Some thoughts on recent K99/R00 updates

Dec 19 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Even though classes are over and I'm about to leave for a few blissful days of eating and drinking with friends for the holidays, the all-too-imminent Jan 6 start of spring semester here has me feeling like this break is basically a joke. My goal is to have one paper, one foundation grant, and one R01 submitted by Feb 5, which is essentially tomorrow. However, I felt compelled to pop in here for a moment to make sure you saw the recent Notice of Reissuance for Career Development (K) awards. Most relevant to this blog are a few notes made on the K99/R00, or Pathway to Independence award.

Many people will tell you that a K99/R00 is a necessary thing for getting a TT job. While this is demonstrably false (mine was triaged), I can't deny that they help  A LOT, and I think if you're eligible, you should definitely apply. But are you eligible? It seems that NIH has started tightening the reins on what makes the perfect Kangaroo candidate, and I find some of the new bullet points here noteworthy (bold mine, italics theirs):

  • Candidates for the K99/R00 award must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research training experience at the time of the initial application or the subsequent resubmission.
  • Although the duration of postdoctoral training may vary across scientific disciplines, candidates must propose a plan for a substantive period of mentored training not to exceed 2 years.
  • It is expected that K99 awardees will benefit from no less than 12 months of mentored research training and career development before transitioning to the independent, R00 phase of the program.
  • 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.
  • If an applicant achieves independence prior to initiating the K99 phase, neither the K99 nor the R00 phase will be awarded.

So! Let's work backwards here. You must have fewer than 4 years of pd training before submitting, including your A1. Best case scenario you're looking at 8 months in between A0 and A1 submissions, since you'll get your summary statement from A0 too close to/after the immediately following submission date. So be sure to submit right around the 3rd year mark, hopefully after you've gotten one or two nice papers out from your post-doc so you actually look competitive.

The 2nd bullet point is not that interesting.

The 3rd, however, I believe has gotten a little stricter than past iterations. You have to NEED that K99 phase, folks. At least a year. But what that really means is that at the time of applying, you need at least 2 years of subsequent mentoring, because of the math described above. So you should, I suppose, figure out what you're going to learn in the time the proposal goes through review and council, and then what you'll still need to learn after that.

"Close to achieving an independent faculty position" is such an interesting choice of words, isn't it? What does that even mean? You've had a couple interviews? Your big Nature paper just came out? I have no idea how anyone without an offer letter in hand could claim to be "close" to having a faculty position.

And if you do happen to sign that offer letter after applying but before accepting the award, NO GRANT FOR YOU! This I find very interesting, and perhaps a little confusing. I can understand that the NIH really wants this grant's primary purpose to be to help people get TT jobs, and so if you get a job before you get this grant, yay for you! Go write an R01 like the truly independent investigator you are and let some genuinely needy but exceptional post-doc have your money. But I can also imagine a scenario in which someone gets a great score and an offer letter sort of at the same time, and maybe that person works out a deal with the hiring institution to defer their appointment for a year so that they bring all those juicy R00 funds (and indirect costs) with them.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Interested to hear yours, and what your current experience with the kangaroo has been. Oh, and happy holidays!

30 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    The K99 solved a problem that never existed. People were doing fine getting faculty jobs. The problem was getting an R01 afterwards. (And renewing it just in time to face the tenure fight.)

    All it did was reduce the skin the university needed to put into a new candidate.

  • Bashir says:

    I applied and got a "nice try but no $" score. A few thoughts

    Not necessary for a TT job, but I will say K99 awardees tend to do quite well on the job market. The Reporter digging I did suggested that in my IC almost 100% of K99's turned to R00s (i.e. the person got a job). During my interviews I ran into a fair number of recent hires that came in with K99/R00s.

    Some folks seem to treat the K99 and just a super F32/K01. It's not that. They take the mentoring plan pretty seriously. There's certainly a applicant "type" they seem to be looking for. And if you don't fit that, or can't convince them you do, they it'll be tough.

    • Anon says:

      What type are they looking for?!

      • Bashir says:

        Not too old, not to young, a mentoring plan that involves learning a new skill, someone "close to independence".

        I would call up my PO and talk to them about it. Have your CV, and possible aims ready. They will be able to give you some answers.

  • shademar (@shademar) says:

    Caveat: pre-caffeine thoughts tend to ramble. I write from a different situation from others, so if I've missed something, my apologies and pre-emptive thanks for additional information!

    I have to separate out my personal frustrations about the K99 and changes thereto from my overall thoughts about it and all of the "clock tied to PhD" mechanisms for helping early career scientists. Most likely, I will not be successful in doing so.

    I get the changes. Not only is the mentored phase important, it's somewhat unfair to ask a true mid-stage postdoc to compete with someone who is essentially already done, publications in hand, and just trying to get the R00 to bolster a job search.

    It would help if there were more mechanisms to take funding with you. A standalone R00 for precisely those end-stage PDS, not only because having funding in hand will help with the job search but because it may bolster the chances of success during the startup years. It probably varies a lot by setting, but at least where I'm at, the k99-R00 seems to be the only way to apply for funding without already having landed and started a job.

    I am true a mid-career PD (just finished year two.) But I have a year of postdoc experience that was really extra time needed to publish after finishing my PhD because of reasons. And then, a month off because ending one job and starting the next (with a cross country move in between) with zero discontinuity turns out to be difficult. You can start to see the math here.

    That year of quasi-PD at my PhD lab hurt me a *lot* because the clock started ticking. But, I knew that and I had it all planned out anyways. Submission date, resubmission date etc. My research plan was structured around hitting goals I thought I'd need to hit to be on track.

    And then they changed it. (And then the gov't shut down and I lost another month or so of research, because sure, why not?)

    I know some people who suddenly found themselves flat-out disqualified. In my case, my plans pretty much fell apart and now I'm scrambling to put together my one shot no-resubmission application with far less time and data than I'd hoped. I've emailed my PO, but that hit a wall.

    Stepping back, the broader points I want to make are:

    1: Shenanigans!! If you're going to make a change to such a critical granting mechanism, phase it in with those who have been planning with the old one in mind.

    2: More importantly, defining how junior someone is by when they received their degree may be the easiest way for granters to do it, but it really hurts people in situations where they need to take extra time, or time off, or do a second postdoc for any reason, and the situation only compounds itself as time goes by.

    Who does this mechanism hurt?
    People starting families, people who need and are expected to help take care of older generations of their family, people who inadvertently have a terrible first PD but don't want to give up on academia in spite of it, people get sick or disabled. If you think about whom this group is likely to comprise, what is supposed to be a mechanism to help young scientists, viewed from a different angle, becomes a gating event, a de facto winnowing of people from heterogenous backgrounds.

    Science has structural diversity issues. Things like this reinforce it.

    And, with that...I need to go to work. I warned you I had opinions. 🙂

  • bashir says:

    Shenanigans!! If you're going to make a change to such a critical granting mechanism, phase it in with those who have been planning with the old one in mind.

    I thought they did? The change has been in the making for a while. I heard maybe last spring?

    • shademar (@shademar) says:

      I think that may have been about when I heard about it too. My original plans were made in November/December the previous year. I didn't mean to give the impression that I just now found out about this....time flies though, and I was talking about plans spanning more than a year. As mentioned, there's a relatively small window of eligibility, which was already a year shorter for me because of the 1st year of PD at my PhD institution.

      At least part of the scrambling, last minute feel about all of this comes from losing even more time this year. Anyways, I didn't mean to slip into personal rant territory. I'm in a bizarre situation so my personal experiences aren't really very informative.

  • DJMH says:

    I could be wrong, but I think it might be possible to request an extension of the app window if you had kids during that time. But it might be PO-dependent.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Every policy change screws over someone. In my day, younguns, they had cancelled the r29/FIRST, there was no transition mech at NIH *at all*, the "NI" box only benefitted the well established NSF/foreign/DoD/CDC funded types, etc. NIH had not cottoned on the the air traffic pattern of the A2, nor the bias against the young during review.

    When they started the ESI there were tons of people who missed the cutoff due to extended postdocs and they howled.

    So stop whining and figure out another way to get it done.

    • Shademar says:

      Sigh. I posted because doc becca encouraged me to, not to whine.
      I am working on getting it done DM.

      Any chance of just nuking my comments in this thread?

      • Dr Becca says:

        Shademar, your frustrations are real and I'm sure you're not alone. I encouraged your comments because I think all of this warrants discussion from folks at every level, and I'm glad you wrote them! Don't let DM get you down.

        • Shademar says:

          Aw, thanks. I tried to stay away from my personal details but they got tangled in without context anyways. I was diagnosed with MS in grad school and trying to thread all the needles that have come with has been a nightmare. I don't take "stop whining" well :/

  • Susan says:

    From the cmte side this year, in which there were k99 holders who did not make our interview list, or then did not make our viable list:

    Years ago k99s were intended for late-stage postdocs to transition to independence.
    Then came a time limit on applications. Now there are even more time limits on applications - so, younger applicants.
    The emerging problem we have seen from the cmte side is applicants who are relatively green but from high-powered labs. It is not clear that their k99 was written independently, and their r00/research plan is "follow up on the findings" that came in that postdoc lab. Yay. Leaving, as is pointed out above, a bolus of older, more viable postdocs still in labs; who may have been better targets for those grant dollars.

    Seems to me that they are trying to thread a needle in terms of a need for a mentored grant; and a transition to independence; and the needle hole is getting smaller.

  • Dave says:

    Susan nails it.

  • iGrrrl says:

    When the K99/R00 first came out, I recall that they had a time limit of 5 years post-PhD, so they were always limited. The stated purpose was to shorten the post-doctoral period. People were spending 8-12 years in post-docs for varying reasons, and the mechanism was designed to get more post-docs out into jobs sooner.

    I agree with DM that the best thing anyone can do with their energy is focus on solving the problem. Venting may need to happen, but I wouldn't advise wasting time trying to get the policy changed in your particular case. Also, this is valuable for how to deal with those bullet points: http://drtheron.com/2013/12/05/nih-thoughts-from-reviewing-k99r00-grants/

  • Susan says:

    Original k99 (circa 2007) was max of 5 yrs post-phd for first submission, for up to 3 yrs postdoc support = 8 years postdoc. Yeah, that's shortening transitions ...

    • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

      I'm sure that was beneficial for a lot of PDs who were either in their second PD or had issues with their projects and had to start over, etc. Its "up to" 3 yrs. Not mandatory to do all 3 years of PD just like not every current K99 holder does the entire 2 years of mentored research.

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