Conquering the K99 (Part 1)

Greetings postdocs! I wanted to share my experience with postdoc fellowships and grants for this month’s blog. As a postdoctoral researcher, I applied to over 15 grants and fellowships. Getting funding as a postdoc is difficult, and I did not receive most of the grants I applied to. However, my research proposal improved with each subsequent application, and I eventually found success first with an American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellowship (thanks AHA!) and later with a K99 Pathway to Independence Award. Over the past two years, I have been a grant-writing coach and in the next few blogs wanted to share the many things I learned about applying for NIH funding.

What is the K99/R00?
The K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award is an NIH career development award that supports up to five years of research. The five years consist of up to 2 years of mentored postdoctoral training (K99) and 3 years of independent support that funds your brand-new laboratory (R00).

Who is eligible to apply?
Unlike most NIH grants, both US citizens and non-US citizens (with a research or clinical doctoral degree) are encouraged to apply! Typically postdocs have four years (after degree conferral) to apply for a K99. However, postdocs can request extensions for numerous reasons, including medical issues, disability, family care responsibilities, and natural disasters. Recently, the NIH released two new notices that allow postdocs to apply for a one-year extension for childbirth (NOT-OD-20-011) and a two-receipt cycle extension for disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic (NOT-OD-20-158).

Should I apply? 

If you are eligible and have any inkling that you want to pursue a career in academics, then go for it! In my experience, postdocs often build a wall of concerns that delay their application process. Let me address a few of the most common concerns I have heard here:

  1. “I don’t have a chance at getting a K99 because I do not have a first-author postdoc publication yet.” You don’t have any chance of receiving a K99 if you never apply. While it is true that having multiple publications will likely strengthen your application and that some reviewers are overly critical of a lack of publications, I have met postdocs that received a K99 without a first-author publication. Do not disqualify yourself! It is better to apply without a first-author publication and address this issue in your resubmission instead of applying late and not giving yourself sufficient time to reapply.        
  2. “I don’t have enough preliminary data to write a K99.”
    The K99/R00 is unique in that it is a transition grant. The research you propose to do for your K99 must have a substantial training component that will elevate your science-self. Thus, while the science is important, the NIH is looking to fund people, not projects. The preliminary data’s sole purpose is to convince the reviewers that your project is feasible. Instead of worrying about gathering more preliminary data, refocus this energy towards building a strong team (aka. your scientific committee) that will function as the foundation of your training plan.
  3. “NIH success rates are low. I don’t think I’ll get it, and it’s not worth trying.”

Compared to other grants and fellowships, the K99 success rate is relatively high (~24% in 2019, with significant variability depending on the institute). Admittedly, preparing a K99 does take a lot of time. However, there are many benefits, even if you don’t get the award. First, it’s an excellent exercise in thinking deeply about your research. Second, it’s great practice for writing NIH grants. Lastly, in organizing your scientific committee, you have the potential to gain additional mentors and build real collaborations that can help you and your research succeed.

In my next blog, I will cover how to get started writing a K99, so stay tuned!


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