It wasn't really all bad news. At all. I mean, yes, of course, the grant was still unscored, but I feel much better about why. As it turns out, Comrade PhysioProf was mostly right--the major problem was my publication record, which is decent but not awesome, and lacking with respect to a glamour journal paper. This is an unfortunate result of a certain journal taking three months and then four months and then two months to get back to me with reviews for what will be my second peer-reviewed post-doc paper, a labor of love that contains over three years of work. But I don't need to explain this to you; I should have explained it to my study section.
Briefly, the scoring works like this: I'm graded by three different reviewers on a scale of 1-9 with 1 being the best in five different areas:
Candidate (that's me!)
Training Plan (the myriad essays I wrote about my career goals and my plans for achieving them)
Research Plan (the actual experiments I proposed)
Mentors (how prepared my mentor is to help guide me to independence)
Environment (how Classy is my Institution? Does it have the resources to help me get my work done?)
I received pretty much equal parts 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s, with the biggest issues aside from my publishing being a not completely well-thought out Training Plan, and a concern that my proposed research for the independent phase of the award would not be significantly different from that of my mentors (I disagree with this). My Mentors and Environment are completely kick-ass, so high scores in those sections were expected, but the reviewers also seemed to like my Research Plan quite a bit, which made me so, so happy. I am a good science thinker!!! I'm going to share with you the best quote:
"The strength of these experiments lies in the hypothesis, the ability of the candidate to conduct the studies, and the elegant and appropriate approach to answer the question at hand."
Fuck. Yeah. There is probably no word scientists want to hear other people use to describe their work more than the word "elegant" (except, perhaps, "fundable"). This is a great compliment, and was a nice little ego boost yesterday because I really do love the proposal, and am very proud of the ideas in it.
My biggest mistake in how I handled the application was not giving myself enough time to write it. By, like, several years. It's funny, when I received the email three years ago from NIH congratulating me on being awarded an NRSA grant, it included a note suggesting I start applying for the K99. I was like, are they crazy?? I just got a grant, why would I apply for another one???? I'mma go do me some experiments!! So I did some experiments and time went by, and then all of a sudden my NRSA was almost up! With just under a month until the deadline, I began to work on the K99. Totally fine, I thought, I can crank this out in 25 days. But then I learned that the grants and contracts office at my Classy Institution needed everything in 2 weeks in advance, completely polished and finished. Oh.
First I had a heart attack, and then I LOCKED IN and wrote the damn thing in ten days. I would have just put it off to the next cycle, but at that point I would have been right on the cusp of not being eligible, and I didn't want to risk it. It's really no surprise, then, that there were parts of my application that weren't as perfectly put together as they needed to be, though I thought that for ten days' writing, it was pretty impressive. However, NOBODY CARES. It had to be a perfect application and it wasn't even close, and that is nobody's fault but mine.
So, some lessons learned, and advice to those of you who anticipate applying for a K99:
1. START EARLY. Like now. And talk to people--your PI, other PIs in your group, PIs outside of your Classy Institution. Get many many perspectives on your proposal, and go through multiple rounds of proofreading--different people will catch different mistakes (no one caught that I apparently neglected to state the age of my animals, which is just stupid).
2. Devote a substantial amount of time to your Career Development/Training Plan statements; these are a big deal, and were one of my weaknesses. It's not enough to say "I want my own lab where I can study all of these totally fascinating things." You have to explain how you're going to get there, plus how you're going to develop all other kinds of PI-type skills, like grant and manuscript writing, teaching, lab management, etc. Your mentor's statement should include points about how he or she will help you do these things. What's frustrating is that I know I could have done a much better job with these had I been more responsible about when I started working on the application.
3. Know your weaknesses, and actively defend or explain them. Obviously, I was aware that my publication record was not impressive, but instead of acknowledging that, I naively hoped that my fancy pedigree and cool science would override the blemish. In retrospect, I should have included a statement somewhere explaining the nature of the work I've been doing (giant, comprehensive, long-term studies), and why I don't have as many big publications as you might expect of someone who's been a post-doc in my lab for as long as I have. Something like that may not have made all the difference, but I think it would have helped.