Clinical research is touted as the backbone of healthcare; it lays the foundation for scientific discoveries, medical advances, and better therapies. Research is central to our knowledge of disease and its eradication; without it, we would not have been able to discover quinine to treat disease as common as malaria that still continues to consume over 1 million people each year.

Clinical research – a branch of science that discovers/invents new medical therapies, devices, and diagnostic tools, and determines the safety and efficacy of existing medications, therapies and regimens – is conducted by well-trained biomedical scientists, majority of whom begin their research career with the help of K award.

K award, or career development award, is a transformative award that opens new realms of professional career and research independence for physician-scientists and biomedical experts. It provides financial and mentored-support so that the investigator can conduct independent research on pressing health issues in the society, such as Alzheimer’s, aging, or cancer. It also opens a panoply of career options and ultimately leads to research independence – which is the main purpose of the award.

Each year, the National Institute of Health (NIH) awards K grants to physician-scientists and clinical and translational scholars. These awards are highly coveted; there is a hypercompetitive climate among research fellows to secure the grant. As a result, K awards are not easy to obtain.  What is more challenging for junior investigators vying independent career or faculty posts is that K awards are also essential to succeed in academia. Some institutes even require a funding track record for faculty appointments. (Schimanski, 2018)

However, the situation is not as bleak as it appears. Even with the increase in demand and applications, K awards are not impossible to obtain. The good news is that each year the NIH funds over 300,000 researchers from more than 25000 universities.

There are ways you can follow to increase your chances of success. These include

  • Attention to minor details
  • A well-structured plan
  • Keeping the objectives real
  • Brilliant proposal plan

These small steps make a huge difference – in fact the basic difference between a funded and an unfunded award.

This article will discuss all the elements that stand between you and the K award in detail so that you will have all the knowledge required to start independent research. These elements include:

  • Comprehensive Career Development Plan
  • Strong Letters of Recommendations
  • Institutional Support
  • Selection of Mentor


1. A Comprehensive Career Development Plan is Critical

K awards are primarily training grants; these provide mentored training to potential researchers in order to facilitate the transition to an independent career. A comprehensive career development plan is central to securing the award. Never ignore this section. There are several reasons why:

  • A career development plan is the heart of the application; it gives a clear picture to the reviewers about your goals – goals that identify your career needs as well as plan to help strengthen clinical and medical research.
  • It is your bridge to the mentor as well as the reviewer – it serves as a communication tool between the researcher trainee and the mentor/reviewer.
  • It is your most compelling argument for the study design, one that will increase your chances of obtaining the grant.

A career development plan is basically your story and argument as to why you need additional training and why the NIH should invest in you. In your career development plan, you convince the reviewer that you have rich experience and capability to successfully compete for the R01 award – the oldest and the most prestigious NIH award for independent research.

Following parts of a career development plan interest the reviewers. You should pay special attention to these:

  • Your research background and professional track record: First of all, you need to be sincere with the plan. Your plan should depict your academic sincerity. The reviewers will particularly inspect your medical degree, clinical track record, and publication history, etc. because these predict the odds of your future success. In the track record, you should highlight your:
    • School & degree
    • Past training, research, and teaching experience
    • Awards, honors, and certificates
    • Research methodologies
    • Academic strengths & weaknesses
    • Discussion about how the funding can help overcome the weaknesses
    • Additional skills required through funding
    • Scientific & professional goals

In addition, you need to explain in detail your research and professional activities in the career development award such as:

    • The list of grant-writing seminars and presentation and training opportunities you have attended throughout your professional life.
    • Coursework, certifications and learning opportunities
    • Receipts of local or international traveling to attend professional meetings
  • Your choice of the project: The reviewer is interested to know how distinguishable your project from the rest of the applications is. Is it good enough to help you establish an independent research career? It is important to discuss the project, its goals, and potential timelines ahead of applying for the award.


2.  Strong Research Plan & Letters of Recommendations Make All the Difference

While career development plan is part and parcel of the application, there are other elements that carry weight and should not be ignored at any cost. These include:

  • Research Plan & Preliminary Data: Your research plan should be well-thought-out, cohesive and innovative. A research plan is your hypothesis; it should be clear, specific and explicitly demonstrate your transition to independence. Most importantly, it should be doable and achievable. Avoid making exaggerated claims.

Experts recommend you should propose approximately three specific aims in the application (Houser, 2012). The fewer the specific aims, the better you will be able to explain. Reviewers favor applications with a clearly-defined research plan and specific aims.

Additionally, while preliminary data are optional for training grant applications, reviewers still look for proof of concept, feasibility in the preliminary data. If possible, try including preliminary data because it increases your chances of success.

  • Letters of Recommendation: A well-written K award application must contain strong letters of recommendation from at least one of the following:
    • Primary mentor
    • Institute
    • Graduate advisors
    • Resident chief
    • Committee member

The letter of recommendation is extremely important; no application will be approved if it does not contain one. Together with the career development plan, the letters of the recommendation are indicators of future success. Of all the letters of recommendation, one with the strongest impact comes from the primary mentor.

The letters should:

    • Vouch for your commitment and ability to achieve the goal in the mentioned time frame
    • Assure your academic credentials, background, and experience
    • Highlight the importance of your research and its impact on the healthcare
    • Contain experimental details of your research plan
    • Add value to your study and application
    • Claim that your study is hypothesis-driven and has a solid foundation
    • Mention the funding status of the laboratory you are currently working with
    • Signify how the grant fund can expand and broaden the trainee’s (your) research
    • Reason why the study is absolutely critical for your career
    • Mention why you need to conduct the study in the specific laboratory
  • Responsible Conduct of Research: Your application should also include a statement that you plan to enroll in a “Responsible Conduct of Research” course to broaden your training experience. The NIH requires every candidate to sign up for this course in order to meet the ethical benchmark of the training. The statement should describe the course subject matter in detail.


3.  Make Sure You Have Institutional Support

The NIH has made it absolutely necessary that every application for K award provide a detailed description training environment. This environment, such as a laboratory or a university, must be supportive and conducive of research and contain facilities and the infrastructure that the trainee needs within the facility. The purpose of the requirement is to ensure that the applicant possesses strong institutional support and commitment.

In addition, the trainee must also produce the evidence of training, resources, and commitment from the division chief or the department chair of the facility to assure the reviewers that the applicant will get resources, space and time from the facility throughout the training period.

Once awarded, the researcher will conduct the study under the supervision and guidance of the mentor in the approved institution where s/he will develop the skills, expertise, and competencies required to develop an independent research career.

4.  Choose the Right Mentor & Mentorship Committee

Selecting the right mentor is perhaps the most significant factor in determining success. If possible, find a mentor with an established track record of NIH funding because s/he will not only be the most right fit for your project, it will also give positive vibes to the reviewers about your commitment for training par excellence. The reviewers judge the applicant on the choice of the mentor. If the reviewers have familiarity with the mentor and are aware of their scientific achievements, it will be advantageous to your proposal.

Try to select a veteran mentor who has expertise in your field. A senior investigator providing mentored training is the best research guide. S/he will improve almost all the aspects of training and will ultimately lead to a successful professional career. While choosing a mentor, keep the following points in mind. Does the mentor have:

  • Previous experience of training and fostering junior researchers?
  • An established career as a trainer?
  • History of funding by the NIH or other grant agencies?

A mentor adds significance and adequacy to your research. The mentored-training, support, and advice are valuable in projecting the career transition. A careful selection of mentor’s lab will help foster scientific/academic career and growth.

In addition to a mentor, you, as an applicant, are also required to constitute a complementary team of 3-4 medical specialists or collaborators so that they can provide:

  • Guidance, advice, and support
  • Insight into the proposal
  • Mentorship
  • Letter of collaboration
  • Curriculum vitae

There is no strict rule about the recruitment of the committee members; the applicant is free to hire them from their own institute or regional areas. However, it is recommended that the expertise of the committee members differ significantly from the primary mentor’s so that you can diversify and broaden the proposal study aspect. Together with your advisor, you can:

  • Put the K award application
  • Produce a career development plan
  • Form the advisory panel

In addition, your proposal will include the names and contributions of the mentor as well as each committee member – in the form of scientific, financial or advisory capacity – in detail.




  1. Schimanski, L.A. (2018, October 5). The Evaluation Of Scholarship In Academic Promotion And Tenure Processes: Past, Present, And Future. Version 1. F1000Res, 7,1605.
  2. Houser, S.R. (2012, March 30). How To Obtain A National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute-Sponsored K08 And K99/R00 Grant In The Current Funding Climate. Circ Res, 110(7), 907-9.