Betting on the Future


Hi Grantdoc, thanks for being there!I am a research associate hoping to become independent soon, which means I still have a mentor. I have a solid project that I can write a R01 grant on, but at the same time, I feel that my credentials/publications may not yet be sufficient for me to get an R01 grant. I am wondering whether I can apply for both NIH R01 and K-series at the same time (deadline 1 October 2003). This way, even if I don't get R01, I may get K-series if I am lucky. Both will be on the same research topic, but I can tailor differently to fit each grant application.Thanks in advance,Juliana

Dear Juliana,

Assuming that "I can write an R01 grant" means that you can write a strong proposal--not just that you have the support of your institution--then I say go for broke. Apply for the R01.

Careers in science carry all sorts of risks. Far safer jobs exist, with better pay, more job security, more regular hours, and more opportunities ... not to mention less exposure to radiation, nasty chemicals, biological pathogens, high voltages, and sharp, pointy things.

Indeed, the professional lives of young scientists have a high-stakes, romantic aspect that is all too rarely savored. Scientists are risk-takers, by choice if not always by sensibility. Every day, young scientists make decisions, big and small, that influence profoundly not only their own futures, but the future of science itself. Yet few young scientists carry with them a sense of destiny, or an image of themselves as the laboratory equivalent of gunslingers and racecar drivers. It's a great adventure, but, like new parents, scientists are often far too overwhelmed with work and anxiety to savor their new experiences. And after several years in a low-paying postdoc position, many young scientists have their spirits squelched.

Which is a long-winded way of suggesting that it's time--right now--to gamble on your future.

Some program announcements prohibit the simultaneous submission of applications for identical projects, but there is no general prohibition against using the same project in an application for an R01 and for a training award. Still, it's not a good idea; as one high-level NIH source told me via telephone, "If [the committee reviewing the training award] gets wind of the fact that you're ready to apply for an R01, they'll conclude that you're a lousy candidate for a mentored award."

If you apply for both awards, there's a good chance that that committee will, indeed, get wind of it, but that really isn't the point. NIH has formal prohibitions--things that are specifically disallowed--but it also has things that just aren't a very good idea. Simultaneously submitting training award and R01 applications for the same project falls into the latter category. It's not that you'd be doing something illegal, immoral, or fattening. It's that training awards are for people who need training, and if you're ready to write a strong R01 application, then that isn't you.

To be sure, funding rates are considerably higher for mentored awards than they are for R01s, but think of the difference in the payoff.

If you succeed in getting a training award, you will have managed to pay your salary for a couple of years. I'd be the first to admit that salary is a very fine thing, but if you get the R01, you've got your salary and project support as well--money to do the actual work. That's much better, if you ask me.

But the intangible payoff may be even more important. An R01 is a far more effective career development tool than a Career Development Award. If you get the training award, you have a nice feather in your cap, one that will render your future success in science that much more probable. If you get the R01, you will have established your career.

I don't mean to suggest that you'll have finished your life's work and be ready to retire. What I mean is, once you have your R01 it's only a matter of time until you receive a good tenure-track offer from a fine institution, negotiate a strong start-up package, and get off to an excellent start as an independently funded researcher. Many biomedical scientists spend the first few years of their first tenure-track appointment agonizing over R01 applications and funding decisions; you'll be spending that time doing science. And if your application isn't funded the first time 'round, you can--and should--address the reviewers' criticisms and resubmit. You'll still be well ahead of the game.

Previous publications are, of course, important. A couple of first-author publications in an area closely related to your proposal will be a big advantage. But there are other ways to make your case, including a strong letter of support from an accomplished mentor. A well thought out research plan will also help to offset a relative dearth of publications and experience: Convince the reviewers that you've thought the project through, anticipated obstacles, and developed plans to overcome them. Make a very strong argument that the work is important and that, if they give you the money, the work will get done. And be sure that, in writing your narrative, you draw reviewers' attention to your new-investigator status; reviewers and study sections are charged with evaluating a new investigator's potential, not their past accomplishments. Most take this responsibility very seriously, but it wouldn't hurt to issue a gentle reminder.

(For more advice on writing your proposal, see our Toolkit piece, Writing an NIH R01.)

You are at a point in your career where you should be looking forward, not backward. Roll the dice.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,I am a Canadian citizen currently on an H1B visa. I am in the process of applying for my green card; however, I am probably another year and a half away from obtaining one. In the meantime, I would like to pursue my research endeavors as a new investigator. (I am an assistant professor at a research university.) I was planning to prepare a grant that was going to be considered for a NIH K23 award, however, based on my nationality, I am ineligible for the award. Therefore, I would like to know if there are any significant funding opportunities available for temporary visa holders currently working in American academic institutions.Faizan

Dear Faizan,

You are ineligible for NIH fellowships and training awards, but you are fully eligible to compete, on a completely equal footing, for any and all NIH research grants.

You are technically eligible. Your challenge, like that of any new investigator, is to write a proposal that convinces the reviewers, in a quick reading, that the work should be done, and that you will be able to see the project through to a useful conclusion.

Best Regards,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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