Not that Kind of Grant Application: Tales of Waiting for Career Development Awards
In my last posts, I covered considerations for writing career development awards, and tips specific to the K99/R00. After submitting my application, I scoured the web for information on what to do next. Alas, more people focused on the submission rather than subsequent steps. This is perhaps unsurprising since the next phase is waiting. Here, I will discuss the different events you will await. For NIH application veterans, there is nothing new here, but for first time applicants, the process is surprisingly slow. These events are based on posted NIH policies, my experiences, and the experiences of my fellow awardees, so as always, n=me and a few of my friends.
Waiting for study section review: There is a five month waiting period between grant submission and the first level of review. One positive aspect of this long wait is that you can publish additional papers or do more experiments for your potential/probable resubmission. About a month before the study section meets, you will receive an email from the Program Officer (PO) and have the opportunity to provide specific updated documents, like biosketches. Important updates include papers accepted, honors awarded, and new positions for your mentors, like promotion to full professor. One of my fellow awardees had to re-write the training section to address a mentor’s move to a new institution. Your PO can advise if you have questions.
Waiting for your scores: Your study section review date will be listed in eRA Commons, and your grant score will be posted within a couple days of the study section meeting. A score of 10 is perfect, a score of 90 is the opposite, and ND is “not discussed”. Additional details can be found here. For career development awards, grants are awarded based on their impact score. Different institutes, funding mechanisms, and years have different paylines. In our experiences, these can be difficult to track down, but in general, if your impact score is under 20, you are likely to be recommended for funding. The Writedit blog was a great resource for many of us across several institutes and funding mechanisms. Also, let your mentors know the score. I have heard mentors grumble about never knowing grant outcomes until they are asked to update a letter.
Waiting for your pink sheets: The reviews of your grant are posted within 6 weeks of the study section meeting. Our pooled average was 4 weeks. It is likely that your application will score close to or outside of the payline. Read the reviews. Process your emotions. Read the reviews again and make a list of your application’s criticisms. Reach out to your PO to discuss the application and gauge their enthusiasm. If you are close to the payline, you may still be competitive. Again, your PO will provide advice. If they tell you that you should resubmit, plan to revise and resubmit. If you are well outside the range, you will need to revise and resubmit. For both scenarios, send the reviews to your mentors, along with the list you wrote, and together define an action plan to make the application more competitive. Reading and responding to comments is painful, but it is great practice for your grant-driven career. If you are below the payline, and thus within funding range, congratulations. Send your pink sheets to your mentors too, so they can bask in good reviews. Somewhere in this timeframe, if your application has the potential to be funded, your PO will request that you submit your Just in Time (JIT) information. This includes updated Other Support for key personnel, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) approval for animal studies, and/or Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for human subjects.
Waiting for council to meet: Regardless of your score, the final fate of the grant application is recommended by the institute’s advisory council and decided by the institute director. The lower your score, the more likely you are to get funded. While a PO cannot magic a bad application into funding range, they can advocate for your application. These are usually applications that fall outside the funding range and address an unmet need in the institute’s research portfolio. In our cohort, one borderline and two out of payline applications were selected for funding.
Waiting for the grant to arrive: If your grant is selected for funding, you will still have to wait for it to arrive at your institution. When all is said and done, this process, from application submission to earliest start date, takes 10 months. Plan accordingly.
A note to unsuccessful applicants: Not all applicants will be awarded a career development award, so do not lose hope. These grants, as all grants, are incredibly competitive, and there is an element of luck in the process. For the postdocs reading, you do not need a career development award to land a tenure-track position. Our job searches with K awards were no easier than those of our friends without K awards. Your unfunded career development award is the perfect chalk talk, and you should plan on submitting a revised version as an R01 within a year of starting your new position. For the MDs looking to launch their research careers, keep applying for various grants. Your department is invested, and they will help where they can.
With some great science and solid mentoring, hopefully the day will come when your grant is awarded and you can begin your research in earnest. If you are on a traditional K award, carefully plan when you will submit your first R01 (for terrifying details, see the “Taking Flight” post). For trainees with the K99/R00 award, the grant raises a whole slew of questions. In my next post, I will address how long the K99 phase should be, whether or not you should move, and what the K99 to R00 transition looks like. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org