FAQs: Career Development Awards (K Series): General Policies

What are the receipt dates and page limits for K-award applications?


Where can I find more information if my question isn't addressed in these FAQs?

More extensive policies and information on K awards is available on the NIH Office of Extramural Research website at http://grants.nih.gov/training/extramural.htm.


What are Career Development Awards?

Career Development Awards (K awards) are intended to provide support for senior postdoctoral fellows or faculty-level candidates. Note that many institutions will not allow postdoctoral fellows or those in similar positions to apply for K awards. You can verify institutional policy with your department chair or with the Sponsored Programs Office. K awards are designed to promote the career development of specific groups of individuals based on their past training and career stage. The objective of the K programs is to bring candidates to the point where they are able to conduct their research independently and are competitive for major grant support. In some cases, support is available for individuals who are making a shift to a significantly different research area. Applicants may apply for 3 to 5 years of support under the individual K award programs. However, individual mentored K recipients who also receive support from institutional career development awards (KL2, K12) are limited to 6 years of combined NICHD support through both programs. 

These FAQs are focused on NICHD-related policies. More general information on Career Development Awards is available on the NIH Office of Extramural Research website at http://grants.nih.gov/training/extramural.htm.


Are foreign citizens eligible for Career Development Awards?

  • Foreign citizens are not eligible for K awards, except the K99 (see below). By the time of award, the individual must be a citizen or a non-citizen national of the United States or have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence (i.e., possess a currently valid Permanent Resident Card USCIS Form I-551, or other legal verification of such status. Individuals on temporary or student visas are not eligible.
  • Foreign citizens are eligible for the K99/R00 program (see Program Announcements). For non-U.S. citizen/permanent residents, the applicant U.S. institution for each phase of the application (K99 or R00) is responsible for determining and documenting in the application that the applicant investigator's visa will allow him or her to remain in this country long enough to:
    • Transition to an independent research career in the United States during the proposed mentored (K99) phase and/or
    • Be productive on the research project in the United States for the duration of the proposed independent research (R00) phase.


What areas of research does the NICHD support under the K program?

The NICHD offers research career development awards in areas relevant to normal and abnormal human development, including contraception, fertilization, pregnancy, childbirth, prenatal and postnatal development, and childhood development through adolescence. The mission areas also include research on intellectual and developmental disabilities and rehabilitation medicine. More detailed information is available at Areas of Research Supported by NICHD.


Is my research project suitable for the NICHD?

There are several ways you can determine if your research is of interest to the NICHD. The NICHD's scientific mission areas are summarized in the question above and are posted on the website at Areas of Research Supported by NICHD. After consulting these resources, you can contact the NICHD staff member listed on the Funding Opportunity Announcement or the Training Officer listed at the beginning of these FAQs. These contacts will help you determine which scientific Branch at NICHD would be most appropriate for your project. You may then be directed to program staff, scientists with expertise in particular fields who will be able to judge if your research is relevant to the Institute. If the type of project you propose is suitable, you can request that the application be assigned to the NICHD in the Cover Letter Component of the application.


If I have been a Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI on an R01 or other grant, am I eligible for a mentored K award?

One of the primary objectives of the mentored K awards is to provide the training necessary for candidates to become independent investigators. Research independence is typically defined as having obtained an R01 or equivalent major grant. Current or former PIs or Program Directors (PDs) on NIH research project grants (R01), program project grants (P01), center grants, or sub-projects of program project or center grants are not eligible for mentored K awards. Former PD/PIs on an NIH Small Grant (R03), Exploratory/Developmental Grant (R21), Dissertation Awards (R36), or Small Business Innovative Research/Small Business Technology Transfer awards (R41, R42, R43, R44) remain eligible. A co-PI is not the same as a PD/PI or multiple PIs. For NIH purposes, a co-PI is the same as a co-investigator, collaborator, etc.


Can someone receive K award support to conduct research in a foreign country?

Some K award recipients or applicants may wish to spend significant time conducting research abroad on child or women's health issues. There are several options for doing this. The candidates must have their primary appointments here in the United States and must be U.S. citizens. They would collaborate with a foreign site on the project and name a foreign co-mentor.

  • Fogarty International Research Scientist Development Award: This K award allows up to 6 months per year abroad. For details, visit http://www.fic.nih.gov/Pages/Default.aspx,
  • K Award Leave Policies: Leave to another institution, including a foreign laboratory, may be permitted if the proposed experience is directly related to the purpose of the award. Only local institutional approval is required if such leave does not exceed 3 months. For longer periods, prior written approval of the NIH funding component is required. A copy of a letter or other evidence from the institution where the leave is to be taken must be submitted to assure that satisfactory arrangements have been made. Support from the career award will continue during such leave. Details on the process for submission of prior approval requests can be found in the NIH Grants Policy Statement, Requests for Prior Approval, at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps_2013/.
  • Include Foreign Training in the K Award Application: Applicants can propose a training plan that includes work in a foreign country. The application must carefully outline and justify the foreign research, highlighting the capabilities of the foreign research group, the experience and value of the foreign mentor, and any unique aspects of the foreign site in terms of research opportunity, subject population, etc. There is no apparent rule that limits the time spent abroad. If the study section considers the research strategy and career development plan to be of high quality, they should assign an appropriate score to the application. The NICHD National Advisory Child Health and Human Development Council would need to concur with the recommendation. Fogarty International Center Clearance would be required before the project could begin.


Who reviews K award applications, and should I request a particular review committee?

Career development awards are reviewed by the NICHD Scientific Review Branch. Applications are assigned to review committees based on the scientific subject matter of the study. You can find SRB Initial Review Group (IRG) Subcommittee descriptions, meeting scheudles, and membership rosters at the Scientific Review Branch web page. You may find it worthwhile to tailor some parts of the application based on the types of expertise on the committee that will be reviewing the application. Although you don't need to direct the application to a particular committee, you may request a certain committee in the cover letter if you wish.


What is the best way to allocate the 12 pages for Items 2 through 4 and 11 for mentored K applications?

As explained in the SF424 instructions, the total number of pages for Items 2 through 4 (Candidate's Background; Career Goals and Objectives; Career Development/Training Activities during Award Period) and Item 11 (Research Strategy) combined may not exceed 12 pages, unless the Funding Opportunity Announcement specifies otherwise.

You can allocate the space however you think best portrays your background, career objectives, and training plan. Items 2 through 4 do not have to be a full page in length. During assembly of the separate attachments, the computer systems remove any "white space" in the text. If you devote one-half page to Candidate's Background (Item 2) and to Career Goals and Objectives (Item 3), for example, you will only be using one page of the allotted 12 pages. This would leave more space for other items. All of these sections are scored by reviewers and will be taken into consideration in the overall Impact/Priority Score.

The general strategy is to explain your background and training plan in the context of your overall career goals and the research project itself. The training plan is very important. It should add to what you have learned already during past research experiences and prepare you for an independent research career. The Research Strategy is important too, obviously. It must be of high quality scientifically and within your capabilities, as acquired either in the past or as part of the mentored training plan. Do not propose any experiments in areas with which you and your mentor have no documented experience.

What you need to include in all of these sections is described in Section 5 of the SF424 instruction set. The Program Announcements for the K awards include, under "Review Considerations," lists of items the reviewers will specifically evaluate. Be sure you provide information relevant to each of these items.


The new page limits for Item 7. Statements of Mentors/Collaborators are listed in the SF424 instructions as six pages. Is this really the limit, and can I put letters in the Appendix?

The SF424 instructions state the following:

Letters from the mentor(s), co-mentor(s), consultant(s), advisory committee members (if applicable), and contributor(s) documenting their role and willingness to participate in the project must be included in this section of the application. Do not place these letters in the Appendix.

The instructions do not offer any flexibility with respect to the six-page limit for this section. Letters on letterhead take up considerably more space than needed to describe the roles and commitments of the mentors or collaborators. However, reviewers tend to expect letterhead from mentors and other key participants. For a typical one- to three-mentor application, six pages may be enough to describe the training, resources, and commitments. If there are more individuals associated with the project, the applicant should include letters on letterhead from the mentors and any other collaborators who are absolutely essential to the training plan. Other less important collaborators may summarize what they intend to provide in terms of expertise, resources, or time in the personal statement section of the biosketches. Another alternative is to place any letters that might be considered resources under Item 10. Facilities and Other Resources. Statements and letters of collaboration should absolutely not be included in the Appendix. The instructions are clear about this, and the application may be rejected or withdrawn later if applicants take that route. Only certain types of information are allowed in the Appendix, such as accepted manuscripts and published articles that are not publicly available.


How and when are letters of reference submitted?

Letters of reference must be submitted directly through eRA Commons by the referees. The instructions in the SF424 application guide must be followed carefully to assure that the letters are properly linked with the application. The deadline for the letters is the same as for the application itself. There is no longer a 5-day waiting period. Some of the language in the instructions is unclear about this issue. Be sure the letters are accepted by the deadline or the application will not be accepted.


How do I choose a mentor for a Career Development Award (e.g., K23), and when should I consider co-mentors?

Choosing a mentor depends on who will be guiding you and conveying the new skills that are part of the training plan. The primary mentor is usually someone who is a full-time established investigator with independent funding. Secondary mentors are typically investigators who will be teaching you something new. For all mentors, be as specific as you can in describing their time commitments to your training. Make certain that your application and the mentor(s) letter(s) reflect a common understanding of the planned commitments.

Reviewers will evaluate the experience and contribution of each mentor. Sometimes grant funding history can help illuminate that, but a mentor with a mostly clinical practice career (and less research) can still impart needed skills. Another consideration is the training record of the mentors. Those who have a good track record of training, and whose students/fellows go on to good faculty positions, will look much better and positively influence the score your application receives.

Reviewers generally expect that the primary mentor will have active grant support. Career Development Awards only provide salary support and limited funds for research expenses. Any other research expenses must be covered by the mentor(s) or department. Be sure it is obvious from the application how all expenses will be paid for so the project can be completed successfully. It is often a "kiss of death" for a K application if the primary mentor has no funding.


How should I address the training and career development plan for the K application?

You will need to develop a very clear story, winding these threads together:

  • Your vision of your career trajectory: what do you want to be working on 5 to 10 years down the road?
  • Your vision of how the K will get you there: this includes specific areas of expertise to be acquired in didactic training and how your mentors' strengths will match your needs;
  • Your research plan and the training plan should move you toward your career goal.

As reviewers look at it, the point of a K is not so much to produce world-class research, although that would be nice. Your research plan certainly needs to be sound and significant. The more important goal of a K award is to produce the future version of you: well-experienced and ready for an independent research career. Your application (and the K experience itself) will probably be more successful if your application persuades reviewers that you know where you want to go and how the K will get you there.


Should my mentor help with the K award application?

As you plan and write the application, remember it's not a good idea to do everything in a vacuum. Reviewers will expect to see that at least one of your mentors has been closely involved in the writing and providing input. An application that looks like the product of a novice grant writer inevitably invites at least one reviewer to observe that the mentor appeared to be not very involved in preparing the application, which in turn invariably leads at least one reviewer to wonder aloud whether the mentors will be closely involved in the training plan. This conclusion, correct or not, usually downgrades the review score. Submitting a highly-polished product is the goal; there are no added points for writing it on your own. Reviewers will expect independence in about 5 years, but not so much now.


Can a K award recipient devote effort and accept salary for clinical or research activities beyond the K effort requirement?

There are several policy provisions that dictate allocation of effort and whether or not salary can be accepted from non-K activities. These restrictions apply to mentored K awards (K01, K08, K23, K25, and K99) as well as the K02 and most K12 appointees.

  • A mentored K award recipient must devote a minimum of 75% effort toward research and career development activities.
  • The grantee institution may supplement the NIH salary contribution up to a level that is consistent with the institution's salary scale. Salary supplementation is allowable, but must be from non-federal sources unless explicitly authorized by the federal program from which such funds are derived. In no case may Public Health Service (PHS) funds be used for salary supplementation. If the candidate requested 75% effort on the K award, clinical duties can be pursued and compensated as part of the 25% non-K effort. However, there can be no salary supplementation from PHS research grant funds for any portion of the scholar's effort while on a mentored K award, including the 25% not devoted to the K.
  • NIH policy allows NIH Mentored Career Development Award recipients in the final 2 years of their award to receive salary support from both their K award and a research grant from any federal agency (see NOT-OD-08-065). The K award recipient must be a named Project Director/Principal Investigator of a competing research project grant (R01, R03, R15, R21, R34, etc.), or be the sub-project director on a competing multi-component research or center grant or cooperative agreement (P01, P50, U01, etc.). See the Notice for full details.


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