Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: Welcome to another addition of All About Grants, I'm your host Megan Columbus. I'm the acting director of Communications and Outreach for NIH's Office of Extramural Research. Today we'll be discussing mentored career development awards. I have with me Dr. Henry Khachaturian who I'd like to welcome to the show today. Henry works in Program Policy for training programs in NIH's Office of Extramural Research. Henry, do you want to tell us a little bit about your background?
Henry Khachaturian: Sure, I'm a neuroscientist by training. I got my PhD at the University of Rochester. After that I took a faculty position at the University of Michigan, then the University of Tennessee. For the past twenty years I've been at NIH. Most of my time has been spent being a program officer at various institutes like NIMH, NINDS. I've also been involved with a lot of training programs, so I have familiarity with the training and career development awards. I've served on the training advisory committee for the last fifteen years or so.
Megan: So, can we start off by talking about what we're really trying to do with these career development awards, especially at this stage of peoples' career?
Henry: So, let me say from the outset that career development awards are among the most complicated mechanisms, as you well know, at NIH. One of the reasons is that K awards, unlike research grants, are highly personalized awards. The purpose of research grants are to fund the best science with the best scientist. K awards are, on the other hand, mechanisms specifically targeted to individuals who want to gain independence, in other words, learn new techniques, have supervised research experience in order to become an independent scientist to apply for an R01 grant. So in that sense, they're very different and their purpose, I can sum it up in one word, and that is added "value." What is this career development award going to do for this particular individual? As opposed to proposing a wonderful research project in addition to that you have to propose a career development project as well.
Megan: Ok, so, instead of the focus being on advancing the state of science, which would be a regular research grant, this is on how you're going to advance your career?
Megan: So, as an investigator how do I go about selecting which K might be right for me?
Henry: That's a great question, and this is something that we get a lot of questions about, both from outside of NIH and from inside of NIH. We have several tools at our training Web site which people can use. One of them is called a K Kiosk. It's a very simple listing of all the career development awards in one place in numerical order, and they're linked to the funding opportunity announcements so people can go to the K Kiosk and take a look at which of the career developments might be useful to them.
Megan: Well, there's a wizard as well, right?
Megan: And that I think is helpful because that leads you through, question by question.
Henry: Right. So, the career development wizard is an adjunct to the K Kiosk, and it is a very useful tool in that it asks you a series of questions and depending on how you answer those questions it narrows down the choice of the particular career development award for you.
Megan: And that's like if you're doing clinical research or doing basic research?
Henry: Basic Research, right. So, in addition to distinguishing between basic or clinical research, also takes you through questions about, do you need additional mentoring, or don't you? Are you in a position where you can rapidly transition to a faculty position? Or do you need four or five years of additional, intense mentored research? So, it does narrow down the choices ideally to one choice, but sometimes you can narrow it down to maybe two, maybe three choices. What you do then after that information is you always call the NIH program officers to talk to them about your particular needs and whether this career development award suites your needs. And this is something that I'd like to emphasize, is that many applicants tend to call us and tell us that they want to apply for a particular career development award, perhaps having heard that from their mentor or from one of their senior professors that they should apply for a particular career development award without much thought to "why this particular career development award?" So, my advice to individuals who call us is, try to figure out what is in your best interest, and what is your career needs, and then narrow down the choice of which career award might be best suited for your particular situation.
Megan: So, when you say to call the program officer that means that somebody needs to identify the NIH institute that might be interested in the area funding?
Henry: So, let me tell you how this works. Let's say you have narrowed it down to a K01, just to mention one career development award. What you do after identifying that the K01 might be the best mechanism for you, you go to program announcement, or now what we call funding opportunity announcement, and within that announcement there's a link to a table of Institutes and Centers that support that program and also a contact list of both scientific contacts and grants management contacts. And this step is critical because not every institute supports career development awards, and the ones that do support a particular K award, they support it in a slightly different fashion perhaps than another institute. So, the step of talking to a program officer is important for several reasons. One is to try to decide whether this K award is suited to your career development, and second is whether that institute is interested in supporting your research. So those are two critical steps.
Megan: Yeah, that is critical. So, what happens if I really think that I need a career development award and an institute doesn't support career development awards, what are my options?
Henry: There are multiple options. The one thing to do is to contact that institute to see what other choices you have at that institute. Whether it be it a institutional career development award because there are a variety of different K awards, or a particular research grant that you can apply for, like an R03, or and R21, or an R01 grant. So, some institutes that do support individual K awards, also support what we call institutional career development awards. These are awards that are given to the institution, there's a faculty, there's a program director selected by the institution and then once that program is established, they select the trainees to be on the career development award program. So, those are some of the options that you have.
Megan: So, these are clearly called mentored career development awards. Are you expected to have your mentor at the time of applying?
Henry: It really helps to have the mentor identified. And the reason is very clear, because the mentor has to provide what we call a mentor statement in support of the particular career development or research. The mentor is also very critical in terms of what kind of research that you're proposing. Presumably if you require additional mentoring, you are going to be in somebody's lab that has a particular area of research expertise. So by choosing that mentor, you are essentially trying to carve a niche within that mentor's lab for yourself so that you can take that research that you're proposing under the K award to your next job as an independent investigator and apply for an R01 grant.
Megan: And the mentor would always be at the institution from what you're applying?
Henry: Ideally, again yes, because the primary mentor is very important to the career advancement of this individual who is applying for a career development award. If a particular expertise is not available at the institution, you can have a primary mentor that is at another institution; however, to balance out the lack of immediate day-to-day interaction with that person, it is ideal to select another senior member in that institution to serve as a mentor to you as well. So, you have two mentors in that situation.
Megan: What else would you advise for somebody submitting a mentored career development application?
Henry: So that's the $64,000 question, and I give talks about essentially that in a number of scientific societies that I go to. One of the things, as I mentioned before not to repeat it completely, is that you really need to select the right mechanism. Selecting the wrong mechanism really wastes your time, wastes reviewers time, and it is a very unsatisfying experience to go through. Unfortunately, we see some of those, and that's what we try to head off by advising people to contact us and talk to us. The second thing to do when you're writing one of these things is to keep remembering that this is not a research grant. You have to propose a research that is doable, but you have to propose a research that is within your expertise, and is something that is actually going to teach you something and generate preliminary data for your R01 grant. So, the third thing is to have a career development award that actually makes sense based on the research that you're proposing, based on where you are currently in your career, and how much training do you need to become independent. So those things go hand-in-hand-research and career development. The mentor becomes very important in the career development piece of this, in helping you put together a program of specific activities for the first year, the second year, the third year, and I would say most K awardees should be thinking about applying for a research grant by the third year of their career development award. The fourth important thing is the letters of reference. Essentially these are your fans, and they're going to write letters supporting your career development. And it is very important to have a conversation ahead of time with them, because generic letters of reference actually can hurt an individual, rather than be helpful.
Megan: Good to know.
Henry: So letters of reference that are highly individualized that talk about the particular strengths of this particular candidate are very helpful to reviewers in terms of providing the K award. The critical element of a career development award is institutional environment and commitment to training. Is this the kind of place that is conducive to career advancement of young investigators? Is the department chair, the dean, everybody else fully behind this individual? Are there highly trained, experienced faculty doing research in this institution? So those five elements are critical.
Megan: And, how should someone document that in their application?
Henry: Each career development award application, unlike a research award, which is essentially a research plan, has specific components called research plan, career development plan, mentoring plan, institutional environment and commitment, letters of reference. So, they have places specifically to address these issues and provide those attachments for the reviewers.
Megan: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Henry: My pleasure.
Megan: That wraps up today's edition of All About Grants. I'd like to thank Henry Khachaturian for joining us. For NIH and OER, I'm Megan Columbus.
Announcer: Find the K Kiosk by doing a keyword search at grants.nih.gov, once again that is G-R-A-N-T-S dot N-I-H dot G-O-V.