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Application Advice for Research Career Development (K) Awards

The research career development award category is broad and special rules may apply for your award. Before jumping in to write your application, be sure to do the following:

  • Find our instructions and application advice for each award type linked on the main Research Career Development (K) Awards page.
  • Carefully read the relevant funding opportunity announcement (FOA).
  • Follow the supplemental instructions for K applications in the SF 424 Application Guide, including guidelines for page limits.

We cover the following topics below for K applications and awards:

Address Peer Review Criteria

NIAID, not NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, will arrange peer review for your K application. Peer reviewers will assess your potential based on your curriculum vitae (CV), research and career plans, and (except for K24) reference letters.

Make sure your CV highlights your past successes. Your research and career plans should illustrate your commitment and potential for future contributions.

Your reference letters should come from people who are familiar with your qualifications, training, and interest.

  • Your mentor and any co-mentor(s) do not submit a reference letter or letter of recommendation. Instead, they add their input in other sections of the application. If a mentor or co-mentor submits a reference letter, it will not count toward your required total of three to five reference letters.
  • For some K programs, your mentor does submit a letter of support to indicate willingness for you to take with you the portion of the research you are currently conducting in the mentor’s lab to establish your own independent research career.
  • Get more detail, including when and how to submit letters, from our Career Development Grants SOP or read the supplemental instructions for K applications in the SF 424 Application Guide.

Reviewers will evaluate the institution where you conduct your proposed research. They'll consider whether the institution has suitable facilities and is committed to your development as an investigator.

For mentored positions, reviewers will assess your mentor's career and research supervision record, and whether his or her work and experience are relevant to your proposed Research Plan.

Your chosen FOA may have opportunity-specific peer review criteria. Read the guidelines that reviewers follow in the K Awards section of NIH’s Review Guidelines. Also see NIH’s Review Criteria at a Glance.

NIAID’s Understand the Review Process gives more information and advice about peer review criteria, the review process, and how to create a strong application.

Align Your Career Development Plan to Your Professional Goals

A great program and stellar academic record help, but to get the best score, you need to show reviewers that you can establish an independent research career.

Your career development plan is as important as your Research Plan, so spend a lot of time and effort when you develop it. Be sure to do the following:

  • Justify your need for a K award and explain how it will be a vital step toward your ultimate career goal and move you toward scientific research independence (e.g., as an R01 investigator).
  • Specify training and courses that you will participate in, how often you'll meet with consultants, and how all of this will help you reach your objectives.
  • Stress your commitment to a career in biomedical or behavioral research (for a K08, K22, and K99/R00), patient-oriented research (K23 and K24), clinical or translational research (physician-scientist K99/R00 where at least one Specific Aim must be in this area), or integration of biomedicine and quantitative science (K25).

Read the relevant FOA for other elements you should include in the career development plan.

Design Your Research Plan Carefully

Reviewers will look closely at your Research Plan, which has two main parts: Specific Aims and Research Strategy. They will evaluate whether it is appropriate for and tailored to your experience level and if it allows you to develop the skills and knowledge needed for further career advancement.

Your Research Plan needs to demonstrate innovation, address potential limitations, and indicate the skills you will gain during the course of your research.

Relate the proposed research to your scientific career goals and explain how you will achieve your objectives in the time you request.

Read more general advice at Write Your Research Plan.

Follow NIH Policies

As part of the NIH Public Access Policy, you must list PubMed Central (PMC) identification numbers when citing a peer-reviewed journal article you have authored or coauthored and that resulted from an NIH-funded award. See our Public Access of Publications SOP for more information.

In the Bibliography and References Cited section of the Research Plan, provide a bibliography of any references cited in the Project Summary and Relevance section on Form Page 2.

You must document training on Responsible Conduct of Research. Make sure you include a plan for instruction. If you fail to include one, your application will be considered incomplete and won't be reviewed until you provide an acceptable plan of instruction. Read the Responsible Conduct of Research: Training SOP for more information.

Be sure to address rigor and reproducibility. Learn more on the NIH Enhancing Reproducibility Through Rigor and Transparency page.

NIH and NIAID have special requirements for Research With Special Considerations such as human subjects, clinical research, vertebrate animals, and select agents. You may also need to Create a Resource Sharing Plan.

Make sure you Stay Informed About Policy Changes & News.

Application Advice for Mentored Ks

If you are interested in applying for a mentored career development award—K01, K08, K23, K25, or K99—the following tips may help you write an application that will fare favorably with peer reviewers and garner a fundable score.

You should also review our advice at Know What To Look for When Choosing a Mentor.

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: You may have one or more mentors. We use the plural term "mentors" on this page for simplicity's sake.)

2. Pick mentors who are accessible. If anyone you’re considering as a mentor is away often or too busy, move on to someone else. You want mentors 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 mentors funding. A mentored K award provides partial salary and only modest funds for research supplies. Therefore, ideally, your mentors should be well-funded 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 might be more lenient. They won't be. Ask important research questions and use the Research Plan as a vehicle to get preliminary data for a future R01. Find more general advice on this topic at Write Your Research Plan.

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 independent Research Projects (e.g., R01) 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.

Get more guidance at NIH’s Enhancing Reproducibility Through Rigor and Transparency.

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.

For example, don't give the impression that you are conducting a phase 3 clinical trial with your K funds when the clinical trial is actually your mentors’ project.

Make sure to complete the Human Subjects section from the perspective of the specific research you are conducting under the K award. Following the example above, you may be 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.

Learn more about Research Using Human Subjects.

11. Get up-to-date on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). Do you know what your plan for instruction in RCR should cover? Don't rely on sample applications 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 a 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?"

Send Your K Application and Any Post-Submission Materials

Submit your application electronically using the NIH Application Submission System and Interface for Submission Tracking (ASSIST) or another one of the NIH Submission Options. Check with your business office to see which approach it uses and to check their internal deadline.

For most K FOAs, AIDS and non-AIDS applications have different due dates. Check the FOA and the Standard Due Dates for Competing Applications.

You may send certain materials after you submit your application and before initial peer review. For career development awards, this includes a summary to update your sponsor's funding information. Learn more at NIAID’s Guidelines for Sending Post-Submission Materials. Also check the K-specific answers at Additional Materials for Certain Applications in NIH's Frequently Asked Questions: Post-Submission Materials Policy.

Manage Your Award, Fulfill Reporting Requirements

Learn more about what happens when you get your initial K award and next steps at Manage Your Award.

Follow Reporting Requirements During Your Grant for financial, subaward, invention, and progress reports.

You must submit an annual Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) each year to continue NIH support. Remember to do the following:

  • Describe your research activities over the past reporting period.
  • Describe training and courses along with other activities that enhanced your research skills.
  • Check the guidelines for your award to determine if you should complete biographical sketches for new key personnel and other significant contributors.
  • Include other support for the K award recipient, mentors, co-sponsors, and key personnel only if the support has changed since the previous submission.
  • Address Enhancing Reproducibility Through Rigor and Transparency.
  • Note research and training activities planned for the next year.
  • If you have a mentored K award—K01, K08, K23, K25, or K99—include a Mentor's Report. Mentor comments help program officers determine whether NIAID should continue funding. Give your mentors plenty of time to write feedback on your performance, and make sure they sign.

We need your progress reports on time. Sending a late or incomplete report could delay your award. 

When your award ends, you’ll need to file Final Reports for Grant Closeout and maintain records so you can Meet Your Audit Requirements.

More Information

Learn more on the NIAID Research Career Development (K) Awards main page.

Direct your questions about the K programs to NIAID Research Training Officer Dr. Shawn Drew Gaillard at Shawn.Gaillard@nih.gov.

She can also advise you on your eligibility for a particular K program and whether your proposed research aligns with NIAID if you send her your NIH-formatted biosketch and Specific Aims page. Learn more at Create Biosketches and Draft Specific Aims.

 

 

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