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Early Career Stage Funding – Advice for Graduate Students and Post-Docs

Are you stressing about applying for grant funding early on in your career? Are you worrying about lack of preliminary data or lack of experience in your current field? Here are some tips that can help.

Why Apply at an Early Stage of Your Career?

All of your experiences build upon each other to strengthen your curriculum vitae/resumé. Therefore, your undergraduate work lays the foundation for your graduate studies.  Likewise, your graduate work lays the foundation for your post-doctoral work, etc. Begin applying for grants as early as possible to learn the grant writing process. The more grants you write, the better your skills become.

Pre-doctoral

You might find that your mentor requires pre-doctoral students to apply for funding because research equipment, supplies, and reagents are expensive. But even if your mentor does not require this, it is still highly recommended to do so, as the grant writing skills on your CV strengthen your post-doctoral application.

It tremendously strengthens your CV/resumé for your future work and future grant applications if you successfully earn a pre-doctoral grant.  Grants are highly competitive, especially in today’s economy. Obtaining a grant highlights your competitiveness and achievements on your CV.

Post-doctoral

Furthermore, some primary investigators (PI’s) only accept post-doctoral candidates that bring their own funding. Other PI’s request their post-docs to apply for funding during the post-doc years. Therefore, having the previous grant writing experience is helpful and in some cases, necessary for your post-doc job. Some grants, like the NIH K99 Pathway to Independence Award, are for promising early career post-docs, and help the post-doc transition from a post-doc to an assistant professor. Having several years of grant writing prior to your post-doc years will make you a stronger candidate for the K99 Award.

When applying for a grant, the funding agency evaluates your CV/resumé to look at your background. If you have previous funding it strengthens your probability of earning a future grant. Additionally, some grants, like the pre-doctoral NIH F32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Fellowship, require that the PI of the graduate student have an NIH RO1 grant. Thus, funding may also be necessary for your future graduate students to be able to begin applying for their own funding.

Worried About Your Lack of Expertise in Your Field?

To overcome the lack of expertise in a new field, do a thorough background literature review and clearly explain the current state of knowledge in the field. Having a grasp of the literature in your new field will help compensate for your lack of expertise in this field. Cite pioneers in the field, and experts with data that support your proposed experimental design.

Collaborate with others who have expertise in the field. Collaboration typically improves your progress, increases creativity and critical thinking, and encourages knowledge sharing – all important for advancing the field.

In the past several decades, researchers have begun highlighting the importance of knowledge sharing to shorten the “bench to bedside” timeline, to get medical treatments to patients quicker. This might also enable you to include additional techniques that are not available in your lab. Depending upon your field, some techniques will strengthen the quality of your grant proposal.

Highlight the novel aspects of your project. Novelty can project your research proposal ahead of other grant proposals, if your grant is written well, and appears as though it has a high probability of success.

Applying With Little Preliminary Data?

Are you concerned about not having enough preliminary data? This is probably a concern that we all feel when applying for funding. Just keep in mind that if you had all of the data you wanted for your project, then there would be no need for the funding agency to fund the project, because it would be complete!

Clearly describe the preliminary data you do have and layout why your research proposal is important for the field. Ensure that you carefully explain any caveats or challenges you might face during the project, because having a detailed plan is as important as preliminary data. If you have successfully worked through previous challenges, then explain these briefly in your grant proposal.

Incorporate preliminary findings from your co-investigators. This is a great way to show that you are building upon the knowledge in the field and that you have experts in the field collaborating on your project.

Alternatively, there are grants specifically designed for pilot studies to help you obtain preliminary data. For example, the NIH R21 Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant is aimed at aiding researchers in obtaining preliminary data for very promising proposals and novel projects, to allow them to apply for larger research grants in the future.

Contact the Funding Agency

Contact the program officer at the funding agency to introduce yourself, and to double check information from the website, such as page-length. Parameters of the grant itself may have recently changed and your university grant coordinator or mentor might not be aware of these changes. Do not feel that you cannot contact the program officer, just because you are not a PI, because you are the one who is applying for the grant.

Write Persuasively!

In an ever so competitive world of biomedical science and an ever-increasing difficulty in obtaining grant funding, you must “sell” your science to the grant reviewers at the funding agency. Persuasion is key! Write your grant clearly and concisely enough that a person from any field can understand your purpose, your preliminary data, and why this research is beneficial to society. Your grant must be competitive, well-written, clear, and must convey the importance of your research for the medical community.

Ask Senior People in Your Field for Suggestions

Before submitting your grant, ask your department if you can present your grant at one of the departmental seminars. This will give you the opportunity to get feedback from your peers, and to determine if your grant is written broadly enough for a reviewer (in any field) to understand.

If presenting your grant at a seminar is not possible, then ask several faculty members at your institution to read through your grant and give you feedback. Ask someone from an entirely different department, if possible, to have someone with a different background reviewing your grant before submission.

Also, ask a family member, or someone outside of the scientific community to read through your grant and give you suggestions. Sometimes, a member of the grant review panel is a non-scientist.

If Rejected, Apply Again

If you receive a grant rejection, read the reviewers’ comments and then put the grant in a drawer for a week, so that you can cool down your temper. Then, pull it back out, carefully read the comments again, and start revising your grant for resubmission or submission to another funding agency. You will be surprised that the previous reviewers’ comments, as harsh as they may be, might help you obtain your next grant…or your first grant!

Grant writing is competitive, stressful, and very challenging. However, grant writing skills are crucial for biomedical research. Obtaining grants strengthens your CV, funds your research, makes you more competitive for post-doctoral, assistant professor, and industry positions, and more competitive for future grants. Stay optimistic as you write your grant proposals and remember to use the feedback to improve your grant for your next submission. Good luck!

Image credit: CafeCredit.com

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