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Navigating the K99 Pathway to Independence

The NIH Pathway to Independence Award, also known as the K99/R00, began in 2006 as a way for postdoctoral fellows to transition from a position of training to that of an independent investigator. Known to many simply as the K99, the award is one of the most prestigious funding opportunities available, for both domestic and international fellows.

For the lucky K99 recipients, the award provides funding for one to two years of postdoctoral training and three years of independent research as a principal investigator. Given this timeline, most fellows apply for the K99 early in their fourth year of postdoctoral research.

Like many other grants, pages upon pages of eligibility requirements and directions for submission accompany the K99 application. Rather than reiterate what can be found in those documents, this article aims to discuss some of the K99 issues that can only be learned through experience. To help you get started, two NICHD fellows who have applied for a K99, Dr. Kara Lukasiewicz and Dr. Yvette Pittman, share their words of wisdom about writing a K99 proposal:

Many fellows have never applied for a grant like the K99. How much time would you advise a fellow to put aside to work on the proposal and application?

KL: Based on my experience, I would encourage fellows to start at least 3 months ahead of time. This all depends on your progress in your research, your advisor's availability, and the availability of other colleagues. Another thing to remember is that the K99 must be read and approved by Dr. Stratakis, our Scientific Director, so ensure you have your grant to him at least 2 weeks before the submission deadline.

YP: 3-6 months depending on how much time is committed to grant writing daily. Decide on how much time you are going to write daily before starting. For example, for the first month, I committed 90 minutes a day to writing. Once I got over the initial writing phase, I subsequently increased my allotted writing time per day.

Sometimes the hardest part of writing can be getting started. Did you find it helpful to start with one particular part of the proposal?

KL: I found it helpful to start with the Specific Aims page. Getting my ideas down on paper really helped me to focus. I also highly recommend attending the Grant Writers Workshop and Seminar that Brenda holds for us each summer. The space is limited, but if you can get your Specific Aims page written in time, you can get an invaluable critique and advice from David Morrison, co-founder of Grant Writers' Seminars and Workshops, LLC.

YP: I would start with the hardest section, Specific Aims, and complement it with easier sections, such as the biographical sketch and candidate’s background.

The K99 straddles the transition between training and independent investigation, making the proposal unique compared to other grants. What differences between a K99 proposal and another grant proposal should fellows keep in mind?

KL: In my mind, the most unique aspect about the K99 grant application is the importance of the career development section. There are other grants that are considered "mentored" or "training" grants, but it really seems as though the K99 application gives high importance, if not equal importance, to both the career development and research plans.

YP: The importance of a well-thought-out career development plan is unique to the K99.

For fellows who have never applied for a K99, being able to anticipate challenges may make the process less overwhelming. What was the most challenging aspect of applying for the K99 for you?

KL: For me, the most challenging part of the K99 application was the amount of time needed to complete all the sections and have them reviewed and edited by my colleagues. There are many sections to the grant, so you really need to be careful to give ample time to write the sections and be able to have others read them over and comment on your content. I worked on the K99/R00 for about 6 weeks, but it was intense. At first I tried to still do experiments, but eventually, I had to dedicate all my efforts towards writing and editing my K99.

YP: I know that this sounds simple but getting started and overcoming writer's block. I would suggest creating a detailed writing timeline, which includes realistic deadlines for each section of the grant.

When tackling a K99 proposal, the more advice the better. What was the most important piece of advice your advisor gave you about writing a grant proposal?

KL: Often, when I write, I have great difficulty getting organized and getting my thoughts on paper. My advisor encouraged me to get things down on paper because she knew it was a hurdle for me. It eliminated a great deal of pressure to know that my writing didn't have to be perfect the first time around, and that we could edit it later. I know that seems obvious, but it was good to hear from my advisor.

YP: Write with clarity (reviewers of K99 are probably not familiar with your specialized research field). Also, give yourself enough time so it can be reviewed by several different researchers, particularly people that do not work in your field of interest.

Now that you’ve been through the process yourself, what advice would you give fellows applying for a K99?

KL: I would highly recommend starting more than 6 weeks before the deadline. Your mentors and other colleagues have so much going on that they cannot read and edit your grant in a day, they need to have plenty of time to do the job well. So, unless you love intense pressure, my advice would be to start early and get as much input as possible from as many people as possible.

YP: Give yourself enough time and find out every section that is required for submission before creating your writing timeline. This is so important but simple: read the instructions thoroughly several times. For example, every section has page limits, specific fonts required, and for the biographical sketch everything should be listed in chronological order staring with previous positions and concluding with the present.

Any other thoughts?

YP: I would advise fellows to go to grant writing seminars until they feel that what the seminars are saying is repetitive. The best source for submitting NIH grants is “The Grant Application Writer's Workbook,” which can be purchased at http://grantcentral.com/.