Insights to Inspire: Training Applications: Starting with a Strong Foundation

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The purpose of the Careers in Clinical and Translational Research metric is to measure and develop strategic plans to enhance the ways hubs and the entire CTSA Program consortium are training and supporting the future workforce. This support is vital to helping trainees remain engaged in clinical and translational science. One of the earliest opportunities hubs have to support early-career trainees and scholars is when researchers first apply to the TL1 Clinical Research Training Awards and KL2 Mentored Clinical Research Scholar Awards programs.

For the 2020 Insights to Inspire Series, the Common Metrics Initiative identified hubs that demonstrated the most success in the careers metric for 2017-2018 in order to share the strategies and approaches that worked for them with the rest of the consortium. In particular, several hubs all had particular success in the application process. Following are strategies they found most impactful:

Start Early – with guidance and communication

Karen Freund, KL2 Program Director at Tufts University Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), said CTSI staff begin reaching out to interested scholars at least a year in advance of anticipated application deadlines. Hub staff start by meeting with potential applicants to lay out the entire timeline of the application process before reviewing all aspects of a successful application such as research aims, a training plan and a mentor team. Then, scholars are put in touch with the resources at the CTSI where they can get advice and an analysis of their plan. Scholars with an intended focus in specific areas like stakeholder engagement or data collection also meet with the hub team members who are focused on those topics. “We really feel like there is a potential to quickly provide applicants with a set of resources to provide the best application possible,” said Freund.

Victoria King, Director of Career Development at the University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), said hub staff meet with new faculty and walk them through all the training and career development programs available to junior faculty in an effort to promote those programs to potential applicants. Similarly, Marc Chimowitz, Director of the KL2 Program at the Clinical and Translational Research Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), said the hub calls on program graduates and other successful researchers at the institution to both promote the program and to identify potential applicants.

Tufts also has two investigators who serve as navigators for applicants. The navigators introduce applicants to the hub and assist in making connections, such as finding a faculty mentor with expertise in specific laboratory skills, Freund said. King said the University of Kentucky hub has also had success with a hands-on approach to assisting applicants. Once enough potential applicants have submitted letters of intent, King and CCTS Associate Director Thomas Kelly convene a group of interested applicants to discuss the application process and the content of the training program. Then they meet with each potential applicant to explain specifically what they look for in an application. “We spend some time talking with the individuals and make sure they really understand what an application is and what’s important,” said King.

Raise the bar

Beginning in 2017, the Institute for the Integration of Medicine and Science at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (IIMS) began requiring applicants to its KL2 program to complete a more rigorous letter of intent process and obtain a commitment of a third year of protected time from their respective departments. When first implemented, there was concern the higher threshold might scare applicants away, according to Joel Tsevat, Principal Investigator of the KL2 Program at the IIMS. However, just the opposite has happened. “If anything it has increased the number by making it more prestigious, something people are really proud of getting,” Tsevat said. Both Aubree Shay and Susanne Schmidt, the hub’s Co-Evaluators, said the increased requirements have resulted in attracting scholars who are truly committed to seeing the application process through to the end. The enhanced requirements – such as having first-author status on multiple publications – means applicants are usually further along in their careers, and ensures they are committed and likely to remain in the field of clinical and translational research. “Locally and nationally, programs are developing a cohort of researchers who are prepared for their next step when they finish their KL2,” Tsevat said. Janice Gabrilove, one of two career development leads at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Institutes for Translational Sciences, said the hub’s TL1 program elected to focus exclusively on URP applicants, while also requiring strict performance standards. “In the long run this approach was meant to serve as a pipeline to enhance recruitment and retention of talented URP candidates who will ultimately serve as role models at the faculty level.“  She also indicated, “in the long run, our pipeline program will begin to address the deficiency of URP individuals at mid-career and senior faculty levels.”

Look beyond the paper application

At the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Johns Hopkins University (ICTR), Edgar Miller, Deputy Director for Clinical Research Education, Training and Career Development, said a limited number of slots for its KL2 program meant the hub has, similar to the IIMS, placed a focus on applicants who might be further along in their careers and more likely to be successful. However, Miller said the hub also tries to be aware of whether or not they’re “cherry picking” by avoiding applicants who might have the energy and drive to succeed but might not look as good on paper. To address that, the hub makes sure to place an emphasis on personal interviews with applicants -- especially regarding disadvantages faced by URPs that might not be apparent from applications. “How do you not only select for the most highly productive and connected and such that are going to be well on their way to success? How do you reach in and support people who are more disadvantaged when the outcome of success for the program is transitioning people successfully?” Miller said. Several of the hubs interviewed also emphasized the importance of continuing to work with applicants who are not initially accepted into training programs. Both the IIMS and ICTR said applicants who aren’t initially accepted receive feedback on their applications. This enables scholars to improve their future K applications.

One of the most important ways CTSA Program hubs can pave the way for interventions and innovations that improve the health of individuals and the public is by recruiting researchers who are committed to clinical and translational research. To accomplish that, hubs should  expect a commitment from scholars and trainees, and in return provide a strong foundation and a springboard, from which they can grow and further their careers.