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How to contact a Program Officer

December 15, 2011

It is past time for me to be writing a K99, so much so that it is unclear that I am eligible because I’ve been a post-doc for quite a while now.  There are multiple reasons, namely two major intellectual field changes and two babies in addition to doing very inter-disciplinary work.  It is clear that it is time to contact a Program Officer, and if I’m planning on that February 12th deadline, well, I really should have done it a few weeks ago.  I’ve been batting it down the to do list for a month, which means that I need to break the task down to steps I know how to take since “contact PO” is clearly too complex.

I started with “figure out who your PO is”.  That’s easy, right?  Except I don’t  have a PO.  Indeed that is (one of) my problems.  So I found the names of program officers that fund the two labs I work in and then RePORTER’ed PIs doing some related work to bring up a couple more PO’s that could, in theory be interested in funding my world take-over, since what I would like to do is an awkward fit at best for either of the program officers that fund the two different groups that I work with.  Check.  I’ve got a list of names, email addresses and phone numbers.

Next, I strengthened my case.  What NIH policies exist for babies and interdisciplinary work?  The NIH Family Friendly Initiatives are pretty easy to find, and there is precedence for allowing an extension of eligibility of at least ESI status for time away, including the time due to the birth of a child.  Now I have policy numbers (NOT-OC-09-034! and the blogged about NOT-OD-11-045).  There is clear institutional support in the form of training grant mechanisms for interdisciplinary training and the work I’m doing certainly falls within the purvey of the interdisciplinary, although nothing specifically addresses the time necessary to get up to intellectual speed in a new field.  But good enough.  Extension of the window by even a few months is enough so I’m not asking for anything outrageous.

I wrote a couple outlines that put different spins on different components of the work – biological, technical, biomedical etc.  I layed out the ways in which I am a special butterfly in an amazing enviroment that just needs a little bit more training.  And now I’m stuck.  I send an e-mail?  I pick up the phone?  When it comes down to it, I have two questions, which are “are you interested in any of the work I’m doing” followed by “would you make some small exceptions (that are sometimes allowed by the NIH) to fund me”.  It sort of seems like I’m asking for too much.  I try to interest them in my awesome project ideas and then explain that I’m scraping against the outside edge of the eligibility time limit?  Can I pitch it in several different ways to the same person?  “NO WAIT!  Don’t hang up!  What about a project where I do this other insane thing?  No?  How about if you look at it in this way?  Hello?  Is anyone there?  Hello? …” I’m at a loss as to what exactly to say and how to proceed.

So I’ve entered the information-gathering/procrastination mode wherein I bitch to everyone I know about the situation and pump them for information.  Unfortunately, IRL I run with a crowd that calls their PO only to find out if their scores fall above or below the payline, or occasionally to ask for a no-cost extension or pitch a crazy idea for one of the smaller mechanisms or a supplement.  For them, contacting a PO is no big deal and if there are tricks or secrets, they either don’t know them or aren’t telling.  Do I just channel my inner super-confident extrovert, put on a smile and send that email and then pick up the phone and cold-contact these strangers?  Do I just ask about the science and an extension only if they are interested?  Can I talk to them about a couple of seemingly unrelated projects in the same conversation?  Sequentially?  Do I include a CV or something?  If I sound too crazy, will my name end up on some list of tinfoil hat wearers for the rest of my now destined-to-be-short scientific career?  Help me, internet.  My inner super-confident extrovert needs some encouragment.

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One Comment
  1. NatC permalink

    Just call (and if they aren’t available, email)! Have an elevator pitch ready to go, and talk to them. They will let you know who to contact if at first you talk to the wrong person.
    POs have been unfailingly informative and helpful when I’ve spoken to them.
    Also, ask their advice: what other grants are options, for example, what are the upcoming focus in your sub-specialty (if any).
    Finally, when your Specific Aims are ready, send them to your now identified PO and ask for feedback. DO IT! Then listen to their advice.
    Good luck!

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