Career Development Funding: 10 Tips for Your NCI K Award Application

Oct 27, 2014

By Julie Mason, PhD, Ming Lei, PhD, and Jonathan Wiest, PhD
National Cancer Institute

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) may be synonymous with cancer research or the R01, but you might not know that NCI significantly invests in training and professional development for the cancer research workforce. Several types of career development grants, also known as K grants, are administered by the NCI Center for Cancer Training (CCT) to facilitate the movement of an early-career investigator from a mentored position to independent research. K awards provide 2 to 5 years of support for salary and research-related expenses to build a research program. All awards require a commitment of at least 75% effort (or nine calendar months).

Which K award is right for me?

There are several factors to consider while narrowing your choice of a K award. First, are you a U.S. citizen or permanent resident? If not, the K99/R00 is the only award for which you are eligible. Second, what is your career stage and number of years of experience? To apply for a K22 award, candidates may have between 2 to 8 years of mentored research experience. However, for the K99/R00, the applicant must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research experience at the time of the application or subsequent resubmission. This is because the K99 award consists of one to 2 years of mentored research, while the R00 phase supports independent research for up to 3 additional years. Third, what is your research discipline? The K23 award supports clinically trained professionals committed to patient-oriented research, whereas the K08 supports clinically trained professionals who pursue biomedical or behavioral research, including translational research. Both the K99/R00 and K22 support any research relevant to cancer. A detailed breakdown of CCT's training and career development opportunities by award mechanism, scientific discipline, and career stage can be found online.

10 tips for writing K applications

Always remember the candidate is as important as the research project proposed.

1. Get advice before you begin writing and start early. Speak with the NCI program director who manages the K mechanism for which you are applying (find contact information online). S/he should be your best friend during the process! Be prepared to discuss your specific aims, background, and training when you communicate with your program director. Engage your mentor and your department chair or dean early in the writing phase of the application. Provide plenty of time for others to comment on your application.

2. Know your audience. Check the study section roster under the Review and Selection Process subhead beneath the How to Apply section of each grant mechanism. These scientists will review your application. Get to know their research and how they might think about the science you are proposing.

You and your mentor(s)
3. Sell yourself. Tell the story of your training and career path. Emphasize the "why," not the "what" you did, and discuss what you wish to do in your current research and beyond. Explain how the K award will enable you to develop or expand your research career. The reviewers want to know you are passionate about your research.

4. Describe the didactic courses and other training activities you will leverage. Be specific in your plan. Search the web for courses or workshops to address your needs. Include titles and locations in your application. Acknowledge the research and professional skills you will acquire to develop your career. Create this plan based upon your own career goals and needs.

5. Assemble a team to support your research and career development. Describe how the team (your mentor, your advisory committee members, etc.) will be involved in the research. Each member must play a role and their role should be explicitly described. Strong letters of support, especially by your mentor, co-mentors, and collaborators, must be included. Be sure to discuss your mentor's research and mentoring credentials, and the nature of the mentoring to occur.

6. You need strong references for your application. Make sure the scientists you recruit know you, your research, and your career path. Ask if they are willing to write a strong letter. If not, find someone else.

The body of the grant
7. Specific Aims: This could be the single most important page in the grant. This is the complete outline of your grant: the background, a little preliminary data, and the experiments you are proposing. Write it without acronyms or jargon and in a style for the generalist. Use short declarative sentences as these are the easiest for the reader to understand. Clearly state the hypothesis. Highlighting the hypothesis in bold can be helpful to the reviewer. Be sure the aims of the grant test the hypothesis and are not dependent on the success of the previous aims.

8. Background: This section is not a literature review. Take into account the big picture and clearly convey the significance of your research. Always stay focused on the hypothesis: how will it test a critical question in your field? Subsections can be helpful in transitioning to a new discussion. Keep in mind the review criteria as described in the program announcement. If the reviewers have to score innovation, give them a subsection on "Innovation."

9. Approach: Show your contribution to the preliminary data presented. The function of the preliminary data is to demonstrate the feasibility of the experiments. Don't be overly ambitious; the approach must be doable within the time frame and resources of the grant. Make sure you include controls and how the results will be interpreted. A subsection for statistical analysis of the data and a subsection for "pitfalls" are very helpful to the reviewers. Also, remember the reviewers are not enthusiastic about "fishing trips" or descriptive research. Test a hypothesis! Finally, remember the reviewers only know what is on the page. Let them see into your head and how you think about your research when you describe your experiments and pitfalls and alternatives.

10. Timeline: Depict a clear timeline for completing the aims/subaims towards the end of the application. Include an estimated publication date. Papers are partially why you are receiving the funds!

Overall, remember the candidate is as important as the research. Career Development Awards are for just that, your career development. The NCI is investing in your future!

Additional information on current, successfully funded NCI K awards is available for each mechanism, and more information on all of NCI CCT's training and career development opportunities can be found online.

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