Fostering the Next Generation of Researchers


It’s been awhile since I’ve presented some data, so I wanted to point you to a study that we just put up on our website. It looked at three of our most widely used mentored career development award mechanisms—the K01, K08, and K23. We were interested in finding out more about the characteristics of individuals that applied for and received these awards, and, for those who received an award, whether the career development experience affected their subsequent career paths. Ultimately, we wanted to know are the career awards fulfilling their purpose, do all awardees benefit from these awards, and are there any areas that we can improve upon?

Are these awards fulfilling their purpose?

Overall, the answer is yes. Looking at comparable unfunded and funded applicants, those who received a career development award were more likely to:

  • remain in research,
  • publish in scientific or medical journals,
  • apply for an NIH research grant,
  • receive an R01, and, for those who could be followed long enough,
  • apply for and receive a renewal.

Figure 1. Subsequent NIH grant outcomes, by programgrant outcomes by k award type

Do all the awardees benefit from these awards?

Yes, but the benefits vary. Investigators who received a K08 or K23 career development award (mostly MDs or MD/PhDs) improved their chances of getting a subsequent research grant (Figure 1), and they received their awards just as quickly as their peers in the comparison group (Table 1). For investigators who received a K01 award (mostly PhDs), the benefits were more modest, as might be expected from a group that already has significant research training and experience. Although K01 awardees received R01s at about the same rates as unfunded applicants, a higher percentage of K01 awardees remained active in research and published their research findings (data available in the full report). When K01 awardees did receive an R01 grant, it was, on average, a year later than their counterparts (Table 1).

Table 1. Average time to R01 application for K applicant cohortstable of k awards and the average years to first R01 app and award and average age at award

    Bold font is used to highlight differences that are significant at p<0.05
    *Sample size is too small to perform significant tests.
    Note: “First R01 Application” and “First R01 Award” refer to the first application and award after the last K application within this study.

Are there areas to improve upon?

There’s always room for improvement. Given the more modest effects of the K01 program on PhD awardees, should NIH’s career development opportunities for PhDs be modified in some way? As for clinician researchers, we noticed that there was a small but notable cohort of investigators applying for K23 awards more than 15 years after their terminal degree. NIH has traditionally focused on fostering the training and career development of individuals early in their careers—should we do more to encourage mid-career clinicians interested in pursuing patient-oriented research? There is much more than I could cover here. I encourage you to delve into the study and then let us know your thoughts.


  1. I really like the followup on the fate of unfunded applicants and would be fascinated to see similar analyses of R01 applicants after their first-ever submission.

    With respect to the similar outcome of K01 applicants on later R01 proposals, I would suggest that it has less to do with degree of research training and more to do with the fact that they have no alternative. Clinical applicants always have their other job to fall back on…and often this fall back represents less frustration and a higher salary (with the various incentive systems in place for MDs in academic postings or just by leaving academic medicine). The difference in “no subsequent NIH activity” would seem to support this interpretation.

    1. Correct, it looks like those who did not get a K08 or K23 award just moved on to something else as evidenced by no subsequent NIH activity. Fewer Ko1 applicants who did not get funded moved into this category suggesting that if you get one you stay in research if you don’t you take whatever alternative you can. For Ko1 applicants with Ph.D. there are fewer options.

  2. Comparing funded K## applicants to those K## applicants who fail to get funded is absurd if you want to assess the effect of actually receiving a K##. This is because you’re just comparing two populations that have been pre-segregated into one that has already proven to be more effective at grant-writing than the other. Rather, you need to compare the future grant-getting of funded K## applicants to similar cohorts who never applied.

  3. Is this a repeat of the data on African-American investigators? Showing that success is driven mostly by persistence at grant seeking? For the R01 dataset, that was indexed by the revised application rate. For this dataset, perhaps by the unsuccessful applicants moving on to seek NIH funding via other mechanisms (or not).

  4. The Mentored Career Development Awards are a wonderful mechanism and they have fostered the development of generations of young scientists. However, the data generated in this report principally reflect periods when the NIH budget was growing. Under these conditions, it would appear that these awards foster earlier funding and higher rates of transitions to independent research careers.

    My concern is that these data may not apply to the current situation, where static or declining NIH budgets may make it more difficult to make the transition from a mentorered career development award to an RO1. Further, although the transition to RO1 is hastened by a Mentored Career Development Award, the average age at which the first RO1 is received is still, for all of these awards, above 40. To me, this is still a problematic finding, suggesting that the Mentored Career Development Awards could be optimized further.

    Specifically, I would like to propose that NIH consider developing a new award that combines features of the career development award and RO1. I do not propose going back to the days of the FIRST award, which provided salary and capped the research budget at a low level. Having served on the NIH Directors’s committee that recommended that FIRST awards be abolished, I clearly recall that data indicated that FIRST awards impeded the progression to RO1 funding. Rather, I am suggesting making a greater investment in both supporting the career development and research activities of young investigators.

    I recognize that this will come with a higher price tag. My personal view is that at a time of economic hardship, we should make fewer awards with more resources. This strategy would seem to hold promise to tide young investigators over until NIH budgets rise again.

    1. I don’t see a lot of evidence that the K01 provides benefit, Professor Krystal. I would suspect that the only real benefit to K01 awardees is….the award of NIH funding. The specifics of the mechanism are less important than the fact that they’ve managed to get (most of) their salary covered and can put something in the Support section of their CV.

      Going by your comment, the best solution here is to scrap the K01 program entirely and turn that money over to a smaller number of ESI R01 awards.

      Now me, I suspect that K01 awards are often a place where people with less than full Assistant Professor tenure track appointments get shuffled. They are sometimes a partial solution to the permanent postdoc issue- people who want a career as a bench scientist but don’t really want to be a PI. But the way the system is currently set up, there is no stability and so people seek quasi faculty level jobs and apply for small amounts of grant money. The better solution would be to scrap the K01 and convert that money into career fellowships for non-faculty post-postdoc scientists

    2. There are already plenty of opportunities for young investigators often at the expense of mid-career people. In some sense, it does not make sense to dump scientist who have already spent a lot of NIH money setting up their programs and model systems just to the point where they can get significant data quickly in favor of new investigators who will have to start the process all over only to be dumped from the system just as things start working.

      1. I agree with struggling2. I am close to promotion to Professor and have had NIH grants for 12 years. I never had a K, but was in a T32 training program, after which I got my first R01. For the first time in my faculty career I do not have a grant. The field is going to hemorrhage mid-career scientists if NIH doesn’t do more to support us. The affirmative action for the next generation has to be balanced with retaining those who are already showing success, especially in this funding climate. Enough giving grants to new investigators with scores that I couldn’t get funded with. Enough asking senior investigators to turn over their grants to junior collaborators to be funded.

  5. Regarding Professor Krystal’s comment, “Specifically, I would like to propose that NIH consider developing a new award that combines features of the career development award and RO1,” it is my understanding that the NIH is already pursuing a similarly proposed program through the K99 mechanism (2 years mentored and 3 years R00-level funding). Based on my interpretation, the K99 was created to reduce the time to an applicant’s first R01 award. I am not aware of the long-term data regarding K99 applicants and their success in R01 funding or if that data has been compiled by the NIH, as of yet. As the K99 program is still relatively young, that data series may be unavailable.
    Stanford has taken an additional route to decrease the time for post-doctoral applicants to achieve their first R01. They are experimenting with post-doctoral physicians that desire an academic career to apply for R01 level-funding . This is a very interesting and exciting experiment. If it is successful, perhaps this program can be modified and expanded on a national level.

  6. It is wonderful if you come from a large research university or you are lucky enough to have a mentor in place but if you are like me and have no mentor, you are out of luck. I have even approached people and asked for mentoring and have been told they do not have enough time. I do not blame them since they already have a group of people they have groomed to apply for these grants. It would be nice to have a mechanism or opportunity for researchers with a passion for research to be connected with a mentor.

    1. I believe this is one of the biggest failures of the research enterprise system. It goes along with the lack of diversity in grant awards that NIH has found in a study. I’ve been reading on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about the lack of mentoring in graduate schools, and I suspect the same lack in post-doc positions and new faculty positions. The almost-exclusive emphasis on publication and grant-getting has allowed higher ed to absolve themselves of greater responsibility in the training and supporting people in their careers. It can’t all fall on the shoulders of federal funding agencies.

      With regards to your particular position, there are professional consultants who can assist in reading/writing grant applications. It would be a good investment for you. If you are a new faculty member, without a mentor, you will need to focus on what you can do to help yourself compete in the R01/R21/R03 arena.

  7. The major problem that I am seeing with K awards in my College (at a large land-grant University) is that a significant number of our clinical students (who happen to be DVMs) are getting them DURING grad school (albeit towards the end) – this was not the case 10 years ago when I received my K (although this is not a complaint on my part about the “fairness” of this change in funding!). They are then getting Faculty positions on the strength of these awards and their clinical skills, but have not gone through a postdoc so only have a few publications. In this case, they are not competitive for R01 funding and drift back into clinical careers, which wastes K funds that could have gone to a committed PhD researcher. The assumption seems to be that MDs, DVMs, etc. are inherently better bench scientists – this is true in some/many cases, but the temptation to fall back into more lucrative clinical careers is far greater, especially when funding is tight.

  8. I think one of the missing things with the K01 data is that the point of a K01 is to provide training in new fields/methods etc. The question isn’t necessarily whether K01 applicants go on to apply for further NIH grants (as others have pointed out, if you have a non-clinical PhD and don’t have a tenure track teaching position there’s not much else you can do – of course you’re going to apply for other grants if your K01 app. isn’t successful), but whether or not those who received K01s become better researchers due to their extra training. Does the extra training lead to more innovative studies utilizing cross-methodological approaches? Is there any evidence that the researcher is more likely to be asked to be a Co-I on her peer’s studies? Does their research output change in any measurable way?

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