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Advice on Mentored Career Development (K) Awards

Learn which mentored K awards are tailored to physician-scientists and why it's important to pick the right institute for your application. Discover the benefits: mentors, protected time, and leg up to independence. Follow our twelve tips on writing a strong application.

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For physician-scientists who want to focus on research and hone benchside and clinical skills, we prescribe NIH's mentored career development (K) awards. They provide an intensive, supervised research experience that puts investigators on the road to independence.

If your research career could use a shot in the arm, read on to learn more about mentored K awards, including the benefits and how-tos of getting one.

Which Mentored K Is Right for You?

Before we get to the pros of mentored Ks and how to write a strong application, let's lay the groundwork by covering which awards are suited to you.

NIAID supports two mentored K awards tailored for physician-scientists. To be eligible for either of the following awards, you must have a health professional doctoral degree, such as an M.D., D.O., D.V.M., or equivalent degree, and a professional license to practice in the U.S.

  • Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award (Parent K08)—provides support for research in biomedical or behavioral research, including translational research. For more information, read the K08 funding opportunity announcement (FOA) and NIAID Eligibility Requirements for K08 Grant Applications.
  • Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (Parent K23)—provides support in the career development of investigators who have made a commitment to focus their research endeavors on patient-oriented research. For details, read the K23 FOA.

Also read Career Development Applications-NIAID Policy on Support of Clinical Trials.

Pick an Institute for Your Application

Once you choose a mentored K option, determine whether your application would belong at NIAID or another NIH institute.

Specifying an institute in your cover letter is important since career awards are usually reviewed by institutes [not NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR)].

Also note that institutes differ in how much salary and research support they provide. Make sure to view the “Table of IC-Specific Information, Requirements and Staff Contacts” within each FOA for details.

To see if your project fits within the mission of NIAID, read about our program divisions and their research areas of interest: Division of AIDS, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation, and Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Why a Mentored K? Why Not?

You might be wondering whether it's worth pursuing a mentored K award. The following information may erase your doubts.

Two Big Benefits: Mentor and Time

You'll benefit from having a mentor, an experienced investigator who will help guide and support your research endeavors, as well as ensure that you have the resources you need.

You'll also have protected time (three to five years) to focus on your project, sharpen your skills, and gain hands-on experience—all of which will prepare you further your research skills and become an independent investigator.

Promising Prognosis for Attaining Independence

Mentored K awards are effective in launching independent research careers, but don't take our word for it. If you want data, we have just the thing: an NIH evaluation that shows the efficacy of mentored Ks in fostering independence.

Based on a study of three Ks—K08, K23, and K01 (Mentored Research Scientist Development Award)—the evaluation has several notable findings, including:

  • Securing a mentored K award had a significant impact on program participants, as seen in their publication records and subsequent applications for and receipt of NIH grants.
  • Researchers who previously received a K01, K08, or K23 award later had a markedly higher R01 award success rate than those without prior career development support.
  • Compared to unfunded applicants, awardees received more subsequent NIH research support and were more likely to apply for—and receive—R01 renewals.

Learn more by reading the full report, NIH Individual Mentored Career Development Awards Program.

Follow Our Tips for Writing a Successful Mentored K Application

Once you decide a mentored K award is the way to go, you may ask yourself: how do I go about writing an application that will fare favorably with peer reviewers and garner a fundable score?

For starters, go over the following 12 tips, which are based on what our Institute staff have seen and heard. Then check out the additional resources at the end.

1. Form a strong mentoring team. Should you need or want a mentoring team, i.e., mentor and co-mentors, find people who have expertise in your area of research. For multidisciplinary research, make sure your team covers all the scientific bases. Peer reviewers will check to see that your mentors' work and experience are relevant to your project. (Note: Though you may have only one mentor, we use the term "mentors" on this page for simplicity's sake.)

2. Pick mentors who are accessible. If any of the people you're thinking of choosing as mentors is away a lot or too busy, move on to someone else. You want someone who will be around to answer your questions and provide guidance—and have the time to meet your needs.

Make it crystal clear in your application that your mentors have enough time to devote to you. This is especially important if several people from your research group are submitting applications.

It's fine to have members of your mentoring team who aren't at your institution. However, you need to demonstrate their commitment to supporting you and provide a plan to communicate regularly.

3. Highlight mentor funding. A mentored K award provides partial salary and only modest funds for research supplies. Therefore, ideally, your mentors should be well-funded (preferably by NIH) so that money from the K supplements their research funding.

Point out that your mentors are active, funded investigators to show peer reviewers that they are conducting original research—research that complements yours.

4. Create a solid Research Plan. Don't skimp on the Research Plan thinking that because you're writing a K (not an R01) application reviewers will be lenient. They won't. Ask important research questions, and use the Research Plan as a vehicle to get preliminary data for a future R01.

5. Accentuate activities. Describe how career development or training activities will lead to your independence and state how your future research will be independent from your mentors' work. We strongly recommend that you provide a career development timeline, including plans to apply for subsequent grant support.

6. Get good reference and institutional letters. Since reviewers will scrutinize reference letters, be sure to ask people who are familiar with your qualifications, training, and interests.

You should also get a strong letter from your institution that speaks to its commitment to your development into a productive, independent investigator. Officials must agree to provide adequate time and support to you for the period of the K award.

7. Obtain strong mentor statements. Be sure your mentor statements convey your mentors' wholehearted support of you. If you don't think that's important, here's a real-world example:

A mentor whose personal style wasn't effusive wrote a terse letter that reviewers interpreted as lack of interest in the candidate. In fact, the mentor was quite supportive of the applicant and had to change his style when writing the letter for the resubmission.

Each mentor must explain how he or she will contribute to the development of your research career and discuss the research as well as other activities, e.g., seminars and presentations at scientific meetings.

Mentor statements from those who aren't at your institution should also describe their commitment to you and how frequently you will communicate.

8. Demonstrate productivity. Reviewers look closely at your productivity, e.g., number of publications, first or last author. If you're lacking in this area, explain your role on other projects.

For example, perhaps you were part of a clinical trial project that doesn't allow papers until the trial ends. Or, maybe you were involved in activities that demonstrate your leadership but don't lend themselves to publications (e.g., helping to set up an HIV research clinic in South Africa).

9. Justify sample size. In this case, size matters, especially if your project is a "spin off" of your mentors'. Explain why you are studying, for instance, 50 samples and why those in particular if they are a subset of a larger study. Get input from a biostatistician if this isn't your strength.

10. Address human subjects. Avoid this common mistake: completing the human subjects research section using the description from a mentor's grant application. That description may not apply to what you'll be doing with your K award.

Example: don't give the impression that you are conducting a phase 3 clinical trial when it's actually your mentors doing so. Make sure to complete the Human Subjects section from the perspective of the specific research you are conducting under the K award, such as using samples from the trial or doing a substudy on subjects from it. Be sure to include letters of permission, e.g., for using samples or conducting a substudy.

11. Get up-to-date on responsible conduct of research. Do you know what your plan for instruction in responsible research conduct (RCR) should cover? Don't rely on samples or information from previous K awardees that might not reflect the latest RCR requirements. Get the latest details in our Responsible Conduct of Research: Training SOP.

12. Get mentors to review your application. We highly recommend that you have your mentors (especially your primary mentor) give your application an once-over to check for thoroughness, consistency, and effective presentation.

Should reviewers see problems in proposed lab work or other areas, they may regard it as a lack of mentor involvement. You don't want them to think, "If the mentor didn't bother to work with the candidate during the application process, how engaged will he or she be during the award?"

For more information on mentored K awards and writing your application, see the following links.

Related Links

Find general information

Get advice on writing your application

Learn more about peer review

NIH Scientific Review Group (SRG) Roster Index

Return to the Training and Career portal. Questions or comments? Email

Last Updated January 28, 2016

Last Reviewed January 28, 2016