Getting the K Award: Perspectives from a Mentor-Awardee Team
Megan J. Shen, PhD, Health Equity SIG
Receiving one of the National Institute of Health’s K awards is a professional goal that many in our field would like to achieve, but there often remains some uncertainty and mystery around key aspects of success in obtaining one. This article shares wisdom from Holly Prigerson, PhD, who is the Irving Sherwood Wright Professor of Sociology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Prigerson received a K award early in her career and has successfully mentored over 90 junior investigators, many of whom have successfully received career awards including numerous K awards. She has also received several NCI R01s, a coveted NCI R35, and many other grants from the NIH, ACS, and other foundations. Additionally, I share my own lessons learned as a recent recipient of a K award and mentee of Dr. Prigerson.
Tips (from a mentor’s perspective):
Tips on your mentorship team
- Make sure that you are in the right environment to support your proposed line of research. Mentors should cluster at your home institution in order to demonstrate that you have local resources, but they do not need to be exclusively there.
- To create a professional network of potential mentors, it can be helpful to either network through your mentor at your home institution if you have one (i.e. ask him/her who else to invite on to your K award application mentorship team) or approach individuals within your own institution who may be open to serving as your mentor and ask if they would be willing to serve in this capacity.
- There should be demonstrated collaboration with a strong research infrastructure given the limited funds available for the actual research in a K award budget.
Tips for you as a candidate
- Describe why there needs to be someone to study the chosen topic in the manner proposed and why that person is you.
- You will want to show prior productivity with empirical publications but also demonstrate that the K award will provide you with opportunities to try new things, expand your skill set, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
- You will want to show how you will be in a strong position to launch through the K award by getting an R grant in the “out years.”
Tips (from a K awardee’s perspective):
Tips for you as a candidate
- It is critical to highlight why you are not only worth investing in for this particular chosen topic and career path, but why you are uniquely qualified with your training and mentorship team to achieve the outlined goals.
- Must strike a careful balance in demonstrating that you are already a productive scholar but not too seasoned for a K award.
- Clearly outline the type of independent investigator you hope to be ready to launch as at the end of your K award.
Tips on your career development and training activities
- Be very specific in your career development and training activities document to include the following:
- Summary of who your mentorship and advisory team members are and how each of them will uniquely help you achieve your training and research goals;
- Outline of your learning objective, including how they map on to your research project;
- Outline of how all training activities will connect to your training goals and study aims (for your research project). I highly recommend creating tables to outline these connections specifically.
- Make sure your training activities are a combination of hands on training, didactics, conferences and in person trainings, and courses. Variety is key.
- Try to avoid trainings that require you to be accepted to ensure you can meet training goals or provide alternatives should you not be accepted into these programs.
Tips on your research strategy
- In your research plan, outline specific deliverables including planned publications from your data collected, and planned preparation and submission of your first R01 – to demonstrate that you will be a productive scholar.
- Include some research activities that are “hands on” to demonstrate that you will be learning new skills, not simply overseeing research staff.
- Make your research objectives feasible within the given timeline, accounting for training.
- Map your research activities clearly on to your learning objectives. I suggest making a table to do this.
Tips on your mentorship team
- It's best to have a mentor who was not your previous mentor in a postdoctoral fellowship or graduate school to demonstrate that this new mentorship relationship will give you new skills that you have not yet obtained in a prior mentorship relationship.
- Do not include too many mentors or advisors – make it a realistic number of people who can invest in your career development.
- Possible strategies to build a mentorship team if your institution does not have mentors:
- Search NIH Reporter and reach out to PIs who have shared research interests in the areas you would like to grow in and ultimately write a K award;
- Network at national conferences such as SBM;
- Reach out to your own previous mentors (graduate school, postdoctoral fellowship) and utilize their network to reach out to other senior mentors.
Additional tips for health equity/health disparities focused applications:
- Be certain to address how key members of the community will be involved in the research.
- Address any concerns around potential language barriers (e.g., how will material be translated, does the PI have fluency in the necessary language, and if not how will this be addressed).
- Include experts in health disparities research on the mentorship team and note how their own connections and resources (such as community advisory boards) will be utilized to achieve your research goals and to provide training in these research techniques.