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I am in the ending stages of my postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford and am actively looking for an academic job. Are there certain fellowships/grants I could/should apply for at this point? Most people I know and talked to applied for the standard R-01 grant AFTER they had completed their job search and had an institutional commitment from their new employer. I am still in the search process but would like to know if there is something I can do now in terms of obtaining my own funding and maybe even bolster my chances in the job market. Any advice is welcome.
You're absolutely right: An R-01 requires evidence of an institutional commitment. Most postdocs have little chance of getting an R-01. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare an application. There are good reasons to go ahead and prepare an R-01 application, even if it is a long shot.
First of all, you'll have the experience of putting together an R-01 application, and that experience will serve you well. Before you start, have a careful look at Next Wave's "Toolkit" piece on Writing an R-01 application .
Second, you'll have an R-01 application in-hand. You can draw on it in writing your research statement for your job application and in the research presentation you give during campus visits. You might also submit it with your application as supplemental materials.
Third, being prepared to submit the application as soon as you arrive at your new institution will give you a fast start on getting funding. A fast start may position you to get a funding renewal prior to your second tenure review; a renewed R-01 makes a very strong case for your future promise.
Postdocs are not technically disqualified from submitting R-01 applications. However, R-01 applications are submitted by institutions, on behalf of individual PIs. Most institutions are likely to balk at the idea of submitting an application in the name of a postdoc. Nonetheless, if you can obtain institutional support, you'll have the benefit of having your application evaluated by NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR). You'll get valuable feedback on your research proposal and establish a paper trail, improving your chances of success the next time around. If your application is "streamlined"--deemed to be in the lower half of all applications and therefore not put forward for formal review--you still get feedback.
If your ideas are good, you may find that reviewers' main criticism is the lack of a permanent job. That's a powerful message to potential employers, saying, in effect, that if you had a permanent position you'd be earning R-01 grants.
More likely, the reviewers' message will be more mixed. Your lack of a permanent position will be noted, but the reviewers may have scientific concerns as well. For instance, they may believe that your approach won't work or that the work you propose isn't important enough to merit NIH support. Using this feedback, your task becomes much more specific: Rather than trying to "write a strong proposal" you're trying to (e.g.) convince reviewers of the promise of a specific approach, or rewriting the project description or research plan to be sure that your goals are aligned with NIH's goals. If you address the reviewers' concerns convincingly in your resubmission, your odds of getting funded are much better.
More likely, though, you won't submit that R-01 application until you get a job, so it makes sense to pursue other funding. There are several programs designed for advanced postdocs seeking faculty positions.
Chief among these are NIH's K-22 Career Transition Awards, which are currently offered by eleven of the NIH institutes. K-22s don't require institutional support, you can apply for them while you're still a postdoc (still in the so-called "mentored" phase of your career), and you can use the money to get started on the postmentored stage of your career while pursuing that R-01. K-22s begin paying out as soon as you begin your new faculty job.
But different NIH institutes administer K-22 awards differently. For instance, the National Cancer Institute reserves these awards for clinical scientists, as well as prevention, control, and population scientists. Basic scientists are encouraged to apply for the Howard Termin award, a K-01 program--a program that in other institutes is a standard postdoctoral traineeship. Still other institutes encourage K-22 applications from basic scientists as well as clinicians, as long as their research is related to human health and disease. Institutes may also have other restrictions: limiting awards to scientists who worked at NIH laboratories, or to recipients of certain NIH training grants. Some institutes allow you to apply for a K-22 during the last phase of your postdoc or the early years of your first faculty position. If you are awarded a K-22 before you enter the "postmentored" career phase, you have 12 months to find that first faculty position. And if you find a job before you win the award, you still get the money.
In general, K-22s pay for salary, research-related costs, and travel expenses. The maximum amount of the award depends on the Institute, but a typical award pays as much as $50-75 thousand yearly for salary and perhaps $50 thousand more for research expenses, travel expenses, and so on. You cannot use K-22s to hire research staff. Some NIH Institutes require K-22 recipients to apply for an R-01 prior to the end of the second year of K-22 support
To see if a K-22 will work for you, go the K-Kiosk  on the NIH Web site, scroll down to the K-22s, and click on the links to the institutes likely to fund research in your area. Keep in mind that your research may fit into more than one institute.
Some private foundations grants also exist to help bridge the gap between the mentored and unmentored phases of your career. For example, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) sponsors the Career Development Awards in the Biomedical Sciences . BWF Career Development Awards are competitive, prestigious, and lucrative--to the tune of half a million dollars. The money is intended to support both your late-postdoctoral research and the early phase of your faculty career. (BWF, by the way, is also a sponsor of Next Wave's Career Development Center.) The American Heart Association (AHA) offers a similar award for heart-disease researchers. Tune in to Next Wave's sister site GrantsNet  in December for more information on AHA's National Fellow to Faculty Transition Award.
Keep in mind that you don't have to choose between these two strategies. If you can find the time, pursue them both. Write a K-22 or apply for a Career Development Award and get a jump on your R-01 application. If you arrive at an interview with a transition grant and a complete, sound R-01 application, they'd be foolish not to hire you.