Seeking the K99

2020-07-07 15 minute read

In February 2020 I submitted an application for the NIH K99/R00 career development award. This is an award designed to help senior postdocs transition into an independent position, and is something many postdocs in the US consider applying for. Applying for the K99 is tough, there are a lot of application components and people involved, and you need to develop a solid 5-year research and training plan. In this post I’ll describe my experience in applying for the K99 and try to offer some advice for future applicants.

What is the K99/R00?

The K99/R00 is a career development award offered by the NIH. It provides 5 years support, including up to 2 years of mentored (K99) support and 3 years of independent support (R00). The award provides money for salary and 30k/year research funds during the K99 phase, increasing to 249k/year combined salary and research for the R00 phase. The goal of the K99/R00 is to assist postdocs in further developing their skills and transitioning to a faculty position. If you’re doing a postdoc in the US and intend to stay in the US to seek a tenure-track position, the K99 is definitely a great award to get. There are three deadlines per year (check the NIH website for dates). The National Cancer Institute has also very recently started a K99-early program, specifically for people with <2 years of postdoc training. As far as I can tell this is a small experimental program that they might expand (possibly to other institutes also) or they could discontinue it in the future.

Below I’ll outline a step-by-step guide to applying for the K99.

0. Decide if the K99 is right for you

Applying for the K99 takes a lot of time, and that’s valuable postdoc time that could be spent doing productive research and publishing papers. It’s also a long journey that will take well over 1 year from the time you decide to apply to the time a funding decision is made. Before doing anything else, think carefully about whether this is the right move for you. Do you intend to stay in academia? Do you have a strong track record of publications that would make you competative for the award? Do you have a network of people who can write strong letters of support for your application?

1. Find a past applicant’s application

Search around your institute/department for someone who has applied for the K99 in the past, and ideally was successful. If possible, find more than one example. I had only one previous application from a postdoc at NYGC and it was extremely helpful (and he later got the award). It would be very difficult to apply for the K99 without reading a past application.

I know this will be hard for some people, especially if you aren’t at a big institution, so I will post my application publicly in a few years (I won’t do it now as none of the proposed ideas are published and I am actively working on it).

2. Start planning the research program a minimum of 6 months in advance

Six months sounds like a lot, but it’s essential that the research program is well thought out. If you already have a very clear idea of what to do, then you might not need as much time. I started thinking about my research plan more than 6 months before the deadline. In fact, I had planned to apply for earlier deadlines and found it was better to wait until I had a better idea for the research plan.

I wanted to propose research that was slightly different than what I had been working on for most of my postdoc. I recommend to start reading in depth in the area that you want to focus on. I initially thought of several ideas that I thought were novel that turned out to have years of literature published about them that I just was not aware of. Eventually I came up with some ideas that I think are new and interesting, but this takes a long time.

Thinking about the K99 well in advance can also give you time to build a network of people who can write letters of support for you. This can be one of the more difficult application components, or it could be really easy. If you did your PhD in a great environment where you were able to form relationships with a lot of people then this might be easy. If not, you need to work hard at it and really go out of your way to meet people and build relationships.

3. Make a list of all the application components

Read the K99 handbook from the NIH in its entirety. It’s very boring but there’s no substitute. As you go, make notes about the requirements for each of the application components and try to estimate how much time they would take to complete. You should also make a note of all the things that you’ll depend on others for, so that you can plan appropriately and give them enough time to do their part. This includes contacting co-mentors, contacting references, and the grants department at your institute.

4. Write the specific aims

Getting the specific aims page right took the longest out of all the application components (more than the 8 page research plan). In my opinion this is the most important part of the application, as it’s read by all members of the review committee. You need to be able to concisely describe the problems you’re aiming to address, why they’re important, how you will address them, and what the impact will be. Talk to as many people as possible about the aims and seek feedback. Ideally you should find people who are skeptical of the work you’re proposing and try to convince them that it is worthwhile. This should also be the first component that you write. Once you have this finalized, you will know what you’re doing and why, and the rest of the research program will be much easier to write.

5. Decide on an institute

Now that you have your specific aims, you need to decide on which institute to submit the application to. You need to think about this at least 3 months before the deadline. This is probably not a hard decision to make, as many institutes will be ruled out as irrelevant for your application. However, there could be a couple of institutes that would be good places for your application. At this stage, it might be worth looking at some of the success rate data for different institutes. This is all available on the NIH reporter website: https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/

NHGRI has the highest mean success rate (50.7%), whereas other larger institutes like NCI and NHLBI are lower (21.9%, 26.4%). Coincidently I submitted to NHGRI (not because of the rate, although it was nice that the institute I needed had the highest rate).

6. Contact a program officer

Once you have your specific aims and decided on an institute you should reach out to a program officer from the institute to talk to them about your application. Search the NIH reporter website (https://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm) for previous K99 applications to the institute you’re applying to that are similar to yours and take note of the program officer names. Write an email to one and set up a call. This lets them know you’re intending to apply and have done the proper planning, and allows you to ask them questions. Before the call make sure you’ve read all the application guidelines in detail and make a list of questions to ask the PO about anything that was unclear. The PO will also have a lot of experience in the field that you’re working on, so you can ask them for feedback about the aims. My call was very helpful. At this stage you should still be about 3 months ahead of the deadline.

7. Write the research program

Now that you’ve worked out the details of the application and decided on aims, it’s time to write the research program. This is when having a previous application comes in handy so that you can see the structure that they have used. Make sure to include preliminary data for all the aims that you’re proposing to start during the K99 phase, and indicate for each aim the phase of the award in which you will work on the aim. For example: Aim 1 (K99): do some stuff; Aim 2 (K99/R00): do more stuff. There are no strict guidelines on how long the research plan section should be (at least when I applied in Feb 2020), but the combined research plan and candidate section should be 12 pages. For my application I dedicated 8 pages to the research plan and 4 pages to the candidate section.

There’s a fine balance between having interconnected aims that build on each other, and having later aims be too dependent on the success of prior aims. The major criticism that my reviewers raised for my K99 research plan was that everything was very dependent on Aim 1 working. If this is also the case for your research plan, it’s important to highlight alternative approaches and provide preliminary data to convince reviewers that the cruicial parts will likely work, or if they don’t then you’ve thought about alternatives.

8. Write the candidate section

The candidate section comprises the candidate’s background, career goals and objectives, and the career development plan. For me this was much easier to write than the research plan. The candidate background and career goals and objectives are fairly straightforward, and there’s not much flexibility in what you can write here (at this point, your background is your background). The more difficult part is writing a compelling career development plan. It is essential that you identify a few key areas where you need more training before launching the independent phase of your career. This could be anything as long as you make a strong case for why you need to develop these skills to be successful later in your career. It could be experimental or analytical methods, leadership/management skills, writing skills, whatever. The training plan should clearly explain how you will improve in these areas, and how the mentors will contribute to your career developement. This could include direct training from the mentors, coursework, or whatever else you think of that would be a good way to improve your skills in the areas of need. Remember that this is a career development award, and a lot of weight is given to the career development plan. While the research plan is an important component, they are funding your career development and investing in you as a potential independent investigator. It needs to be clear (1) why you need further career development to be successful in an independent position, and (2) how you will obtain that extra training during the 2 years of the K99 award phase.

9. Get feedback

Once you have a first draft you should try to get some people to read it and give feedback. The best people to ask are probably other postdocs in your lab. Just remember to return the favour when they’re working on their own fellowship applications.

10. Contact your co-mentors

You will likely need more mentors for the proposed project than just your current postdoc PI. If fact, having multiple mentors may make your application stronger as it shows there is a network of people supporting your career development. You should think about the aims you’re proposing and the areas of need that you’re highlighting in your career development plan, and try to find some people in your geographic area that would be a good fit as a co-mentor. You don’t need to have an existing relationship with these people, and they will likely agree to be involved if you do a good job on the specific aims and approach them in the right way.

It’s fairly important for the mentors to be located somewhere where you’ll be able to meet face-to-face regularly. You can probably get away with having one mentor that’s in a different city, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that for multiple co-mentors. I’m doing my postdoc in New York City and proposed a mentor in Boston with regular video calls and in-person meetings every 6 months and this seemed to be mostly fine by the reviewers. I had another three co-mentors who are all in NYC.

Each co-mentor should bring expertise relevant to the research program and to your career development. Don’t just add someone because you like them, like their work, or because they’re nearby. If your PI does not have a strong track record of mentorship, meaning they have not mentored at least a few (the more the better) postdocs successfully, you should find a more senior co-mentor. You should contact the mentors at least 1 month before the deadline (ideally more). I waited until I had a first draft of the research plan written before contacting them, and I think this was a good idea as I was able to clearly describe what I was proposing and why I wanted to work with them. For two out of my four co-mentors, I had never met or interacted with them before, and they were kindly all willing to participate in co-mentorship. If you allow enough time your co-mentors might also be able to give valuable feedback on the research plan and the career development plan.

11. Contact your references

You will need to find 3-5 people who will write a strong letter of support for your application. These people should know you personally (have met you at least a couple of times) and know your work. One will be your Ph.D. advisor. It can be hard to find these people, which is another reason why it’s important to start thinking about your application 6 months in advance. Keep this requirement in mind when you go to conferences and meetings throughout your postdoc. If you meet someone that you think could be a potential letter-writer, it could be a good idea to email them a day or so after meeting them to follow up with whatever you had talked about. This will help them remember you and establish a connection with them. You will need to contact your references at least 1 month before the deadline so that they have sufficient time to write the letter.

These letters are important, and while you should not write drafts of these yourself for the references, there are things you can do to make sure that important points you want to come through in the application have a good chance of also being highlighted in the letters of reference. There is a “Referee instructions for mentored research career development awards” document available on the NIH website (I won’t link here as links can change or become outdated, but you should find the most current version). You will need to send this to your references when requesting a letter. This document outlines the criteria that NIH asks the references evaluate. When I submitted, this included:

  • potential to become an independent research scientist;
  • evidence of originality;
  • adequacy of scientific background;
  • quality of research endeavors or publications to date, if any;
  • commitment to health-oriented research; and
  • need for further research experience and training
  • any additional related comments that the referee may wish to provide

When I asked each referee to write a letter of support, I also highlighted these review criteria and provided a list of points providing supporting evidence for each criterion. For example, for the “quality of research endeavors” point, I provided a list of my publications with the major papers highlighted to try to make it easy for them to write something addressing these points, and I provided similar guidance for each of the other NIH criteria. I think this is a really important thing to do, as all the people you’ll be asking for letters will be very busy, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to write a strong letter for you. I don’t know if they used the information, but at least it was there. I do know that in my summary statement the letters of support were highlighted as “exceptional.”

12. Contact the head of department

You will need a letter of institutional commitment supporting your application, and this needs to come from the head of your department or the director of your institute (for me this was Tom Maniatis, the NYGC director).

13. Contact your institutional grants department

One thing I learned while preparing my K99 was that PIs cannot submit their own grants to the NIH. You will need to work with your grants department to get the application submitted, and they might have their own requirements on submitting the finished version to them a certain amount of time before the NIH deadline. Make sure you reach out to the right person (your PI will be able to tell you who this is) at least 1 month in advance and set up a meeting. At this point you should have most of the application done and they can work with you on components like the budget and the description of institutional environment.

14. Write the rest of the application

There are many smaller components that will need to be done, like the resource sharing plan, authentication of biological materials, description of institutional environment, and so on. Here, again, it’s very useful to have a past application to look at, especially one submitted recently from your institute. These are good things to work on while you wait for feedback on the research plan and career development plan.

15. Have everything finished ahead of the deadline

I have a strong dislike for leaving things close to the deadline so I had my application finished ~1 week ahead of time. Things can always take longer than you think, and there can be last minute things that you need from co-mentors (like a list of their current support), so I highly recommend having the application ready (all components filled in on the NIH assist website) a few days before the deadline.

16. Celebrate

Applying for the K99 is a lot of work, in part because it is the first grant for which you will be the PI. I found it incredibly useful to write the application regardless of the outcome: it solidifies your plans for the next five years, and it gives you the opportunity to reach out to a few people for co-mentorship.

17. Wait

Expect a long turnaround for your application. It took about 4 months before I got my score, and another month after that to get the summary statement. I’ve been told it’ll be another 4-5 months or so after that before I find out the final funding decision, so be prepared to wait.

Good luck to all applying!