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She won her second Academy Award three years later for her role in the sleeper hit The Silence of the Lambs, where she played Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee investigating a serial murder case.

Foster made her debut as a film director the same year with the moderately successful Little Man Tate (1991), and founded her own production company, Egg Pictures, in 1992.

Aware that child stars are often unable to successfully continue their careers into adulthood, Foster became a full-time student at Yale in fall 1980, and her acting career slowed down in the following five years.

Foster has said she loved acting as a child, and values her early work for the experience it gave her: "Some people get quick breaks and declare, 'I'll never do commercials! ' I want to tell them, 'Well, I'm real glad you've got a pretty face, because I worked for 20 years doing that stuff and I feel it's really invaluable; it really taught me a lot.'" Foster's mother was concerned that her daughter's career would end by the time she grew out of playing children, and decided that to ensure continued work and to gain greater recognition, Foster should also begin acting in films for adult audiences.

The Los Angeles Welfare Board initially opposed twelve-year-old Foster's appearing in the film due to its violent content, but relented after governor Pat Brown intervened and a UCLA psychiatrist assessed her.

Although most of Foster's television appearances were minor, she had recurring roles in The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969–1971) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973), and starred opposite Christopher Connelly in the short-lived Paper Moon (1974), adapted from the hit film.

After a role in the television film Menace on the Mountain (1970), she made her feature film debut in Napoleon and Samantha (1972), playing a girl who becomes friends with a boy, played by Johnny Whitaker, and his pet lion.

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