Our department in my former institution has a very strong track record of securing career development awards for PhD and MD trainees, both on the basic and clinical research fronts.  Aside from the strong science in the department and the substantial resources of the institution, the biggest contributor to the success of the trainees in these grants was experience. The mentors knew the elements to include in the letters and how to leverage their expertise in the research projects, the trainees had watched older trainees work through and revise applications, the administrators were familiar with the particulars of these unique grants, and our Chair had mastered the letter of support.  All these factors contributed to strong outcomes for our grant applications.  This has led me to believe that access to successful applicants, their mentors, and their applications is paramount to the success of crafting the grant. I was lucky to be in a department with this amount of experience in career development awards, but many trainees are not. Here are some strategies that were successful for us. As always, n=me and a few of my friends.

Determine whether you are a good applicant: During my time as a postdoc, I watched quite a few early career scientists obsess over whether they were a good applicant for fellowships and career development awards. Concerns ranged from not enough papers (there will never be enough), not enough preliminary data (again, never enough), to not enough time to write (still, never enough). When I submitted my application, I did not believe myself to be a good applicant either, but thought I would be by the re-submission. The review committee disagreed. The grant scored well, and my perception shifted. If you satisfy the eligibility criteria for the award (time after degree, mentored position, etc.), want to pursue a career in research but need additional training and mentored time, and your mentor and/or Chair is supportive of your application, then you are a good applicant. Let the review committee determine if you should be an awardee.

Examine successful applications: I cannot express how important it was for me to see people writing career development awards and read successful applications before I started. First and foremost, this gave me a very strong grasp of the amount of work career development awards entail. The science is, by far, the easiest part! Some institutions have grant repositories that you can access, which keep grants behind an institutional login, and include not only the application but the application review (“pink sheets”) as well. You can always read the summaries from successful career awards on NIH RePORTER. Do not be afraid to ask your mentors if they know of successful applicants who would be willing to share their grant with you. Some awardees are even generous enough to provide their submission and pink sheets, allowing you to learn from their excellence and address their missteps/oversights/omissions in your own application. If nothing else, you should systematically go through the program announcement and identify all the components you will need to complete your career development award application.

Identify a project: The goal of the grant is to develop your career, therefore while the science needs to be strong, the focus of the grant should be how the science, your proposed training, and excellent mentoring committee will move you to the next step of your career, i.e. an R01. The successful grants that I have seen leveraged the experience of their current mentor and utilized the expertise of additional mentors to grow away from their mentor’s research as the grant progresses. At the end of the career development award, you want to occupy your own research niche. Your mentor will, of course, write a very nice letter stating that they will not compete with you, but the distinction between your research programs must be obvious to the review committee.

Select the training: If you cannot identify a single area in which you require additional training, career development awards are likely not for you. Again, you are using this additional mentored time to develop the skills you need to be successful at the next level. Determine where you are deficient and take a class or attend a workshop. In my experience, these have ranged from biostatistics courses for us translational PhD types to workshops in molecular biology for the surgeon-scientists to translational cancer research conferences for basic scientists. Leverage the resources of your institution and professional societies and be specific. Review committees want to know you have thought about your career development plan and want to see it executed.

Identify a mentor/mentors/mentoring committee: For us PhDs, this part is fairly straightforward: we pick our postdoc mentor as the primary mentor and build a committee around where we need additional expertise. For MDs, there is a little more flexibility. Part of this process is introspection. Where are you weakest? Are you a surgeon-scientists doing a basic science project? Identify strong basic science mentors to support the mechanistic parts of your projects. Are you a PhD in a clinical department? Recruit an MD to keep the translational aspect of your studies in focus. Another point to consider is what kind of research do you want to do next? Will your mentors get you there? Your mentors must be committed to the mentoring roles you identify for them and their commitment should be obvious in their letters of support. Name recognition of your mentors will do you little good if the review committee fails to believe you can secure a Nobel laureate, clinical Chair, and the world’s greatest biologist for your mentoring committee meetings. Choose wisely.

Once you have confirmed your eligibility, examined grant requirements, and defined the mentoring/research/training program, it is time to write. In my next post, I will discuss my experiences and share the experiences of my fellow K99/R00 awardees, from start to R00 transition and a little beyond. K awards are weird awards, but the K99/R00 is a very odd beast indeed.  Stay tuned for more tales!

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Rock solid advice. I want to underscore your great point about how to assess if you are a good applicant. The best investment of your time is to stop wondering and start writing. Write the most persuasive version of your science and your career plan. Then find others who have reviewed Ks (ask those with R01 and larger who are very likely to have been on study sections) to give you candid feedback. Arrange for pre-review and take comments to heart. Go outside your instituion for consultants if you must. Unless, as you point out so well, you have nothing left to learn, should be able to map your path to an application. 

It’s great that you had so much support in your department.  I did not have that benefit, but this is all great advice that I learned slowly, and via the internet.  I summarized some of the great resources I found in this blog post: http://computationalemologist.blogspot.com/2017/04/nih-career-development-k-grants-for.html
I especially like the part about not worrying if you are good enough.  Even if you don’t get it, it’s a worthwhile experience that will make you a better applicant.

Thank you both for your comments. I am glad this post has resonated with scientists on both sides of the career development award (applicant and mentor). Compu Emologist, postdocs in positions similar to yours are exactly why I decided to start writing these career development award posts. Happy to see you are sharing your resources and experiences as well. Feel free to reach out. 

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