By: Joslyn Cassano | Published: August 15, 2022
Career Development awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also known as K awards, and similar awards for early-stage investigators, play an important role in the career trajectory of physician scientists and researchers. These awards provide mentorship and training, establish a track record for future grant support, and help to establish faculty as independent investigators.
For its most recent Connection Seminar held on July 20, the Miami CTSI hosted a panel discussion featuring K awardees from the University of Miami. The awardees shared their experiences, advice, best practices and resources for applying for these awards.
The seminar was made possible through a collaboration between the CTSI, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research & Scholarship and Faculty Affairs.
Five central themes emerged during the 90-minute discussion: preparation, mentorship, presentation, attitude and resources.
Panelists revealed that their own K award applications took anywhere from ten months to four years to complete. Preparation is key, they said. Applicants should begin by researching the appropriate institution and mechanism for their work.
Miami CTSI KL2 graduate and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, Ayham Alkhachroum, MD MSc, suggested reviewing the K Award instructions and making a checklist of every item required by the application. To view a sample checklist and other related materials, visit CTSI’s platform for archived seminars.
Map out your timeline well in advance so you can meet all your deadlines for application materials, said Roger McIntosh, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology.
“One thing I underestimated was the sheer number of technical details involved in a submission like this. On the second go-around, I mapped out exactly what I needed and when to send it to the pre-award staff so she could get it to the Office of Research.”
Many of the panelists said they had not initially accounted for the length of time it would take to assemble supplemental materials like appendices and letters of recommendation required for submission. When planning an application timeline, build in the appropriate amount of time for gathering ancillary materials, and submit the application to mentors with plenty of time to spare.
“The earlier you can get it in, the better,” said Hansel Tookes III, M.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor of Medicine. “Waiting to the last minute adds anxiety.”
“Always reach out to someone you think can help with your career development. Most people in academic medicine get into the role because they want to be part of cultivating the next generation of scientist-scholars. It’s the heartbeat of why we do what we do, so be bold and ask for help.” — Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship and Miami CTSI Co-Director and MPI
The panel discussion often returned to the importance of finding the right mentors to help shepherd the grant application process. “Mentors are intended for the purpose of facilitating your career development and creating the kind of social networks and professional networks necessary to give your career longevity,” said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship and Miami CTSI Co-Director and MPI.
The panel suggests seeking mentors in your field who currently have funding and who will play a role in your training program. Don’t be shy about approaching potential mentors, internal and external, at conferences or by email. The goal is to build an interdisciplinary team.
Professionals with expertise outside of your area of study, or who may not currently have funding, may still be added to your advisory team, said Dr. Alkhachroum.
Look across disciplines to the university’s many departments and centers of excellence for your mentorship team, said Dr. Tookes. “You need the rigorous academic mentors, but also the mentors that will help you personally reach your potential.”
“When talking with a potential mentor, don’t ask for a research idea– it is better to share your K application concept and be specific about how this potential mentor can help you,” said Mariano Kanamori, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences.
The panelists touted conferences as an opportunity to network. Many secured their own mentors by approaching them in person after hearing them speak. Dr. McIntosh said he also benefitted from using NIH RePORTER, a database of NIH-funded research projects, as a resource for identifying external mentors. He said his strategy was to approach mentors with consistent funding from the institute to which he was submitting his K01 and whose mentees had moved on successfully to faculty positions.
“Always reach out to someone you think can help with your career development,” said Dr. Kobetz. “Most people in academic medicine get into the role because they want to be part of cultivating the next generation of scientist-scholars. It’s the heartbeat of why we do what we do, so be bold and ask for help.”
Sara St. George, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences, recommends placing yourself in the place of the reader as you assemble your grant materials. Make your application pleasing to read. This means paying attention to formatting and aesthetics in addition to the content, she says.
Repeat yourself, when necessary. “To highlight an important message in your application, for example, not required preliminary data, remember to mention it in several places.” said Dr. Kanamori.
Focus on the training plan. “As a scientist you spend so much time focusing on the research plan,” said Dr. St. George. “But what got my grant funded was not necessarily the research plan, but the training plan and how the mentors were going to rally around me and what support they were going to provide.”
Dr. Alkhachroum suggested creating a table in the training plan section of the application that includes objectives, a timeline, percent effort given to each, and the classes you will take to achieve those objectives. He also noted that the University of Miami will cover the cost of many classes, which is helpful when crafting the budget section of the K award application.
Develop a thick skin for reader feedback, suggests Dr. Tookes, who says engaging with notes from your mentors requires an open mind.
“Editing is a form of love,” said Dr. Kobetz. “When somebody takes the time to offer meaningful conceptual input, it advances science and ensures that scholarship moves forward.”
Don’t hide from the flaws in your application, said Dr. Kobetz. “Every research has flaws. Say it up front. Know your work intimately enough to be able to point out where somebody else might have nominated a different approach.”
“Highlight your qualifications and previous experience,” said Dr. Kanamori, “Toot your own horn.”
Most importantly, persist. Not every grant will get funded, said Suhrud Rajguru, Ph.D., CTSI’s Connection Advisory Board Chair and panel discussion moderator. “Keep trying and keep applying until you find that right spot.”
Leave no stone unturned as you prepare your application, said Dr. McIntosh. He said applicants should seize any available opportunity to listen to someone who has done the work of getting a K award or mentoring an awardee, e.g., over a cup of coffee with a conference attendee.
Panelist shared myriad resources for K award applicants across UM departments. “There’s really so much the institution is willing to invest in us and early investigators,” said Dr. St. George, who cites a CTSI grant writing workshop series accessible via UM’s Blackboard platform as a helpful resource.
The University’s Writing Center can offer grant writing services as well as a range of research writing support services.
For personalized grant writing help, the CTSI has one-on-one consultations available to faculty researchers working on new grant submissions or resubmissions.
The Biostatistics Collaboration and Consulting Core can assist with creating a statistics plan for research projects.
The Research Navigator within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research & Scholarship is available to help researchers locate available resources, connect researchers with collaborators, help find mentors or expertise, provide boilerplate grant information, or answer other research-related questions.
The full transcript for the panel discussion can be found on the CTSI’s platform for archived seminars. First time users will need to register for an account with your University of Miami email address.