The correct longer title should include “while teaching a course for the first time, submitting a paper, applying for a green card, and dealing with chronic and acute health issues,” but the shorter one is more catchy and Google friendly!
I woke up to my mentor’s email in Jan 2nd who forwarded me an email about an NCI webinar on a “New NCI Early K99 Funding Program,” and the webinar was happening in a few hours. I got very excited and checked the FOA and was astounded to find that it was only announced on Dec 20th! I attended that webinar, and it turned out to exactly match my background and career goals: NCI wants to keep data scientists in cancer research, and their statistics show that they don’t stay because 4-year window (post Ph.D. eligibility window for the regular K99) is too much for them in an era of starving-for-data-scientists industry. So to motivate them, they started a focused K99 with 2-year eligibility window, i.e., “Early K99” with three tracks: data science, cancer control science, and other sciences. Each university can have one candidate per track, so the first step was to make sure that I am the OSU candidate. I had the first-mover advantage, and after a week of follow-ups, I officially became the OSU’s candidate in data science for NCI Early K99.
I started to work on the proposal right away!
OK, the truth is I had been thinking about submitting a K99 for a year, but I had a dilemma: On one hand, I wanted to keep my focus on cancer, on the other hand, NCI has not known to be well-receiving of the computational applications. So, I had been looking into other institutes, and the most related one was NHGRI, which is not an exact fit to what I’m doing, and I had many disadvantages compared to those with genetics background. On the methods side I have been reading about causality and attending lectures and watching courses about it for 10 months and I had the big picture of the field, and I wanted to apply causality to some interesting cancer applications. I have been talking about that with my mentors and other faculty members in the OSU campus and reading the relevant literature, but still, I did not have a definite problem in mind.
Why am I talking about these? Because I want to emphasize that contrary to my click-bait title, “IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO PROPERLY WRITE AN EARLY K99 IN TWO MONTHS, UNLESS YOU HAD PREPARED THE GROUND.” I had once in a lifetime chance of applying for Early K99, and I was partially ready for it and as Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” For example, I had worked with university officials to get a PI status and an eRACommons account six months ago which are necessary for this award.
Here, I will provide you with some tips based on my experience in the order of importance to myself. This process was like an intense exercise for me, I did a few weeks warm up, five weeks of extraordinary work and have been cooling down over the past week. You will see the theme here.
1- Nothing is more important than your health, know your mind and body limits. I had to do this in two months because the FOA was announced late and at the next deadline I will be out of the two-years eligibility window.
2- Sitting for 12 hours a day will kill you. Stand, walk around the room, use any equipment that you can in home or office to work out. I was holding dumbbells while I was walking around the apartment and thinking. I was exercising for 15 - 30 minutes during the first month but none for the second one because literally, I did not have the time for it. Again, this is not healthy and recommended.
3- For writing the science part, you need your sharpest self. Sleep is the price to pay, but I could not sleep because I always was thinking about the proposal and if I could I automatically was waking up after a few hours. So my suggestion is to do the science first (other reasons below) because the beginning of this effort is less stressful and you can sleep better.
4- Take frequent naps if you can. It will refresh your mind and body.
5- Limit your interaction with others to avoid diseases, you can’t afford a cold during this. In my class, whenever I was hearing a student sneeze, I was avoiding that part of the room for the rest of the session :)
6- You know your body better than anyone, treat it well to help you! Take supplements, vitamin C, or anything that will boost your immune system. Again, two months is too short for catching a cold.
7- Reduce your calory intake. Since you don’t move, this is the only way for keeping a steady weight. I was having breakfasts late at 9 am and dinners early at 5 pm. This way I was lighter and sharper at early morning and late nights.
8- Discuss the situation clearly with your immediate family and excuse yourself from any event that you can. Keep them updated as you go.
9- Don’t forget to compensate when you are done :)
To be able to dedicate almost all of your time to proposal writing, you need to keep your house in order first and handle all other responsibilities in advance to clear your mind.
10- During the first two weeks, I spent a lot of time on the course that I’m teaching and prepared most of the material for the semester, and that helped me a lot to stay focus on the proposal closer to the deadline. I also submitted a paper to ICML (deadline of Jan 23rd), and together these two ate up my first three weeks, but I was free to focus after that.
11- Discuss the situation with all of your bosses (if you have multiple of them like me) as soon as possible. If they are on board they may help or at least they won’t cause you trouble.
12- Excuse from attending any meeting or working on any project. If it is not possible to stall a project, ask your mentor or lab mates to do you a favor and substitute you in those efforts.
13- If you can save time by working from home, do that. I stayed home as far as I could to save one hour of driving time every day.
14- If there is a meeting that you have to attend, try to participate online. Video calls and desktop sharing are enough for almost all scientific meetings.
15- Work backward by estimating the number of hours that you need for the grant and then allocate that to each week and keep track of your process. I had an unsuccessful attempt at writing an NSF grant a few months ago, and that gave me a real time-estimate. I thought that 100 hours for the science part and 100 hours for the non-science part should be enough and I was right.
16- To do so, I was following Cal Newport’s advice in his book “Deep Work” on having a “board of lead measure” where I kept tally of the hours that I was working on the award. Below is a picture of my scoreboard. As you see, I spent 109 hours on science mostly during the first three weeks and 115 hours on other parts of the application.
17- As you get close to the submission deadline, working during the “working hours” will almost become impossible. You will be emailing and calling people from 9 am - 5 pm during the last week, and you won’t work on anything else. So, I was working on different parts of the grant in 5 - 9 am and 6 pm onward. Coffee and loud white noise were companions of mine through these extended hours.
OK, going to the award itself. My stupidest mistake was not to communicate with my PO efficiently, so I’m putting it first. This award was new, and in four different issues we had disagreements in the OSU side about what is right or wrong to do, and we wasted time discussing in long emails what I could have asked my PO in a short email. I don’t know what my problem was, maybe I was thinking that a person with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry is not sitting there to answer my formatting questions and I should figure this out from the instructions myself. But I was absolutely wrong, the POs are well-aware of every detail of the FOA and submission procedure, and they are very very responsive, and most importantly, they have the final say. Below is the list of topics that my PO clarified for me (more on each one in the relevant section):
18- Biosketches are necessary for all mentors and recommended for all LOS writers.
19- There is an NCI salary cap for this grant and your institute salary cap for postdocs. You will get the minimum of the two, but if the restriction is from your institute, it is your job to negotiate for the raise before finalizing your budget.
20- The 12 pages of candidate and research will be broken down at the time of submission, and specific aims page goes in between of those, so you should not switch from candidate to research at the middle of a page.
21- OSU has its own interface to the Grants.gov, so I did not directly interact with government’s submission website. After the fact, I noticed that such an interface is handy because if you use the standard system, it takes a while (in my case two days) to see if your submission had errors or not. But OSU’s system readily tells you the errors and warnings which is very helpful.
22- The final submission is done by a university official, they have different names in different universities. At OSU they are called Sponsered Program Officer (SPO). Find the SPO of your department contact them soon (the first document that they submitted for me was the LOI, but they also helped me get PI status 6 months ago). It is good to know if they had previous experience with NIH and K awards. For example, if you are applying from CSE or Stat departments, it is highly probable that your SPO does not have a lot of experience with NIH. Also, since this FOA is very new and kind of different from the old NIH K99, no one knew the specifics which highlights the importance of communicating with your PO.
23- If you are a data scientist, you probably have a bag of cool methods, your job is to find a really cool application. That takes time. I have been talking with my mentors about my ideas about methods that I proposed in K99 for a year now, it didn’t happen overnight. But to determine the exact cancer problem that I fixated on, I had to spend a couple of days intensely reading the relevant literature. Honestly, although my mentor helped me a lot to narrow down the problem, the final form of the problem and its link to targeted therapy came to me after spending those cycles reading the relevant cancer biology literature.
24- Do this as fast as possible. This is actually the first step and literally the most significant bottleneck. Everyone will need your “specific aims” page even to pay attension to your requests. Unless you have a fair amount of science part written, none of your mentors or other collaborators will take the attempt seriously, and why should they? If you have a half-baked writeup ready, the whole effort gains momentum and people contribute far beyond your imaginations.
25- Again the science part is intellectually demanding, so reserve the time after your sleep for science and defend it like crazy. Now, I’ve reached the level where I can write a letter of support while I’m sleeping, but no one can do the same for the science part.
26- Have a section on significance, one on innovation and then a research strategy which has a subsection for each aim. At the beginning of an aim’s research strategy bold your hypothesis, what do you hope to show or find? At the end add a section about expected outcomes and alternative methods and outcomes and possible pitfalls. Show that you are aware of the potential limitations of your approaches and have plan B if you fail in getting what you want out of the aim.
27- At the end, similar to NSF-grants I added a section about validation and evaluation. You have a data science method which spits out some outputs, how do we know your outputs are not garbage? What is your corroborating biological evidence?
28- Has a final paragraph explaining what you had in your proposal and link back to your specific aims. Also, if possible describe the vision that you have for your career after successfully finishing the proposed project and moving to R01 and beyond.
29- In specific aims page and the final paragraph weave in phrases from the mission of NCI and its data science sections. If you can address how your proposed methods will help the cancer research community at large.
Background and Career Development:
30- I did not have any idea how to write this. I was fortunate to have two samples of failed K99 attempts from my friends which helped me a lot. I contacted a couple of other postdocs who have received K99 recently, but they never got back to me. Don’t be stingy, share whatever is sharable! I may publicly share my redacted application after the decision.
31- Here are my background section’s subsections:
- Previous training: Who am I? How did I get into data science?
- The turning point: Why I got into cancer study?
- Ongoing training: What have I been doing during my postdoc? (You probably don’t have published papers, so clearly explain what you have done)
- Forging a career path: How did I come up with the proposed project?
32- Here are my career development section’s subsections: First, what is your goal? Are you committed to cancer research?
- Collaboration and progress evaluation: introduce your mentors and their area of expertise and also your collaborators and scientific advisory committee, don’t repeat the information that you have in other parts of your application.
- Enhancing my research skill: where I had
- formal coursework in cancer biology;
- skill improvement in relevant technical areas;
- seminars and conferences: include specific conferences with their names, dates, and places.
- lab meetings and discussion groups;
- online courses: I have been watching a lot of lectures online, and I thought it is cool to include that.
- Writing, presentation, grantsmanship, and critical assessment skills: Where do you learn to write grants? How do you improve your writing and presentation skills? How do you become a reviewer or panelist?
- Supervisory, mentoring and teaching skills: Have you taught a course? Are you going to? Will you prepare a teaching statement? Have you managed/mentored undergrad and grads? Will you? Where do you learn from to do so?
- Leadership and laboratory management: How do you learn to manage projects and lead a lab? What technology you are using or willing to learn to use for online communication, collaboration, project management, and software development?
- Transition to independence: When will you be on the job market? Can you take your research with you? Why should we believe that there is a market for your expertise? What will your future lab work on?
33- The mentoring plan should mirror the career development plan. You may have multiple mentors, I had three: data science, cancer biology, and professional development. Use your main mentor’s help and connections to assemble a mentoring team that covers all of your training needs.
34- If you have multiple mentors, they should coordinate in writing this document. My mentor took the lead, and my co-mentors each contributed ~1 page basically explaining their background and their role as a co-mentor in K99.
35- Remember, this is not a recommendation letter! This is not about how good you are, this is about your weaknesses and the plan to improve you in those areas. All of the documents should show that you are near-ready to transition to independence. If you are so good at what you are doing, then please submit your R01! If you are so in need of education and learning, please resubmit your application next year!
36- After the first two pages of mentor introduction, I had the similar six subsections of the career development explained from my mentors point of view. Note that here you have 4 - 6 pages to elaborate, while in career development you need to squeeze everything to ~2 pages. My beloved great mentor, read my lengthy career development summarize it and move the extra stuff to the mentoring plan and expanded them.
37- Your mentors should attest that the work is yours to take with you and they will fully support you during the job search. Also, they should say, they have enough money if you need more than what NCI pays to finish the project.
38- Early on, contact as many mentors, friends, and lab mates individually and ask them when they will be available to read your proposal and give you feedback. Do not mass-email them, everyone will wait for the others to respond. Also, by tailoring your email for each person, you will show how valuable his/her feedback is for you and also you can direct them to the specific part (related to their expertise) that you need their comments on.
39- I’ve got feedback from ~12 people and even if any of them have fixed only 10 mistakes of mine, that amounts to 120 dumb mistakes corrected. Take this seriously, especially if you are not a native speaker.
Other Letters and Documents
I wrote almost all of the following documents myself. About letters, everyone is busy, and often people ask you to provide them with the draft. For other materials, there may be some written resources on your institution’s website or with relevant staffs, find and use them properly. There are instructions for all of the letters, so weave into your drafts same words and make sure you address all of the requested info. One major issue with self-written support and reference letters is that you sell yourself short thinking that it will be pretentious if you say more. But note that letter writers will cut out if they don’t like your phrases or sentences, but it is very unlikely that they add something to what you have already prepared, so aim high.
40- Letter of intent: This submission needed a letter of intent one month before the submission deadline. It is mainly for checking if there are multiple candidates per track per institution and also help the NCI assemble a proper study section.
41- Nomination letter: This seems to be a specific requirement for the Early K99. They want to make sure that your head of institution thinks that you are near-ready to land a faculty job.
42- Institutional commitment: I think this one is required for all Ks and comes from the head of the institute. Note that the “commitment” in helping you find a job is common in this letter and the nomination letter, but both of them are required. The nomination letter is more about you: what you have done, why you are ready. But the commitment letter is more about the support available to you at your institute and department.
43- Letter of support from collaborators: A formal letter addressing you from your consultant, collaborators, or advisory committee. Formally, only your mentors need to commit to spending time helping you. Informally, advisory committee (consultants) are next, and collaborators have the least (if any) time commitment. I think they are mostly there to show that what you are proposing is reasonable and you have experts in different areas to consult with if need be. So LOS starts with “I strongly support your proposed work X,” and in the next paragraph, the writer mentions that “X is important for Y reason” and provides his/her credentials to support this opinion. At the third (final) paragraph you should emphasize that you can come to me for help and I will guide you during your mentoring phase (and beyond).
44- Facilities and resources: Ask for a template of this from senior people in your department. There is no page limit so include everything: size of the building, available software, computational power, number of rooms, labs, and equipment, etc.
45- Equipment: Take out what is necessary for your research from the “facility” document and put it in the equipment file. I put computational resources and available software here.
46- Biosketches: All mentors must include theirs, and it is also recommended for LOS writers.
47- Current and Pending support: This was the fourth issue that we didn’t know if it is necessary or not. This one did not get resolved by my PO’s arbitration. My SPO came back to me saying that she has found in the instruction that they are necessary to be included for mentors and that was on the submission day’s morning! Usually, people include their support at the end of their biosketches, but here you need to include both current and pending (grants under review) supports in a separate document. This document serves both as the evidence that you mentor has available funding to support the project in excess of the funding that you receive and also show that your proposed work has no overlap with your mentors’. The key sentence that I included in all of my mentors C&P documents was: “There is no overlap between any of the existing or pending support and the current K99 proposal.”
48- Key personnel: If you get biosketches from someone, make sure he/she has an eRACommons account.
49- Reference letters: Letter writers do not need an eRACommons account. There is a specific instruction for them to follow and they should weave into their letters what is requested in that instruction. The file name on the guideline page is “instructions-for-mentored-research-career-development_referees.docx.” Letters are due on the FOA deadline. Make sure at least one of your referees submit his/her letter a week sooner to check for problems. In my case, there was a problem, my role needed to be switched from POSTDOC to PI on the eRACommons. You need 3 - 5 referees, contact 5 to be on the safe side.
50- Responsible Conduct of Research & Research Ethics: You should include a face-to-face non-online training plan for this. I found a relevant course and said that I’ll take it above my (mandatory) online departmental training.
51- Descriptional of institution and environment: This document is different from facility and equipment. Here you should emphasize that your institute is the right place for helping you improve intellectually through collaboration. You should even name specific scientists that are suitable for that purpose.
52- The NIH cap for this award is the very competitive $100,000, and I was told by the PO that this is intentionally set high to keep the data scientists interested in staying in the cancer research.
53- But there may be an institutional cap for postdoc salary, and you should ask around soon: if there is none, good for you and enjoy the free market! But if there is a cap, welcome the bitter taste of a socialist state :). But seriously, do not back off, try to negotiate with your bosses, after all, negotiation is also a part of your training.
54- Other than salary and the fringe benefit (whose rate is determined by your university) there are “Other Costs” which constitutes travels, publications, and tuition with the 30,000$ cap.
55- Indirect cost rate is 8% computed using all budgeted things excluding tuition.
56- Numbers: Your SPO will provide you with a template, and you can budget in what you want, and the excel file will compute the percentages, etc.
57- You should have one page of “budget justification” where you explain what the conferences and courses are that you will attend with their estimated cost.
58- You should only budget for the mentoring (K99) phase in detail and put the cap for three years of the R00 phase which is $249,000.
59- You SPO will put in the budget and make sure that everything is all right.
60- NSF-accustomed folks were critical of my .5 margin, but 11 Arial and .5 margin is NIH’s standard.
61- Break the wall of text by underlines, bold faces, tables, and figures.
62- Use footnote style citation to save space.
63- If you need all the space that you get, do not work with the standard section and subsection headings of your editing software, they take so much space. Just write down your section headers as a normal text and bold them.
64- Although you have 12 pages for background and career development plus science, you need to upload them separately, and the specific aim page will come in between of those (after candidate info and right before the research strategy). So you can not have 5.5 of non-science and 6.5 of science as I had! I figured this out 2 pm of the submission day (deadline was 5 pm of the same day) from the PO, and I had to teach from 2 - 4 pm. I had to squeeze the non-science part which was hard but possible, the impossible task was to tell latex where to put the figures wrapped by text in the science part. There was no way of doing this in the one hour after the class. So I reached out to my great mentor, and he said: “Don’t worry I’ll fix it.” After the class, I pulled the repository and voilà he had managed to do so in 1.5 hours! Moral of the story: don’t be shy, ask for help, even with short notice, during the last minutes, people will understand.
Point for non-native English speakers:
65- Do not be afraid to copy-paste proper sentences from the references. This helped me especially in the biology parts which I was not familiar with terms. This is not plagiarism if you rephrase and cite the papers. Note that you will edit this document many times, summarize, and shuffle around parts and the final blend will not be anything like what you copied. This will get you over the start-to-write barrier.
66- The translate.google.com and thesaurus.com are your friends.
67- Separate the writing mode from editing mode. If you are using smart software for writing, do not use them for the first draft. The red underlines and other flags will kill your creativity and productivity and drive your attention to useless editing that you can do afterward in bulk. I’m using Notepad++ if I want to write continuously without distraction.
Congratulations, you did it! Now that you have submitted your first ever grant, you need a week to cool down.
68- Send out thank you notes to whoever helped you. This is moral but also rational, you are probably going to work with most of those people for a long time. Also, it feels terrific! Try it! Finally, it helps to keep/make you humble by reminding you that many people helped you throughout the process.
69- Cut down the coffee, start exercising lightly (you can start with Shavasana:)), pay the late bills, fill out the tax return, grade the midterm exam, submit NIW forms, call your family, and sleep.
70- Re-think the meaning of life to avoid PADD (post-application deadline depression)!
And that is it!
P.S. Wait a second, do you think you are done?! Wrong! The review process begins in three months, and you have till then to update your resume with new papers that you have published. So get back to your current research from where you left and publish as fast and as much as you can!