Obtaining external funding for your project through an NIH grant is a coup at any stage of your career. These grants can provide as much as five years of support – defraying both lab and living expenses – and allow a researcher greater financial freedom while pursuing their hypothesis.
However, obtaining one of these grants is much easier said than done. A successful grant application requires weeks (or months) of work from both the applicant and their mentor. Then, once submitted, only 10-30% of grant applications are actually funded, depending on the institution you choose to apply to.
The difficulty of the application process, and subsequent low success rate, are enough to thwart investigators with even the most brilliant ideas. But do not despair! Having recently been awarded an F31 myself, I can attest that while it is tough, it’s not impossible.
Here is some advice from someone who has been through it and lived to tell the tale:
Before you begin
Know your timeline and stay on top of it
The best advice I can give, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to start early. These grant applications require numerous written attachments, and coordination from several different people. Some of whom are even busier than you – your PI, your referees, administrators in your department and your institution’s grant office – and an early start gives everyone time to put their best effort in (and some leeway just in case anyone procrastinates).
Right off the bat talk to your PI and craft a rough timeline based on the NIH submission deadline. Keep in mind that your institution likely has internal deadlines as well, which can be a couple weeks before the NIH one. Find these out well in advance to ensure a smooth submission process.
Familiarize yourself with the grant application
NIH grant applications are quite complex, so navigating it alone for the first time is a headache waiting to happen. Not only are there many sections to worry about, but each has its own guidelines to adhere to. Don’t go it alone! Wherever possible, take the opportunity to learn from those who are in the know. Attend any workshops or seminars offered by your institution on applying for an NIH grant.
Additionally, one of the most helpful things you can do is find an example of a grant proposal that was successfully funded, and use it as a guide. Even better is if you can obtain their reviewer comments as well, to see the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. Your peers, lab-mates, department, and institution are all great potential sources of funded applications. Some NIH institutes, such as the NIGMS and NIAID, even provide online sample applications themselves, so you should have no shortage of guidance and inspiration if you know where to look.
Utilize the expertise of your superiors
Your PI wants to get funded just as much (if not more!) than you do, and is an invaluable resource. Successful grants often undergo rounds of revisions between the PI and the applicant, to create the most compelling and scientifically-sound proposal possible. Don’t underestimate the importance of their input, and keep them involved at each stage of the application process.
A great place to start is with your Specific Aims, which essentially outlines your central hypothesis, rationale, and main research goals. After these have been finalized and approved by your PI, you should be in good shape to tackle the more in-depth sections.
However, your mentor isn’t the only one in your lab who can help! Senior post-docs or students in your lab that work in similar fields, or with the same techniques, can be another fantastic source of feedback. Have them review your proposal, and consider mentioning them in your application as a potential resource. For instance, I emphasized that the mouse model I would be using had been developed by a current post-doc in our lab, who could thus be another excellent source of guidance during my research.
Mind your reviewers
Why is the proposed research important to the field, and what is the big picture application? Why fund this project, this candidate, this institution, over others? These are the main questions on your reviewers’ minds as they read your proposal, so make sure you answer them! Also, be aware of the potential weaknesses of your project and address them head-on (so your reviewers don’t have to). They can, and will, nitpick, so be prepared.
K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple stupid
Your reviewers should be able to easily follow along with your thought process and rationale as they read through your application. Due to space constraints, it’s tempting to cut exposition and justification in favor of making room for more proposed work – don’t fall into this trap! 2-3 well-developed aims are always better than 3+ aims that are not thoroughly described. Furthermore, the proposed work must realistically be able to be completed during the anticipated funding period (2-3 years of proposed work is typical).
General tips & words of wisdom
Keep your aims independent: make sure Aim II doesn’t depend on the outcome of Aim I. You will get dinged for this.
When stuck on one section, work on another. This is a great way to combat writer’s block, or stay productive while waiting for revisions on another section.
When choosing referees, try to pick people who know you and can speak to your competence. Funded students I know have used their undergraduate mentors, committee members, directors for courses they TA, department chairs, collaborators, etc. Speaking of, make sure you ask for your references as soon as possible. It would be a shame for one tardy letter of reference to disqualify your whole application!
Lastly, don’t worry about not getting funded the first time around and having to resubmit. This can be a blessing in disguise! You can then use the reviewers’ feedback to address the weaknesses in your application and galvanize it for your next submission. I can personally vouch for this method of getting funded!
Above all, don’t stress and take it one step at a time. Good luck!
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