Funding News Edition: August 17, 2022 See more articles in this edition
NIH defines the term “physician-scientist” as a scientist with a professional degree who has training in clinical care and is engaged in independent biomedical research. Typically, these researchers possess a clinical doctorate degree (i.e., MD, DO, DDS/DMD, DVM/VMD, MD/PhD, DNP, or nurse with research doctoral degree) and devote the majority of their time to biomedical research. An established physician-scientist often holds an independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty position.
In 2014, NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director formed a Working Group to identify incentives and barriers to the physician-scientist career path and provide recommendations for developing this distinct cohort. Informed by those ideas and our own scientific priorities, NIAID established and honed funding initiatives designed to create a path for early-career researchers pursuing a vocation as a physician-scientist.
Why the Special Focus
By virtue of their training, experiences, and responsibilities as clinicians, physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to identify research priorities and pursue breakthroughs less obvious to investigators who are further removed from patient care. For example, a physician-scientist might recognize a strategy to improve drug regimen uptake within a subpopulation sooner than an investigator who doesn’t regularly interact with subjects.
We also acknowledge that becoming a physician-scientist is an especially demanding career path; aspirants need two advanced degrees and training in two distinct areas (to build clinical and research experience). Credentials aside, the job responsibilities that fall upon a physician-scientist are formidable—teaching, conducting and publishing research, running a lab, and all the while fulfilling patient care obligations.
NIH’s working group also identified deficiencies of the physician-scientist workforce with regard to diversity. As underscored by NIH’s Notice of Interest in Diversity, supporting a more diverse generation of physician-scientists represents an opportunity to amplify the unique perspectives this group has to offer the biomedical research enterprise.
Thus, to ensure well-qualified physician-scientists are entering the principal investigator ranks at or above the rate that veteran physician-scientists retire from research, NIAID supports initiatives to catalyze their training and career development.
Pipeline of Support
As illustrated in the infographic Let NIH Help You in Your Research Career Goal Toward Becoming a Physician-Scientist, for nearly every stage of a physician-scientist’s training and progression, a mechanism for NIH support exists.
At NIAID, we highly encourage aspiring physician-scientists to become familiar with our Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00):
- NIAID Physician-Scientist Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00, Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed)
- NIAID Physician-Scientist Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00, Clinical Trial Required)
These opportunities are designed for applicants with no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research experience to first provide 1 or 2 years of substantive, mentored research training and then sponsor up to 2 years of independent research. As a result, awardees should become competitive candidates for tenure-track faculty positions, ready to launch robust, productive research programs.
Predoctoral and postdoctoral candidates whose career status or trajectory preclude eligibility for a K99/R00 award should instead consider the following fellowship and career development awards:
- NRSA Individual Fellowship for Students at Institutions with NIH-Funded Institutional Predoctoral Dual-Degree Training Programs (Parent F30)
- NRSA Individual Fellowship for Students at Institutions Without NIH-Funded Institutional Predoctoral Dual-Degree Training Programs (Parent F30)
- Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award (Parent K08, Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed)
- Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (Parent K23, Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed)
Conversely, those physician-scientists who have already progressed to independent research should consider the following opportunities:
- Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research (Parent K24, Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed)
- Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research (Parent K24, Independent Clinical Trial Required)
NIAID views mentorship as especially beneficial for physician-scientists, since a mentor who understands the convergence of clinical and research responsibilities can best model how to balance the heavy workload and competing obligations that accompany the role.
If being the sole principal investigator on an R01 grant places too much administrative burden on your time and energy, seek out opportunities to collaborate with colleagues. It’s becoming increasingly important to have people with complementary skills and expertise working together to achieve a common research goal. If you haven’t considered forming or being part of a team, you might want to give it some thought.
Our Build Your Team page lays out the benefits and drawbacks to approaching research from a complementary perspective. Given their uncommon background, physician-scientists can be key contributors within research groups, even when not managing the oversight and direction of a project. If you need help finding potential collaborators, we recommend exploring the tools highlighted on our See Funded Projects and More Using NIH Databases page.