified way, "there's nothing free", so that one way or another you pay to the 'investors'. So that gifts or donations or charity or scholarships carry an investment load.

          Administrator must spend lots of time shuffling what shouldn't need to be, and in some cases it just comes out wrong (like the true scientist being restricted because it is a working mom, and the wrong one being rewarded).

          So that some kind of simpler and truly inclusive budgeting is needed.

          But where is the money coming from? a tree?

    • anon says:

      I was asked to pay it back, and that was even after spending a second year as a Post-Doc. The NIH screwed up the paperwork, and it took multiple rounds of letters and getting signatures from my old boss in order to fix it. So, no, they have no problem tracking you down and getting the money!

  • eeke says:

    They should modify that requirement (if not get rid of it), such that the PI pays back the salary, not the post-doc. It almost seems like a form of blackmail, it's terrible.

    • potnia theron says:

      You are thinking about PhD's, etc. This was designed for clinicians who could make a lot more money not doing research, but benefited from the time on a training grant to get into a more prestigious fellowship/residency.

      As for making PI's pay it back, it just means that they (PI's) will end up being more careful about who they take on, and helping people get the F's (individual awards). Anyone who looks less than 1000% committed to a research career won't get the benefit of these mechanisms.

  • Jaws says:

    Suggestion for further research: Look into how ROTC cadets who do not achieve commissions (for whatever reason) are treated, and the entire brouhaha that surrounds that. To say the least, it's ugly, and patchwork, and controversial, and imposed by people who have no understanding of the motivations of cadets (that is, Congresscritters). Not to mention also being based upon government paying for education/research with specific expected outcomes...

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    NIH lacks the power to waive or eliminate the NRSA payback requirements, as it is required in the NRSA enabling statute. Only Congress can change this.

    • sweetscience says:

      *Only congress can approve such a change, which would need to be proposed by NIH, yes? I don't know much about the process but surely the mechanisms are initiated and informed and revised with NIH input.

  • Socal dendrite says:

    I have no idea about your general financial situation but if the opportunity that has come up is really as perfect and rare as it sounds then I think you should at least apply for it. Maybe you wouldn't get the position but you would learn something through the application/interview process. And if you did get offered the position, you wouldn't have much to lose by explaining the situation to them and seeing if any accommodation could be reached. If it doesn't work out, then you are no worse off than if you didn't apply (apart from the time invested)? It sounds to me like you would regret it if you didn't apply. (Unless you think similar opportunities might come your way later on.)

    • sweetscience says:

      I think you are right. The only other drawback is discussing the change with my references, including my PI who also controls my position on the training grant and ultimately whether I can keep my current position to continue "paying back" my obligation. Nonetheless, every day I agree with you more!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Maybe people shouldn't take NRSA slots if they can't commit to two years in science.

    • peirama says:

      I think you've missed the point of this post, drugmonkey. "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"

  • AJ says:

    This situation was a huge source of a stress for me when I decided I needed to leave my postdoc (was absolutely miserable). I was fairly confident that my job in pharma at a CRO would meet the requirements, but was still very anxious about it given that I was in the regulatory department as opposed to at the bench. Long story short, the NIH did contact me about a year into my new job to remind me of my obligation. I printed and filled out the form stating what I do in my current role and which activities meet the requirements, my boss signed it, and I e-mailed it in. About 2 weeks later i had a signed copy from the NIH letting me know that my obligation has been met.
    I think it is important to keep in mind that the NIH is not "out to get" us - their definition of research is actually quite broad when it comes to meeting the payback requirement. -- See Service Payback here: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps/nihgps.pdf

    I hope this helps people in making this difficult decision.

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