Sep 12, 2019
Final thoughts on obtaining a K01 career development award
Last year I posted a three-part series on submitting a career development award (part 1, part 2, part 3). These three posts covered the process of submitting a proposal for an NIH K01 career development award with a focus on logistical and practice concerns not directly discussed in the NIH application instructions. Mostly my information was obtained through discussions with colleagues and first-hand experience of filling out every item in the ASSIST application. A lot has transpired since I submitted that application over a year ago, and this fourth and final post is to share some of my experiences since then.
When I submitted the grant the first time, I felt as if it just disappeared into the black hole of NIH. Aside from an automated acknowledgement email, I had no further communication from NIH. A quick email to the project officer (PO) was able to confirm that she saw my application and flagged it for her portfolio. After a short period of time, some information started appearing on ERA Commons (if you don't know what this is, you are probably reading the wrong article!). I could see the scheduled study section date, the roster, and the scientific review officer (SRO; an NIH scientist who oversees the study section). Based on this, I could learn about the expertise and backgrounds of the reviewers and ensure that my grant is being handled by reviewers with relevant expertise. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to me at the time, my institute (NIAID) had a special emphasis panel that focused exclusively on career development awards. This, as it turns out, is a very good thing. I had heard from several other folks including the PO that when this is not the case, occasionally K01s get evaluated alongside R01s and the reviewers may evaluate things unfairly (one comment I heard was a reviewer dinged a K01 because of lack of pilot data - the SRO promptly intervened).
Once the study section date came and went, an update was pretty quickly available on Commons: Not Discussed. A decision of “not discussed” means the application was read and evaluated by three reviewers, but not discussed at the study section meeting. This happens to about half of all applications for a given study section. The applicant will still receive the reviewer's comments, called pink sheets by the old-timers, and possibly SRO comments, but it is highly unlikely it will be funded. If the application were Discussed, it also means the application was read and evaluated by three reviewers but importantly it was also orally discussed at the study section meeting. A “discussed” application is also assigned what's known as an impact score. The impact score largely, but not wholly, determines which applications get funded, based a threshold (percentile or score) called the payline. Confusingly, this threshold may change year to year and is not consistent between NIH institutes and centers. Further, some NIH entities do not even publicly disclose what their payline is. For those outside the threshold, the application is not exactly unfundable, but it does enter a more ambiguous status (more on that later) and is less likely to receive an award.
Reflecting on this decision now a “not discussed” was disappointing, yes, but not devastating. I really just wanted to see if this project was possible or not: that is, could I ultimately get it funded. In other words, did the reviewers and SRO think that I would be a good candidate for an award at some point. I think of this as testing the waters of your ideas with NIH. A week or so after the study section met, the reviewers' comments were available on Commons. In the summary statement, each reviewer dissected the application's various sections (e.g., Candidate, Environment, Research, etc.) and highlighted proposal strengths and weaknesses; I also had additional SRO comments at the top. The SRO provided a high-level overview of the reviewer comments, and for my application, was encouraging a resubmission. I found the majority of the reviewer critiques to be thoughtful and insightful, and crucially, actionable. Buoyed by this, I decided to resubmit immediately for the next deadline and I then scheduled a few phone calls to strategize. My first call was with my PO to discuss the critiques. This was extremely helpful as we were able to prioritize weaknesses I should address (or omit from the proposal) and strengths to further highlight. This was followed by a call among my primary mentors. Of course, each application will be different, but for me, the overarching concerns were related to the mentorship team (too many people to coordinate), the training courses (too elementary in material), and evaluating the outcomes of the science (too brief). As I had been told before, and was echoed by my reviewers, the weight of the application was on the career development and training plan, although the science still received rigorous scrutiny. I was able to rebalance the mentorship team, including just two co-mentors, and find higher level classes to take. By trimming some words from the research strategy, and even just reformatting some text, I was able to obtain sufficient space in the proposal to detail the evaluation plan in the research strategy section. For the resubmission, I focused on a few things in particular:
Presently, NIH only allows a single resubmission for K01 applications. This is the only time you will be assured of the same reviewers, so they will want to see you were responsive to their suggestions. As before, I submitted the revised application, and waited for the study section date to come and go.
A few days after the resubmission the first indication of the outcome became available in Commons: Discussed. As mentioned earlier a discussed application also receives a corresponding impact score, and, possibly funding. It was certainly a welcome sign of the reviewers' enthusiasm towards this resubmission. The impact score and summary sheets became available a short time later. The score, an average of all of the reviewer scores, was a 22. Recall in NIH-land the lower the score the better, with the best possible score being 10. With a score in hand, now began the most confusing part of the award process. Here's my takeaway points based on what has transpired since the application was scored.
And this concludes my first foray into the NIH grant funded world. I was extremely fortunate to receive funding on my second shot and feel like I have a much better understanding of the grant funding process. I certainly have immense appreciation and gratitude for all of the scientists and NIH officials who take their time to participate. Overall, I found the entire process to be both interesting and frustrating (more so the former fortunately). I hope the information I have documented in these four blog posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) prove useful to others, especially if you are going after a career development award from NIH, such as the K01.