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I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Arlenna of Chemical Bilology, over at Scientopia, has a post up today about the focus of the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. I am having technical difficulty commenting over there, so I figured that I would just make my own post about the topic, from my point of view*

My understanding has always been that the K99/R00 Award is first a training award. The point of the K99 phase is to allow continued mentored support for up to 2 years, acting as a "bridge" from the end of a typical 2-3 yr new postdoc fellowship (NRSA-like) until you are ready for your own independent position. The assumption, as far as I can tell, is that you will stay in your postdoc during this time. A BIG part of the K99 application (at least it was when I was writing) is the plan for mentoring and career development. The point of this phase is to enable you to land (and be prepared for) a tenure-track job so that you can write a successful R01.

When the K99/R00 program started, some new awardees were starting in a TT job almost immediately. This seemed to indicate that these folks actually didn't NEED any more mentored training. So, some institutes starting demanding that you spend at least a year in your mentored phase before transitioning. And it became really important to make clear in your application what training, exactly, you would be getting during your K99 phase. Part of the final score is based on where you say that training is coming from (the "environment"). The assumption is you will get an independent position somewhere other than where you are mentored. If you stay in the same place you are required to explain how you will become independent from your mentor. I think this shows that the NIH expects the "mentor" to be something more like a post-doc advisor than the sort of new-faculty mentors that I have as an Asst. Prof.

Arlenna points out that new TT faculty still need training and mentoring in the first 1-2 years, so they should be able to use the K99 part even if they are in their independent position. I disagree. Not because I am feeling like I don't need training! But I don't think this is what the program should focus on (Pinus made a similar point in the comments as a "devil's advocate"). If you allow this, then the award becomes a gold star for winning in your postdoc, not a training award. I would also point out that, unless you have a TT job lined up when you apply, there is no way that the training plan you propose in the original application would be the same at a different place. So you would not necessarily be getting the training that the reviewers had deemed so awesome.

The big problems that arise is that it takes FOREVER to make it through the review process. I got my K99 on the first try and STILL it was 1 yr and 2 days after I submitted before the award was activated (but who is counting, really?). This is ridiculous! No wonder by the time the awards are actually being made people have already gone out on the market. Turnaround needs to be much faster.

I guess that my point is that the NIH needs to decide what this award is about. If it is a training award then the reviewers need to make sure that is reflected in the scoring. And trainees need to be encouraged to apply earlier in their postdoc so there is time for the mentored phase. If it is a gold star, then make it clear. The point is that the rules should reflect what the purpose of the program. And the rules should be the same for ALL the institutes.

*DISCLAIMER: this is how I understand the process, based on my own perspectives and experiences. But what the hell do I know?

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I agree with you completely.


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But see, Gerty-Z, I think you're getting caught up in a definition of training that isn't always accurate. According to the mission of the Pathway to Independence award, what should this training be for? Most of us would agree it should be for helping someone become a successful tenure track investigator who can land major funding (e.g. R01) in the future.

Obtaining an R01 within 5 years in this funding climate is extremely challenging. The combined benefit of the K99/R00 phases of both training plan and extra money is incredibly valuable towards that purpose, whether the person stays in a postdoctoral environment for the initial stage or not.

The specific example that prompted my post was from someone who had an outstanding score, but hadn't been awarded yet, and was asked by a PO if they were planning on looking for jobs soon. The PO said that anyone who is even LOOKING for jobs or out on the market was probably not going to be chosen for funding because even just entering the process was demonstration enough that the person should be ready to apply for an R01 and didn't need the K99. Like, what???!! That made me think hard about what I think this grant should be designed to do.

I disagree with you that you wouldn't be able to make a case for your training plan in a new environment. The "environment" score is kind of a fluff number, it's the details of what you plan to learn and who will help you learn it that are important. No, the training plan should not be abandoned or modified beyond recognition, but reasonable workarounds for all the aspects should be possible for most people to achieve. For example, my training plan was perfectly adaptable to my new position. Also, my research mentors and 'mentorship team' remained the same, we communicated by email where necessary, and my local mentor was my department chair (who did things like facilitate grantwriting workshop attendance and give me extremely helpful advice on how to get going with my lab). These kinds of things are expected for the R00 transition, anyway, so what's the real difference in character between the phases?

Anyway, like I said in my post: I think that these are things that should be examined now that the K99/R00 has been around for enough years that some of the first awardees should have had sufficient time to apply for R01s and revise through some cycles, and be coming up for tenure soon. Looking at these factors and how they influence success at those stages should inform the decision on what the mission of this grant (and thus the particulars of things like what we're talking about) should be.

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Arlenna, thanks for dropping by! I'm glad that you found me since I am a little tech-challenged and couldn't figure out why I couldn't comment.

I agree with your interpretation of what the goal of K99/R00 program is...but I don't see why that is best-served by aiming at later postdocs (i.e. those ready to go on the job market). No doubt that anyone in a TT job would be happy to have some K99/R00 $$, but if that is not what the target of the program is, then they are not eligible. Maybe we will have to agree to disagree on this one. It seems to me if the NIH wants to target the true "bridge" situation, and favor postdocs that still have some time before they are"done", then they have every right to not fund people that are already heading out on their own.

As for being ready to apply for an R01 if you are ready to go on the market, I am in FULL agreement with you that this is ridiculous. Maybe when the paylines were in a happier place this made sense, but not today. I have a project that probably would have been reasonable to write up 5-7 years ago but NO WAY it would fly today. The funding situation is just too tough.

I also fully agree with you that it will be good to see how the data play out on whether or not the K99/R00 actually helps folks make it on the TT. My PO claims that the R00 awardees are doing pretty well in the R01 market (but I haven't actually seen any data yet).

Like I said, I think that it would help a lot if the NIH could decide what they wanted to do and be consistent across all the Institutes.

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I think that the NRSA fellowships and training grants better fit the purposes you describe for earlier-stage postdocs. My feel is that the real crux of the bridging goal of the K99/R00 should be that you (can be and) have to be a postdoc when you apply (and the 5 years past PhD limit seems reasonable to establish that the mechanism is for people who are highly motivated and have active mentorship to move on).

The K99/R00 fills a huge gap that exists in funding opportunities for postdocs to apply for major funding, that include S&E budgets that are under their control and that they can take with them to a TT position. There are almost no other funding mechanisms that allow this. The DOD Idea award allows postdocs to apply (and actually requires that the project is independent of their mentor's work) but its success rate is about 5%.

There's a level of freedom of independence to the K99/R00 that is a next step up from an NRSA training grant, that I don't think should be stifled by extreme adherence to a definition of training phase job status. It provides a bridge out of the postdoc limbo, the limbo that causes the pipeline leak for so many qualified, otherwise motivated people. It COULD keep being a solution to some parts of that problem, as long as program is willing to be flexible on a case-by-case basis (because I fundamentally do agree that given the potential for abuse, it may be problematic to codify the compromise too broadly).

But hey, I am also okay with agreeing to disagree--that's a legitimate outcome for a debate! I think it's an important debate to engage in, but it might not be easy to reach consensus.

(p.s. I am cross-posting this comment on my blog too)

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Cross-posted at Arlenna's place.

I think that the big problem is the one brought up by CPP-the NIH hasn't decided what they want the program to be, so every study section gets to make their own decisions. If these awards become "rewards" then it will be impossible to get one until you are already in the place that you would be a competitive candidate for a TT job. I think Neuro-Conservative is right, too. In this situation, many applicants would be applying for the K99 award with no real intention of staying in their "mentored" position. I know that there were other awards from private foundations (Burroughs, maybe?) that were bridge grants before. I'm wondering if anyone would comment on how they were set up, since they had similar goals (from my understanding). It was too bad that they ended this program when the K99 got running (there is certainly the need for more $, as always!). I think that you can also apply for some NSF awards as a postdoc and take them with you, assuming that your institution doesn't try to screw you.

As for training, as I recall the NRSA awards is for new postdocs (I got mine in my first year). In my field, 5-6 year postdocs are pretty common. I was lucky that my advisor supported me for a while between the NRSA and K99. But not everyone is so lucky. I know several people that were pushed out at the end of the 3 year award. They weren't good job candidates yet-they needed a true "bridge" award. Maybe the different opinions we have here are just a reflection of differences between fields or experiences.

I'm not sure that using the K99 phase during the beginning of your TT job is even the best plan, in the grand scheme of things. Though having 5 years of $$ instead of 3 would be great, I think that from the perspective of getting off to a fast start, it is better to have the 249K the first 3 years instead of 2 years of 90K first. Also, if you transition before the end of the 2 yrs of K99 you are allowed to roll over any leftover cash to the R00 phase.

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Ach I found out why your comments weren't showing up. They got flagged as spam for some reason. I told the spam filter that they were not spam and then deleted them since they were repeats of what you commented here and subsequently. But now you should be able to comment at my blog without it calling you spam! :D
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