Not that Kind of Career Development Award: Tales of Writing the K99/R00
In my last post, I provided some general thoughts and experiences with career development awards, having seen a number of (eventually) successful K awards be submitted. This post covers some specific considerations for writing the K99/R00. These thoughts are based on my experiences, the extracted knowledge of individuals who review K99/R00s, and a few of my fellow awardees, so as always, n=me and a few of my friends.
Eligibility and when to submit: The K99/R00 has no citizenship requirement and is open to both PhDs and MDs. However, as with most career development awards, you are only eligible until the end of your fourth year after the terminal degree. For MDs, this clocks starts when you begin doing research, and not necessarily during your clinical training. I was not sure when my eligibility would run out, so I contacted my Program Officer (PO) in my second year, and he helped me determine my last possible submission date. I then counted back, so if the grant was unfunded in the first submission (a highly probable outcome), I would have time to sit out an application cycle and submit a revised application. Due to NIH review timelines, it is nearly impossible to submit a revised application in consecutive cycles, so when you plan your submissions, give yourself enough time to address the reviewers’ comments. I also advise against submitting too early. It is rare to have solid preliminary data, a publication record on the topic, and a well-designed research plan early in the fellowship. You are better served spending the first years generating the data and publications required for a successful application.
Grant structure: The K99/R00 is a two-phase grant with two distinct goals. The K99 portion of the award provides up to two years of additional mentored time with your mentoring committee, covers your salary, and provides a nice chunk of money to execute your career development and research plans. The R00 portion of the award is the independent phase of the grant in the form of a mini-R01 spanning three years.
What the application covers: The grant application includes your five year research plan and a budget for the K99 phase. You also need to carefully outline the specific didactic and mentorship components of the K99, as well as what you plan to do in the R00 to become independent and develop your career. I always suggest including a timeline for the full five years of the award. This visualizes your plan and serves as a checklist for your annual progress report.
Addressing the disparate goals of the K99 and R00 components: Writing the K99/R00 can feel bipolar. You are the best candidate, but you need more training. You have the best mentor and mentoring committee, but you will never speak to them again when you transition to the R00. You are at the best institution to complete your K99, but you are leaving for a yet-to-be-determined institution for the R00. These transitions can feel jarring. However, unlike other K awards where you slowly progress towards independence, K99/R00 awards have a hard mentored/independent split. You must make it abundantly clear that the K99 training and mentorship are required for your success, and once you have completed the K99, then you will be ready for total independence in the R00 without the safety wheels of your home department, institution, or mentors.
Crafting the grant: My sources from the inside report that review committees for career development awards tend to favor less innovative grants with high probabilities of aim completion and subsequent successful R01 conversions. Knowing this, I made sure my science complemented the proposed training plan. I leveraged the expertise and training of my postdoc mentor in Aim 1, while receiving additional training for elements critical for Aim 2 and 3 completion. In Aim 2, when I planned to be interviewing for jobs and setting up a lab, I would apply what I learned from my mentored time. Finally, Aim 3 combined the expertise of my other mentors and placed me in a different research world from my postdoc mentor. This, along with a clear plan to leave my K99 institution, demonstrated I would be independent of my mentor in the R00.
Time management and grant cohesion: There are about 20 items in the K99/R00 application. I wrote my grant over the course of five months and still felt rushed at the end. Collecting (and likely formatting) biosketches, drafting letters, crafting resource pages, and writing human or animal use sections take time. Someone will have to build the application in the grant system, and it might be you. Also, different institutions have different levels of review in their finance departments with review time varying from days to a full month. Talk to your departmental administrator and find out how your department and institution operates. Finally, give yourself time to weave the grant application together. Reference other sections of the grant and send reviewers to the relevant section (for example: for details, see Career Development and Mentor’s Letter). As with all grant applications, your application must be seamless and not a collection of unrelated documents. For advice on breaking down the grant into manageable pieces, see the excellent blogs by Durango Kid.
Revise, revise, revise: Be prepared to revise. There are numerous people who should provide critical review for your application components. Your PO will want to see your specific aims to determine if your application is a good fit for the institute, and some POs even provide feedback on your proposed aims. Your mentors should read your draft aims and then the research strategy. Accept their comments graciously (no, this is not easy or fun but do it anyway). It is far better to have mentors identify weaknesses in your application than the study section (they will find some anyway). Again, give yourself time to respond to feedback. For example, I rewrote an aim that a mentor perceived as a fishing expedition. A former career development award reviewer outside my Terrible Disease field had concerns over a model I was using, so even though I liked the model, I replaced it. When I looked up the study section reviewing my application, I was surprised that not a single reviewer worked on my Terrible Disease. Needless to say, I revised the application to include more Terrible Disease background and removed abbreviations. Keep the application focused, hypothesis-driven, and non-controversial.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, with all this in mind, your excellent training, tremendous potential, and the wisdom of your mentors, you will have written and submitted your K99/R00 application. What happens next? In my next post, I will recount tales of subsequent adventures with the K99/R00. Stay tuned for more tales!
Still have questions? More confused than when you started? Need to vent about the process? Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org