Fellowship, Mentored Career Development & Transition Award Applications

Jan 27 2008 Published by under Grantsmanship, NIH

New "K" Research Career Development award applications are due on February 12 and resubmissions of applications already reviewed that didn't get high enough scores for funding on March 12. All new and resubmission "F" individual fellowship applications are due on April 8. These applications for funds to support primarily mentored training of one kind or another have to be approached quite differently from your garden-variety R01 Research Project grant application.
In particular, they all have a separate section in addition to the research plan for describing the specifics of the plan for mentored training. This is a really important section of a mentored training application, and merits as much, if not more, attention by the applicant and the mentor as the research plan.


Before we get into the details of the Mentored Training/Career Development Plan (the "Mentoring Plan"), just a comment about the research plan section of the application. The manner in which the study section review panel assesses the reearch plan depends upon the level of independence of the applicant. For an application for an F30/31 graduate fellowship (the least independent end of the scale), the research plan will be assessed almost wholly for its suitability as a context for graduate training: is the research plan at-least reasonably interesting, doable, coherently designed and described, and likely to instill the applicant with a good grounding in the conceptual and methodological foundations of the relevant field? The usual R01-type stuff like innovation and significance are given substantially less weight, because it is not critical to a graduate student's future success as an independent scientist that her thesis research be earth-shattering.
Just to be clear: All training and career development awards from NIH have as their avowed purpose the production of "independent scientists", i.e., principal investigators on R01s (or equivalents). One can argue whether this is a good thing, and I'm sure we will here in the future. But for purposes of preparing effective applications for these awards, it is essential to accept--even embrace--this fact. As you will see in a moment, it is the touchstone for a good Training/Career Development Plan.
At the opposite, most independent, end of the scale, a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01) research plan for a junior PI will be scrutinized more closely in relation to innovation and significance. This is because the success of the research plan, as a context for career development and not just mentoring/training, also requires substantial interest and attention from others in the field based on its innovation and significance.
In the middle of the scale are F32 post-doctoral fellowship and K99 transition fellowship awards, with applicants for the former having at most a few years of post-doctoral experience and the latter being near the end of their post-doctoral training and almost ready for independence. The research plans of these applications are, not surprisingly, assessed by standards somewhere in between those of the F30/31 and K01 awards, with F32s closer to the F30/31 end and K99s closer to the K01 end.
OK. On to the Mentoring Plan. Here are four general points that apply to all the kinds of awards we are talking about.
(1) The first section of the Mentoring Plan should describe exactly what training, mentoring, and scientific research experience the applicant already has undergone. It should also describe exactly what methodological and conceptual skills the applicant has already mastered. This is to set the baseline against which the proposed training/mentoring plan is measured, and so you need to be comprehensive, detailed, and specific about what you already know.
(2) The second section should describe the exact training/mentoring plan, including both what the applicant will be trained/mentored in and how that training/mentoring will be implemented.
In terms of the "what" be extremely specific about the methods, concepts, and skills that will be learned by the applicant through the training/mentoring. Research methods and concepts will, of course, vary hugely by field, but regardless it is essential to be very specific: "I will become expert at the generation of transgenic mice expressing blah in the bleddy, and characterizing the effects on oggly using the flurgle burgle technique." In terms of the research skills, these will be more generally applicable: "I will gain experience in drafting complete manuscripts describing my research and responding to reviewer concerns, mentoring a post-graduate researcher who will be participating in the project, assisting the mentor in the preparation of R01 grant applications, preparing and delivering oral presentations about my ongoing research, etc." Be detailed and specific!
In terms of the "how", also be extremely detailed and specific: "I will have one-on-one meetings on a roughly weekly basis with the mentor to discuss the ongoing progress of the research project, troubleshoot experimental difficulties, and analyze the meaning and significance of experimental results. I will draft sub-sections of the Research Plan & Design section of the mentor's R01 application, and revise them collaboratively with the editorial insights of the mentor. I will attend a monthly multi-lab group meeting participated in by the mentor's lab and several other gargnology labs here at Snooty University, in which post-doctoral and graduate trainees present their ongoing research projects. I will present once each year at this meeting, preparing my presentation ahead of time, practicing it in front of the entirety of mentor's lab (including mentor), and incorporating detailed suggestions for improvement from mentor and other lab members." This level of detail may sound crazy, but I'm telling you it works!
(3) In the third section, explain specifically and in detail exactly how the methods, concepts, and skills that will be learned by the applicant through the proposed training/mentoring (as described in section 2) both go beyond what the applicant has already mastered (as described in section 1) and substantially enhance the likelihood that the applicant will end up a successful PI leading her own research program. Again, be very detailed and specific about this analysis, including describing synergies and relationships between what the applicant already knows and what she will learn through the proposed training/mentoring: "While the applicant is already well trained in the techniques and concepts of neuronal cell biology, she has not been trained in the techniques and concepts of whole-cell patch-clamp electrophysiology. Therefore, the proposed training will enable the applicant to adopt in her independent career an interdisciplinary approach that makes use of both cellular staining and physiological approaches to understanding the role of glibbety globber in neuronal function." Did I mention that you need to be detailed and specific?
(You don't need to go crazy on explaining how learning to write manuscripts and grants and deliver effective oral presentations is going to enhance your independent career. It is obvious.)
One potential subtlety in the third section: It is your duty as the applicant to make the best possible case for the distinction and synergy between what you already know and what you propose to learn via the training/mentoring. One unfortunate situation I am familiar with involved a biochemist who trained in a particular methodological area as a grad student. For her F32 fellowship application she proposed a research plan that involved applying these methods to a different category of proteins than she studied as a grad student. She didn't effectively explain that members of this new category of proteins exhibit physico-chemical properties that make application of these methods to them completely, utterly, and totally different than to the kinds of proteins she had studied before. It is so different, that it is really a different fucking methodology, sharing only the name and the underlying basic physico-chemical principle. She explained this better in her resubmission, and sailed right through the study section to an award.
(4) The mentor also has to provide a written description of her participation in the training/mentoring of the applicant. Needless to say, the mentor's description better be exactly consistent with the applicant's. It is also very important for the mentor to reinforce the applicant's explanation (in the third section described above) of exactly how what she will learn is both new and very important for increasing the likelihood of her future independence. The mentor better sound enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the specifics of the applicant's Mentoring Plan, and about mentoring in general.
(One additional hint to K99 applicants: I have heard that some Program Officers in an Institute that shall remain nameless erroneously told applicants that the proposed independent research project of the R00 phase of the award is much more important than the mentored career development plan of the K99 part. Applicants that took this seriously have reportedly gotten totally reamed by study sections reviewing these apps, which reviewed them much more like K01s than like R01s.)

18 responses so far

  • Yet another post with invaluable advice I wish I had when applying for F31 and F32 NRSAs.
    I've had the opportunity to serve on training and fellowship study sections, but not for the new K99/R00 awards. By and large, I was amazed how little attention was paid by many applicants and mentors to the training/mentoring plan. Your advice on the gradation of attention to the specifics of the research plan are very well-taken but applicants should heed your excellent advice on the particulars of the training/mentoring plan.
    Where were you people when I was a grad student/postdoc?

  • bsci says:

    I'm amazed that you think these training parts are important parts of the grant after you recently ranted on the alternate hypothesis sections on R01 grants. While both have a purpose, I found these training sections to be the worst type of boiler plate. For my F31 (which I got) the training section was almost completely boiler plate. I took the sections of others in my lab who submitted applications and did some tailoring of the specific resources to fit my specific situation. But the fact is that everyone studying the general field of X in the lab of person Y at Snooty University will have the same equipment resources, meet Y approximately the same schedule of times, and will have high overlap in the classes and seminars to attend. While I get the purpose of this section, I always wondered why people cared about the details so much.
    I feel that the key to the mentoring/training section should be whether the person will have the guidance and resources to complete the proposed project and become prepared to develop new ideas. This was about 1/2 to 1 page of my F proposals. The rest of the details about courses and available tools must be mind-numbingly boring reading for the reviewers and a waste of space.
    That said, my F31 was more criticized for my research proposal and my postdoctoral F32 was most criticized for the lack of detail in my training plan.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bsci, perhaps one of the reasons your "boilerplate" was so successful is that the lab had honed this section into excellence based on prior experience? a point being that not everyone has six previously-successful applications from the lab available when writing their own fellowship. just another way the rich get richer....
    My study section used to get the occasional training fellowship to review and I can tell you that reviewers agonized on these. Over how to place emphasis on the plan versus the candidate versus the training environment. In the overall I think the greatest weight was on the training environment/mentor with particular emphasis on evidence that the mentor was actually involved in preparing the application.

  • bsci says:

    I still don't get your point. Most of the stuff in this section was just silly. These aren't actual quotes, but they are the general idea of what was in the section: "I have access to computers, software, and data storage necessary to completely the proposed research"
    "I will attend conferences" "I plan to publish in peer reviewed journals" "I will take these classes and these seminars" "My lab has meetings every week" From your examples above, almost everything you wrote could be pasted into an application after using a few specific nouns to make the plan proposal specific.
    I think it's less an issue of honing a message in a good lab than a game where you're supposed to know certain key phrases. For example do the people who don't mention conferences and publishing have no plans to attend conferences or publish or did know one clue them in that some reviewer is looking for lines like that. The rich deserve to get richer on the skills of selling a research idea and training, but wealth based on things like this seem to benefit no one.
    I also felt that the mentee and mentor sections were unnecessary. Like you said, the two sections need to match. That generally means one person write the whole thing. In my case, I got past versions of the mentor's section and heavily edited it to match what I wrote. My mentor did edit and guide the entire process, but the idea that there were these two independent sections is illogical. Some of the sections like training plan were so similar that one almost needs to cut and past the text and just change the pronouns. Why is this better than just having one training plan section that both the mentor and mentee contribute to? The only truly mentor-specific section was the letter of recommendation.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "I think it's less an issue of honing a message in a good lab than a game where you're supposed to know certain key phrases. "
    exactly and this is called "grantsmanship". there is a lot of stupid stuff in the grant game and as I've discussed previously, whether I agree with it, whether I am actually able to follow my own advice when writing, etc, this is the way your grant is likely to be reviewed in practice. And I'm here to tell you that if you forget all the "boilerplate" you are going to get an automatic StockCritique and subjective response of "we can get serious about this when the applicant gets serious about the process".
    "That generally means one person write[s] the whole thing."
    Yep. Are you listening trainees? Look it is impossible for the reviewer to really know "what the story is" for any application. Did the trainee just take 6 previously successful apps from the lab and plug-n-place? Did the PI actually write the whole thing? (YFS had something on this.)
    Or is some hard-scrabbling bright trainee with little surrounding support trying her best to do it all on-her-own and should be prioritized on the initiative and delta-value alone?
    The trouble is, even though reviewers know all about these scenarios, there is no easy way to tell. So what is the fair way to review? Stick to the text....

  • apalazzo says:

    You guys are great. Thanks for the tips. (PhysioProf I'll probably take you up on that offer!)

  • bsci says:

    I guess my big complaint about the original post is that you consider this appropriate grantsmanship, but, in another post, thought that the hoops and boilerplate parts of discussion and alternate hypotheses should be eliminated.
    Why the difference? From the reviewer perspective, any thoughts on how the requirements of this section of the grant can be improved?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Why the difference?

    The difference is that the stuff you are saying you are going to do in relation to training/mentorship, you really are going to do, because it is actually very important. The stuff that dispshit former study section chair exhorted R01 applicants to talk about has no relationship whatsoever to the real-world conduct of creative science.
    Just because it's "grantsmanship" doesn't mean it's necessarily bullshit. There is useful grantsmanship--which has a real intrinsic relationship to the conduct of creative science--and there is bullshit grantsmanship--which just serves to meet the sphincter-clenching expectations of washed-up has- or never-been study section members. Part of what you will learn--if you hang around here long enough--is how to tell the difference.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bsci,
    For one thing we have a very annoying habit around here of confusing the prescriptive with the descriptive. The way we might like things to be with the WayThingsAre.
    The PP and YHN are also not of one mind on all this stuff. Heck, YHN is not of one mind on all of this. I find it very hard to review fellowships because it is really not clear to me what aspects should be prioritized. I tend to lean towards evidence of a unique, smart and highly motivated trainee who has some idea of what time it is. I'd place less native emphasis on training environment and the actual research plan (especially for F mechs). Unless this latter is idiotic, of course. As I said above, I think the majority of reviewers tend to emphasize the training environment, perhaps more than I would. You can imagine how I see this relating to other GoodOldBoyz behavior in review....

  • bsci says:

    Physioprof (sorry, I should have noticed you were the author when I was responding in the comments as if drugmonkey was). I now get your key difference between these two issues. I do think there are some studies where alternate hypotheses are relevant, but it shouldn't be a standard requirement for all grants.
    I think my complaint is not that these are real points, but that the format of the training section doesn't get at the issues. Being required to say that I have a computer that suffices for my needs or that my university offers classes and my lab has lab meetings is the equivalent of saying my desk is in a room with enough ventilation so that I won't suffocate. It's obvious. Why penalize people who don't realize they need to state the obvious. There is a point to this section, but the fact that it 10+pages divided among 2 authors when the research proposal is limited to 10 pages is a bit extreme.
    The classes I took and am planning to take are important. My advisor's NIH bio is important. Evidence that the mentor has an interest in the research and the skills to guide the mentee is important. Proof that there is a larger network of people with skills to guide the mentee is important. Any UNIQUE benefits are important. Proof that special aspects of the proposal like access to an expensive tool, patient population or a cell line is important, but might fit better in the research proposal. Do you really care whether lab and individual meetings are once a week or once a month or if the applicant didn't write anything? If a reviewer criticizes the lack of frequency of meetings and the revised application has more frequent meetings, does anyone believe the actual frequency of meetings has changed?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Being required to say that I have a computer that suffices for my needs or that my university offers classes and my lab has lab meetings is the equivalent of saying my desk is in a room with enough ventilation so that I won't suffocate.

    PhysioProf didn't tell you to write about any of that. These things are, as you say, obvious, and don't speak at all to the training/mentoring plan. This is why PhysioProf didn't tell you to write about any of that.

    Evidence that the mentor has an interest in the research and the skills to guide the mentee is important. Proof that there is a larger network of people with skills to guide the mentee is important. Any UNIQUE benefits are important.

    This is the kind of stuff PhysioProf told you to put in your application. Regular meetings with your mentor and participation in multi-lab group meetings (hey, wait a minute! That's a larger network of people with skills to guide the mentee!) are exactly the kinds of things that speak to efficacy of the training/mentoring plan. This is why PhysioProf told you to write about that kind of stuff.
    And just to be clear, the examples of specific training/mentoring plan elements PhysioProf enumerated are not meant to be anywhere near exhaustive, nor disparaging to elements not mentioned. As you pointed out, you need to focus on the unique aspects of your training plan.

  • JSinger says:

    The difference is that the stuff you are saying you are going to do in relation to training/mentorship, you really are going to do, because it is actually very important.
    I guess I'd then wonder whether the boilerplate bsci's lab sticks in every application really is what takes place...?

  • juniorprof says:

    Just to echo Alex above, you guys are the best... 2 more issues on my career dveloment plan solved and I didn't even have to ask. Seriously, all us junior faculty / senior postdocs should probably be paying you guys :-).
    Any chance we could revisit the R21 vs R01 for junior faculty issue sometime soon in your new forum?

  • PhysioProf says:

    "Any chance we could revisit the R21 vs R01 for junior faculty issue sometime soon in your new forum?"
    Yes. It is an interesting topic.

  • bsci says:

    Regular meetings with your mentor and participation in multi-lab group meetings...
    It's this type of stuff that is my point. I think it's safe to assume that a student meets with his advisor and the university has some form of multigroup meetings. Why should a student get penalized for not being told to mention it? For that matter, especially in rich, large labs, do you really believe that everyone who says they meet with their advisor regularly really does or that they really to present at a multi-group meeting every year? It's this type of stuff that really doesn't tell me anything about how the student will actually be trained.
    I am a bit bitter on this topic because my postdoc F grant got slammed for not going into mindnumbing detail (i.e. the silly stuff I was mentioning above). Only when I added it in did a committee evaluate the research proposal seriously knocking me back 2 review cycles (i.e. 1.5 years of a 2 year postdoc position)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bsci, it may help to think about the larger perspective of grant review. A study section may be handling fellowships from some fairly distinct sub-cultures. Not every one of these is from well-supported, R1 University-housed, high pub rate, known-PI labs in stereotypical bench science disciplines.
    not sure what you do, but think environmental/ecological biology if that helps. comparative cognition. heck, just about anything with field studies!
    The obvious basics are NOT necessarily inferable in all cases. Which is why it is so important to include them.
    and to say "yeahbut, I clearly work in a 'normal' field" is really no different than saying "I work with HighFalutin' PI and I can't possibly fail so just give me the money already".

  • Jerry McCully says:

    I am a little confused. Your "mentoring plan" sounds like a combination of candidate background, career development and mentoring experience. Please check the K99 on-line submission page.
    The real mentoring plan is to justify how you are going to become a mentor.

  • Delenn says:

    The Mentoring Plan mentioned in Drug Monkey's guide above is really the K00/R99 career development plan.
    The mentors are judged by the statements of support they provide to the K candidate, and separately, by how well candidate and mentor have worked together, and plan to continue to work together, on all aspects of the award (career development, research design and conduct, education, etc.).
    It's all spelled out clearly in the funding opportunity announcment.

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