Jun 26, 2013
By Jae H. Park, MD
From inexperienced fellows-in-training to new junior faculty members and world-renowned senior investigators, competing for grants occurs at all stages of academic research and is an essential component of everyday life for clinical and basic science investigators. Furthermore, mastering grant writing has become an increasingly valuable skillset for junior investigators in the current economic era of declining approval rates for grant applications. This means that today's prospective investigators have little margin for error when requesting funds for their research.
In order to assist fellows in obtaining their first successful grant, I want to share some helpful insights I have learned based on my own experience, as well as insights from several grant-writing courses organized by my institution and professional organizations such as the American Association of Cancer Research, the American Society of Hematology, and ASCO (courses which I would encourage you to attend).
Here are my humble opinions to help you secure your first successful grant:
Choose an important question
The first step in designing a winning grant application is to start off with a question that you believe is important, original, and realistic, and not overambitious, incoherent, and/or too diffuse.
Present your ideas to others and get feedback. When you're starting out, it is often difficult to get a sense of what is considered original, important, and feasible. Take advantage of your mentor and other senior investigators in the department and get their thoughts. They can make suggestions to structure your ideas and make your proposal more attractive to potential reviewers.
Formulate a clear hypothesis. Although it is not required for some grant applications, proposals that test a hypothesis tend to receive favorable scores as opposed to what might be considered "fishing expeditions." Funding agencies want to know that projects being funded will yield useful results, even if things don't go as planned.
Identify potential funding sources that are appropriate for your project
- Use the resources at your institution. Each institution usually has grant offices that update the list of available funding opportunities. In addition, reach out to senior investigators, fellowship directors, and/or department heads, as they may often receive solicitations for grant applications.
- Get to know the funding source. Different funding sources have different missions and different criteria. Do your homework and visit their website or contact the program officer to get a better sense of the funding source's portfolio (look for past-funded projects and investigators) and the style of research they support (e.g., basic science vs. translational vs. clinical projects, etc.). Study the review criteria carefully and tailor your project to the grant agency.
Take advantage of early-career status
As you search through potential grants, you will soon realize that many professional and philanthropic organizations have set aside funds to support research efforts of young investigators in training or those a few years out of fellowship. Grant agencies recognize that junior investigators have less grant-writing experience and less opportunity to accumulate preliminary data, and place more emphasis on a researcher's training and experience.
- Formulate a well-defined career development plan with your mentor. Early-career development awards are usually mentored awards so the qualifications of the mentor are critical in obtaining these grants. Mentors must state that they will devote time and energy to the development of your career and provide intellectual guidance and resources to ensure successful execution of your proposed research plan.
- Personal statement. You want to convey your commitment and sincere desire for a career in research and how the proposed project will lead to the development of a research program that will be independent of your mentor's research.
Have a solid and well-considered plan
Your research plan is like a very high-level sales plan. A typical reviewer has very little time to do their job, so be explicit and clear about what you expect to accomplish, how you plan to do the work, why it matters, and how it's different from what others have done.
- Write a concise, yet comprehensive, abstract. The abstract should introduce the reviewer to the problems you are addressing, the overall hypothesis you are testing, how you plan to test your hypothesis, your overall experimental plan, and why you believe your work is important.
- Keep the specific aims related but independent of the successful outcomes of the previous aim. This way, even if you don't achieve your first aim, your entire proposal may not crash down.
- Be clear, organized, and detailed. Give enough detail that a reviewer can clearly see how you intend to go about your research.
- Be realistic about what you can accomplish. An overambitious proposal can make reviewers question your ability to achieve your goals and also wonder whether the project has been thoroughly thought out.
- Provide alternative approaches and contingency plans. This way, your reviewers know that if one approach doesn't work, you've already thought about alternative strategies to tackle your question.
Build on previous experience
The best plans usually build on the prior experience of the applicant, but are not direct extensions of prior work.
- Include preliminary data. Include them when you can to demonstrate your productivity and show feasibility and proof of concept for your research project.
- Add a co-mentor or collaborator. If you do not have documented expertise in some areas of your proposed project, add a co-mentor or collaborator who has the expertise to convince the reviewer that you would be able to generate high-quality data in the specified amount of time.
Write clearly and well
No matter how good your idea is, poorly written proposals are not going to be funded. Proposals should formulate the research ideas and strategy in a way that is clear to both experts and nonexperts alike.
- Ask for feedback. Share your grant proposals with senior investigators and mentors who have been successful in getting grants, and ask for their feedback (and give them time to be thoughtful about it). Circulating your proposal should not be the final step before you click the submission button, but rather a halfway mark.
- Read, read, and read again. Make sure your ideas flow well and make sense. Double (and triple) check for spelling and grammatical errors, excessive use of jargon and abbreviations, and convoluted paragraphs.
- Do your homework. Make sure you reference others' work appropriately and represent the literature well.
Good luck with your next grant application. Be persistent. Feel free to ask questions and share your experience with me!