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…. That is the Kwestion.

Bad pun indeed. Sorry, I could not resist. Non-academia friends, now may be time to close your ears. This is post on selecting grants when a junior faculty. Yawn indeed 🙂

So, I left the sheltered wings of my mentored postdoc and emerged blinking into the light of my first faculty position. Which means, of course, that grants are no longer something to be worked at, and aimed at, but actually achieved. 3 years, to be precise. 3 years to bringing in (a portion) of my own salary through grant(s). Recall as well, that I chose an institution where I was not joining a research group per se, that is, there was not a specific role for me, or a specific question I was being asked to address – which can form a sort of natural progression to a grant. Rather I am here to yes, collaborate, and yes I am trying to do that, but also to get my own, Lekki-led research going. Wise? I will let you know in 3 years 😉

Suffice to say I am at UT, with a very nice office, a lot of passion, and some great training. So, I am grappling with a question I faced in my postdoc, and I know others are facing now: focusing on NIH for the moment (and I fully intend to cast a much wider net that that): Do I go for a K award (essentially research + training, the ‘K’ is for Career Development in the strange eyes of NIH), or do I go for an R (research only)?

People fall on both sides of the fence. Here are some of the arguments I have heard / I can think of / are from my own experience:

For:

– Funding rates are often higher – not to be overlooked…

-You are not up against senior investigators with established research programs – therefore you may feel on more equal footing with all applicants.

-Need for preliminary data MAY (MAY) be lower. I say may because actually, K awards need this more than junior researchers often realise, and R awards need this less than junior researchers often realise. This is true and bears thinking about.

-Equal emphasis is placed on the candidate (my experience) and the training (NIH’s words) as the Science. Therefore, you can give your application an ‘edge’ if you can make either of these two former aspects stellar.

-You are required to commit ~75% of your time, of which 50% is training. Therefore, the Science part only needs to take up ~42% of your time: you may be able to undertake a less ambitious research plan.

-Thus, around 75% of your salary is covered. It is unlikely that you will have considerably higher funding requirements than this from the get-go, so theoretically, if you write a 3-5 year K, you may have 2-4 years to bliss out, explore your Science, train and build your research program, rather than immediately scrabbling to get the next grant.

-POs will often work on your application with you.

-They feel like the ‘safe’ option (is that a good reason? Hmmm.. you decide 😉 ).

Against:

-R’s are – arguabye – more prestigious. It is a quicker track to tenure.

-R’s have a larger budget; in the world of genetics this is not to be overlooked.

-Equal emphasis is placed on the candidate (my experience) as the Science. Yes, you are not up against experienced investigators, but when I initially submitted my K99, with 14 papers, 12 of which were first-authors (and one abstract) the reviewers  complained about the impact factor of the journals, the two that were not first-author and so on. I.e. I did not get an easy ride for being junior, and it really affected my score.

-Equal emphasis is placed on the training (NIH’s words) as the Science. Therefore, if you cannot come up with a concrete, needed, training plan, which is leading towards clear tangible goals (i.e. NOT “I am interested in filling the gap in my training with X” But “I NEED to learn X to subsequently extend the results of this application with Y”) you are going to be penalized, no matter how good the Science is.

-You are required to commit ~75% of your time. This makes ‘lining up’ the next grant very difficult. If you are spending 75% on a research project, and your university has some requirements for ‘admin / teaching’ time, then you can’t really hold another grant at the same time – not a substantive one anyway. So – to avoid a gap in funding and potentially the loss of your job – you would have to get your subsequent R at first pass: not easy. Add onto this the fact that spending your time collaborating and building that R may be difficult as so much of your time is engaged with the research and training for your K. I know more than one exceptional member of junior faculty become ‘unstuck’ by looking over the precipice of their K into funding no man’s land.

-How much research you can propose to do in a K is limited: how much better off will you really be at the end of it?

My experience:

My experience of applying for a K99/R00 was extremely positive, but mainly as a learning experience (and obviously having won the grant, I subsequently lost it: another subtle hint that Ks can hold you back). Now I am faculty I am less interested in learning experiences, and more interested in (desperate for?) success. My K99 showed me that Ks are not the ‘easy ride’ they may be touted to be; often, I think, because the reviewers are used to reviewing R01s and treat them like R01s – even subconsciously. So your pleas that ‘I am going to train in this, it is not perfect yet’ fall on deaf ears. You had better write an R01 level of Science or be damned.

In addition, Ks are for Career Development: they are meant to put you on a specific path. You need to be very clear, and extremely specific about what that path is. I.e. (from my experience): writing a genetics grant with a view to looking at environmental mediation of those genetic pathways in the future is not enough. You have to already have an idea of what environmental mediators you are interested in studying, and show that you have / will have the expertise and experience to be able to do this. Ouch. The linear path to a subsequent R has to be spelled out very, very clearly. The reviewers want to taste those R01 aims.

A resolution?

I actually think K’s are OK, and a very useful mechanism. In fact – I just applied for one! My Chair sees them as ‘buying some time’ to get an R. I see them as more useful than this, but, his advice is certainly more experienced. However, I think they should come with some words of warning:

-Applying before you are ready is pointless. You will not get a light ride in terms of publications. You must convince your institution that you have the potential to be the next best NIDDK / NCI / NHLBI / wherever researcher – and you’ll only really do this if you have been the best so far. If your record is any less than extremely strong, at all stages, I would think hard about whether to apply. You may actually get an easier ride on an R where the emphasis is more on research.

-Applying without a very specific, and very needed, training goal is pointless. You need to know exactly what you need to do to reach the next step, and to be clear about it. You need to be extremely clear about what the next step is, and how you will use your training to help you complete the next step.

-Don’t rest on your laurels when you get the K (but do go and celebrate wildly for a night or two): if anything you need to start working harder. Right from the get-go, you need to start planning your R, and setting it up. My chair and my current mentor say very clearly: do not be afraid to let go of the K. I.e. if you can get your R earlier, do so, and let go of the K. Be very clear with yourself: the K grant is not designed to hold you back. It is a buffer between you and your funding requirements, to give you more time if things don’t go according plan – but plan to get that R grant ASAP.

As I said: I just applied for a K. I feel I had good reason: I have never conducted clinical research, and this requires specific training which I would use in subsequent applications. I had a specific clinical research project in mind, which would then lead to an intervention study: I tried to spell out clearly my next steps. I had a strong publication record [hyperlinked] for my level (although due to the move, recently lacking in first-author papers. My bad.). I had a great, and very supportive institutional environment and mentor team.

Will I get it? I am not that confident (for various reasons), so I have put it to bed and since the deadline (Sept 17th) applied for a pilot grant and am nearly done applying for a DP2 (NIH Director’s New Innovator Award). If I don’t get it, I will be unable to flip it into a different mechanism as I am hooking into an ongoing study, and stuck with their timeline. But, I do have an R21 lined up to be submitted in February (I am glad for the break while I have my baby!) and will start to think about exactly what I need to do to get it into R01 form.

If I do get it? I will start setting up that intervention study IMMEDIATELY. Using start-up finds to collect preliminary data (or apply for an R03 / R21)… building a supporting team of senior individuals… working with senior individuals to turn it into the type of proposal NIH need and want. Figuring out feasibility.

It’s hard… this grant business, so much hard work, so much stress (way more stress than any paper ever), so many hoops to jump through (IRB… COI… budget… subcontracts… yada yada yada) that is can be hard to keep on going. Only the pressures of abstract deadlines have got me doing any decent Science int he last 3 months, which makes me sad. But we must keep at it (or find a nice, hard money job), remembering that, in the words of NIH at the AHA Early Career day at their 2011 Scientific Sessions:

“Grants don’t go to the smart”

[we are all smart]

“They go to the persistent”.

But facing up to that, and finding the motivation to power through that, is the subject of another post… Anyone else got any grant experience to share as a junior investigator?

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