Speaker: Jaime S. Rubin (Columbia University)Presented by Science Alliance
Reported by Evguenia Alexandrova | Posted January 13, 2016
According to the NIH, less than a quarter of U.S.-trained biomedical PhD graduates obtain tenure or tenure-track academic positions. The number of postdocs in the sciences continues to grow—in the U.S. there were 2.5 times more postdocs in 2012 than in 2000—while the number of tenure and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued. Not surprisingly, postdocs who have independent funding are more competitive in the academic job market. On November 3, 2015, the Academy's Science Alliance presented a seminar on grant writing, specifically applied to the NIH K99/R00 career transition award for postdocs. This year's Grantsmanship for Postdocs event featured a presentation by Jaime S. Rubin from Columbia University and a panel of postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty who have successfully applied for K99/R00 funding. The information Rubin provided on the K99/R00 funding mechanism is one component of the material she discusses in her Columbia University graduate-level course, “Funding and Grantsmanship for Research and Career Development Activities.”
Rubin described the K99/R00 award, and other similar funding from organizations such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the American Heart Association, which helps PhDs and physician-scientists with MD, DDS, and DVM degrees successfully transition to tenure-track academic positions. She outlined the K99/R00 application and review process, discussed common mistakes applicants make, and offered tips for writing a competitive application. The K99/R00, "a very unique—and growing—funding mechanism," is broken into two stages: researchers mentored by a more senior faculty member are funded at the K99 stage for 1–2 years before moving to the independent investigator R00 stage, funded for up to 3 years. Rubin and the panelists stressed the importance of starting the application early, seeking advice from past awardees, and working closely with a postdoc mentor and grant writing advisors during the application process. Rubin described the growing availability of the K9/R00 award as "a very good trend [that] shows the feeling at the [NIH] Institutes that this is an important and successful funding mechanism."
The NIH K99/R00 grant, introduced in 2007, is growing faster than any other NIH career development award. (Image presented by Jaime S. Rubin courtesy of NIH)
The K99/R00 award has no citizenship requirements but applicants must hold a PhD, MD, or similar degree and must have completed less than 4 years of post-degree research (excluding time off for family responsibilities, military service, and other such activities). The award requires that at least 75% of professional time during the award period be devoted to research and career development activities, and the institutional commitment letter should explicitly commit to this. The remaining time can be used, for example, for teaching or clinical activities. Candidates apply for K99/R00 funding as a whole, but it is expected that the K99 part is described in more detail. During transition to the independent R00 stage, the applicant needs to find a research-focused position as an assistant professor (or similar), usually at another institution. The new position and institution have to be approved by the NIH—administratively, not competitively. "If you have a K99/R00, things will be different on the job market: first, you come with your own money, and second, you demonstrate to possible employers that you have already been successful in a very competitive grant review process," Rubin said.
Rubin explained that the K99/R00 funding mechanism is different from that of many other research grants, such as the R01, because the candidate and the plan to transition to independence are almost as important as the proposed research plan. Gabrielle Fredman, a K99/R00 awardee who is now an assistant professor at Albany Medical College, agreed: "I was shocked to see how seriously they took the candidate background and the career development plan," she said. The purpose of the K99/R00 award is to support the transition from a mentored to an independent research career, and a plan to do so should be the focus of every part of the application. Konstantinos Drosatos, an assistant professor at Temple University, explained that "science needs to shine, but you also have to convince the reviewers that you will be a leader in your field, which is the second part—career development."
In the K99/R00 application, the candidate background, career goals and objectives, career development and training activities, and research strategy sections are counted together and cannot exceed 12 pages. Therefore, it is up to the applicant to decide how many pages to devote to each section. Rubin recommended that the first three sections fill about 4 pages and the research section fill about 8 pages. The candidate description should include prior research and training experiences as well as career goals and objectives, particularly current skills and areas for development. "If you don't have any lacking skills, then you don't need this award," Rubin pointed out. "You have to be really honest about why you need another two years of mentored experience—because you need to learn X, Y, and Z." The learning objectives should not list technical skills but scientific areas, such as how to formulate a hypothesis and answer research questions: "These are not awards for technicians; these are awards for scientists." The idea is that "when the reviewer reads [the candidate] sections, he or she will know you, will know about your enthusiasm and dedication to science, and all your wishes and plans going forward for the next 3 to 4 years. It all comes through in those four pages, and if it doesn't then there is a problem," Rubin said.
Rubin recommended organizing proposed training activities in a timeline table. For example, obtaining preliminary data could be the goal for years 1 and 2, publishing manuscripts for years 3 and 4, and submitting an R01 application for year 5. Fredman used this strategy: "The table with X's on years 1 to 5 was the thing that they liked the most, because they didn't have to read it, they just saw it," she said. Such a table should include research-related training, such as a course in statistics or a workshop on a specific technique, as well as training in so-called soft skills, which include grant and manuscript writing, mentoring, and responsible conduct of research. An application might be more competitive with stronger preliminary data or with a multi- or interdisciplinary focus.
The grant application should be a coherent document, with cross-referencing between sections. Rubin pointed to the facilities and resources section, which has no page limit, as a good place to include supporting information, such as institutional career development resources, that can be referenced elsewhere. A checklist and firm timeline for completing tasks, with "an absolute deadline for the final compilation," keeps the grant writing process on track. Some components of the application can be delegated to others; for example, an administrator could help draft the budget.
Winning applications usually have not only a strong candidate and strong mentors but also an advisory committee and research consultants and collaborators. Consultants and collaborators help candidates build technical skills; an advisory committee helps with career advancement, including future grant submissions. The committee could also help, as Drosatos pointed out, with the search for an assistant professorship position for the independent R00 stage. Robin Clugston from Columbia University, who is about to make the transition to the R00 stage, encouraged candidates to cast a wide net. "There is no harm in contacting people that you recognize as being leaders in your field or in techniques that you want to work with," he said. "Generally, you'd be surprised to get a quite positive response."
Applications are usually scored by three reviewers according to five criteria: candidate, career development plan, research plan, mentors and consultants, and environment and institutional commitment to the candidate. Each category is scored from 1 (exceptional) to 9 (poor), and these initial scores are used to decide whether an application will be discussed at the NIH Institute's study section. About half the applications are discussed by reviewers at a study section, where applications receive an overall impact score that reflects "the likelihood that the proposed career development and research plan will enhance the candidate's potential for an independent scientific research career." The overall impact score can go up or down after discussion, depending on the consensus of the study section and how well the application matches both the mission of the institute and the K99/R00 purpose. A common mistake is to "pay attention to the research and [not] give a lot of attention to the career development part," Rubin warned. "The research plan is only one of five review criteria."
Rubin also provided tips for writing a competitive K99/R00 application. "Remember two things," she said. "The competition is huge, and there are human beings on the other end reviewing your grants." It is important to use a legible font, to use concise sentences, and to include well-designed tables and images, because reviewers "are reading page after page after page—they are looking for something to break up the text." As Rubin noted, "Maybe technically a sentence can be a full paragraph, but can a human being really follow it if it's that long?"
The panelists advised candidates to start preparing an application more than 6 months before the deadline. They agreed that it is helpful to consult colleagues who have received K99/R00 awards and to review past funded applications, if possible. Rubin explained that the application should match the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) and the mission of the particular NIH Institute. If a proposal fits more than one institute, Rubin suggested choosing either the institute that most closely matches the scientific interests or career aspirations of the candidate or the institute with the higher success rate. This information is available on the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT) website, which has resources for preparing an application.
"If you want reviewers to know something, tell them, don't [ask them to] infer it. And if it's important, tell them more than once in your grant application," Rubin said. She also advised candidates to openly discuss possible challenges and alternative approaches to the proposed experiments and to refer to literature thoroughly and thoughtfully. As "a new investigator, you want to prove to them that you know exactly where the field is and how your research is moving the field forward," she said. It is useful to ask several people to review the grant application, leaving plenty of time to make changes.
The most common problems with K99/R00 applications. (Image courtesy of Jaime S. Rubin)
Common problems with K99/R00 applications include overly ambitious or not-hypothesis-driven research plans. After being told his proposal was too ambitious, Clugston removed one of his three research aims. "Get a feel for what's the right amount of research to propose," he advised. Furthemore, "one should clearly state the rationale of the proposed study," Rubin said. "Don't make them fish around for the hypothesis." Another common problem is a failure among applicants to sufficiently separate the proposed project from a mentor's research. As Fredman put it, "There is probably nothing more important to the reviewer than how you distinguish yourself, what you can take with you. Having these conversations [with your mentor] upfront can be a little uncomfortable and is probably the most challenging; you have to think years and years in advance." Choosing a mentor is also important. If a mentor is too junior or has too many other responsibilities, one option is to ask a more senior or a less busy researcher to serve as a co-mentor.
Remember, Rubin concluded, "[reviewers] are overloaded with grant applications, and somehow they have to differentiate them—and pick yours." Reviewers tend to sort through applications by finding something wrong, such as lack of statistical analysis, or poorly described career development plans, or illegible font in figure legends. "They don't realize how exciting that figure is, because they cannot read the caption," she said. These issues can lead to unfavorable scores. "All components of the application [should be] as strong as possible. In the end, you want to be, at least, the one with the grant where they weren't able to find something wrong, so you get to be moved into a funding situation."
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Presentation available from Jaime S. Rubin, PhD (Columbia University)
Panel moderator: Peter Hare, PhD (NYU School of Medicine)
How to cite this eBriefing
The New York Academy of Sciences. Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Navigating the K99/R00 Award. Academy eBriefings. 2016. Available at: www.nyas.org/PostdocGrants-eB