Applying for a Career Transition K Award from the NIH

Last year, I was awarded a K grant from the NIH. It took two tries and a whole lot of work, but it will set me up for the next few years. I’ll tell you more about what it is, how to apply for one, and why you should apply.

The Career Transition K award funds two more years of postdoc training and the first three years of your first faculty appointment. Commonly it is also called the K99 or K99/R00, but officially, there are other names for it depending on the NIH institution you’re applying to and the particular program. I applied for a K22/R00 through NINDS which was pretty much the same as their K99 but with a focus on minority candidates. I applied for that one because the eligibility requirements allowed me to apply in my fifth year post-grad instead of the cut off of 4 years in the regular K99. My first piece of advice is that you take a good look at all of the K mechanisms at the different NIH institutes and figure out which ones you’re eligible for. Don’t restrict yourself unnecessarily.

NIH Career Development awards

Once you’ve identified a specific K award to apply for at a specific NIH institute, the next thing to do is to contact the program officer for that grant. Let them know that you intend to apply and when. They’ll likely ask to see a draft of your specific aims, so have one ready. They just want a sense of whether you’re eligible and whether your proposed research fits with the institute’s mission. Two reasons why this is important:

  1. Your program officer is your liaison and your advocate. They are there to help you submit your best application and to make sure you’re doing what you can to have the best shot at being funded.
  2. All kinds of hidden factors determine which grant mechanism and institute is the best one for you to apply for. In my case, I thought I’d apply for a K99 at the National Eye Institute (NEI) because my research pertained to computational models of retina circuits. The program officer recommended that I submit to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) instead because they had a study section that is more appropriate for evaluating proposals with a computational approach. I never would’ve figured this out on my own.

Once you’ve cleared that, if you haven’t done this before you might think that all you have to do is to write the research proposal and fill out some forms and submit. This isn’t that kind of thing. Your university or institution has significant involvement. You’ll have to contact the administrative office or department that deals with grants. At UW, it’s the office of Sponsored Programs. This has its ups and downs. For one, you’ll have to have your application materials ready weeks in advance of the NIH deadline because your institution has to check it for compliance, approve it, you approve their approval of it, and then they submit it on your behalf. The plus side is that you don’t have to do the whole application by yourself. They fill out most of the copious, tedious forms that go into the grant. This brings me to another point. You won’t have to start from scratch for many of the forms and statements that you’ll submit. You can use past statements from others as a template. For example, statements about lab resources and shared instrumentation, or statements about protocols can easily be modified from ones that likely already exist in your lab or department and that your PI or other trainee had to submit with their grants. Just ask them to share.

So once you’re ready to get going on your application, you should organize yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Make a list or spreadsheet of the application documents and write down who is responsible for completing which ones and your personal deadline for having each part complete. Share it with all who are involved in your application – your PI(s), your grants office, and your department point person if you have one. Use the instruction manual for NIH grant applications (yes, there is one). It lists all the materials that go into these things and provides instructions on what is supposed to be provided in each document. This will give you an idea of whether the documentation is to be provided by you or by an administrative office or your department chair.

Then you can focus on writing a great research proposal and working with your advisor on a training and career development plan. The NIH offers their own guide and tips for writing your application which I found helpful. I also found Anita Devineni’s blog post about her application experience very helpful when I was applying. It was the best guide I had for getting started.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have done K applications before and ask them to share their completed applications (with all the forms and statements too) and their best advice. Leave comments here or reach out if you have questions for me. Good luck!

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