Guest Post: Manage your career, folks!

Mar 27 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH Careerism

This is another guest post from @iGrrrl, a grant writing consultant.


A few comments I've seen around, on top of my experience working with applicants for K-flavored and other career development grants, make it clear that they think the required career development parts are just window dressing. I hear complaints that they have to write a mentoring plan, and then they never do anything that is on it.

Is it the mentor's fault? The people who signed letters to be on the mentoring committee? No. (I'm going to switch voice now and talk at you K99/R00 or other K and F applicants/awardees.) And whose fault is it?

The fault is YOURS. No one cares about your career as much as you do, and even if it went in as fiction on paper, it is YOUR responsibility to make it reality. Otherwise you'll never know if it would have made a difference to tap into the brains on your mentoring committee, to impress them with your initiative and willingness to learn. Making someone feel smart and important to you (while also getting good advice) is a good way to increase their sponsorship of you--inviting you present at meetings, to small subdisciplinary meetings, talking positively about you.

I think it's easy for young people to underestimate the impact of the positive regard of more senior faculty, or for you young folks to know how that plays out in reality. No, they're not gossiping about you; they have better things to do. But that 'dream team' remembers that they signed letters for you and then never heard from you again.

11 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    As someone who just got awarded a mentored career development K-award, I have every intention on following through with my training plan, but I'm also realistic. I certainly will use my mentoring committee extensively when it comes to turning the K into an R, which is really what it is all about. The realities of K grants (i.e. budget) do make it difficult to achieve everything that is in the application, but the point is that the mentor is supposed to be providing additional financial support to help the applicant on their way. I'm not sure if that is the reality for a lot of K-awardees.

  • Dave says:

    ....as a side note, I'm not sure how I feel about professional grant writers in the K-arena. A big part of the whole process for the applicant is learning the grantsmanship ropes, so how does your role help/hinder this?

  • clueless noob says:

    Grantsmanship is something that you can include in your training plan on a mentored CDA. It doesn't hurt to make this explicit, since you'll be spending a fair amount of your time from years 3 onward applying for R01s. Depending upon the IC you may also be able to apply for other awards (R03, R21) in the early years of the K.

    Unfortunately you might also find yourself pressed into service "helping with" (i.e., writing) grants for more senior colleagues whose ARRA R01s are drying up, and who confuse your mentored CDA with a K02 or K24. The upside is that you can include this grantwriting in your progress report.

  • iGrrrl says:

    I understand your concerns, but my job is not to write the application, Dave. We have a teach-to-fish model, so a lot of a client's interaction with me comes in the form of critiques (about 5 pages full of single-spaced bullet points on a Specific Aims/Significance/Innovation 2-pager, and 9-17 pages on a full proposal, title through budget justification). Sometimes I'll suggest wording, and very occasionally I will restructure paragraphs to illustrate a better flow of information. The latter often involves just moving sentences they wrote into a better order, and deleting the unnecessary ones.

    Basically, we will give you a level of feedback that your peers and mentors don't have time to give you, in the context of why and how, so that you can carry it forward on your own.

  • Dave says:

    Grantsmanship is something that you can include in your training plan on a mentored CDA

    In my experience, it is absolutely essential to include grant-writing as one of the top "training components" in a K grant

  • jake says:

    K award applications require extensive mentorship plans and advisory committees. The reality is that there is no oversight as to whether or not you actually have the meetings. You're right that someone who is smart will take advantage of every opportunity, but my experience was that the "formal advisory meetings" never materialized. Busy famous professors will ignore your requests for a meeting, but are perfectly happy to chat if you stop by their office with a specific question. Likewise, they'll respond right away if you shoot them a short email with a specific purpose. These types of interactions were much more useful than having the formal quarterly meetings that we were supposed to be having as an advisory group according to the mentorship plan.

    The second thing I'll say is that in order to be taken seriously as a career development plan, you really have to pad the proposal with more things than you will ever actually have time to do. A postdoc will never get anything done in the lab if they are taking two graduate classes, going to grant workshops, attending multiple seminar series, going to multiple conferences, giving poster presentations at every symposium under the sun, and attending weekly lab meetings with both the mentor's lab and the co-mentor's lab. These types of things are pretty standard in the successful proposals I've read, but it seems that if the study section members actually thought about it, they would never allow their own postdocs to be doing so many non-research activities. So while I did attempt to do many of the things in my career development plan, the fact that the research had to take priority was the real reason that some of what I proposed was never realized.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    "So while I did attempt to do many of the things in my career development plan, the fact that the research had to take priority was the real reason that some of what I proposed was never realized."

    I'm in the process of finalizing my A0 K99 app for submission and when I read my Candidate section I feel like I may not be able to achieve half the career dev goals I am proposing. Of course if I do get funded, I'll try my best to meet those goals (especially presenting at conferences and attending writing workshops). However, the quoted comment reflects my real-world expectations.

  • dsks says:

    " These types of interactions were much more useful than having the formal quarterly meetings that we were supposed to be having as an advisory group according to the mentorship plan."

    Exactly. These things cannot be planned and scheduled, they arise as opportunities to be seized. As it is, the rumor that the training section of these grants is a waste of time is largely due to anecdotes shared by colleagues who have reviewed these grants and folk that have applied and received reviewer comments. In my case, and most others I know of, the training section got a cursory "yeah, sure, sounds cosmic", with the comments focused entirely on the research plan.

  • iGrrrl says:

    A bad training plan can pull down a CDA, and one that over-packs to the point where a reviewer wonders when you'll get any research done can also pull down a CDA. Jake and dsks are right, in that the best of the interactions with your mentoring team/advisory board will not come from any formal meetings. But to never contact them? Never ask for their input? Serious waste of an opportunity to learn something, get a different perspective than your primary mentor's, build your network, etc.

    All the career development stuff from the Business school applies to careers in science, and we even have granting agencies willing to put money behind it. K and F applications should be grounded around the reality you want to make. But many applicants don't have the perspective, or the borrowed perspective of a good mentor, to both target the proposal to establish the basis for that reality, or carry out the spirit, if not the letter, of the career-development activities proposed.

  • Bashir says:

    No one cares about your career as much as you do

    This is my standard line for the grad students.

  • Dave says:

    In order of importance, I would say the most important components of a CDA grant are:

    1) Candidate
    2) Mentor and advisory committee
    3) Training/mentoring plan
    4) Research plan

    At least this was my experience, but I'm a little further along my career so the focus was very much on my independence (or not) and career stage/past-training.

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