A junior epidemiologists experience with submitting a career development award: Part 2

Post date: Mar 12, 2018

Last post I introduced the K01 award, the decision to assemble an application, and the process of recruiting individuals to participate as collaborators. In this post I discuss the specifics of the career development and training plan. I’m including information that I found particularly helpful when writing this document, the advice of several individuals who had been successful in their K award applications, and the critical review from my collaborators. I’m not using these posts to discuss the specific aims or research strategy section of the application. These are common across all NIH grants; rather I hone in on the specifics of career development awards. I’m also focusing on the 2018 requirements as requested by the institute that I am targeting for my work: NIAID. Your institute may deviate slightly. Always review the current program announcement (mine linked here) and have discussions with the program officer if anything is unclear.

The NIH specifies a strict 12 page limit (excluding references) for the career development and training plan plus research strategy sections, using the typical 1/2" page margins. Most people tend to divide this evenly between the two major sections: 6 pages for the training plan and 6 pages for the research strategy. Considering the focus of the career development awards (hint: the title) I probably wouldn’t go any less than 6 pages on the training plan, and in fact my application has a 7 page training plan and 5 page research strategy section. Depending on how complex a project you are proposing, you may need the extra page. I found that I could frame my science rather concisely within the 5 pages I allocated.

Once you begin putting pen to paper, your greatest resources will be the SF424 (R&R) Application Guide. You will need to download the one pertinent to career development awards (not the generic one). Always ensure you are working the latest version of this guide, as requirements change over time. Within the 6 (or 7) page training plan, SF424 requires the following three sections in the "Candidate Information and Goals for Career Development" document: 1) Candidate’s background, 2) Career goals and objectives, and 3) Candidate’s plan for career development and training activities during the award period. Let’s break down each of these sections to discuss what makes sense to include.

Candidate Background. This section includes a brief overview of your research focus, direction for the K01 application, and a more exhaustive scientific biography. This biography needs to tell a story that begins with your interest in the research field; takes the reader through your academic credentials, current position, and research endeavors; and motivates the application for the K01 award. Now’s not the time to be modest. From the applications I have seen, a page and a half was sufficient.

Career goals and objectives. This section will probably be the shortest of the three, at about one page. It should include, at a minimum, a discussion of your short term career objectives (within the scope of the K01 award period) and longer term goals. You may choose to present this as a bulleted list, a table, or narrative paragraph. In the short term objectives, I think it is particularly important to explicitly and concretely link these to the K01 application. Therefore for each short term objective, I linked it to my training and mentorship plan, my scientific research aims, and relevance to the R01. As the intention of the K-series of awards is to establish independent researchers, almost everything in these applications needs to motivate the R01. In fact, part of the application, which can either be included in this document or the research strategy document, should give a one to two paragraph overview of your planned R01.

Candidate’s plan for career development and training activities. This is the real meat of this document. This section will introduce your mentors and other senior/key personnel, enumerate your training and coursework, and propose a schedule for activities. As I mentioned in my prior post, assembling the mentorship team proved to be the most difficult aspect of the application. It is essential to assemble a team of individuals with unique yet complementary skills, who have experience in your research area, and are therefore motivated for you to succeed. In general, you will a lead mentor(s) and several co-mentors. In my opinion, the lead mentor should be tightly aligned with your long term career goal and does not necessarily have to have the methodological expert for your science. Clearly they should be well funded (particularly through NIH grants) and be accessible and available to you. The co-mentors on the other hand can be the content and methodologic area experts for your application. Each mentor should have a brief paragraph introduction that ties in their experience and relevance to your training plan. Additionally, other senior/key personnel who are not necessarily as involved as the mentors can be included as an advisory board. These individuals may provide very specific methodologic expertise or be a key opinion leader in the field. Mentorship committees should be fairly small, perhaps 4 or 5 individuals at most, with only one or two primary/lead mentors. One of the more important questions to grapple with is whether these individuals should be local to your institution or not. Historically having individuals local to your institution was almost a prerequisite. Now in the age of Skype et al. they can be remote. However, if they are not you must really drive home their availability and accessibility. At a minimum I would have several people local to your institution, especially if the lead mentor is not. I would also have your senior/key personnel begin writing their letters of support for your application as you work on this section. Both mentors and advisor board members must submit letters of reference. These should not be confused with the required letters from referees, who are peer recommenders not involved in your grant.

The educational training plan contains the coursework and professional development that will occur during the award period. I found this to be the most enjoyable aspect of the application, as you essentially pick and choose the courses you want to take. These can be local to your institution or not, in person or online, short or long format. I had been advised to include tedious detail here: course names and numbers, locations, descriptions, dates the classes are offered, etc. All of the coursework must tie into your career goals and objectives section – these are not meant to be classes you take for personal fulfillment, but rather will enable you to achieve you K01 aims and R01 application success. The courses can be presented in a tabular or bulleted format, while the justification and linkage to the aims can be provided in a narrative format immediately following. Finally I found it helpful to include the timeline of training, mentoring, and research plans directly in this document rather than the research strategy document (as I have seen others do). Within the timeline, I presented the information stratified by my training goals, and included three types of information: 1) the courses, workshops and seminars I wished to take, 2) the supervision and mentors responsible for that training goal, and 3) the research I would conduct during the K01 award period. In addition to the short term goals I also included a general section on career development to discuss my meeting plans with my committee members as well as conferences and seminars that I would regularly attend.

There are many moving parts to these grants (support letters, budget, and so forth) and working on them in concurrently can ensure you hit your targeted submission deadline. In the third and final post that will follow next month, I’ll discuss assembling and submitting the final application package, while also addressing some of the "moving parts" details.