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.)