You’ve just gotten your K award—awesome!  75% of your professional effort is now protected to focus on your research and career development.  But wait.  What about that class you teach, or those days your department expects you to be in clinic, or the students whose dissertation committee you’re on, or…

Keeping 75% of your time protected can quickly get complicated.  Compliance experts Tesha Garcia-Taylor, MBA, and Robert Dow, MBA, recently presented to a group of Vanderbilt career development awardees their top tips for keeping on the straight and narrow.

First, consider the pie.  Pizza, if you like.  The pie is all of the effort you give to your work in an average year, across research, clinical, teaching, and any other activities you probably wouldn’t do unless your institution was paying you.  It includes everything from being in the OR to reading cell cultures to preparing a class syllabus to checking your work email.  Of this entire pie, 75% (six slices of your standard eight-slice pizza) should be a.) your research, or b.) your career development, which can include writing grants, presenting your work at meetings, and other things that might not be specifically sitting at a bench/interviewing research subjects/analyzing data that we’ll get to in a moment.

“But I’m in clinic 15 hours a week.  Isn’t that more than 25% of a week?”  Well, what’s a normal work-week for you?  More importantly, what’s a normative week for your profession?  Specifically, for your specialty—surgeons are more likely to work 80-hour weeks on a standard basis than PhD scientists, for example.  At Vanderbilt, a typical work-week for most, not all, of our faculty is right around 60 hours.  So 15 hours a week of clinic would actually be exactly 25% of a week in that scenario.  (This ignores the fact that you might also want/need to do things like go to grand rounds or complete compliance training, teach clinical trainees, etc., so best not to assume that 15 hours is all you’d be doing that isn’t research or career development.)

“Okay, but half the faculty in our tiny department just went on maternity leave, and I have to teach this and cover for that and all these other things.  I can’t just say nope, sorry.  What do I do?”

Option 1: Explode your workweek to 100 hours.  Fit in 25 hours of teaching/clinic/other and focus on your career development for 75.  We at Edge for Scholars (also anyone sane) do not recommend this option.

Option 2: Let the class/clinic/whatever take up 40% of your time this month or quarter, but devote 90% to your K work for the next month/quarter.  Effort should average out over the year, not the day or even the month.  That said, keeping effort balanced each quarter is preferable, because it’s easy to let things slide until there’s not enough time left in the year to get the right average.

Option 3: Say to your leadership, “I’m coming up on my annual progress report/I’m six months into my award/I’m [fill in appropriate time marker here], and I’m concerned that things aren’t squaring up with my effort on this K award.”  It’s not an urban legend that institutions around the country have had to give back money to the feds because they didn’t let a K awardee have his or her protected time.  Your department doesn’t want to give back grant money or be scrutinized by the compliance office or NIH, we promise.

However, the best time to discuss your effort with your boss is before you submit the grant proposal.  Mutually decide what activities you will put down if you get the award, and get that agreement in writing in the letter of institutional support.  When thinking about what you would drop to focus on your K award, consider a few things:

What can you really not miss?  If everyone in your department including Professor Multimillion Dollar Lab goes to the department seminar, you’re going to the seminar.  But that likely means you can miss journal club.  Go to the things that are most relevant to you, not to every event.

As well, what national things should you keep attending?  If you’re going to a meeting to network with potential collaborators and disseminate your research, of course keep going; this falls under your K effort.  But if, for example, the society for your specialty has an annual meeting that’s mostly attended by clinicians in private practice, you don’t necessarily need to be the one who takes the residents there to present.  Consider attending some meetings every other or every few years.

Does it overlap? Many activities that look like service may ultimately end up feeding into your research.  Say you need to learn how to read a particular kind of PET scan or a how to perform a new microscopy technique, so you visit a colleague and learn it from them.  In learning the new thing, you work on scans or samples from your colleague’s work that need to be read/analyzed.  Does this help them get through a number of scans or samples?  Sure, but it also helps you master these skills, so as far as the feds are concerned, that effort fits with your K.  Similarly, teaching a student who’s working on your research may pay dividends for them in the form of a degree, but it also helps your research get done.

Get to know your financial officers.  They want to help you understand and comply with regulations around effort.  If you don’t already receive a monthly budget and effort report, ask for regular updates to make sure they line up with reality.  This will become even more important as you move on to larger grants and run a bigger research team.

Protecting 75% of your time requires you to be proactive.  Check in regularly with yourself to make sure you’re spending the right amount of effort on your K work, and follow the advice above if things start looking unbalanced.

More Resources

Designing Your Career

Not that Kind of Grant Application: Tales of Career Development Awards 

More Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Wrote My K

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