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.

My lab equipment

is like a bunch of bratty teenagers. Every time (every TIME!) we're really getting rolling, a bunch of people are up to speed, we're about the launch off on a bunch of paper-completing experiments...

it's like a beaver dam where little leaks start springing everywhere and everyone has to drop what they are doing and run around trying to stick their fingers in the holes.

And by the time we get it figured out (>$5K later), all the momentum is lost and it is like starting over. Then, the cycle begins again.


I learned my lesson about how much I need a Blackberry (and a human personal assistant) yesterday. Here's the setup: This weekend was my sister's bachelorette party up in 'City to the North.' I live about four hours drive from this city, and the city where I did my postdoc ('Big City') is about halfway between. My new department head was hosting a "New Faculty Welcome" reception at his house for me and the other new professor on Sunday afternoon/evening. I had it in my head that this was starting at 5 pm ET and going until 7 pm.

I figured this weekend was as good a time as any to kill an extra bird (mole) and pick up all my frozen cell stocks from Postdoc Lab. I could go up to City to the North, hang out with the sis and fam (mole #1), drive back through Big City and pick up cells from Postdoc Lab to bring to New Lab (mole #2) and make it over to the department head's house in time for the reception to hang out with all my new colleagues and meet some of their spouses (mole #3). I especially wanted to bring those cells by hand, because the last shipment of my cold stored stuff that my lab manager tried to send from Postdoc Lab got totally screwed up by FedEx--two boxes got mysteriously returned to her with no notes or info from FedEx on why, and the other two made it to me but three days late and all thawed out. I was NOT gonna take that chance with my cells. So I had the perfect plan. Nevermind that it involved a total of about 12 hours driving over the course of two days and multiple time zones and social events, hey I could do it.

I got a vague foreshadowing of my moronitude when I realized last Friday at about 3 pm that I didn't have my LN2 storage set up yet, so where was I going to put these cells once I got them here? Luckily my downstairs colleague was extremely helpful and offered me some space in his storage tank. Knock that problem off the list, mole whacked.

Everything else was fine (drive to City to the North, Bachelorette Brewery Cruise fun, etc.) until I got (i.e. actually arrived onsite) to the part where I pick up the cells. I found out a) my ID card no longer opens the door to the building and remembered b) oh hey, I gave my lab keys back! How do I get in here? Everyone I called from Postdoc Lab was voicemail-direct. Thank goodness for my lab setup consultant, she had the phone number for my favorite undergrad, who was able to bike over and let me in. It gave us a nice chance to catch up, too! Mole captured, de-frazzled and placed in whacked area.

Drove back to New Lab, got into colleague's LN2 space, put cells safely away by about 4 pm. Went back up to office to hang out until husband arrived for transport over to reception in my honor at boss' house... phone rings at 4:30.... it's the host, my boss, asking if we were coming... "Yes indeed, [Husband] should be here any minute--it starts at 5 pm, yes?" ... "No, actually, it started at 3..."


The mole I had carefully put in my pocket, labeled with a 'fragile!' sticker and kept fed for the last few weeks (I was really looking forward to this, I like my department and wanted to hang out with people--I even remembered to tell my husband about it RIGHT AWAY, so he knew it was happening and that he had to be there, I am not always so very good at that), had TOTALLY ESCAPED and was now biting me on the finger because I had gotten it completely wrong! We ended up being an hour and a half late to our own party, and I feel like a complete tool. Everyone was very nice about it, but I still feel so dumb. I am now in the process of full electronical integration so that something in my bag will help me better manage my moles. It's Blackberry time alright.