The Plight of the Post-Doc


Summary Statement Summary

I had been told that it would take at least 6 weeks for my K99 Summary Statement (a composite of the reviewers' comments) to come, but instead it took 6 days.  I suppose that if there's one thing that can be said for the NIH, it's that they're certainly efficient when it comes to bringing the bad news. 


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.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I TOLD YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

scicurious said...

I need to keep this post for when I apply for the K99...

Candid Engineer said...

I'm glad that you received such constructive feedback, and even though you can't apply again, I'm sure you learned some valuable lessons for future grant proposals.

Becca said...

I also meant to link to Arlenna's (ChemicalBiLOLogy) VERY comprehensive guide to writing a K99 proposal:

It is AMAZING--I only wish I'd found it 6 months ago...

Arlenna said...

I hope it helps you on your revision!! Remember you will need to cut down the length now to 12 pages (plus 1 for specific aims). Your intro to resubmit also needs to be only 1 page now.

It sounds like you will be doing great sciencewise, and you can focus on making the training plan better targeted to what they like to see. Let me know if you want to see my proposal! My email is on my blog.

Becca said...

Thanks, Arlenna! I actually can't apply again, I've passed the 5 year mark. Let this be a lesson to all the procrastinators out there!

However, it's good to know that I have a solid research proposal, which I can use to apply for a couple of non-government Young/New Investigator grants I've found.

Cousin L. said...

Hi Bec. You know how you said in a previous entry that you went to hear a speaker, or something, and you knew the person? So I think you should go give speeches on these topics. Or like speak about it at one of your conventions. I've heard you speak - you're really good. ;) And other younger more inexperienced science peeps could benefit.

Anonymous said...

I recently wrote an Emmy Noether application (like a K99/R00 but in Germany) and I was really suprised that it took as long as it did. I probably put 3 solid months into it. I originally set out to do it one month, but just making 17 figures took more than a week (nevermind integrating them into the proposal in a cohesive manner).

Luckily, I was able to push my start date (and hence, the EN submission) back a few months to cover my slowness.

Let this be a lesson to others ... take at least 3x longer than you think you'll need.

DSKS said...

You had a go, and that alone is worth while inre experience. And there isn't much you could have done about the training section given your seniority as a postdoc (talk to your SRO, she'll probably say as much).

As for those advocating spending a lot of time and effort on a mechanism like this, I offer some dissent precisely due to the productivity criticism highlighted in this case. This mechanism is ideally for postdocs that have some good pubs under the belt, are in a good environment with a good pedigree, but are not too senior (which, as Pinus said on Arlenna's blog, is quite a narrow field of truly competitive candidates). Any other candidate should be reticent about spending too much time on such a mechanism. Certainly, no postdoc should be putting 3 months "solid" into a proposal like this, it simply isn't an intelligent use of their time at a point in their career that should emphasise productivity.

However, it's good to know that I have a solid research proposal, which I can use to apply for a couple of non-government Young/New Investigator grants I've found."

If it requires minimum tinkering with your existing K99 application, go for it. But you should consider putting as much of your remaining time into experiments and pubs as possible. These pathway to independence type awards are certainly invaluable in advancing a career should you get one (although anecdotes are emerging that some awardees are hitting the skids at the all important R01 application stage for whatever reason), but often the criteria required to get one are not so far off the criteria required to secure a faculty position in the first place. So there is a certain level of redundancy to them in that sense, particularly for senior postdocs.

Certainly an invaluable experience to write one of these, but they should be prioritised in an appropriate manner.

pinus said...

Maybe K99/R00 folks are having a harder time getting R01's because the study sections wants to see what they are going to do with the R00 before they give them R01 money. Just an idea.

Anonymous said...

I'm the Anon with the EN proposal.

I'm in a different situation that most others because I already have a 6-year group leader contract (+ salary and 600k€ start-up in hand), therefore, I could spend 3 "solid" months writing one. For me, it was an excellent use of time because I could map out what I expect to achieve within that window.

But all of that is an aside. My whole point is that 3 x the anticipated time should be set aside. Whether that is one month of evenings and weekends or 10 "solid" days, take whatever you think you'll need an multiply by 3.

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