A junior epidemiologists experience with submitting a career development award: Part 3

Post date: Apr 30, 2018

The last two posts on this blog have focused on the What and Why of the career development award (Part 1, Part 2). This final post is concerned with packaging up with award for submission to NIH. There are many constituent parts to these awards, as outlined in SF424. It’s quite easy to get hyper focused on only the specific aims, career training plan, and research strategy section of this application; that is where you will probably spend the bulk of your time writing and the reviewers will spend the bulk of their time reading. But there are so many other, somewhat annoying components of the final package that if you wait until the last minute to tackle these documents, you may miss the submission deadline. And speaking of submission deadline, to give an idea of how much time it may take to assemble the application, I offer this rough timeline (working backwards from the submission date):

  • May 7: Submission date (HIV deadline)
  • April 23: About two weeks prior to due date: all documents loaded into ASSIST and ready for institutional review
  • April 9: About four weeks prior to due date: Specific aims, career training plan, and research strategy sections received from internal and external reviewers and mentors for feedback and revisions. An intense two weeks for revisions.
  • March: Work on all ancillary documents and forms for the application, including budget.
  • End of February: Send specific aims, career training plan, and research strategy sections to mentors for review; request mentorship letters, biosketches, and referee letters. Set specific dates when you need materials returned.
  • January: Form mentoring team, conceive science, beginning writing the specific aims, career training plan, and research strategy sections

As you can see, this process took about five months to complete. It’s not a five month full-time job necessarily, but with all of the moving parts, it takes about this amount of time to ensure everything is received from your collaborators with ample time for revisions. I honestly don’t know how to make this more concise or streamlined unless you have a smaller mentor team than I did. From the folks I spoke to who have successfully obtained a career development award, they followed a similar schedule. Importantly, leave adequate time for the submission so your institution is not left scrambling last minute. You’ll likely be working with a grants officer or business manager during this process, and you want to make their jobs as easy as possible. Remember, you catch more flies with honey! Ask the question, “What can I do to help?” Without being too redundant to SF424 (which lays out the requirements for your application in somewhat excruciating detail) I want to briefly comment on the specific documents needed in this application. I had quite a few questions on these documents, and if you have someone else’s application to reference, that can really be a life saver. Remember you don’t need to re-invent the wheel when submitting your application: find a good example and follow their approach like a recipe. Definitely if you have one or two people that have successfully funded one of these awards, buy them lunch and pick their brain about their experience and recommendations.

  • Documents from mentors/co-mentors: Letter of mentorship support, current and pending grant support, and biosketches. Some of your mentors may ask for you to draft a letter for them; this is common. But you want to avoid the letters from sounding too similar, so take the extra time and really tailor the letter to each mentor without having it sound too generic. These letters need to be very strongly supportive of your application. The current and pending support forms are required in mentored career development awards and specifies funding that your mentors are receiving. The intention is to ensure they have the time to contribute to your project. Biosketches should be obvious.
  • Documents from other collaborators: Key personnel not identified as mentors can contribute to your project in other ways, such as providing specific expertise for a given aim, providing data, or merely collaborating with you. From these collaborators, a letter of support is included in the application, as well as biosketches for individuals.
  • Documents from your institution: Hopefully your institution will provide assistance or have pre-canned wording you can use on the following documents:
    • Facilities: a description of the environment.
    • Equipment: a description of the tools, hardware, and software needed for your work as well as any lab supplies.
    • Institutional environment: somewhat redundant to the facilities and equipment forms, but this is more focused on how the institution is geared towards supporting your work and the pathway towards research independence.
    • Institutional support: a letter from your chair or dean that really articulates their support for your application. Some things to focus on in this letter may include: your academic track, release of time, teaching load, resources available from a department, school, and university level. Also, based on guidance I received from a colleague, include that your position is not contingent upon the awards, and (if you are not tenure track) that your position is supported equivalent to any tenure track position. As with the mentor letters, this letter should be very strong.
    • Budget and budget justification: pretty straightforward for a career development award, but ensure that this includes all the travel and training mentioned in your career development plan, as well as ancillary supplies for things like books, software, computer upgrades, society dues, and so on.
    • Responsible conduct of research: your institution likely as classes and programs you can enroll in to satisfy these requirements.
  • Documents from referees: NIH requires 3 – 5 people external to your application to provide essentially a letter of recommendation. Good people to ask would be individuals on your dissertation or postdoc committees, or your department chair. These are not submitted with your application, rather letters are submitted directly to eRA commons by your referees. Don’t confuse these letters with the letters of support from your mentors or letters of support from your non-mentor collaborators.
  • Documents from you: everything else, duh. Things like the project abstract, narrative, aims, training plan, research strategy, cover letter, human subjects documents, subject enrollment forms, resource sharing, etc. These take time to do, even the short one paragraph documents. Be sure to study SF424 in advance so you don’t get caught in the last minute having to put these forms together.

So my concluding thought on this process is that while the career development award, K01 specifically, is not necessarily a difficult application to write, the time required to request then organize the many component parts should not be underestimated. At time it will feel like herding cats.

(Note: I have since added an epilogue to the story.)