A Comprehensive Guide to Applying for the NIH K99/R00

I’m sure you’ve been wondering where I’ve been. (At least I’d like to think I’ve been missed!) Well, for the last two months I’ve been in stuck the hellhole that is known as applying for the NIH K99/R00 grant. Now that my grant was just submitted and I can forget all about it, clearly the first thing I decided to do was to spend a few hours writing a blog post about it. (Ok, the first thing was beer. This was the second thing.)

Maybe I’m just in withdrawal from spending all my days staring at Word documents. But I’ve learned a ton about how to write this sucker through my own experience as well as going to grant-writing seminars, looking at half a dozen complete examples and reviews, asking around, googling, and reading the 112 page NIH document that apparently no one else actually reads. So I thought I should share my knowledge to make other postdocs’ lives a bit easier in the future.

(Sorry non-scientists, for once this blog post isn’t really for you, but it may give you insight into how the science grant-writing process works and maybe even some faith that research funds are allotted rigorously—after all, the burdensome NIH process is really just a way to make sure that taxpayer money for research is being well-spent.)

 

Without further ado, here is my super long and hopefully comprehensive guide to applying for the K99/R00.*

*Note that the NIH guidelines may change, so this information is only current as of this post (June 2016). And please take everything with a grain of salt; it’s not like I’m the world’s expert, I just happen to have spent a LOT of time gathering information and going through the process myself.

***Update on November 21, 2016: I’ve written a follow-up post about how the K99 is scored and a summary of my reviews.***

 

1. Understand what it is

The K99/R00 is a transitional grant that gives you 1-2 years of funding as a postdoc (K99 phase) and 3 years of funding as a PI (R00 phase), assuming you get a faculty job. By the way, I’ve heard you should always apply for the full 2 years of the K99 phase—apparently you can cut it short if needed, but you can’t lengthen it.

As a “K” award, the K99 is a career development award. It’s not a fellowship like the NRSA or a research grant like the R01. It’s super important to understand this as you prepare your application. Even though your research proposal is obviously important, you need to spend a lot of time on the other components that discuss your background, career goals, and how this award will help you “transition to independence”.

The main point you want to convey is that you’re an awesome scientist, but you need a couple more years of training as a postdoc in order to gain important skills and conduct research that will set you up to be a successful independent investigator. Apparently a common mistake is to focus on telling the reviewers how awesome you are without justifying the need for further training.

2. Should you apply?

A lot of postdocs seem to be on the fence about applying for the K99. These seem to be the most frequent concerns:

  • “Don’t I need to have publications from my postdoc?” I’ve heard mixed answers. Obviously one or more papers helps a lot, but I know multiple postdocs who’ve gotten the K99 without a paper. I do think you need to make it clear that you’ve accomplished something in your postdoc, and ideally you make it sound like you basically have a paper even if it’s not submitted or even written yet. You can show lots of preliminary data in the proposal, and in the candidate section you can highlight how much you’ve done and mention that you already have a paper written/submitted/in revisions/etc. Your advisor should mention this too in his/her letter. [Update on 11/21/16: My reviewers made a big deal out of my lack of postdoc publications. Read here for more.]
  • “Is it a terrible horrific experience that will suck my soul?” I guess this depends on how much you hate grant-writing (I actually kind of like it). For me the writing was time-consuming, but not overly unpleasant; the worst part of the process was getting my advisor, references, and collaborators to do their parts and to coordinate all the administrative stuff. That part will depend on how much the people around you are helping and supporting you, and I know other applicants do have decent experiences.
  • “Do I even have a shot?” I think most institutes have a success rate around 20% (you can check here). If you’re in a big-name lab at a highly regarded university, I think your chances go up dramatically (not that I’m saying this is fair at all). If you plan ahead and apply twice, you also have a much better shot because you can address the reviewers’ concerns.
  • “What does the K99 get me?” It gets you good money. During the K99 phase it covers your salary for up to 2 years plus ~$20k per year for research (depends on the institute). During the R00 phase you get a total of $249,000 per year for 3 years, though at least half of that goes to your university and not you (indirect costs).
  • “Will the K99 help me get a job?” From my experience it seems like K99 awardees do really well on the job market, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s correlation or causation. I imagine it makes you more attractive to job committees because it shows you can secure funding and being well-funded sets you up for a better chance of success as an early investigator.

Bottom line: I think you should give it a shot if your goal is to get your own lab and you have a pretty good CV, even if you don’t have papers yet. The process of writing the application will also help you clarify your ideas and goals, which is always a good thing and may be particularly helpful when you apply for jobs.

3. Plan your timeline

You will need to apply way earlier than you think you do. Don’t let it sneak up on you. Currently the NIH allows one initial submission and one resubmission, and both have to be done before you’ve had 4 years of postdoctoral experience. Most institutes are now counting that 4 years from the date your Ph.D. was awarded, NOT from the date you actually started your postdoc. I know, it’s silly—it’s not like the last few months you spent in your Ph.D. lab after graduating really gave you “postdoc” experience. The NINDS is even worse: they start counting from the exact date that your thesis committee signed your dissertation! So check the guidelines for your institute.

I recommend emailing the program officer (PO) for your institute to confirm your eligibility window. The program officer is the dude or lady who you contact for any questions regarding your grant. If you’re like I was, you’ve probably heard a million times how it’s a good idea to contact your PO but you have no idea who they are or how to find them. So here you go: this page contains a list of the K99 POs for each institute (the “Scientific Program Contact”).

Now that you know when your eligibility ends, when do you apply? There are three deadlines per year. Currently the deadlines for initial submissions are in February, June, and October, and deadlines for resubmissions are in March, July, and November. You should plan on submitting twice, but you won’t be able to submit on consecutive cycles because the review process takes so long. For example, if your eligibility ends in December, the latest you can apply is first in February and again in November. (I didn’t start early enough so I can only apply once, because no one told me any of this stuff!)

Bottom line: your first submission will be due about a year before the 4 year window is up, so you should start thinking about your grant about 2.5 years after you’ve gotten your Ph.D. See, I told you it was a lot sooner than you thought.

And by “thinking about your grant” I mean not just pondering what you’re going to propose or filling yourself with dread about the process, but also taking steps to make your application as strong as possible. This means collecting relevant preliminary data and pushing your papers as far as possible in the publication process. Note that you can update the review committee about the status of any papers just before they meet, which is several months after the grant deadline.

4. Find the instructions

It wasn’t until a month in that I realized there are at least 3 sets of instructions that I was supposed to be following. The most specific instructions are in the FOA (Funding Opportunity Announcement). The FOA gets renewed frequently, so make sure you’re using the current one. If you just google “K99 FOA” you’ll probably get an old version, so click through the NIH site (e.g. here) to find the current one and check the expiration date that’s listed.

The FOA only has instructions that are specific to the K99. To find more detailed instructions that apply to all K awards, you have to consult the 112-page SF424 R&R instructions (and no, I have no clue what that stands for). Between the FOA and the SF424 guide, you’ll find instructions about which components you need to complete, how to fill out all the forms and what specific topics you need to address in each essay.

In addition to those two sets of instructions, you also need to check the guidelines that are specific to your institute, which can be found here. So, 3 sets of instructions. All the instructions change frequently so you need to actually read them to make sure you’re doing things right, rather than simply following other people’s examples from previous cycles.

5. Start preparing

Here are some things I would recommend doing at least 2-3 months in advance:

  • As mentioned above, contact the POs of institutes you’re thinking about applying to in order to confirm your eligibility window.
  • Decide which institute you’re going to apply to. Each field usually has a couple institutes they always hit up. Some people choose based on the success rates, which vary by institute and can be found here. That’s a reasonable consideration, but I think it’s more important that your proposal fits with the mission of the institute that you choose.
  • Get as many examples of complete K99 applications as you can—ideally ones that were successful—along with the reviews. This will be super useful in figuring out what the reviewers like or don’t like. I got 6 examples from friends and labmates. If you don’t know anyone with a K99, you can find a list of everyone who has it using the NIH RePORTER. I imagine that some of those postdocs would be generous enough to share their application with you, especially if they’re at your university or have some other connection (e.g. they’re in your friend’s lab). I’ve heard that you can also get K99 examples from your PO.
  • Develop ideas for what you want to propose. Talk to your advisor, labmates, friends, etc. and decide on an exciting but feasible research proposal that is a logical extension of your past/current postdoctoral work. Remember that this isn’t a postdoc fellowship; your proposed research is supposed to set the stage for you to establish your own lab. You need to think big and have ideas that distinguish yourself from your PI’s work.
  • Use those ideas to write your specific aims page (more on that below). Send those aims to your PO and ask whether it sounds like something the institute would be interested in. If not, change your aims or apply to a different institute. Do this early! Your PO may not get back to you for awhile, and if he/she tells you to change your aims you need to know this before you start working on anything else. I made the mistake of waiting too long because I wanted my aims page to be perfect, and by the time my PO got back to me and told me to change my aims I had already written a draft of the proposal that had to be scrapped.
  • Talking to your PO early may also give you ideas about how to shape your application to address concerns the reviewers may have about your research, CV, your lab, etc.
  • Once your PO has signed off on your aims, give your aims page to everyone you know and get feedback about how to craft the best proposal possible.
  • Use your aims to start outlining your training objectives. These should be concrete goals for learning new techniques or professional skills that fit nicely with your proposal and/or your long-term research goals.
  • Think about which PIs you want to get as collaborators. You NEED collaborators. Most successful applications have at least 2-3 collaborators, consultants, or members of an “advisory committee”. From what I’ve heard, the more, the better. But all your collaborators/consultants need to write letters of support that collectively fit into the 6 page limit. The collaborators or consultants should have expertise that fits with your research and training plans. Also, if your advisor is a new PI or not very well-established, you definitely need to get a co-mentor who is well-established and has a track record of publishing well and placing postdocs in faculty jobs. This is just something the NIH insists on.

6. Contact people

There are a lot of people you need to contact 1-2 months in advance:

  • You need an eRA commons login with postdoc/PI roles. This is something you can’t get yourself, some kind of administrator needs to do it for you. I just used google to figure out who at Columbia was in charge of this, and it was pretty easy once I found the right person, but in some cases it could take days or even weeks.
  • You probably need to get a “PI waiver”. This is a completely ridiculous bureaucratic device that allows you to apply for a grant as a “PI”. Apparently universities think that without this mechanism we lowly postdocs would be applying for PI grants willy-nilly. Anyway, this was a process that required me to get a letter from our department chair (which I had to draft), then send the letter and my biosketch to the grants office, which then sent the official “PI waiver request” to some university dean who finally granted the request weeks later.
  • The department and grants office probably have a bunch of other internal forms and budgets they need you to fill out, so check with them about that.
  • Ask your department admin how to get the letter of institutional commitment, which usually comes from the department chair but needs to be tailored for your application (more below).
  • Let your advisor know that they will need to submit the mentor statement and their biosketch (more below).
  • Contact your collaborators/consultants, who will need to submit a letter of support. Let them know that you’re willing to draft the letter for them.
  • Contact 3-5 references who will submit letters for you. Give them the NIH instructions for writing and submitting letters (found here). Note that none of your references can be associated with the grant as collaborators or co-mentors.

7. Make a list of what you need

Before you start writing, make a list of all the stuff you need to write. If you’ve never applied to the NIH before, you might flip your sh*t when you see how many documents there are. Here was my list, which doesn’t include any of the components related to vertebrate animals or human research:

  • Cover letter (1 page)
  • Project summary/abstract (0.5 – 1 page)
  • Project narrative (2-3 sentences)
  • References cited
  • Facilities and other resources (1 page)
  • Equipment (1 page)
  • Your biosketch (up to 5 pages)
  • Your mentor’s biosketch (one for each co-mentor, if there are multiple) (5 pages each)
  • Budget for each year (filled out online, but make a template in Excel first)
  • Budget justification (1 page)
  • Candidate section (used to be separate essays but now they are one file with 3 components):
    • Candidate’s background (1 page)
    • Career goals and objectives (1 page)
    • Career development/training activities (2 pages)
  • Specific aims (1 page)
  • Research plan (8 pages)
  • Training in responsible conduct of research (1 page)
  • Plans and statements of mentor or co-mentors (6 pages total)
  • Collaborator letters (6 pages total)
  • Description of institutional environment (1 page)
  • Institutional commitment (1 page)
  • Resource sharing plan (< 1 page)
  • Plan for authentication of key resources (< 1 page)
  • Forms for human or vertebrate animal research- not applicable for me
  • 3-5 reference letters- submitted separately by your references

Most of the page lengths I’ve listed above are just my own recommendations. Only some of the documents have official page limits and the guidelines can be found here. The main thing to note is that you get 12 pages total for the candidate section plus the research strategy (not including the aims). I recommend using 4 pages for the candidate section, broken up as I’ve specified above, and 8 pages for the research strategy.

The list of documents changes frequently, so that’s why you need to read the SF424 instruction book carefully! I didn’t even notice one of the required documents (authentication of key resources) until a few days before the deadline because it’s a new component that was just added and wasn’t in any of the examples I had.

8. Write stuff

This may get long, but I’m going to describe key information that needs to go in each section. Obviously I haven’t gotten my reviews back so I don’t know if I really did everything right, but here’s what I think is important based on all the information and examples I’ve collected.

Cover letter: It has a standard format and guidelines can be found here. It must include the list of the people who are submitting reference letters for you. You should also use it to request the institute that you want to submit to, although now there is also a separate “assigment request” form that you fill out online and serves the same purpose.

Project summary/abstract: This should include an abstract of the proposal as well as a few sentences about your career development plan, your collaborators, and the institutional environment. Write this last, after everything else is done. It should definitely be less than a page and I’ve also heard it’s supposed to be 30 lines max, but I’m not totally sure if that restriction applies here. The summary will be visible online to anyone if you get the grant.

Project narrative: 2-3 sentences on how your project relates to human health. It’s supposed to be written for non-scientists to understand, and will also be visible online if you get the grant.

References cited: The NIH doesn’t require a specific format for citations, but they want you to list all authors instead of using “et al.”. No page limit. My application had 60 references, and I’ve seen anywhere between 20 and 90. I think 60 is a bit high but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss citing something important and possibly offend someone!

Facilities and other resources: Describe the lab space, animal facilities (if relevant), computer and office facilities, core facilities at the university, support staff in the lab or the department, and the scientific environment of the lab (e.g. “interactive and collaborative with a wide range of backgrounds”). Make it clear how awesome your lab is for doing research and how you have everything you could ever want.

Equipment: Same idea as above, but talk about specific equipment like microscopes, electrophysiology rigs, behavioral setups, PCR machines, etc. Again emphasize how you have amazing stuff that includes everything you could ever want to conduct your research.

Biosketch: Use the template online (found here) and follow all the rules about how many papers you can list, etc. They will use the dates listed on your biosketch to determine whether you’re within the eligibility window for the K99, so make sure those are correct. In the personal statement you want to tell a compelling story about your scientific career. Describe your background, postdoc work, and career goals. It seems to overlap a lot with the candidate section even though it’s not supposed to. For part C (contributions to science) you don’t need to list the maximum of 5 contributions, you can just do 2 or 3. The examples I’ve seen usually have one section on graduate work and one on postdoc work, with maybe an extra section if you worked on multiple different projects in either phase.

Mentor’s biosketch: In theory, your advisor should already have this and will just give it to you. In practice, this was the last freaking thing that I was waiting for on the last day after all my materials were done. Hopefully your advisor is not a procrastinator. Each co-mentor needs to submit their biosketch. Collaborators generally don’t need to do this.

Budget: You’ll fill this out online, but you’ll want to make a template in Excel first. The budget is super confusing to most of us who have never submitted an R01 or anything like that. People will tell you that your grants office or PO will help you, but for me this was not true and I spent half a day figuring it out. So I’m just going to tell you exactly how to do it:

You’ll fill out 5 budget periods, one for each year. For the K99 phase (years 1 and 2), you will request salary and research costs. The maximum amounts vary by institute and can be found here. However, your department may not approve you for the maximum salary (you can ask them in advance to be safe, or just put down what you want and hope they sign off…). Once you decide on your requested salary, list it under both “base salary” and “requested salary” in section A for 12 calendar months.

Then you need to calculate the fringe costs on your salary, which is an extra amount that the NIH gives directly to your university for benefits, etc. The fringe rate can vary from year to year and is determined by your university (probably somewhere around 30%). There’s most likely a university website somewhere that tells you what it is, otherwise ask your grants office. You may see that there are different “federal” and “non-federal” rates: use the federal rate since this is a grant from the federal government.

Aside from salary, you can request up to a certain amount for research, which most people use for “materials and supplies” under section F. People also often allocate money for travel (section D), publication costs (section F), or other things like animal care costs, training courses, etc. which you can specify in section F. Don’t use section E at all because that’s for “trainees”, which you don’t have.

Then you need to total up all the direct costs (all the research stuff plus salary and fringe) and apply an 8% indirect cost rate. This is money that the NIH gives directly to your institution to theoretically cover the cost of maintaining facilities, keeping the lights on, etc. The “indirect cost type” is usually listed as MTDC (modified total direct costs).

Ok, so that’s it for the K99. You fill out a different budget for each of the 2 years, but they’ll probably be pretty similar. Then for the R00 phase things are simpler, but somehow more confusing. You’re not supposed to itemize your R00 budget (because if you get the grant you’ll have to submit a detailed budget upon transitioning to the R00 phase anyway). The R00 phase gives you up to $249,000/year total for direct and indirect costs. You’re supposed to just list the number $249,000 in section F, creating a new line called “R00 independent phase”. Yes, even though that amount is for both direct and indirect costs, you still list it all under direct costs. That’s it. Don’t add in any indirect costs or fill out any of the other entries. Under salary, which is a required field, just put “0”. Repeat this for each of the 3 years of the R00 phase.

Budget justification: List the stuff you will buy, the conferences you will go to (if you asked for travel costs), and how you calculated animal costs or any other specific expenses. Mention that your requested salary has been approved by the department and is consistent with what other postdocs in your department get. Mention what fringe rate you used for the calculations.

Candidate information: This section is super important! I think a lot of people blow it off, but it’s basically as important as your proposal. It used to be 3 essays and is now one file, but you should still write three separate sections. Overall, it should convey that you have an awesome background in certain areas but still need to learn more stuff in order to achieve your future goals. A lot of the material will feel redundant, but in general, the background essay focuses on your past, the goals/objectives essay focuses on your future, and the training plan focuses on your immediate training goals. Here are guidelines for each essay:

Candidate background: Use different headings to describe different research experiences, e.g. undergrad, graduate, and postdoc research. Tie them all together, i.e. talk about what you learned from each experience and what made you choose to move on to the next thing. Talk about what you still need to learn as a postdoc (the stuff in your training plan) and how once you’ve learned those things you will have exactly the perfect combination of skills and background to investigate the question you want to study. You will be a special snowflake destined for success.

Career goals and objectives: Again, I suggest using different headings such as “Career Goals”, “Training Progression”, “Mentored Phase Objectives”, and “Independent Phase Objectives”. Using these sections I first talked about my career goals, then described how my background gave me expertise in relevant areas, then mentioned the training I still need and how my lab/department is an awesome place that will help me get it, and finally concluded with what I will do in my own lab. It’s important to mention how you will distinguish your work from your PI’s. Also, this is the section where I put in a couple sentences explaining why they shouldn’t judge me too harshly for not having a paper yet (I have a manuscript ready to submit, I have a good record from grad school, etc.). I think it’s important to directly address this issue somewhere if it applies to you.

Training plan: This needs to be very specific about what skills you want to learn in the two years of the K99 phase. I was told to choose 3-5 things to describe. I chose 5 areas: 3 were technical or analytical skills that I want to gain and the other two had to do with general education (broadening my neuroscience background) and professional development (grant-writing, communication, mentorship). But you can’t just mention these things, you need to say how you will acquire these skills. I mentioned collaborators, a course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and classes and professional development seminars at my institution. After that, I talked about my interactions with my mentor and collaborators and described how they will supervise me, evaluate my progress, and help me get a job. Finally, I made a timeline that included, for each of the 5 years, which aims I’m going to work on, which aims I’m going to present at conferences, which classes and seminars I will attend, and other things such as “apply for jobs”, “set up lab”, and “write R01”. Having a timeline is SUPER important, but I’ve seen other people include it in different places such as the career goals section above.

Specific aims: Everyone will tell you that this is the most important page of your proposal! In one page you need to convince the reviewers that your proposal is significant, exciting, feasible, and will set the stage for your own independent research program. You should specify which aims will be done during the K99 and R00 phases. Most people have 2-3 aims. Spend a paragraph or two on introduction, then a paragraph on each aim, then a concluding paragraph about what you expect to learn and why it’s so important.

Research proposal: There are plenty of guidelines on the internet about how to write this part, so I won’t reiterate them here. I think the “Significance” and “Innovation” sections are super important for getting reviewers excited and convincing them your work will make a big contribution. I wrote half a page for each of those sections. Figures with preliminary data are important to convince reviewers that your proposal is feasible. Also, if you don’t have publications it’s a way to show them that you have a lot of unpublished data that will result in a paper soon (especially if you make the figures look nice and professional). It seems like most people have 4-7 figures. I had 9, but 2 were just models or schematics.

Training in responsible conduct of research: Talk about the RCR course at your university. The instructions mention 5 specific points that you need to address, so don’t skip any of them. Also include a paragraph about “informal training” that talks about guidance you will get from your advisor/ collaborators/ labmates.

Mentor statement: This is NOT a normal recommendation letter from your advisor! It is a detailed statement that includes their endorsement of your abilities and potential, their own qualifications as a researcher and mentor, and a description of their role in your career development and transition to independence. They get 6 pages, so it should be pretty detailed. You should draft this statement for your advisor because they’re not going to want to do it. There are several points it needs to include that are detailed in the various instruction forms. Make sure to address ALL these points and to coordinate this statement with your own training plan. I’ve heard that the most important aspect is conveying that your advisor supports you in taking your own research with you and starting your own lab (i.e. they’re not going to compete with you by working on the same thing). If you have multiple co-mentors you need statements from each of them; together they still need to fit within the 6 page limit.

Collaborator letters: These should describe each collaborator’s role in the project and how often they will meet with you. I don’t think a super long letter is necessary; usually they’re less than a page, maybe a bit longer if the person really knows you and has a lot to say. You’ll probably want to draft these yourself so they include everything you want. They need to be signed and dated on letterhead so they look legit. All letters need to be combined into a single PDF file, 6 pages max.

Description of institutional environment: Describe why you are in the perfect place to do your research and get the training that you’ve proposed. This includes a description of your PI’s credentials, his/her mentorship style and ability, the lab environment, department, university, office of postdoctoral affairs (hopefully you have one), and facilities (refer the reader to the “facilities” and “equipment” essays). You should describe how intellectually stimulating the environment is, all the seminars and workshops you can attend, labs that you could collaborate with, etc.

Letter of institutional commitment: This will come from your department chair or some dean, and although they have a standard template it needs to be tailored for you. Depending on their usual protocol you might draft it for them or they may give you a template and you can edit it. It should reiterate all the same points about how great the department and university is, and it should mention that you will be able to take any specific courses that you proposed in your training plan. It also must address 4 specific points that are mentioned in the instructions, so double check this and insist on a revision if it doesn’t (I had to).

Resource sharing plan: Usually just a paragraph or two. The NIH provides guidelines and templates for what this should include (found here).

Plan for authentication of key resources: This is a brand new component and I didn’t really know what it’s supposed to include, but I think you need to mention how you’re going to validate the identity of any reagents that could be contaminated or misidentified, such as transgenic or mutant animal strains, cell lines, antibodies, etc.

9. Revise stuff

Try to write drafts of all the important stuff early so you can get multiple rounds of feedback, especially on the aims page and research proposal. Even though it’s easiest to get feedback from your labmates, try to also get feedback from people who don’t already know what you’re doing. The most useful feedback I got was from a neuroscientist friend way outside my field who called me out on using terms that I didn’t even realize were jargon. (She also told me my photo of a fly feeding assay looked like the fly was being drowned by a waterfall, which I’m pretty sure is going to be my all-time favorite feedback comment.) In any case, your reviewers are probably not going to be in your exact field either, so you must explain your research in terms that nearly any scientist can understand.

10. Submit!

Yeah, so this wasn’t as easy or exciting as it sounds. The NIH keeps changing how grants are submitted online and none of my labmates knew what the current process was. It turned out that my department uses ASSIST, but I think there may be alternative systems as well. There are a bunch of administrative things you need to fill out online, plus the budget, and then you need to upload all your documents as PDF files. Also check out the optional forms that are not pre-loaded in case any of them are relevant. For example, the assignment request form is “optional” but you should definitely use it to make sure your application goes to the institute you want.

I thought once everything was filled out I could just press the “submit” button, but nope, that’s not how it works. First the departmental administrator had to review everything and told me to make some minor changes. Then the grants office had to review everything and again requested changes (some that conflicted with the department admin). Then the grants office submits the application directly; we postdocs don’t have the power to do this. The point is, once you think you’re done it still takes at least a day to go through all of these administrative reviews and you’re dependent on administrators who may be very busy—so don’t wait until the last minute! Also, the online systems can get overloaded if you wait until the last day.

Once I got the submission confirmation I (again) thought we were done, but it came with some ominous “warnings” about potential errors. Apparently this is normal. You have to log into a separate system, eRA commons, to find out what the warnings are. Mine turned out to be nothing relevant, just the NIH system trying to freak me out for no reason.

In addition to submitting the grant, make sure that your references submit their letters on time! Most of them will probably wait until the last minute so you should remind them repeatedly about the deadline.

11. ???

Umm, well this is as far as I’ve gotten in the application process, so I don’t really know what comes next. Apparently it will be reviewed in 4-5 months. You can view the status of the application in eRA commons (mine still says “pending verification”, which I think is an administrative thing that will get sorted out in the next few days).

I’ll try to update this page if I learn anything new that could be helpful. Also, if anyone has different views on anything I’ve described please feel free to weigh in using the comments section below.

Other than that, I hope all of this information will ensure that other postdocs have a slightly less stressful time applying for the K99!

Updated 11/21/16: I got my reviews back. You can read about my reviews as well as the K99 scoring system here.


Comments

A Comprehensive Guide to Applying for the NIH K99/R00 — 12 Comments

  1. This is great! I would just definitely add that it’s worth asking your PO about the 4 year limit if you have a legitimate reason you took some time off from research. I think they have some discretion with the cutoff e.g. if you took time off for parental leave

  2. Sure wish I had your summary when I started working on my grant! What a miserable experience. I had to learn many of the same lessons the hard way (and I left out the Authentication of Key Resources page since I wasn’t sure what it was and it wasn’t in my examples either – hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me). Let’s celebrate K99 completion with a beer next time I see you!

    • Yeah I wish I had my summary as well :) I’m sure the resource authentication plan won’t make or break yours though. I can’t imagine K99 writing and wedding planning at the same time! Congrats on submitting it!

  3. Very interesting. When I applied for a K99/R00 my PI told me I needed no more that two weeks to do the entire thing. I hope your PI was much more supportive.

    • I think two weeks is crazy! I suppose the process would be quicker if you already have a proposal that you can build on (e.g. from NRSA or another fellowship), but I had to write everything from scratch. I started things 2 months in advance but kept doing experiments until the last couple weeks, so I’m not sure how much time I devoted purely to grant-writing. Probably 3 or 4 weeks at least.

  4. Thank you for the excellent resource! I submitted applications twice and received the same score both times (sadly, both non-fundable). I am still within the window of eligibility and am wondering whether I can write and submit a brand new K99 application?

    • Sorry to hear that. I’m not sure about the answer to your question, but I’m very skeptical… I think perhaps they’d allow you to submit a brand new application if it were completely different, but then it seems unlikely you would have enough preliminary data for it and it would take a lot of time to write. Your PO will know the answer. Even if the answer is yes, it seems there may be something fundamental that the reviewers don’t like (your research topic, CV, lab, etc) that is preventing you from getting funded, so I’d be very hesitant to spend all that time trying again.

  5. Great blog! Question about the Biosketch: are we supposed to put grades from undergrad/grad school? I notice in the instructions it says to skip this for “Career Development Awards” (i.e., K-awards), but then later it just broadly says Postdoctoral applicants should include this section.

    • No, you don’t include grades for the K99. The NIH page I linked to above has examples and templates for what the biosketch should look like. Just remember that the K99 is not considered a “fellowship” application, even though that may seem counterintuitive, so use the main template and not the one for “postdoctoral fellowships”.

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