Conquering the K99 (Part 2)

Greetings postdocs! Are you thinking about applying for a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award?  Here are ten tips to help you get started.

  1. Make a submission timeline and apply sooner rather than later

To apply for a K99, an applicant must not have more than four years of postdoctoral research experience. Surprisingly, determining your postdoctoral start date is not trivial. Generally speaking, the clock begins when your degree was conferred (a date documented by your university). Recently, the NIH released two notices indicating that an applicant can apply for a one-year extension on their eligibility window due to childbirth (NOT-OD-20-011) or a two-receipt cycle extension due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 (NOT-OD-20-158). In deciding when to apply, you need to do the submission math to ensure that you provide yourself enough time to resubmit your application if required. There are three times a year (or cycles) in which you can apply. The review process is long, and you must account for a gap cycle between the initial submission and resubmission. For example, if you apply for a K99 in the first cycle, you will not get your score and comments back in time to resubmit in the second cycle. The earliest you will be able to resubmit your application is in the third cycle.

  1. Make a checklist

The K99 is a beast of a proposal. In the end, my K99 application was 87 pages long. But, fear not. The trick is to divide and conquer. First, go to the NIH Grants and Funding website and download the application guide. Then, to stay organized and motivated, make a checklist of all the items you need to prepare. Here is the checklist I made below.

*Items that you will need to gather from others.

  1. Create and adhere to a writing routine

Establish a writing routine to avoid panic writing and sleepless nights. Specifically, create a list of writing rules for yourself. Determine when you will write, where you will write, and the conditions under which you will write. To build accountability, share your writing plan with others and establish artificial deadlines to ensure you stay on track to complete your application on time. For more writing routine ideas, check out the article “Ten simple rules for scientists: Improving your writing productivity” (Peterson et al., 2018) for inspiration.

  1. Sketch out your research plan before you write your specific aims

In writing a K99, one of the most intimidating tasks is to develop a research plan that is that the magic combination of significant, innovative, and feasible. In coming up with a plan, start early, create rough outlines, discuss your unrefined ideas with other scientists (i.e., friends, lab members, and mentors), and then edit as needed until you have a solid plan. Once you have a solid plan, then begin writing your specific aims. In preparing your research plan, avoid nested aims, where one aim’s success depends on another aim’s success. Also, focus on hypothesis-driven science where any outcome (positive or negative) is informative. Avoid writing yourself into experimental corners and dead ends.

  1. Identify the NIH institute that is right for you

The NIH consists of 27 different institutes and centers. To determine which institute to apply to, use the NIH RePORTER Matchmaker tool to find the institute that is the best match for your research. If there are multiple options available, look up the published success rate of an institute’s K99s and consider picking the institute with the higher success rate. Alternatively, choose the institute where your mentor has already successfully applied to and received an NIH grant.

  1. Contact your institute’s program officer

After you write a solid draft of your specific aims, contact your institute’s program officer. What is a program officer? Each NIH institute has program officers responsible for a set of grants (Ks, Fs, or Rs). Throughout the application process, the program officer is your primary NIH contact with whom you discuss materials regarding your grant’s content. The program officer makes significant funding decisions, including if your grant fits within the scope of the institute you are applying to. Thus, it is important to contact them sooner rather than later. Before you write the rest of your proposal, check in with your program officer to ensure that your grant matches the institute. You don’t want your grant to get rejected because of a poor fit.

  1. Gather an excellent scientific mentoring team

One of the joys of the K99 writing process is that you have the opportunity to submit six letters of support. Use this opportunity to initiate collaborations and build an incredible scientific mentoring team that will help you execute experiments and provide mentorship for the long uphill climb that is obtaining a faculty position.

  1. Don’t forget that the K99 is a transition grant, so let your training potential shine through

A common mistake is that people overstate their early postdoctoral accomplishments, elaborating on all that they have already learned and executed. Singing your praises is excellent, don’t take it out! However, don’t forget to include plans that beautifully elaborate on all the learning the K99 will fund and how this additional knowledge will elevate your science. Remember, the K99/R00 is a transition award. The K99 is supposed to be the training period that prepares you for the R00 independent phase.

  1. Plan ahead and carve out the time to prepare a solid application

My mentor told me that time is your most precious resource. The K99 requires a lot of time and planning to execute well. If possible, put your experiments on hold and commit focused time to prepare your application. In addition to communicating with your program officer at the NIH, initiate early communications with the individuals at your university/institute that will help you prepare your budget and potentially other components of your grant.

  1. Talk to others

Regardless of how much you read and how thoroughly you go through the application materials, you will have questions as you prepare your application. For these questions, your most powerful asset is your mentor and your postdoc peers that have already applied, so seek their advice. The process is long and hard, but regardless of the outcome, the exercise of writing the grant will help you think more deeply about your science and facilitate new collaborations.

Good luck and happy writing!



Peterson TC, Kleppner SR, Botham CM (2018) Ten simple rules for scientists: Improving your writing productivity. PLoS Comput Biol 14(10): e1006379.


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