K99 eligibility limited to 4 years and you better not be out on the job market

Somehow, the changes announced in this Notice are supposed to help postdocs make a "more timely" transition to independence.

I think the main problem will be that reviewers are already largely biased with the mindset that a certain publication profile is necessary to make someone competitive. Meaning a certain number of papers in a certain "level" of journal. In order for the timing of this process to work, postdocs will need to start applying for the K99 in about year 2, by which time it is very unlikely that anyone but the ultra super productive (which is often aided by the good fortune of having a PI who lets you choose quick-to-paper projects over those that they might WANT you to be working on), or those in big-name labs, will have such a profile. Since reviewers won't have as lengthy of a publication record to go by, they will almost surely fall into the habit they do for every other kind of NIH grant and go instead on other aspects of the CV (and the CV of the mentor), further pushing this towards a "glamour" award. The "rich get richer" situation will be exacerbated, in contrast to what I have always seen as an advantage of the K99 award (that even the not as "fancy"--like myself in a lot of ways, lol--can have a fighting chance).

Also, year 2 is when a lot of people become most competitive for the F32, so it might become a choice between F32 or K99, which seems kind of stupid. Is F32 going to end up as some kind of consolation prize for not being fancy enough for a K99?

Not only that, but this will disproportionately disadvantage women (and men who are primary or co-primary caregivers) who have children during their postdoc years. So far, the longest extension on K99 eligibility that I have heard of anyone getting for family leave is the actual number of weeks/months they were out on parental leave. Anyone who has had a kid knows that the effect on your productivity goes FAR beyond those few weeks/months. If they want to avoid this kind of bias, they will need to get real about extension times--people should get at least a year per kid, just like in the tenure clock stoppage situation.

Lastly, I think it is paternalistic and invasive for Program to be making judgements about someone's need for a K99 award and readiness for the tenure track based on their job application timelines. A large proportion of postdocs go out on the job market before they are truly ready because their PI won't or can't pay them anymore. Making that the postdoc's FAULT by now also telling them they are no longer eligible for one of the best options to win their independence from that PI is just gross and unhelpful. This treats postdocs like they are little kids who say they want dessert now even though they didn't eat their vegetables: "Well then, you must not need any dessert because you must not be hungry." Well, guess what: your reviewers are scoring highest the people who already look ready for an independent position. So you're going to have to figure out how to get them to change their mindsets--something that so far, nobody has figured out how to do very effectively. How is that going to be reconciled with the new rule that:

"Individuals who are close to achieving an independent faculty position, and cannot make a strong case for needing a minimum of 12 months of additional mentored training, are not ideal candidates for this award"?

I wonder if they have even thought about this. I also wonder if these changes are based on any actual metrics about applicants and awardees, or just some vague, poorly thought-out knee jerk idea to make postdoc-hood shorter. If you can show me Jeremy Berg-style data demonstrating that there will be some benefit to candidates, fine--but it just doesn't look like this is going to be a good thing.

Payline limbo: should I revise and resubmit my K99?

We interrupt this regularly scheduled period of non-posting (due to overwhelming busy-ness in work and life, as usual) to share a K99-related question that might be particularly useful to K99 applicants during this waiting phase.

The following question came up at the K99/R00 forum (some details redacted):

I submitted to my K99 to (Institute X) and got a score of (Good Score). Institute X just posted the funding policy for FY11 and it was (slightly >Good Score) for K99 (5 points lower than last year). I called my PO and she said it is "not (definitely) 'fundable', nor it is 'not fundable'." (Ed: i.e. in the grey zone) She suggest me to prepare for revisions if I have time and it wouldn't affect my chance of getting funded for the first submission. It seems very likely that I would get funded on a second trial. The trick is I have already submitted my job applications and get an interview from a top research university and hopefully more to come. Should I wait for another two years to go for a job? Or I should quit now? Very frustrated and confused....

I wanted to share my response with readers here:

Hang in there! Limbo land sucks. The key to understanding your PO's code-language is that she is trying to encourage you without getting herself in the position of having promised funding to someone, from whom she then has to take it away. Since you are under the payline, you very likely might get funded, but since Congress hasn't passed the budget for next year yet, she doesn't know how much money she'll have in her bank account and they might pass a budget that makes things a lot harder for her to fund you that close to the payline. She's not trying to make you confused, she just can't commit until she knows her budget.

My advice is always YES to prepare revisions for resubmission. If you don't prepare a revision, and then you don't get funded, there's no way you can get the grant. But if you do prepare a revision, and DO get funded this time, then oh well, you have put some thought into what you might need to change once you actually start the research. If you do prepare a revision, and DON'T get funded this time, then you have a great chance to get funded next time and even if you get a job in the meantime, there will possibly be workarounds from both the department that hires you and your PO so that you can still benefit from the funding. Just watch the timing of accepting any offers so you don't render yourself ineligible to resubmit, and don't be shy about sharing your good score and its relationship to the projected payline in your job applications.

It is ALWAYS better to have a horse in the race than to not. Keeping your grant in play by working on that revision is always the best decision for your chances at funding.

Making the K99/R00 work long-term: what should be the focus?

Through my discussions on my K99/R00 forum, I'm noticing a trend for applicants: they get mixed messages and experience a lot of confusion about what the K99 phase of the K99/R00 is REALLY supposed to be about. Some Institutes allow the K99 phase to occur during the initiation of a tenure track position (i.e. you get the award as a postdoc but start an assistant prof job at the same time as your K99 phase starts). Other Institutes absolutely do not allow this, and require a minimum amount of time to be spent as a postdoc on the K99 portion, and then require transition to the R00 phase (rather than carry-over and continuation of the K99 phase through its maximum 2-year allowance).

Program's explanations for their positions vary: from understanding that people are in the sweet spot for K99/R00 and tenure track competitiveness within the same ~2-year window in their lives, to insisting that the point of the K99/R00 is to make people competitive (results/training-wise, not just reputation-wise, which a successful K99/R00 proposal makes you) for tenure track positions (as originally conceived) and that people who are already applying for TT should be ready to just apply for R01s instead. The latter aren't comfortable with the K99/R00 being *just* a rubber stamp "gold star" for TT application packages until after the awardee has played out their postdoc stage, and presumably think that postdocs should stay in their mentor's labs until they are fully cooked to some vaguely defined stage of additional "doneness." (which, it seems, K99 reviewers largely already expect...)

Unfortunately, that's just not how it works for most postdocs. By the time you're in prime K99 application stage, you're in year 2-3-4 of a postdoc position. You may or may not have a mentor who can afford to keep spending money on you establishing your own independent directions. You may be pressured to leave the lab soon, you may be pressured by your family concerns to move on from the low salary trainee stage. You are one of 200-300 applicants for any faculty position to which you apply. Like I said before, you cannot afford to put all of your eggs in the K99 basket, and might NEED to apply for jobs, yet should success in that process preclude you from funding if you get an outstanding score on a K99/R00 proposal and the reviewers think you would benefit from the training plan you described? (especially when that training plan can essentially just be transferred and still occur while you also start a TT position)

The other part that some POs might not quite have come to terms with (even though they are the very people with these numbers...) is that getting enough R01 support to get tenure is COMPLETELY non-trivial, even for highly successful beginning investigators with the New Investigator bonus. Here are my specific concerns about this:

1. The new structure and reviewing guidelines mean that you essentially have to have all of your preliminary data published. There simply is no room for preliminary data figures in a 12 page R01 format. If reviewers are going to adequately assess the potential for your project's success on an R01 scale (budgets typically the so-called 'modular' $250K DIRECT costs per year for 5 years), they need to see you have established significant feasibility for all of your aims, and these days that means peer-reviewed publication of preliminary work.

2. R01 budgets may be proposed at $250K for 5 years, but ALMOST ALWAYS get cut upon award by as much as 25-30% or MORE in amount, and as much as 1-2 years in time (so in reality you end up looking at a spending account that gives you only $150-200K per year for as little as 3 years). In other words, right back to R00 levels of funding. For many institutions, especially the fancy-pants medical school types, you also have to cover a large portion of your own salary and benefits (which is usually >100K), plus postdoctoral staff cost a lot more in places where the cost of living is high (as much as $100K/yr in salary and benefits themselves, think about what you all are wanting to ask for as your K99 salaries!). So right there, covering your own and ONE postdoc's salaries kills nearly the entire R01 budget at most institutions (and similarly, an R00 budget if you do come in with one).

3. Many, many many institutions (especially those aforementioned fancy-pants places and medical schools on the coasts etc.) are going to expect more than one R01 in a successful tenure package. And when you look at the numbers on the ground I described in #2 above, you can see why. In order to bring in the big papers in the Glamour Mags (which those big name places basically require for tenure), you are gonna need to populate your lab with more than just one postdoc and yourself. You are gonna need at least a couple of postdocs and a tech to keep things chugging at the pace that will get you there. In these tight funding days, that most likely means more than one major grant pre-tenure.

Of course not all institutions will require this of TT faculty. But nonetheless, the reality on the ground (with R01s being what they are and requiring what they require) is that a K99/R00 award can function as ~50-75% of an R01 as you get going pre-tenure. If used judiciously and efficiently, and if the training plan goals with appropriate mentoring are actually followed through, that can mean a substantial leg up on the tenure process.

My opinion: The goals of the programs should be to help facilitate long-term success in tenure track positions, not just to get people into them. The grant has been around long enough now that they should be able to start looking at their outcomes under different conditions (K99 phase long/short, what kind of job title held for K99 phase, what type of institution for K99 and for R00, future R01 success, future tenure success) and see how things are turning out. (NIGMS Director Berg anybody...?) My hunch is that providing more practical tenure track success mentoring (workshops? other mandated, direct contact programs? additional mentoring requirement BY grantees who successfully move on to R01 funding FOR early-stage grantees?) and allowing the K99 phase to be under the control of the investigator (rather than some imagined idealized situation) will better push future R01 and tenure success.

How to put together (your life and) a K99/R00 proposal

UPDATE: New forum for comments/discussion/etc. started Feb. 2010:


Everything below still applies, and here is an additional piece of advice to you all for where/how to focus in these shorter apps:

#1 priority: "The Candidate" and career plan section.

#2 priority: Your independent research aims and plans.

I know some folks on the study section reviewing these applications, and the most common pitfall applicants create for themselves is to not have well-developed career plans with OUTSIDE, INDEPENDENT collaborators and FOCUSED, well-developed R00-phase research plans.

Take the rough % page breakdown from before (~6 pages The Candidate, ~5-8 pages intro, ~3-4 pages mentored phase research, ~8-10 pages independent phase research) and apply it to a total of 12 pages, and work on making your narrative extremely tight, focused and direct.


So you need to get any combination of the following:

  • Your %@#& together
  • Some research funding
  • A more independent job

If you are like most people, you probably do not work in So-and-so Famous Lab and have So-and-so Famous graciously handing off fully-formed R01 proposals and setting up lunch meetings for you with collections of other Famous Faculty who can think of nothing better to do with their time than help you out with your life, who pick out just the right faculty position (or other job) for you, make a few phone calls and BINGO you’re in the club. YOU TOO can take matters into your own hands: even just the process of applying, revising and resubmitting for a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award from the NIH will help you get that shit together, whether you get it funded or not.

I am going to try to create an informal guide, based on my own experience as an A2 awardee, on how best to approach this award and revise for success if you don’t make it on your first time around. The most important thing that I cannot stress enough is DON’T TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY. Don’t let a bad score permanently destroy your motivation—read the critique, do everything in your power to address it and TRY AGAIN.

This award is still in the wild-west phase—its first cycle was early 2006, and it has been feeling itself out over the past few years while the first couple sets of awardees made it through their mentored K99 phases and transitioned into their R00 segments. Its advantages are many: up to 2 years of post-doc funding, 3 years of funding to start your own lab, the cache on your CV, the focus of direction that it forces upon you, etc. A few kinks are still being worked out—given the painful slowness of the turning of the NIH gears, it’s relatively common for the awardees to already have a tenure-track faculty position offer, or at least some other kind of job offer that involves them moving on. It is just not practical or possible for senior post-docs (towards whom the award is aimed) to sit around by the phone waiting to hear the good news for 6-9 months (for a first submission, which can stretch to 2 years over the revision period) rather than moving on with their lives. What this means for you: APPLY EARLY! Don’t wait until you are in your 3rd-4th year to get started if you can possibly help it. BUT if you do for whatever reason wait that long, APPLY ANYWAY.

Like all NIH funding these days, K99/R00 awards are extremely competitive. Apparently they took away the K01 option and rolled it into this, so this really is one of the only transitional funding opportunities around right now. Even the Burroughs-Wellcome Biomedical grant seems to have been cut out because they said “Hey, now there is an option for you guys so we’re stepping out." It is not easy to get a K99/R00 funded, even if your research is really freaking cool and you have a great mentor. Here, however, are some key details to how to get as close to funded as you possibly can.

General notes

  1. Don’t be as ambitious as you think you need to be. Take the system (i.e. which cancer, which other disease, which organism) your lab works with and keep the fundamentals the same. Change the technology or angle to make it your own, rather than going out on a limb and starting with something totally different than what your mentor(s) have published experience in.
  2. If you do need/want to move to a new disease or organism or what have you, keep the technologies/angle the same as your mentor(s). The key is to take a relatively straightforward next step, make it your own, and find some innovative (but conservative) thing to do with it.
  3. Find an off-campus collaborator of your own. Someone who is well-known in the area but has little to no official affiliation with your mentor(s), and who has experience in whatever NEW feature of the work you are trying to make your own. Best thing is to meet them at a Gordon or similar research conference/retreat, where there is time to have a nice chat. Contact them politely and ask if they would be willing to collaborate with you on your exciting project. Ask if you can spend at least a month in their lab learning something they do (at your expense). The worst they can do is say no or not reply, so have a few lined up to try contacting.
  4. Assemble an “informal mentorship committee” that consists of the off-campus collaborator, a junior faculty member on campus, a senior faculty member on campus, and your official advisor. Ask them to act as assessors on your progress. Offer to write drafts of support letters for these people, and make those drafts address the context of their involvement (e.g. “I am delighted to offer my support and advice to X as they prepare their transition towards independence… Based on my expertise in area blank, I am happy to work with X to assess their progress on topic-blah-blah both at the time of transition and as they begin their independent position…” etc.)

The proposal

The proposal for this award requires two major sections: The Candidate and the Research Plan. Both of these need to fit into 25 pages total, and the split should be somewhere between 5-6 pp The Candidate and 19-20 pp Research Plan. I am not going to spend much time on the strategic formatting of the research plan itself. There is an excellent series on R01 proposal strategies here, for which all the same principles and most of the details apply to writing your K99/R00 research plan. However, I will give some tips that address some issues that are more specific to the K99/R00.

1. The Candidate

  • “Summary of research experience to date:” Be succinct. Do not tell your life story in flowery language, keep it straightforward but highlight any significant research experience or awards you have gotten along the way. Provide a short (2-3 sentences) description of each project’s goals and accomplishments.
  • “Graduate project description:” Write up a sub-one-page description of your Ph.D. project, addressing the three main things (in this order for maximum clarity) that anybody cares about any given research project:
    • What was the big picture point?
    • What systems/technologies did you use (specific aim-sty
      le) to address that big picture point?
    • How did your contribution turn out (advances you made, papers you got published, funding you won along the way)?

      Any more than that and the snooze factor kicks in. If you think you can’t describe the big picture about your project because it was so complex or obscure or specific, then you just need to learn how to communicate better. Everything can be described in this simple of a format, and if you can’t do it, that illustrates that the problem lies with your ability to describe your work, not the work or the readers.

  • “Current research training project:” 1-2 sentences outlining the purpose of your current (i.e. last couple of years of post-doc) work (if you are currently funded for it, make sure you stick to describing the work you have money for and not whatever other random stuff you’ve been doing instead!)
  • “Current project description:” Similar to graduate description, sub-1 page explaining the big picture, and specific aims of your current project.
  • “Discussion of current research and training program:” This is not redundant with current project description, it expands on it. This is a more thorough characterization of the type of “training” you have been getting from your environment, e.g. new techniques, new biological systems, new analytical or statistical methods; and why they are important to your development as a scientist. You also get to walk through what advances you have made towards those specific aims you listed in d. and any papers that have come out of it.
  • “Career goals and objectives, a.k.a. Scientific biography:” This is a weird one. This part is like that college entrance essay you have to write to make yourself try to stand out. You want to avoid sounding too forced or too boring, and don’t write too much. Generally keep it less than 4 paragraphs, don’t be too reflective just try to give your “mission statement” in a digestible chunk.
  • “Career development/Training activities during the award period:” DO NOT BLOW THIS PART OFF. Don’t just give some stock language about the courses your university offers in finding faculty positions or some crap. Here is where you have the opportunity to stand out, since most people just use boilerplate language. A few suggestions for looking more creative:
    • Describe your informal committee. Use bullet points to list them, and give a short paragraph about how you will meet with them once every six months or something (you don’t actually have to do the meetings, but try).
    • Describe a visit to your outside collaborator’s lab, what aspects of your mentored phase specific aim(s) you will address with their help.
    • Suggest a specific small research meeting or outside course you will attend to learn more about some aspect of your mentored phase specific aim(s). Example: plan to attend a Cold Spring Harbor course, or if you are proposing proteomics, suggest attending the Seattle Proteome Center’s informatics course, provide a link to the course.
  • “Training in the responsible conduct of research:” This can just be boilerplate.

2. Statements by the Sponsor, Co-Sponsor, Consultant(s) and Contributor(s)

  • DO NOT BLOW THIS OFF EITHER! The mentor/sponsor statement is extremely important. If you don’t trust your mentor to write a good one, you need to write it for them and get them to sign off on it. The focus needs to be about what they believe your potential to be based on your previous work/behavior in the lab, and a big part of it needs to be spent on what opportunities they will provide you to learn new things, what their expertise offers you for training, how you get to take whatever you do with you, corroborations of support for outside activities like the ones you described in your career development/training activities section, etc.
  • Who supports you is a bigger deal than you think. If you work for a younger, less-well-known PI, you will need a heavier hitter on your sponsorship committee. Find someone (preferably at your institution) who works in the area you are proposing who can serve as official “co-mentor” to you on this proposal. Do the same thing as for other support letters: offer to write a draft for their approval. Having an established vs. non-established name on here will make a difference between whether you get triaged or scored first time around, and you are not trapped if your PI is new—you just need to also get somebody more settled to sign on.
  • These one or two statements should be included in the text, but you can attach other support statements (e.g. from your informal committee members) in the appendix or whatever.

3. Environmental blah blah: Boilerplate

4. Research Plan

Like I said, not going to spend much time here, just outline a few points specific to laying out the mentored vs. independent phases.

  • Specific aims: Separate into mentored and independent phases. Do not try to have more than 1-2 aims for the mentored phase. Make the mentored phase aim(s) involve any characterization of new parts of your idea, system or techniques. Use the independent phase aims to expand on what you can establish in the mentored phase aim(s), but don’t be too ambitious even in that independent phase—stick to things that logically follow on from what you can do in 1-2 years of the mentored part.
  • Background and significance should apply to the whole project, not to one phase or the other.
  • MAKE SURE YOU HAVE SOME RELEVANT PRELIMINARY DATA. This requires having a mentor who lets you generate some probably on their dollar and time, so straighten that out with them beforehand.
  • Give a timeline for the mentored phase. Suggest chunks of time that it should take you to address various parts of the mentored phase aim(s), and where you will do them (which mentor’s lab, on or off campus, etc.).
  • Make sure you split mentored and independent phases fairly equally page-wise. It is easy to spend too much space on the mentored phase section, since that is the part you know exactly what you will do for the next year or so. But flesh out the independent phase fully and thoroughly—you can’t leave it hanging as if you’ll figure it all out when you get there, you have to have a plan for how you will set it up, what the pitfalls are, and what alternatives you have in mind for when things need to be adjusted.


Revisions are almost surely going to happen to you. Use them as an opportunity to look flexible and ready to learn, and also to genuinely improve this package you have begun to put together. I learned more about my project, my ideas, myself, and how to write a grant from going through two rounds of revisions than I would have from getting it the first time around. These pointers here apply to any revisions, not just for this grant, but I figured I would give you details of what worked for me.

In order to make your revision as successful as possible, always always make changes from the last version very clear. Underline or what have you, don’t worry about it looking messy because at least they will be able to find it if it stands out. Write your Introduction to revised/resubmission (which goes at the beginning of any resubmission) with your reviewers’ energy and attention levels in m

  • Start with an intro “Resume and response to summary statements” describing what good and bad things they had to say last time (quoting from the summary statement in italics or something like that), briefly outlining what you changed and what is new since last time
  • Define what you have used in the main proposal text to highlight changes (did you underline, or italicize, or what?)
  • Have sections with headings like “Specific response to Critique #1”
    • In these, go through point by point the criticisms (quoting the reviewer) and how you address them (new data? New aim? Took out an aim? New description of pitfall and alternative?). Give page numbers in the new revised proposal for them to refer to.
    • Keep it short and to the facts, no excuses or emotional descriptions of how important you thought something was, just DO WHAT THEY SAY.
  • The less work they have to do to see that you clearly addressed all the critiques and fixed the issues the last reviewers had with your proposal, the better off you are. Use paragraph, heading, and font style changes to delineate each thing you want to draw their attention to, and they will have no choice but to admit you did everything that was asked of you and improved the proposal.

Wrap up

This probably isn’t a comprehensive document (even though it is this long), and it won’t guarantee you the funding or a job. BUT just the process of bringing something like this all the way through the system will get you ready to go on the job market, even if you don’t get the money. A well-scored (albeit unfunded) K99/R00 proposal (or even one that got any critiques at all) can serve as the foundation for your chalk talk, helping you get all those little ducks in a row that you never realized you needed to deal with to explain to other people why they should invest in your opportunity to run the project. You have to have your shit together to deserve an independent position, and the very application for this award is a training experience in and of itself that will prepare you for what lies ahead. It's scary how you don't realize this until you are through the grinder of having tried it.