Making the K99/R00 work long-term: what should be the focus?

Through my discussions on my K99/R00 forum, I'm noticing a trend for applicants: they get mixed messages and experience a lot of confusion about what the K99 phase of the K99/R00 is REALLY supposed to be about. Some Institutes allow the K99 phase to occur during the initiation of a tenure track position (i.e. you get the award as a postdoc but start an assistant prof job at the same time as your K99 phase starts). Other Institutes absolutely do not allow this, and require a minimum amount of time to be spent as a postdoc on the K99 portion, and then require transition to the R00 phase (rather than carry-over and continuation of the K99 phase through its maximum 2-year allowance).

Program's explanations for their positions vary: from understanding that people are in the sweet spot for K99/R00 and tenure track competitiveness within the same ~2-year window in their lives, to insisting that the point of the K99/R00 is to make people competitive (results/training-wise, not just reputation-wise, which a successful K99/R00 proposal makes you) for tenure track positions (as originally conceived) and that people who are already applying for TT should be ready to just apply for R01s instead. The latter aren't comfortable with the K99/R00 being *just* a rubber stamp "gold star" for TT application packages until after the awardee has played out their postdoc stage, and presumably think that postdocs should stay in their mentor's labs until they are fully cooked to some vaguely defined stage of additional "doneness." (which, it seems, K99 reviewers largely already expect...)

Unfortunately, that's just not how it works for most postdocs. By the time you're in prime K99 application stage, you're in year 2-3-4 of a postdoc position. You may or may not have a mentor who can afford to keep spending money on you establishing your own independent directions. You may be pressured to leave the lab soon, you may be pressured by your family concerns to move on from the low salary trainee stage. You are one of 200-300 applicants for any faculty position to which you apply. Like I said before, you cannot afford to put all of your eggs in the K99 basket, and might NEED to apply for jobs, yet should success in that process preclude you from funding if you get an outstanding score on a K99/R00 proposal and the reviewers think you would benefit from the training plan you described? (especially when that training plan can essentially just be transferred and still occur while you also start a TT position)

The other part that some POs might not quite have come to terms with (even though they are the very people with these numbers...) is that getting enough R01 support to get tenure is COMPLETELY non-trivial, even for highly successful beginning investigators with the New Investigator bonus. Here are my specific concerns about this:

1. The new structure and reviewing guidelines mean that you essentially have to have all of your preliminary data published. There simply is no room for preliminary data figures in a 12 page R01 format. If reviewers are going to adequately assess the potential for your project's success on an R01 scale (budgets typically the so-called 'modular' $250K DIRECT costs per year for 5 years), they need to see you have established significant feasibility for all of your aims, and these days that means peer-reviewed publication of preliminary work.

2. R01 budgets may be proposed at $250K for 5 years, but ALMOST ALWAYS get cut upon award by as much as 25-30% or MORE in amount, and as much as 1-2 years in time (so in reality you end up looking at a spending account that gives you only $150-200K per year for as little as 3 years). In other words, right back to R00 levels of funding. For many institutions, especially the fancy-pants medical school types, you also have to cover a large portion of your own salary and benefits (which is usually >100K), plus postdoctoral staff cost a lot more in places where the cost of living is high (as much as $100K/yr in salary and benefits themselves, think about what you all are wanting to ask for as your K99 salaries!). So right there, covering your own and ONE postdoc's salaries kills nearly the entire R01 budget at most institutions (and similarly, an R00 budget if you do come in with one).

3. Many, many many institutions (especially those aforementioned fancy-pants places and medical schools on the coasts etc.) are going to expect more than one R01 in a successful tenure package. And when you look at the numbers on the ground I described in #2 above, you can see why. In order to bring in the big papers in the Glamour Mags (which those big name places basically require for tenure), you are gonna need to populate your lab with more than just one postdoc and yourself. You are gonna need at least a couple of postdocs and a tech to keep things chugging at the pace that will get you there. In these tight funding days, that most likely means more than one major grant pre-tenure.

Of course not all institutions will require this of TT faculty. But nonetheless, the reality on the ground (with R01s being what they are and requiring what they require) is that a K99/R00 award can function as ~50-75% of an R01 as you get going pre-tenure. If used judiciously and efficiently, and if the training plan goals with appropriate mentoring are actually followed through, that can mean a substantial leg up on the tenure process.

My opinion: The goals of the programs should be to help facilitate long-term success in tenure track positions, not just to get people into them. The grant has been around long enough now that they should be able to start looking at their outcomes under different conditions (K99 phase long/short, what kind of job title held for K99 phase, what type of institution for K99 and for R00, future R01 success, future tenure success) and see how things are turning out. (NIGMS Director Berg anybody...?) My hunch is that providing more practical tenure track success mentoring (workshops? other mandated, direct contact programs? additional mentoring requirement BY grantees who successfully move on to R01 funding FOR early-stage grantees?) and allowing the K99 phase to be under the control of the investigator (rather than some imagined idealized situation) will better push future R01 and tenure success.

30 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Are you seriously complaining that the K99/R00 doesn't do *enough*? What about all those folks without 'em?

  • pinus says:

    This is how I imagine NIH thinks of this:

    I think the K99/R00 It should act as some sort of research rocket booster...allowing you to hire people and get more done than you would if you didn't have it. Tenure decisions are 5-7 years post hire...given that the R00 is non-renewable....I don't see how it can play an 'active' role in tenure decisions.

    As an aside, I am pretty shocked that some institutes allow people to have the K99 as a tenure track person, the PA is pretty clear in that it is for non-tenure track people who are trying to make the step up. Or at least, this is what my institute insists.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    No, dude, I'm saying that the K99/R00 is an incredible boon to being on the tenure track (not just to getting onto it) and program officers and Institutes should just go with the flow.

    If outstanding proposals come from people who are either very close to or simultaneously applying for TT positions, that DOES NOT MEAN that those people will just as easily get outstanding R01 scores right out of the gate. Some POs and Institutes are using that as the reason why they would pass over a highly scored proposal, or mandate that the awardee stay in the postdoc for a minimum time period.

    I think that is failing a pool of highly scored individuals who, while they don't fit the original conception of the 'mentored phase' plan, still benefit hugely from that mentoring during their early TT. As well as the fact that virtually no other funding mechanism lets you apply before you are officially a "PI" according to your institution's rules (which basically means postdocs are not eligible).

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Pinus: what I'm saying is that I think the original PA was somewhat misconceived and short-sighted about the potential scope of the outcomes and benefit.

    The R00 itself won't play an active role, but the leg up it gives an early TT person on publications (and thus longer term R01 style funding) certainly will. Having the money to take on two extra graduate students, or an additional postdoc and/or tech, from the first year or close to it, and still cover supplies, adds up to MUCH more than the sum of its parts with respect to papers/pace/kick off from the start gate.

    Getting people into the TT can't be the only aim. Looking at early outcomes, concerns have already been expressed about the ability of K99/R00 awardees to convert into R01s. Maybe more flexibility on where and when the mentored phase happens would have a greater impact on those results.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Just to clarify something though: I do not believe that people who already HAVE TT OFFERS or anything after that stage of the TT job-finding process should be able to apply de novo for the K99/R00. But there's a grey area where you might be applying because you have to for one reason or another, but if you disclose that to your PO they might decline to fund you even if you don't get a job.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    ("applying for one reason or another" means applying for TT jobs at that time, btw)

  • becca says:

    It seems to me that universities that have "assistant professor, tenure track eligible" positions (that are not TT, but do convert to TT upon satisfactory performance) would have a very good job category for what the K99 is supposed to be for. But all of that is assuming you do your mentored and independent research at the same university. Is that how those K99/R00s work in practice?

  • chemicalbilology says:

    From the limited sample size I know about, yes that's how it works out: people who start (or transfer) their K99 portions of the award to their TT position establish a local mentor (while also keeping their previous mentor/mentorship team as described in the training plan they proposed) and stay where they are at as they transition to the R00 phase upon completion of the K99 part.

    Imminent transition to an R00 is probably not enough to get you taken away from somewhere you just started as beginning TT, since you haven't shown you're going to be a useful cash cow bringing in R01s yet... and most people are still getting on their feet at the end of year 2. Sunk costs of the rest of your life upheaval, etc.

  • pinus says:

    Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment...Basically, you want those extra years of money for the K99, regardless of whether or not you need training, despite their being a signficant component of the K portion of the award that should address training? In that sense, should I get the money I gave back to the NIH for my NRSA because I ended it early? I could use that 40K or so right now to pay for a tech for a year. After all, the goal of an NRSA is training scientists...and I will be doing that with the money...kind of...no? ;)

    But seriously...I think the biggest problem with the K99 is how slow it all is....if they want people to adhere to the 'Rules', then they have to make it much more rapid, rather than putting folks in limbo for a year. I know of somebody who got it in a single round...and it still took over a year and a half from submission to be activated. so you apply at year 4...lets say you get lucky and it gets funded the 1st time...at 5.5 years, you start it...does that 1.5 years count towards anything...as presumably you have been working on things the whole time?

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  • chemicalbilology says:

    I see what you're devil's advocating Pinus, but the problem is also with the definition of "training." Frankly, almost all 1st and 2nd year TT professors still need training!! And in most *successful* K99 training plans, the proposals describe specific mentorship from various independent faculty, practice in new techniques, external coursework on how to succeed independently, etc. All of which can still be obtained while someone is in years 1 and 2 of TT. So, the mentored TT person is still in a training phase, and their transition to R00 should still depend on their performance towards those training goals.

  • pinus says:

    Gerty-Z just made a post on his blog that kind of sums up my thoughts.

    Briefly, I don't really think the K99 portion is for people who have independent TT positions. and that is what a TT position is. independent. Sure, you can have some mentors, and you learn a bit on the job, but the buck stops with you.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    The Ko1 (which the NCI essentially rolled into the K99/R00 but which some other institutes still offer) is a mentored grant for TT people. So are some other K awards: mentored funding for independent investigators. There's nothing inherently wrong with being mentored while in an independent position. It's not about where the buck stops or who is responsible for the success of the research, it's about the training mission and whether that training is still functional and useful if it occurs after initiation of a TT position or not.

    The NCI, incidentally, also has allowed some of these workarounds with the K99 in the past (case in point: me).

    You guys (both you and Gerty-Z) have a vested opinion towards the other side because you both did it the traditional way and weren't allowed to bring your K99 allocation to a TT position. If you had been allowed to do so, you might feel more open about it.

    Like I said: I do not think that people who already have a TT position should be eligible to apply. BUT if you've already gone through the application process and get a great score, I don't think you should be precluded from funding nor do I think the K99 portion should necessarily be given back if you move before it's officially done. It gets to the overall question of scope of purpose. The larger goal shouldn't just be to get people hired onto the TT, it should be to make them successful transition into independent investigators. Whether that transition should follow the letter of a pre-conceived law that was drawn up before the experiment was performed (the original PA) or whether it should follow the spirit of that overall goal is the question I think should be considered.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I am sympathetic to Arlenna's point of view, but I think there would be unintended consequences if the door were officially opened. (Unofficial ad-hoc workarounds by program are a separate matter.)

    Specifically, more people might try to game the system by applying late in postdoc, with more accomplishments under their belt, with the conscious intention of moving prior to award.

    As it is, I think postdocs should be encouraged to apply earlier in their training, rather than later. IMHO the K99 mechanism works best for someone who is in their second or third year of postdoc, rather than 4th or 5th year.

  • My experience serving on K99/R00 study section for one particular institute is that those applicants receiving fundable scores have always been those who already have accomplishments (i.e., publications) such that they would be highly likely to successfully secure an independent tenure-track position regardless of whether they got the K99/R00 or not. In other words, in this institute, the K99/R00 has served as a reward for outstandingly productive post-docs, and not as a "leg up" for post-docs who need one.

    It is also worth pointing out that the Training program staff of this institute has consistently refused to give specific guidance to the K99/R00 study section on whether these grants *should* serve as "rewards" rather than "legs up". Program has insisted that it is within the discretion of the study section how to interpret the goals of the program as stated in the FOA, and thus it has been purely an emergent property of the study section's scoring behavior and not a decision by program.

  • pinus says:

    Believe me, I understand how program can cause issues with these awards. I have had my share. But, I can't shake the belief that only the R part is for the TT position. I mean...it would be great to have 5 years...but where does it stop? I think 3 years of independent funding is enough for a jump start. Earning one of these is not a 'get tenure for free' card. I still hold the belief that if they handle reviews incredibly rapidly for these awards, a good portion of these issues would go away.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Cross-posted comment from Gerty-Z's thread:

    I think that the NRSA fellowships and training grants better fit the purposes you describe for earlier-stage postdocs. My feel is that the real crux of the bridging goal of the K99/R00 should be that you (can be and) have to be a postdoc when you apply (and the 5 years past PhD limit seems reasonable to establish that the mechanism is for people who are highly motivated and have active mentorship to move on).

    The K99/R00 fills a huge gap that exists in funding opportunities for postdocs to apply for major funding, that include S&E budgets that are under their control and that they can take with them to a TT position. There are almost no other funding mechanisms that allow this. The DOD Idea award allows postdocs to apply (and actually requires that the project is independent of their mentor's work) but its success rate is about 5%.

    There's a level of freedom of independence to the K99/R00 that is a next step up from an NRSA training grant, that I don't think should be stifled by extreme adherence to a definition of training phase job status. It provides a bridge out of the postdoc limbo, the limbo that causes the pipeline leak for so many qualified, otherwise motivated people. It COULD keep being a solution to some parts of that problem, as long as program is willing to be flexible on a case-by-case basis (because I fundamentally do agree that given the potential for abuse, it may be problematic to codify the compromise too broadly).

    But hey, I am also okay with agreeing to disagree--that's a legitimate outcome for a debate! I think it's an important debate to engage in, but it might not be easy to reach consensus.

  • GertyZ says:

    OK, one more try at commenting. I will also put this up over at Balanced Instability.

    I think that the big problem is the one brought up by CPP-the NIH hasn't decided what they want the program to be, so every study section gets to make their own decisions. If these awards become "rewards" then it will be impossible to get one until you are already in the place that you would be a competitive candidate for a TT job. I think Neuro-Conservative is right, too. In this situation, many applicants would be applying for the K99 award with no real intention of staying in their "mentored" position. I know that there were other awards from private foundations (Burroughs, maybe?) that were bridge grants before. I'm wondering if anyone would comment on how they were set up, since they had similar goals (from my understanding). It was too bad that they ended this program when the K99 got running (there is certainly the need for more $, as always!). I think that you can also apply for some NSF awards as a postdoc and take them with you, assuming that your institution doesn't try to screw you.

    As for training, as I recall the NRSA awards is for new postdocs (I got mine in my first year). In my field, 5-6 year postdocs are pretty common. I was lucky that my advisor supported me for a while between the NRSA and K99. But not everyone is so lucky. I know several people that were pushed out at the end of the 3 year award. They weren't good job candidates yet-they needed a true "bridge" award. Maybe the different opinions we have here are just a reflection of differences between fields or experiences.

    I'm not sure that using the K99 phase during the beginning of your TT job is even the best plan, in the grand scheme of things. Though having 5 years of $$ instead of 3 would be great, I think that from the perspective of getting off to a fast start, it is better to have the 249K the first 3 years instead of 2 years of 90K first. Also, if you transition before the end of the 2 yrs of K99 you are allowed to roll over any leftover cash to the R00 phase.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I think that from the perspective of getting off to a fast start, it is better to have the 249K the first 3 years instead of 2 years of 90K first.

    I thought this too, at first, but having just finished my first two years of TT with the 90K/yr and starting the R00 phase with three more years to go? I am so incredibly happy to have this situation exactly the way it is. I was still able to start fast, the salary I covered for myself came back to me in a general account, and the S&E was augmented by my startup and two other smaller grants I got for the second year. And now I have what is these days' equivalent of an R01 (money-wise with the budget cuts my friends and colleagues have been experiencing) for three more years. This is invaluable.

    I have more thoughts to respond with but also have a deep need for sleep (I gotta take these windows when I can when the kiddo is sleeping)... tomorrow!

  • And now I have what is these days’ equivalent of an R01 (money-wise with the budget cuts my friends and colleagues have been experiencing) for three more years.

    This may be the case if the indirect cost rate at your institution is extremely low. At most "R1" institutions, the R00 direct cost budget is substantially lower than a maxed-out modular R01. It is also important to recognize that the annual budget of an NIH grant doesn't mean jack fuck. All that matters is the total amount of money in the grant added over all of its years. This is because of the liberal carry-over and no-cost extension policies of NIH. An R00 is less than half the total direct cost budget of a typical early-stage-investigator R01, even after typical administrative cuts.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Actually, CPP, for my two junior faculty colleagues who got R01s awarded in the last year, their administrative cuts were so deep that they ARE down to the level that my R00 is at. They both got years AND substantial %'s cut from their proposed budgets, and when we were comparing actual direct costs awarded around the proverbial water cooler, we found that we all have about the same amount of money for the same amount of time. Our other asst. prof. colleague who got an NSF grant actually has LESS than I do from my R00, over three years.

    But that is beside the central points of my discussion, which is not to say that R00s are as good as R01s (in fact I lay out pretty specifically how I consider them to be significant augments towards GETTING R01s and thus contributing towards successful tenure). The central points of the discussion are:

    What is the larger goal of the K99/R00 program?
    How are the outcomes reporting on the success of the program WRT that larger goal?
    Is that larger goal well-served by adhering strictly to some idealized conception of the postdoc experience?

    There should be enough data on The K99/R00 awardees by now that these questions can be explored. Rather than us all speculating on what we think is best for someone else's training experience, we should really take a look at the evidence and examine how the different versions of the K99/R00 process have worked out.

    If NIH decides that the K99 phase SHOULD adhere to a strict interpretation of the original PA (which, it should be noted, has been modified as a result of numerous reissue updates and is now in this current form: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-10-063.html), then study sections need to be directed as to how they should score applicants, weighting based on stage of postdoctoral career and perceived training need. It is incredibly mean to allow an applicant to be scored outstandingly by the study section but then decline to fund them based on their amorphous plans to apply for jobs in some indeterminate but supposedly imminent future.

    But I've been reading a lot of summary statements from various institutes sent to me by applicants contacting me through the forum, and largely it looks like study sections ARE carefully considering training need and training plan in their overall scores. If the study section has scored someone extremely well and described the appropriateness of their training plan, and if that training plan can still be followed regardless of the specific job title of the individual, then how does it benefit the program and its future outcomes to deny those applicants funding?

  • chemicalbilology says:

    One more thing dude: being able to carry money over into subsequent years doesn't do jack squat to help you if you don't have enough money per year to cover the full scope of your project. Both of my colleagues are struggling with the reality that they cannot afford to hire as many people as they would need to do the work they proposed, and will run up against the end of their budgets each year unless they encounter some magical S&E windfall at the end of the rainbow to cover the instrument time, supplies and consumables they need.

  • There is nothing preventing your friends from spending the full amount of a four year R01 award in three years. PIs do this all the time. Of course, if they fail to secure additional funding over that time frame, they are fucked.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Well I'll make sure they know that!

  • visitor says:

    YMMV on the dollar amounts for grants. My #'s are more in keeping with comrade.

    My R00 direct costs: ~160-170K (depending on equipment costs I wrote in) x 3
    My R01 direct costs : 237,500 X 5

  • chemicalbilology says:

    That's awesome for you, but not the case for everyone. But also, again: only tangentially related to the point of this discussion.

  • gertyZ says:

    Hooray, I'm not spam anymore!! I think that you and I are actually agreeing more than we disagree. If the NIH made sure that the "rules" were clear to both applicants and reviewers then there would be no discussion over what constititutes "training". I also agree that it seems that there should be enough data to start evaluating how well the program is meeting its goals. But I doubt this will be definitive, especially as the the focus of the program in the early stages was a little unclear. It may require a few more years to get a real sense of how well the program is hitting its stride.

    As for tangential discussion re: R01$ vs. R00 our indirects are in the medium range here and it would be pretty un-heard of (from the folks I talk to, at least) for R01 directs to be SO low that they are on par with the R00.

  • Yoshimi says:

    I think it's also important to emphasize that NIH seems very willing to work with awardees to try to match the transition requirements to their situation. This means different outcomes and feelings about those outcomes for different people, but for me at least delaying my TT start date a bit to complete a year of the K99 phase and foregoing the 90K for K99 year 2 was of no consequence compared to the 3 years of R00 funding I'm getting now. While some of my colleagues experiences have been different, they've all been equally positive, though admittedly my n is not terribly high.

  • pinus says:

    I was in a similar situation as Yoshimi....it all worked out eventually.

    I think that a clarification of some sort by NIH would be great. What do they want it to really be? Study sections will adopt an attitude and run with it...and then program will decide if they like it...perhaps sometimes not entirely in sync.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Indeed. There are some REALLY helpful people at NIH who will clarify a lot of these things in advance for confused or worried applicants.

    The thing that prompted my post about it was an increasing number of people contacting me saying that they have been told by POs, AFTER THEY ALREADY HAVE an outstanding score, that if they are even thinking of looking for jobs they might not be funded. That just seems awfully unfair. If you want to tell people that, tell them BEFORE they apply, not after they get their hopes up from their awesome score.

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