K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

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K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby David Taylor » Mon Feb 04, 2013 11:35 am

I have heard of instances where fellows applying for the K99/R00 award took hits from reviewers for not sufficiently demonstrating how their independent research projects would survive in a competitive environment. In one instance, a reviewer suggested that the project was not likely to succeed given competition from the fellows' mentor and the mentor's colleagues, who all have large, productive labs.

Now, this may suggest that the project itself is not divergent enough from work currently underway in the topic area. However, I'm curious to hear from the forum:

Any tips on how to address this issue of competition in career development grant applications?
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Re: K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby R.S.D. » Mon Feb 04, 2013 12:52 pm

I am a K99/R00 recipient, as are several of my friends and colleagues. Successful proposals clearly address the issue of overlap between the applicant's and the mentor's future plans and present a case for how the applicant's proposed research program will be different from that of the mentor's. Proposals that are a rehash of a mentor's R01 generally fail. Also, the mentor's statement (part of the application) needs to address the issue of overlap/who-gets-what upfront.

This grant has two phases, the training phase (1-2 years of more postdoc time) and the independent phase (3 years of funding once you have a faculty position). The training component is an important part of this grant that is often overlooked - proposals typically fail if they do not include new training and just propose more of what the applicant already does.

Most successful K99/R00 recipients I know put together proposals that included training in new and complementary areas during their postdoc phase, and made this training central to launching a new area of investigation during the independent phase. Thus, the applicant proposes going into a new direction distinct from the mentor's research program. Training in new techniques/fields typically requires that the applicant find a co-mentor who also shapes the project. This is where networking and being in a diverse environment really helps. People often propose to take on new model systems, learn preclinical/translational diagnostics, or move their research into new organ systems or diseases - one key to success with this approach is to have a clear scientific vision that ties the new training and existing expertise to a novel concept that addresses an important scientific question.
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Re: K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby Jim Austin » Mon Feb 04, 2013 1:39 pm

It's hard to improve on R.S.D.'s response, especially given his experience, first and second hand. So I'll just add that this question gets at the very heart of the award--and, indeed, of what the transition to independence means. It's all about figuring out what you have to offer that's unique. What part of your ideas are new? How will you (via new ideas and acquired skills) add value to the work that your mentor and collaborators are already doing? All this is the product of a negotiation--though not always with this explicit purpose--with senior scientists, most obviously your research mentor. And it requires some coordination to ensure that you're all on the same page in your application.

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Re: K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby R.S.D. » Mon Feb 04, 2013 4:18 pm

Jim Austin is absolutely right. One major point of this award is that preparing an application requires applicants to engage in overt career planning and negotiations with their postdoctoral mentors.

Major components of the application include the mentors' statements and the applicant's career development statement - study sections pay very close attention to these. By requiring these components, the application stimulates meaningful discussions between postdocs and PIs about how to develop independent projects, how to contribute to the PI's lab in ways beyond generating data for his current projects, and how to develop an independent identity as an innovative scientist. For me, preparing an application provided a framework for these discussions, which involved plenty of constructive criticism and lots of practical planning. It also provided a framework for networking in the field, and for turning collaborations into formal co-mentorships, which became incredibly useful in my search for a faculty position.

One thing - I have some friends whose K99/R00 proposals were rejected because they too closely hewed to their PIs' work - these guys still got faculty positions and quickly turned those proposals around into successful R01 applications. While they did not get K99/R00s, they definitely benefited from the experience of preparing R-type grants while they were still postdocs.
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Re: K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby Chris » Mon Feb 04, 2013 4:31 pm

I'd just add, as one who has reviewed several of these, you also need to demonstrate that this mentored research period is essential to your future success. I've seen candidates who wrote a great proposal and clearly had a great research plan sunk because there was no evidence that they needed further mentoring. They should have been competing for their own independent awards as PIs in independent positions. So, in addition to what everyone else has said, you need to have a thoughtful and essential mentoring plan. "I'm a 4th year postdoc but scared to move on" doesn't cut it.
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Re: K99/R00 - Competition With Mentor's/Colleagues' Research

Postby SDA » Tue Feb 05, 2013 1:18 pm

This is one of the more challenging aspects of writing a K99. I introduced a new category of molecules in my mentors lab, got it published in a high impact journal. Mentor/I co-wrote an R01 on the specific molecule (I was not named on the grant)that got funded. Because of the paper and the track-record of funding, mentor is now considered an expert in this area.

When I wrote my K99, I was able to say I was going to work on a different molecule in the same broad category. My mentor's letter mentioned explicitly that I initiated this line of work in the mentor's lab and I can take this with me and will not have any overlap with his funded or submitted grants. I also made a simple schematic in the career development section showing the new techniques, concepts, cells etc in which I will gain expertise during the K phase and how it will help me with the transition to the R phase. While I got the award, one of the reviewers was still not entirely convinced that my plan diverged from my mentor.

My suggestion would be to perhaps consider integrating one's postdoc work with the graduate work/model/system to say you are the world's expert in this area. Not easy to do but will be hard to knock if the candidate has a track-record of publications that prove he/she can do method X in model y.
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