UPDATE: New forum for comments/discussion/etc. started Feb. 2010:
UPDATE FOR NEW, SHORTER APPLICATIONS starting Jan/Feb 2010:
Everything below still applies, and here is an additional piece of advice to you all for where/how to focus in these shorter apps:
#1 priority: "The Candidate" and career plan section.
#2 priority: Your independent research aims and plans.
I know some folks on the study section reviewing these applications, and the most common pitfall applicants create for themselves is to not have well-developed career plans with OUTSIDE, INDEPENDENT collaborators and FOCUSED, well-developed R00-phase research plans.
Take the rough % page breakdown from before (~6 pages The Candidate, ~5-8 pages intro, ~3-4 pages mentored phase research, ~8-10 pages independent phase research) and apply it to a total of 12 pages, and work on making your narrative extremely tight, focused and direct.
So you need to get any combination of the following:
- Your %@#& together
- Some research funding
- A more independent job
I am going to try to create an informal guide, based on my own experience as an A2 awardee, on how best to approach this award and revise for success if you don’t make it on your first time around. The most important thing that I cannot stress enough is DON’T TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY. Don’t let a bad score permanently destroy your motivation—read the critique, do everything in your power to address it and TRY AGAIN.
This award is still in the wild-west phase—its first cycle was early 2006, and it has been feeling itself out over the past few years while the first couple sets of awardees made it through their mentored K99 phases and transitioned into their R00 segments. Its advantages are many: up to 2 years of post-doc funding, 3 years of funding to start your own lab, the cache on your CV, the focus of direction that it forces upon you, etc. A few kinks are still being worked out—given the painful slowness of the turning of the NIH gears, it’s relatively common for the awardees to already have a tenure-track faculty position offer, or at least some other kind of job offer that involves them moving on. It is just not practical or possible for senior post-docs (towards whom the award is aimed) to sit around by the phone waiting to hear the good news for 6-9 months (for a first submission, which can stretch to 2 years over the revision period) rather than moving on with their lives. What this means for you: APPLY EARLY! Don’t wait until you are in your 3rd-4th year to get started if you can possibly help it. BUT if you do for whatever reason wait that long, APPLY ANYWAY.
Like all NIH funding these days, K99/R00 awards are extremely competitive. Apparently they took away the K01 option and rolled it into this, so this really is one of the only transitional funding opportunities around right now. Even the Burroughs-Wellcome Biomedical grant seems to have been cut out because they said “Hey, now there is an option for you guys so we’re stepping out." It is not easy to get a K99/R00 funded, even if your research is really freaking cool and you have a great mentor. Here, however, are some key details to how to get as close to funded as you possibly can.
- Don’t be as ambitious as you think you need to be. Take the system (i.e. which cancer, which other disease, which organism) your lab works with and keep the fundamentals the same. Change the technology or angle to make it your own, rather than going out on a limb and starting with something totally different than what your mentor(s) have published experience in.
- If you do need/want to move to a new disease or organism or what have you, keep the technologies/angle the same as your mentor(s). The key is to take a relatively straightforward next step, make it your own, and find some innovative (but conservative) thing to do with it.
- Find an off-campus collaborator of your own. Someone who is well-known in the area but has little to no official affiliation with your mentor(s), and who has experience in whatever NEW feature of the work you are trying to make your own. Best thing is to meet them at a Gordon or similar research conference/retreat, where there is time to have a nice chat. Contact them politely and ask if they would be willing to collaborate with you on your exciting project. Ask if you can spend at least a month in their lab learning something they do (at your expense). The worst they can do is say no or not reply, so have a few lined up to try contacting.
- Assemble an “informal mentorship committee” that consists of the off-campus collaborator, a junior faculty member on campus, a senior faculty member on campus, and your official advisor. Ask them to act as assessors on your progress. Offer to write drafts of support letters for these people, and make those drafts address the context of their involvement (e.g. “I am delighted to offer my support and advice to X as they prepare their transition towards independence… Based on my expertise in area blank, I am happy to work with X to assess their progress on topic-blah-blah both at the time of transition and as they begin their independent position…” etc.)
The proposal for this award requires two major sections: The Candidate and the Research Plan. Both of these need to fit into 25 pages total, and the split should be somewhere between 5-6 pp The Candidate and 19-20 pp Research Plan. I am not going to spend much time on the strategic formatting of the research plan itself. There is an excellent series on R01 proposal strategies here, for which all the same principles and most of the details apply to writing your K99/R00 research plan. However, I will give some tips that address some issues that are more specific to the K99/R00.
1. The Candidate
- “Summary of research experience to date:” Be succinct. Do not tell your life story in flowery language, keep it straightforward but highlight any significant research experience or awards you have gotten along the way. Provide a short (2-3 sentences) description of each project’s goals and accomplishments.
- “Graduate project description:” Write up a sub-one-page description of your Ph.D. project, addressing the three main things (in this order for maximum clarity) that anybody cares about any given research project:
- What was the big picture point?
- What systems/technologies did you use (specific aim-style) to address that big picture point?
- How did your contribution turn out (advances you made, papers you got published, funding you won along the way)?
Any more than that and the snooze factor kicks in. If you think you can’t describe the big picture about your project because it was so complex or obscure or specific, then you just need to learn how to communicate better. Everything can be described in this simple of a format, and if you can’t do it, that illustrates that the problem lies with your ability to describe your work, not the work or the readers.
- “Current research training project:” 1-2 sentences outlining the purpose of your current (i.e. last couple of years of post-doc) work (if you are currently funded for it, make sure you stick to describing the work you have money for and not whatever other random stuff you’ve been doing instead!)
- “Current project description:” Similar to graduate description, sub-1 page explaining the big picture, and specific aims of your current project.
- “Discussion of current research and training program:” This is not redundant with current project description, it expands on it. This is a more thorough characterization of the type of “training” you have been getting from your environment, e.g. new techniques, new biological systems, new analytical or statistical methods; and why they are important to your development as a scientist. You also get to walk through what advances you have made towards those specific aims you listed in d. and any papers that have come out of it.
- “Career goals and objectives, a.k.a. Scientific biography:” This is a weird one. This part is like that college entrance essay you have to write to make yourself try to stand out. You want to avoid sounding too forced or too boring, and don’t write too much. Generally keep it less than 4 paragraphs, don’t be too reflective just try to give your “mission statement” in a digestible chunk.
- “Career development/Training activities during the award period:” DO NOT BLOW THIS PART OFF. Don’t just give some stock language about the courses your university offers in finding faculty positions or some crap. Here is where you have the opportunity to stand out, since most people just use boilerplate language. A few suggestions for looking more creative:
- Describe your informal committee. Use bullet points to list them, and give a short paragraph about how you will meet with them once every six months or something (you don’t actually have to do the meetings, but try).
- Describe a visit to your outside collaborator’s lab, what aspects of your mentored phase specific aim(s) you will address with their help.
- Suggest a specific small research meeting or outside course you will attend to learn more about some aspect of your mentored phase specific aim(s). Example: plan to attend a Cold Spring Harbor course, or if you are proposing proteomics, suggest attending the Seattle Proteome Center’s informatics course, provide a link to the course.
- “Training in the responsible conduct of research:” This can just be boilerplate.
2. Statements by the Sponsor, Co-Sponsor, Consultant(s) and Contributor(s)
- DO NOT BLOW THIS OFF EITHER! The mentor/sponsor statement is extremely important. If you don’t trust your mentor to write a good one, you need to write it for them and get them to sign off on it. The focus needs to be about what they believe your potential to be based on your previous work/behavior in the lab, and a big part of it needs to be spent on what opportunities they will provide you to learn new things, what their expertise offers you for training, how you get to take whatever you do with you, corroborations of support for outside activities like the ones you described in your career development/training activities section, etc.
- Who supports you is a bigger deal than you think. If you work for a younger, less-well-known PI, you will need a heavier hitter on your sponsorship committee. Find someone (preferably at your institution) who works in the area you are proposing who can serve as official “co-mentor” to you on this proposal. Do the same thing as for other support letters: offer to write a draft for their approval. Having an established vs. non-established name on here will make a difference between whether you get triaged or scored first time around, and you are not trapped if your PI is new—you just need to also get somebody more settled to sign on.
- These one or two statements should be included in the text, but you can attach other support statements (e.g. from your informal committee members) in the appendix or whatever.
4. Research Plan
Like I said, not going to spend much time here, just outline a few points specific to laying out the mentored vs. independent phases.
- Specific aims: Separate into mentored and independent phases. Do not try to have more than 1-2 aims for the mentored phase. Make the mentored phase aim(s) involve any characterization of new parts of your idea, system or techniques. Use the independent phase aims to expand on what you can establish in the mentored phase aim(s), but don’t be too ambitious even in that independent phase—stick to things that logically follow on from what you can do in 1-2 years of the mentored part.
- Background and significance should apply to the whole project, not to one phase or the other.
- MAKE SURE YOU HAVE SOME RELEVANT PRELIMINARY DATA. This requires having a mentor who lets you generate some probably on their dollar and time, so straighten that out with them beforehand.
- Give a timeline for the mentored phase. Suggest chunks of time that it should take you to address various parts of the mentored phase aim(s), and where you will do them (which mentor’s lab, on or off campus, etc.).
- Make sure you split mentored and independent phases fairly equally page-wise. It is easy to spend too much space on the mentored phase section, since that is the part you know exactly what you will do for the next year or so. But flesh out the independent phase fully and thoroughly—you can’t leave it hanging as if you’ll figure it all out when you get there, you have to have a plan for how you will set it up, what the pitfalls are, and what alternatives you have in mind for when things need to be adjusted.
Revisions are almost surely going to happen to you. Use them as an opportunity to look flexible and ready to learn, and also to genuinely improve this package you have begun to put together. I learned more about my project, my ideas, myself, and how to write a grant from going through two rounds of revisions than I would have from getting it the first time around. These pointers here apply to any revisions, not just for this grant, but I figured I would give you details of what worked for me.
In order to make your revision as successful as possible, always always make changes from the last version very clear. Underline or what have you, don’t worry about it looking messy because at least they will be able to find it if it stands out. Write your Introduction to revised/resubmission (which goes at the beginning of any resubmission) with your reviewers’ energy and attention levels in mind:
- Start with an intro “Resume and response to summary statements” describing what good and bad things they had to say last time (quoting from the summary statement in italics or something like that), briefly outlining what you changed and what is new since last time
- Define what you have used in the main proposal text to highlight changes (did you underline, or italicize, or what?)
- Have sections with headings like “Specific response to Critique #1”
- In these, go through point by point the criticisms (quoting the reviewer) and how you address them (new data? New aim? Took out an aim? New description of pitfall and alternative?). Give page numbers in the new revised proposal for them to refer to.
- Keep it short and to the facts, no excuses or emotional descriptions of how important you thought something was, just DO WHAT THEY SAY.
- The less work they have to do to see that you clearly addressed all the critiques and fixed the issues the last reviewers had with your proposal, the better off you are. Use paragraph, heading, and font style changes to delineate each thing you want to draw their attention to, and they will have no choice but to admit you did everything that was asked of you and improved the proposal.
This probably isn’t a comprehensive document (even though it is this long), and it won’t guarantee you the funding or a job. BUT just the process of bringing something like this all the way through the system will get you ready to go on the job market, even if you don’t get the money. A well-scored (albeit unfunded) K99/R00 proposal (or even one that got any critiques at all) can serve as the foundation for your chalk talk, helping you get all those little ducks in a row that you never realized you needed to deal with to explain to other people why they should invest in your opportunity to run the project. You have to have your shit together to deserve an independent position, and the very application for this award is a training experience in and of itself that will prepare you for what lies ahead. It's scary how you don't realize this until you are through the grinder of having tried it.