Submitting a K23

Thanks from the Education Committee go to Stuart F. Quan, MD, who provided the material for this page. For more information on the K23 and other K Awards, visit the NIH website.

Thoughts on Writing a Competitive K23 Award in the NHLBI

  • Should have done some research previously, preferably clinically oriented; if not basic, then will need to show why the switch in career emphasis.
  • Should be in the tenure track; letters of recommendation need to explicitly state that faculty position is NOT contingent on receipt of award; if currently a fellow, need to state that candidate has a guarantee of a faculty position.
  • Candidate needs to explicitly state career goals and in it state intention to become a clinical investigator. The career development plan (vide infra) must integrate with these goals.

Career Development Plan
  • This is one of the most crucial aspects of the grant. An excellent research proposal, but a crummy career development plan is NOT fundable under this award.
  • Didactic course work is necessary including a research ethics course. The course work should be tailored to the candidate’s career goals. For example, if the candidate wishes to pursue a career in clinical trials, courses on how to conduct a clinical trial should be included. The courses need to be listed and described, and most importantly it should be documented on how the course fits with candidates career goals.
  • Use of K30 resources is good; It is not necessary to get a Masters out of it;
  • A timeline and milestones shown in a graph or table is necessary. For example, RO1 submitted by year 3, 2 papers by year 4, etc.
  • Mention of usual clinical conferences and teaching for completeness only, but not real emphasis;
  • Interaction with mentor needs to be explicitly stated with this commitment documented in mentor’s letter; It is not good to say, the mentor will meet on a regular basis. It is much better to say that the mentor will meet with the candidate for 1 hour per week to discuss progress/problems with research, etc.
  • Research proposal should fit with career development plan. The research proposal doesn’t have to be rocket science. It needs to be consistent with candidate’s level of current training, doable and most importantly be designed to be a vehicle to further career development (ie: a practical way to learn the tools of the trade).

Research Plan
  • See comments under career development plan.
  • Like any other research proposal, it must have good rationale, reasonable hypotheses, a sound approach to answering hypotheses.
  • Preliminary data is a must to demonstrate capability to do project.
  • Analysis section needs to be verified by a biostatistician. It is a real “sin” to put an incorrect power analysis in the grant. There are statistical people on the study section!
  • If candidate does not personally have skills to perform a certain test, consultant/collaborative arrangements must be documented.
  • Unlike an RO1, the study section cuts these grants a “little slack”. These are “training grants”, so the quality of the research proposal is not expected to be as good. The career development plan and the mentoring plan is more important. However, it can’t be “bad”.

Mentoring Plan
  • This is crucial. It is so crucial, that the NHLBI study section assigns a 3rd reviewer to each grant just to read the mentoring plan and propose a score for it!
  • Various combinations of plans are acceptable. For example, you can have a primary mentor who is not the one “advising” the candidate on their research. One such example recently was where the primary mentor was in the candidate’s clinical department, but the research mentor was a radiologist because the candidate’s interest was in imaging. This can work, but it is infinitely better to have them be the same because the committee feels that ultimately the candidate is a member of their own clinical department and advice needs to be given from that perspective.
  • The mentor must have a track record of previous mentoring. A list of previous “mentees” must be listed as well as their current positions. They all don’t have to be M.D.’s. A list of trainees who are all in private practice is the kiss of death!
  • The mentor’s letter is critical. He/she must explicitly state what he/she will do for the candidate, ie: meet with him/her and how often, what will be discussed, activities the mentor will arrange to further the candidate’s career (for example, attend steering committee meetings of  multi-center trials, etc).
  • The mentor must have a record of NIH funded research and it is really nice if he/she is currently funded. It is really nice if one of the study section members recognizes the mentor as a leader in the field.
  • A mentoring committee is a nice touch provided that the members are committed to meeting on a regular basis (spell it out) and that there is a reason for each one of these people to be on the committee.  If the grant has a split between the sponsoring mentor and the research mentor, then this is a must.
  • The mentoring letter needs to be personalized to the applicant. It can’t be just another boilerplate letter.

Environment and Institutional Commitment
  • The department chair needs to write a personalized letter supporting applicant. It needs to guarantee a job irrespective of grant funding. Lab, office space, secretarial support and whatever else needs to be explicitly stated.
  • THE DEPARTMENT CHAIR     needs to state that at least 75% of the candidate’s time will be protected to perform the activities in the grant.
  • The study section members can ADD. 4 months of ward attending, reading all the echos, and 2-3 clinics a week DO NOT EQUATE TO 75% protected time.
  • It needs to be explicitly stated somewhere in the grant how the candidate’s time commitments will change if a grant is awarded and what duties will therefore be given to someone else so that he/she can perfom the activities of the grant. For example, eliminating 2 months of ward attending, decreasing the clinic time, appointment of another person to be head of the ICU committee, etc.

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