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eBriefing

Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Pathway to Independence Awards

Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Pathway to Independence Awards
Reported by
Pia-Kelsey T. O’Neill

Posted December 18, 2017

Pia-Kelsey O'Neill holds a PhD in Neuroscience from Columbia University, where she is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship.

Presented By

Overview

On the long road to becoming an independent investigator, a postdoctoral scientist will face what can be the most exciting yet daunting step in a research career: obtaining extramural funds to start his or her own laboratory. In 2007, to support senior postdoctoral scientists preparing to make the leap into faculty positions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. This award is unique among others offered by the NIH because it contains two funding phases within one grant: the K99 phase supports an individual in the final two years of postdoctoral training, then, if that individual obtains a junior faculty position, the R00 phase provides three additional years of funding. Receiving this highly competitive award is a huge achievement, yet the application process can be disconcerting, even for the savviest of applicants. On October 3, 2017, the Academy’s Science Alliance presented Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Pathway to Independence Awards, a seminar designed to elucidate the application process.

Speaker

Jaime S. Rubin, PhD, Columbia University
Jaime S. Rubin, PhD, Columbia University

Panelists

Sarah D. Diermerier, PhD, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Sarah D. Diermerier, PhD, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Advaitha Madireddy, PhD, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Advaitha Madireddy, PhD, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Daniel Canzio, PhD, Columbia University
Daniel Canzio, PhD, Columbia University
Teal Eich, PhD, Columbia University
Teal Eich, PhD, Columbia University
Meeting Report

Featured Speaker and Panelists

Sarah D. Diermerier

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Advaitha Madireddy

The Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Daniel Canzio

Columbia University

Teal Eich

Columbia University

On the long road to becoming an independent investigator, a postdoctoral scientist will face what can be the most exciting yet daunting step in a research career: obtaining extramural funds to start his or her own laboratory. In 2007, to support senior postdoctoral scientists preparing to make the leap into faculty positions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. This award is unique among others offered by the NIH because it contains two funding phases within one grant: the K99 phase supports an individual in the final two years of postdoctoral training, then, if that individual obtains a junior faculty position, the R00 phase provides three additional years of funding. Receiving this highly competitive award is a huge achievement, yet the application process can be disconcerting, even for the savviest of applicants. On October 3, 2017, the Academy’s Science Alliance presented Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Pathway to Independence Awards, a seminar designed to elucidate the application process.

Dr. Jaime Rubin, the Vice Chair for Investigator Development in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, focused on the successful transition to research-intensive academic positions in her introduction to the K99/R00 award. She explained that the K99 component supports postdoctoral scientists while the R00 component is awarded to junior faculty. The K99/R00 provides a bridge between the two career phases, fostering the development of a postdoctoral scientist into an independent research scientist. The ultimate goal for most young investigators is to apply for an R01, a prestigious, renewable grant that covers the many costs of conducting research. While having a K99/R00 is not required to achieve an R01, it helps stabilize a research program until R01 funding can be secured.

Total number Research Career Development K grants awarded from 1997-2016. K99 grants were first awarded in 2007. (Image presented by Dr. Rubin, courtesy of NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT))

Total number Research Career Development K grants awarded from 1997-2016. K99 grants were first awarded in 2007. (Image presented by Dr. Rubin, courtesy of NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT))

The NIH consists of more than 20 institutes and centers, most of which offer the K99/R00 award. “There is a tremendous amount of data on the NIH webpage that can help you make a decision about when and where to apply,” Rubin said. The general requirements common to all participating institutes are outlined in the NIH parent announcement. For example, there are no restrictions on citizenship and both clinical and basic researchers are eligible, but an applicant cannot have more than four years of postdoctoral experience. Then, because an application is reviewed and funded by each institute separately, additional requirements specific to that institute must also be fulfilled. Before starting an application, Rubin suggests that an applicant contact the dedicated program officer(s) at the institute to which he or she wishes to apply, to clarify his or her eligibility. The program officer can provide advice on whether the applicant’s proposed research aims are appropriate for that institute’s mission.

Prepare to complete an application checklist. (Text courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

Prepare to complete an application checklist. (Text courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

The K99/R00 award review criteria consist of five main components: candidate background; career development plan; research plan; mentors, co-mentors, and collaborators; and environment and institutional commitment.

In the candidate section, applicants are given the opportunity to elaborate on their research experience and passion for conducting research. The goal is for applicants to demonstrate their dedication and inevitable success to the reviewers. In the career development plan, applicants must convince the review committee that after the completion of the postdoctoral phase, they will not only have the research skills necessary to become independent scientists, but also the managerial and communication skills to run a lab. Rubin advised applicants to take full advantage of the career development programs offered by their universities and explicitly outline any and all such courses in their application materials. To provide this information clearly, she suggests organizing their training goals into a table of modules (grantsmanship, managerial skills, etc.). “Provide details,” she said. “You want to make sure [that this training] leads to your independence.”

The research plan should be significant and sound, Rubin stated. “Even when preliminary data is not required, preliminary data is required,” she continued. “If you’re starting in a new field or proposing to use a new technique, it is still important to demonstrate that you have some experience with it and to show that it will work.”

Example timeline of proposed research and career development training for each year of the K99/R00. (Table courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

Example timeline of proposed research and career development training for each year of the K99/R00. (Table courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

The mentors, co-mentors, and collaborators sections should include statements and letters from the applicant’s primary mentor and co-mentors as well as from several other faculty members that describe how they will foster the applicant’s research efforts and career development. “The mentor statement is very important; it can’t be lukewarm,” Rubin stressed. “Reviewers will look to see whether the mentor-mentee relationship is special.” Mentors must clearly state how they will help the applicant become independent. The reviewers will assess mentors’ success with past trainees. Similarly, collaborators and consultants should describe how they too plan to support applicants both scientifically and in their training to become independent scientists.

Importantly, there should be an integration of the career development plan with the research plan. An applicant should describe what career development opportunities will help him or her reach the stated research goals, whether it be a course in statistics or research management. Finally, in the environment and institutional commitment sections, the applicant should demonstrate that the institution at which the research will be conducted has all the necessary resources available.

The entire review process for the K99/R00 award lasts for roughly nine months from submission of the application to the return of a summary statement to the applicant. Applications are reviewed in study sections that consist of several reviewers. After discussing the grant application, each member of the study section provides a score from 1-9 with 1 being exceptional and 9 being poor. These numbers are averaged and multiplied by 10 to give one overall impact score ranging from 10 to 90. The lower the score, the higher the likelihood that an application will be funded.

NIH’s Evaluation System results in scores ranging from 1 (exceptional) to 9 (poor). (Image presented by Dr. Rubin, courtesy of NIH)

NIH’s Evaluation System results in scores ranging from 1 (exceptional) to 9 (poor). (Image presented by Dr. Rubin, courtesy of NIH)

In closing, Rubin urged applicants to start early on their grant applications in order to anticipate common problems and give themselves time to thoroughly complete all application components.

Common problems with grant applications. (Text courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

Common problems with grant applications. (Text courtesy of Dr. Rubin)

After a short break, a panel of four K99/R00 recipients, all currently in the postdoctoral phase, convened to offer advice and to share their experiences of preparing the application. One of the biggest challenges the panelists described was applying within the four-year limit of eligibility. Since resubmission must also be within this limit, the panelists recommended leaving enough time to go through the process twice if needed (yet every one of them was awarded the grant on the first attempt).

Another challenge they described was justifying more training despite being a few years into their postdoctoral careers. “That is why what you propose is important,” Dr. Advaitha Madireddy, a postdoctoral scientist in the Department of Cell Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said. She proposed to work on a disease model but needed additional training, so she created a team of collaborators, comprised of experts in the field, who would advise her. Additionally, she said that training could also be related to new technologies necessary for the proposed experiments. Dr. Daniele Canzio, a postdoctoral scientist in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University, agreed with this advice. He justified two more years of training because the transition from working in a biophysics lab to doing research in a cell biology lab required him to learn a new set of techniques.

In the R00 phase, applicants may face challenges distinguishing themselves from their mentors. Dr. Canzio said that he joined his postdoctoral lab with his own research plan in mind and had a conversation about it early on with his mentor. By the time he applied for the K99/R00, it was easier to outline his independence. In contrast, Dr. Sarah Diermeier, a postdoctoral scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said that her and her mentor’s research goals overlapped greatly. Yet, she highlighted her independence in her application by proposing to use a different approach to the research questions than he does; she will take a molecular biology approach while her mentor focuses on a translational approach. Dr. Teal Eich, a postdoctoral scientist in the Department of Neurology at Columbia University, suggested that applicants show a logical progression toward independence starting from their graduate research. A red thread could therefore be drawn for the reviewers through an applicant’s career, connecting current postdoctoral research to what he or she has done in graduate school and clearly leading to independence.

The panelists agreed that despite a complex application process, the experience was worthwhile because there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. In fact, many of them shared that they did not expect to receive the award. The advantage of applying for the K99/R00 is the practice of composing a grant, and concretely identifying professional achievements as well as future career plans.  “You have to sit down and think about what you want to do with your life,” Dr. Diermeier said. “This is a chance to write a research program that you find exciting.”

Speaker Presentation and Panel Discussion

Grantsmanship for Postdocs: Pathway to Independence Awards (K99/R00)


Jaime S. Rubin (Columbia University)
  • 0:00:00
    Featured Speaker: Jaime S. Rubin (Columbia University)
  • 1:07:53
    Panel Discussion: Sarah D. Diermerier (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories), Advaitha Madireddy (The Albert Einstein College of Medicine), Daniel Canzio (Columbia University), Teal Eich (Columbia University)

Further Readings

NIH Resources

National Institutes of Health Research Training and Career Development

National Institutes of Health Research Training and Career Development

National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health Research Training and Career Development

National Institutes of Health Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research

National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research

National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research

National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research