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So, I guess this is long overdue. When I originally blogged about my K99 application, it was after I received an initial score. Many people have commented or emailed and told me how helpful and informative they have found this post. Thus, my intention was to update when the summary sheets came in (didn’t happen)… update on the re-submission (didn’t happen)… update on the new score (OK, didn’t happen, but it was only a few days ago, so I can rectify this one). It’s a horrible excuse, but you put so much into a big grant submission, and there are always last minute stresses and panics, that by the end you just want to sit back and say ‘phew’ and massively catch up on your actual, current Science. It’s not to say that on some level I don’t enjoy grant writing, and I certainly learn a lot – it is just at the end of it all, writing about oatmeal and Walter can be slightly more appealing to my exhausted brain than rehashing work which is put to bed for a while.

That being said, I know from experience the pain of trawling the internet desperately looking for clues and answers. The comments and emails I have received on my previous K99 post (which make my day) have assured me that I am not alone in this. So – here we go.

So, I submitted a K99 one year into a postdoc that was in an entirely new area. I had jumped from the heritability modelling of psychiatric symptoms, to the molecular genetics and epigenetic regulation of insulin resistant traits. A K99 was ambitious to say the least… but I  got an unexpectedly respectable score: 37. In fact, had I submitted a few months earlier it would likely have been funded, as the payline was 40 (you’ll see this is a familiar theme to my story. Sigh.).

I missed my summary sheets (the reviews on my grant). I didn’t know how to find them. When I did find them, I had some 6 weeks until the next submission deadline. Both my mentors were unequivocal in wanting me to make that deadline (despite my arguments against), so – OK. I like and trust my mentors and didn’t really put up a fight. I resubmitted. My advice is that responding to grant criticisms is not like responding to paper criticisms (although mine seemed pleasingly minor). You need time – time to design new analyses, find new samples, draw up new contracts. You need time to respond to 3 4-5 page reviews in 1 single page (Yes! NIH only give you a page now – ouch). In my case, they really wanted to see what exact study I was planning beyond the R00 phase (not “vaguely referred to studies” as one reviewer said, but samples, variables and analysis). This takes serious thought – “What will you be doing in 6 years time after a bunch of extra training, and new knowledge has come out?”, is essentially the question. I think if I did it again, I would wait another cycle… but here we are, in it went.

It came back as a much improved score of 28. So, woo-hoo, you’d think: that’s below the payline of 30, it’s likely to be funded, right? (I understand K99s don’t wiggle much from the payline). Well, no, because the paylines for 2012 (when this grant will be conducted) have not yet been released. And they are expecting cuts. Again – had this been submitted a few months before (to make the 2011 deadline – boom, funded). Council review where final decision time happens is January. I called my PO, who extremely nice, but basically he said: wait and see. And make other plans. So – now I play the waiting game, veering between optimism and pessimism. Sometimes I think: they were cut from 40-30 2010-2011, surely they cannot go any lower? Sometimes I think ‘they are going to have to’. And now I play the waiting game, making other plans in case this does not get funded.

Because I look this glamorous when crying

One of the hardest things about this whole process is figuring out the timeline. I think I have it down now. So, if anyone else is in my boat here it goes:

K99 timeline (NHLBI)

-Day 1: Submission deadline for new grants

-1 month: Submission deadline for revised grants

-3 months: Last chance to update NIH (your SRO) with updated funding and publication info.

-4 months: Scientific review meeting. When you submit your grant the date of this meeting will be published in era commons. Find it, and sweat it out until it 🙂  Here they will decide whether to score your grant (~50% of submissions) or not. And what the score is.

~4 months and 3-5 days: Out comes the score. Those 3-5 days are probably dead to you, and you will spend 86% of your time hitting ‘refresh’ on your submission page in era commons. Another 14% of your time waylaying chocolate and 0% of your time sleeping. Unless you are, like me the first time around, utterly unaware it is coming out. That was blissful. When the score comes out: this is the time you want to find out if the paylines for that year have been published. The page with this info is different by each NIH institute – just google it. This is often a point of contact between you and your PO.

-~5 months and 0-2 weeks: Your summary sheets come out, with your reviews. If this is a first submission: this is what you will be responding to. If this is a resubmission, you of course, cannot respond to this. Although if you have a PO who wants to work with you, you may have some bargaining chips here (if perhaps, a review had misunderstood part of your grant… or something is extremely fixable). This is another point when you can contact your PO. But don’t bug them: it’s a relationship: give them space and feel them out.

~6-7 months. Council review. Final funding decision. Eeeek.

~6-7 months + 1 hour: you’ll need either champagne or gin. I’m getting both in 🙂

Next steps

Don't be this person:

So, I have a K99 (or any grant), it was a re submission and it was not funded – what can I do? Can I get this research funded? Sure, although I would perhaps not advise it if you were not close each time. Things to try:

*A different mechanism, possibly with a different institute.

*Collecting pilot data on your grant: try research foundations. I am currently writing a pilot grant for the American College of Sports Medicine.

*Writing an R01/ a different K. If you submitted an unfunded K twice, you may well be looking at progressing to faculty. Find a faculty position, and work with that institution to write a grant that you will conduct there.

*Along those lines, find a faculty position with ‘initial research support’. Sure, they are hard to find, and even harder to get – but they do exist and it can happen.

*And similar lines: apply to become an NIH intramural researcher. You get initial (and ongoing) research support, and a respected position. They are looking for someone with a clear, workable idea they want to conduct – should sound just like you! There are upsides and downsides to going to NIH, and at the end of the day, you have to decide if it is right for you. Although… of course… again these are not easy to achieve.

My advice: have a couple of weeks in which you are pissed off. Blame everyone but yourself: your reviewers, your mentors, NIH, Science, the colour of the sky, the day of the week, your feckless dog who won’t comfort you when you cry because he is scared of crying humans. Then man up. Accept responsibility, because at the end of the day; grants are down to you. It is your grant. Accept that this time, you didn’t have the luck perhaps, but also: you were not quite good enough. NIH just wasn’t that into you. Focus on the positives of the last experience and get better. Practise, improve and spread your net wide. Give up your evenings and weekends for a while, and start seriously considering a broad range of other options.

So, was it a positive experience overall? Yes, absolutely.

*I got a good taste of what it is really like to do Science as a researcher. Not just the disappointment, but the public disappointment, and the uncertainty that then comes with it (and this is me as a protected postdoc, I am fully aware it gets worse).

*I learned more about how to respond to reviews

*I learned again to pick myself up and trundle along

*I learned to make plans with a great deal of uncertainty: to find the motivation to apply for faculty in an uncertain situation

*I got a bargaining chip! I got to say “Hey, I want to come to your institution and do this research and I am damn close to getting it independently funded – this is how committed I am to it”. Which is better than “hey I want to come and do this research – please pay me”.

*I cleaned out my tear ducts some. I am sure they were dirty 🙂

At the end of the day, the overall message remains:

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