Many colorful letters. Useful for concepts

Three more K awardees share the advice they wish they’d received before preparing career development awards. Writing your K? Listen up. (And read advice from prior K awardees.)

Prepare Early

Before you start writing, know which award and which institute you’re trying for, as this will influence how you shape your application.

Research NIH institutes’ paylines. Your work may fit, or could be lightly massaged to fit, at multiple institutes, so be aware of success rates.

Not all institutes allow the same number of years on a K. Some count time spent on a K12 toward your six-year maximum of career development award time. This will impact how many years of support you request.

Review videos from institute meetings and special events. You can learn quite a bit about where the institute is going and what they’re interested in funding from these panels, addresses, and symposias. (Here’s NHLBI’s list of past events, for example.)

Use NIH Matchmaker and NIH RePORTER to see what’s being funded in your research area.

Get permission from leadership to apply. Your department chair or division chief may not be able to spare 75% of you right now. Know this before you start writing.

If you can, use the Early Career Reviewer Program to sit on a study section and see how the sausage is made.

Start early. Our grant pacing guru recommends at least 16-20 weeks out.

Even the budget will take more time than you think. You can’t just do it the week before the due date—at least, not without making your grants manager VERY unhappy.

Writing the Application

“Training” doesn’t need to mean, or even include, going to class. At this point in your career, much of the training you need can be accomplished more quickly and easily by attending conferences, summer institutes, intensives, or workshops, and working with/learning from the right people. These people might be your mentors who are teaching you the finer points of your shared field; they might be folks at other institutions you visit for two weeks a year to learn a specific technique in their lab.

Use your mentor letter to cover ground you can’t fit into the body of the grant. (Yes, you will draft their letters.)

Everyone reads your biosketch, even reviewers not assigned to your grant. This is your best place for self-promotion, so craft your personal statement and contributions to science carefully.

For your resources and facilities section, only include those cores, resources, etc. that you will actually use. This means edit the boilerplate text your institution or department keeps, don’t just copy it in without any changes. End paragraphs by noting that this is the group or core you’ll be using to do x.

If you’re mostly using data from large, well-known repositories, ask for 3-4 years on your K. Reviewers know you won’t need to spend time collecting or cleaning the data, so showing that you realize this and understand your grant doesn’t need to be the max number of years makes you look good.

Allay Potential Skepticism

To allay fears you won’t be able to launch your proposed study, show reviewers you’ve already got it rolling. Include a timeline with a “T minus 1” year to show what you’ve already accomplished, whether that’s getting approval from review boards or owners of data sets or specimens you’d like to use, enrolling participants, or breeding mice. Cite your IRB and/or IACUC approval numbers in the text.

Generic personal statements in mentor or co-investigator biosketches imply they’re not committed to you. Ask for the Word document rather than a PDF and tweak the personal statement to reflect their support.

Consider editing the “contributions to science” section of mentor biosketches to emphasize work that is most applicable to your research and make it clear why you chose that person for your mentoring committee.

Technical Items Are Just as Important

Make sure you choose the right RFA. Different RFAs allow or disallow a clinical trial (and NIH has broadened their definition of clinical trials); you’ll get shot down if you respond to the wrong one.

You can update your publication info up to one month before review. This allows significant time to get more papers out; review committees meet approximately 4-5 months after each of the K due dates.

For resubmissions, don’t forget to update dates/other info in letters. Some study sections really care about this. Don’t let an easy fix hold you back.

Use the space you’re given. NIH allows 6 lines per inch, so a 10 inch page=60 lines per page. A standard Word document with .5” margins in 11pt Arial single space font will fit 55-56 lines. This means you can fit 4-5 more lines per page with the right hack. (Go to “Paragraph,” then under Line Spacing choose “Exactly” instead of “Single.”) Voila, more lines!

Get to know your program officer before you submit. POs who have seen you through earlier grants, like Loan Repayment or fellowships, are invested in you and want to see you succeed with your K. Even if you haven’t applied for NIH grants before, if the PO has spoken with you about your science he or she will have a face, or at least a voice, to put with your name.

You can ask to switch study sections if you were assigned to a less favorable one. Call the PO for the study section you want to ask if they’ll scoop up your application. Be aware this might not make you any friends.

To avoid headaches during the Just In Time (JIT) period, keep the same study name between your IRB application and your grant. One panelist found that a different study name between the two caused considerable confusion. If you’ve already submitted your K with a different study name, talk to your institution’s grants management office so they aren’t at a loss when asked to verify your IRB approval.

Thanks to panelists Derek Smith, DDS, PhD; Eric Tkaczyk, MD, PhD; and Ebele Umeukeje, MD, MPH, for their great advice.

Additional Resources

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

How a Jail-house Letter and Goat Research Can Get Your Grant Funded

Your Grant as Story – the Rogue Character

What I Wish I’d Known Before I Wrote My K

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1 Comment
Courtney says:

I’m curious to learn more about the point regarding updating publication info upto 1 month before review. How and where is this done? Is this in reference to the NCBI biblography? My understanding is the the NCBI bibliography (linked in biosketch) can and should be updated continuously, so I was wondering why this instruction referenced “up to 1 month before.”
Is there another place to update publication info?

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