Three K awardees (K01, K08, K23) share the advice they wish they’d received before preparing career development awards at a recent seminar. Writing your K? Listen up.

Training Plan and Mentors

Have an endgame, and goals to get there. In your training plan, you should be able to articulate your research aspirations for the longterm (and make sure that fills a niche in your field). Work backwards to establish long-term, intermediate, and short-term (i.e., K) goals.

This is your chance to tell your story. How does your background set you up to achieve your endgame goals? What else do you need to get you there?

Mentors probably can’t teach you piano, but they can open doors to resources you need.

It’s common and encouraged to have interdisciplinary mentoring committees of 3 or 4 senior faculty. For your application you need to identify scientifically accomplished investigators. This assures reviewers you can access their resources, problem-solving advice, career development coaching, and a larger network of colleagues. While peers and near peers may still be the people you walk down the hall to see when you have a question, your primary mentor(s) should be able to open doors for you. Reviewers will look up your mentors in NIH RePORTER. If they see that your mentor has only one grant and it’s running out next year, they’ll suspect, “This person can’t keep their own career together. How are they going to help someone else?” (Here’s a great description of who should be on your committee.)

Be specific about how you’ll learn and how your mentors will help you. Make explicit the learning activities (e.g., courses, regular meetings, writing a review article, carrying out scientific project, mastering a specific technique) and scholarly products (some overlap with learning activities) related to each training goal. Identify each training need with a mentor or consultant. Reviewers will focus on specifics: Coursework and whether it ties into the proposed science; special training opportunities like workshops, frequency and content of mentorship meetings; justification for the research funding outside the PI salary support.

Summarize all activities and products in a comprehensive timeline. Show reviewers how the training and science will unfold and be sure to include targets for grant submission and resubmissions.

Have someone with K review section experience review this section (even if they’re outside your subject area).

Research Strategy

Your research plan:

  • has to be feasible (be careful not to be “too ambitious”)
  • have strong and sellable novelty/impact
  • should facilitate your training in a (set of) new method(s) or a higher level of skill

Propose research with just the right amount of complexity. If one of your figures looks like this, seek help. Maybe from a mentor!

Find the sweet spot for the complexity of the science you propose. A multisite clinical trial would be viewed as too difficult to pull off on a K, while complete reliance on an existing data set might be viewed as not ambitious enough.

Non-dependent aims are key. This applies to all grants, including K’s. If Aim 1 tests the effectiveness of Drug A vs. Drug B and Aims 2 and 3 propose to explore why Drug A works better, you’re dead in the water if it doesn’t.

Show that you know when to submit your R. A K is a five year grant to do 2.5 to 3 years of work preliminary to a more sweeping study. To ensure success, you should get enough data in the first two years of your K to write and submit your R01 or equivalent in your third year.

Tables and pithy summary-type figures are your friends. Reviewers who are not assigned readers may read only aims, abstract, tables, and figures before deciding if they will read more.

Study section choice matters. Try to direct your grant to a study section that you think will understand the grant and its merits. Your program officer can be enormously helpful here; ask if specific study sections have been responding well to similar types of research and they can usually tell you.

Funding decisions are unpredictable. Sometimes really good ideas aren’t funded.

Sometimes you have to “play the game.” Study funded K awards and give review panels what they’re looking for – don’t neglect expected content. All parts of the proposal matter.

Letters of Support

Drafting your own letters is standard. It will feel weird, but it makes the grant more of a unified package. Unleash your ego and talk yourself up. Mentors and collaborators will take your draft and modify it to give it their own voice.

Give your letter writers time. A month’s notice is standard. More is better. Two weeks is pushing it. Remember, you’ve taken the advice above and asked high-powered scientists to mentor you—this means they are busy traveling, going to meetings, and trying to fit their own science around institutional responsibilities.


Resubmission in progress.

Plan to resubmit. Remember resubmission is expected. Most eventual K awardees have to resubmit their K. Think ahead about what you can accomplish between submissions.

Show productivity. Work to get a paper out or make progress on one of your aims. You might even ask for a shorter funding period in the resubmission, because you’ve made progress. This is impressive to reviewers.

Have someone new look at it. To ensure your response to reviewers strikes the right tone, ask someone uninvolved or only peripherally involved with your work or the grant to look at it and provide outside perspective.

If reviewers liked a section, keep it. Don’t court trouble by changing what worked. Some successful resubmitters have included a copy of the scores each reviewer gave on each section and noted that since Approach or RCR or whatever was criticized the most, that’s where they’ve focused their revisions.

And Last…

Start early and pace yourself.

It will take longer than you think. Start well before you think you need to. Our grant pacing guru recommends at least 16-20 weeks out.

Advice that applies to other grants (e.g., R01’s) may not be optimal for a K. R01s don’t have mentor letters or letters of recommendation, for example.

All of the sections matter, even components like RCR and Vertebrate Animals. We’ve seen grants rejected for review for inadequate RCR and expect errors in the new Forms-E may have similar risks.

Don’t ever look at a grant score on vacation. You say you won’t, but…

Thanks to panelists Josh Fessel, PhD, MD (who also blogs at the Edge); Katherine Gotham, PhD; and Wesley Self, MD, for their great advice.

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1 Comment

Really great article! Wish I had this info before I received mine 🙂 In my third year now and concur with your list of suggestions. Some other aspects I feel that I wish I had paid more attention to are the specific policies and nuances of different types of K’s that govern what you are allowed to do/not do while being funded by the K. 

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