Reflections on a K99/R00 datapoint

The recent analyses and discussions of gender differences in the K99/R00 transition to R01 rate are reflection provoking: as one of the 2008 K99 cohort datapoints, and (if you hadn't figured it out) a woman, I have recently succeeded in getting an R01 (April 2014). I am navel gazing because I am trying to figure out why I am one of the ones who has an R01 by now. I truly don't know what I have done differently than others in my place, but even having the luxury of thinking that may be a privilege in itself. Although I recently moved, I started out at an institution that, as far as I can tell from the tables, is >100 ranking (although, with no medical center and a hugely physical sciences centered-focus, at a major skewed disadvantage from what I observed in this list compared to peer institutions with med centers). It is also very teaching-focused, but still considered R1. My R01 was applied for from and awarded to that institution. So, let's perform a case study to gather some anecdata--and since I'm also being put up for tenure this year, hey, this information is at hand.

So, did I apply for more grants or R01s than others in my cohort bin? I don't know--I do know that in five years, I submitted five R01 proposals in total (on two distinct projects), a sixth R01-scale/length R33 proposal (but for a non-renewable opportunity), a seventh EUREKA R01, and got fundable scores on two (an R01 and the R33). I submitted a New Innovator award proposal (which I did not get). I submitted three R01-scale NSF CAREER proposals (and didn't get any of them). I submitted five R21 proposals (on four distinct projects) and got two of them, two STTR proposals (on the same project, which is not yet funded) and one DOD pilot project proposal (which I got). I also submitted numerous foundation proposals (at least one or so a year, none of which I got), and 1-2 internal proposals a year, a few of which I got. So if I average all of that together and divide it across five years, yeah: that's at least 3 major to semi-major proposals a year. The R01s were all in the last two years or so. I guess that is a lot, but it sounds like about average to me, based on what many other peers and mentors have described.

Have I "worked harder" than others in my cohort bin? I really don't think so but it seems extremely, cluelessly privileged to say that. I have had some long, intense days, and more than a few nights of staying up until 3 am (but nearly always to work on teaching lectures during teaching season, not grants--the grants happened during the day, I guess they got the special treatment). I've had a baby, my 2nd year on TT, with the luxury of not having to teach the whole following year and being on a hard-money position nevertheless (so an added luxury of not having to stress about how to pay myself). I've struggled with depression, and fairly recently started Wellbutrin (about 2 years or so now), with a lot of lost days and nights to the fog and emptiness prior to that. (it's hard to be creative about anything, or solve any problems, when you just don't feel anything about anything and can't even hold together a non-complex thought with your executive function). Even still I have what seems like a lot of nights when I stay up until 4 am reading my book BECAUSE I WANT TO AND IT MAKES ME FEEL BETTER. I don't usually work on weekends (unless something's REALLY super urgent, like teaching in which I have to stand up in front of a bunch of teenagers who already don't like me and don't like being there and are looking for any excuse...). So, unless it's my imposter syndrome talking, I don't feel like I have worked as hard as I could have or SHOULD have. But maybe that's the lie that paralyzes us into thinking we can't do it. When, apparently, we can, because, here I am.

I have benefited tremendously from mentoring and promotional support. I've managed to hit almost all of the checkboxes in the Drugmonkey/Physioprof list of things to do to give yourself the best chance at NIH success: I've been on a number of NIH review panels (because I had mentors who suggested me to SROs), including the ones that ended up funding my two R21s, my R01, and the R33 with a fundable score. They are totally right: you learn the panel culture, which pitfalls to avoid, and what catches their collective eye--as well as just what works and what doesn't in building a compelling rationale (after you've reviewed a few rounds, it really starts to jump out). I've sent in a lot of proposals, on diverse topics, crashed and burned some on the rocks of one mechanism and subsequently refined them for success at another. Have we had the perfect preliminary data? Hell no! That I can emphatically say. But, I have increasingly learned how to use what we do have, and to spread it around. We've published six papers on which I am corresponding author, and a bunch more where I'm in the middle (because I like helping, and my students have helped too). In my field, that's not a huge amount, but it's okay. My revised R01 proposal that finally got funded was read and critiqued by a mentor who had been on that study section for a long time, and so knew all the points to hit.

And then, also, I am lucky. I am a very fast writer, and pretty fast reader, so I start with an advantage towards being prolific. Maybe this is part of the key. It makes proposals flow more easily and not feel like as much work? These are things I have always had, and that I improved on in college. So maybe that, and the good mentors thing, are my lucky pass that get me through these gates more easily. That's what this reflection comes down to, ultimately: I don't feel like I have done more than others in my bin. I don't feel like I am smarter, or more perfect. I've been scrappy, but also know the feeling of the black dog (with a big disclaimer that I am extremely lucky to have it respond well to drugs that don't mess up the rest of my life). I think I'm regular, normal but lucky.

11 thoughts on “Reflections on a K99/R00 datapoint

  1. That is really inspirational! As a K99/R00 grantee embarking on planning my first R01 application, I hope I'll have the stamina to write as many grants as you which such an awesome success rate 🙂

    • One thing I would do a little differently: I didn't start applying for R01s until my 4th year (I had the K99/R00 for my first 5 years of TT)--I should have started earlier on those, because it did get pretty stressful there at the end when I had a big group and a fundable score, but the R01 hadn't started yet. Start applying for R01s as soon as you start, because most likely several will fail before something finally sticks, and it takes at least a year and a half to know if you've failed for sure on a revision.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! Data and statistics are fine, but they oversimplify and do not capture the reality of scientists actual lives, challenges, and successes.

    Congratulations on the R01. I hope the research goes well.

    • I kinda want to collaborate with you on a project to collect these histories and do some analysis... doesn't the NIH have some funding opportunities out for studying sources of bias/disparity in their demographics? 😉 All we'd need is a postdoc...

      • Hi Arlenna: I was going to suggest something similar. I can provide a list of all of the K99/R00 awardees and their situations. The challenge (as is always the case) is to come up with a coherent and workable research plan.

        • I'll email you about this (but probably not until after next week, a lot going on). I've been thinking about it and kind of formulating a specific aims page in my head (this is kind of the ideal cohort to follow for these questions, with a sort-of built-in control for previous productivity and competitiveness). We could get a research assistant to prepare a survey and recruit awardees to fill it out, and then help tabulate the data at the end. Either one of us COULD do this on our own, but I don't know if we can afford to budget the time such a process would take. But if we got a little bit of support, I could make it justifiable time to spend and we could hire someone to help. Not even necessarily a postdoc--an undergrad RA would probably work.

  3. Congrats on your RO1! Sounds like you have had some great success in getting numerous types of grants funded. I'm not surprised that you have several middle author papers because your helpful nature is apparent in the awesome support that you constantly provide in the K99/R00 forum.

    Wish you all the best for your tenure and future grant applications!

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