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Career Development / Research

Eight tips for applying for your first grant

Eight tips for applying for your first grant

by Catherine Chen, MD

While I don’t claim to be an expert in grantwriting, I have learned a thing or two over the past few years that may be helpful to those just starting out. I wrote my first successful grant application—a FAER Research Fellowship Grant—when I was a 2nd year anesthesia resident. More recently, I applied for and received a FAER Mentored Research Training Grant. Although both required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (I’m exaggerating, but only a little), the second grant was definitely easier to write than the first. Why the difference between my two grantwriting experiences? With the second grant, I had a much better understanding of the writing process, timeline and what made up the different components of the grant. It also helped that some parts of the grant, such as Letters of Recommendation, Biosketch, Mentoring Plan, and Career Development Plan, just need tweaking the second time around instead of having to be written from scratch. Because you are starting completely from scratch, your first grant will always be the hardest grant to write. As I think back to what I wish I knew when I was still preparing my first grant application, I will pass on some practical advice to those of you who are thinking of applying for the first time, whether it be a grant from FAER, IARS, ASPF, or even the NIH. Hopefully, it will help demystify the process and give you the encouragement you need to submit an application in a few months.

  • Find a good research mentor

This is very important—many of these early career awards focus a lot on the mentor and the research environment. ”How to select a good mentor” deserves far more attention than a bullet point, but suffice it to say, this is a key component of your grant. Ideally, this person already has experience writing his or her own successful grants and will not only act as the mentor on your research project, but can also guide you through the grantwriting process itself.

  • Review the funding organization’s grant guidelines thoroughly

Note eligibility requirements and important deadlines, make a checklist of each of the required items and a rough schedule of when you will work on them, and follow the required formatting for each of the grant components (headers, margins, font size, font type, etc). You don’t want to be dinged for ignoring basic instructions.

  • Be aware of institutional deadlines

Just because a grant is due on a certain date doesn’t mean you can upload all of your documents to the website the night before. Make sure you coordinate with your institution’s research support staff to meet any required internal grant deadlines so that you’re not left scrambling at the last minute. You should let them know as early as possible that you are planning on applying for a grant—ideally 2-3 months in advance. It’s better to let them know you’re thinking of applying and then not apply, than to surprise them only a few weeks before the grant deadline that you have a last-minute application to submit. Typically, things like the Budget, Letters of Recommendation, Biosketches, and even the Specific Aims page, as well as other institutional forms, need to be submitted up to two weeks in advance to your institution so that all the necessary approvals are in place for you to proceed with your application. You can usually work on things like the Research Plan, Career Development Plan and Mentoring Plan up until the very last minute and upload these items to the application site yourself.

  • Find examples of other people’s grants

When I was still a resident applying for my first FAER, I asked some of the faculty at my institution who had previously submitted successful FAER grants to share a copy with me. All of them were very willing to do so. The research focus on these other grants will often differ greatly from your area of interest, and the other person’s background and career trajectory may look nothing like yours. The key is to look at other people’s grants as a template so you get an idea of what types of things to include for the different parts of the grant. Please keep in mind that you should NEVER PLAGIARIZE any part of someone else’s grant. In other words, don’t do anything to make these generous people regret sharing their grant with you. Don’t lift phrases/sentences/paragraphs/Letters of Recommendation and don’t distribute the documents to anyone else unless the original author has given you explicit permission to share them. Look at these grants once or twice, then put them away and focus on writing your own grant. If you don’t know anyone at your own institution who has written the type of grant you’re applying for (which sometimes is the case), use eSAS and other networking opportunities at national meetings to develop relationships with researchers from other institutions who can help you.

  • Draft your Specific Aims page early and shop it around to people you trust

Mentor and research environment are very important, but so is a good research question. The Specific Aims page is a 1-page summary of the rest of your Research Plan. You should be able to convince someone of what you want to study and why it is important. The structure of the Specific Aims page can be modeled after the one in the NIH Grantwriting Bible. If you don’t have a copy of this workbook yet, ask around at your institution to see if someone already has it for you to borrow. It may even be worth it to purchase one yourself, since this is likely a resource you will refer to over and over if you commit to a career in academics. Grant reviewers are busy people. If you structure your Specific Aims page clearly and argue convincingly why your topic is important to study and how you plan to study it, the reviewers will be compelled to read the rest of your grant application. If the Specific Aims page is weak, all that work you put into the rest of your grant will have been for naught. The people you ask to review your Specific Aims page should be other researchers who you can trust to give you honest feedback. Your research mentor would obviously be the best place to start. Bonus tip: Don’t repeat sentences word-for-word from your Specific Aims page in the Background and Significance section. You will be elaborating on the same ideas that you described in the Specific Aims with more detail and examples, but don’t copy and paste directly. There’s usually a page limit for the Research Plan, so you don’t want to take up valuable space by repeating things you’ve already said before.

  • Write drafts of your own Letters of Recommendation

You will usually need anywhere from 3-5 Letters of Recommendation for most of the grants you apply for. You must have one from your department chair, and one letter should be from your primary research mentor. You can also include letters from other collaborators or anyone else who can vouch for your aptitude and ability to carry out your research plan. It’s usually pretty easy to think of who these letter writers need to be. Once you’ve identified all the letter writers, contact them and ask them if they would be willing to write you a letter. Offer to provide them with a draft. After all, letter writers are busy people too, and who better than yourself to highlight your background and qualifications for performing the proposed research? Each of your letter writers knows you from a different context, so make sure you include stuff that only that person would know about you or be willing to vouch for you, and put yourself in the voice of that person so that what you’re writing on their behalf is consistent with how they write and with what they would be willing to say about you. Do not be shy about touting your qualifications and accomplishments. The letter writer will tone it down if it’s too over the top, but it’s hard for them to embellish the letter if you don’t include enough content to begin with. Your goal in writing these drafts is not only to save your letter writers time, but also to paint a complete picture of who you are as a person and researcher when all the letters are read in one sitting. Bonus tip: Depending on how your mentor likes to work, you can also offer to tweak your mentor’s personal statement and their summary/list of references in the “Key contributions to science” section(s) on the Biosketch to better customize it to your proposed research. Same is true for the Mentoring Plan—just like the Letter of Recommendation, you can write a detailed draft for your mentor to review to save them time and to demonstrate to the grant review committee that you have a strong mentoring relationship based on how thorough the final Mentoring Plan is.

  • Do not skimp on the Career Development Plan

Early career grants focus as much on Career Development as they do on the Research Plan. Make sure that when someone reads your Career Development Plan, your career trajectory is obvious and that everything you have done up until this point in your career leads naturally to the next step which is the research you have proposed in your Research Plan. Don’t forget to include your prior research experiences and accomplishments, current research training opportunities at your institution, attendance at national meetings, and other learning opportunities that will be available to you as you carry out the proposed research. All of the things you include as part of your Career Development Plan should give you the additional skills you need and expose you to important future colleagues/collaborators to make you into a better researcher (and ultimately, an independent investigator) in the future.

  • Ask people who are not in your area of research to review your Research Plan

Once you have a near-final draft of your Research Plan—which usually includes the Specific Aims, Background, Significance, Preliminary Data, and Experimental Design/Methods—shop it around again to people you trust. You want to get an idea of whether people who are not in your research area can understand what you’ve written. I’ve even forced asked my husband, who is neither a physician nor a researcher, to critique my research plan. The goal is to communicate your research ideas clearly to an educated layperson. After you’ve been working on the same paragraphs for a long period of time, you will be surprised how something sounds so obvious to you when you read it in your head that someone else will point out and say, “I don’t see you how you got from here to there” or “This transition is too abrupt” or “I’m confused” or “This paragraph belongs in Significance, not Background.” Since you will likely know the literature and justification for your research like the back of your hand by the time a research plan is in its near-final form, and because you’ve already worked so hard to perfect each sentence that you can’t possibly imagine how you can make it any better, it’s rare for anyone to be able to read their own writing objectively with an editor’s hat on. However, keep in mind that you’re not trying to convince yourself that the work is important, you’re trying to convince the grant reviewers. So having as many people read your research plan as possible who themselves are good writers and good researchers and who are willing to be critical of your work, is invaluable. I cannot tell you how different my research plan looked a week before submission—before I was able to incorporate this feedback from my colleagues who are not part of the research team—when compared to the final product that was submitted. Do not be embarrassed or shy about asking for help from people you trust.

The eight tips I included above are obviously not an exhaustive list of what you need to know before you apply for your first grant, but I hope it will make the process a little bit smoother for you and increase your likelihood of success when you submit your first grant application. If you don’t get funded the first time, don’t give up. If you are lucky enough to get a grant critique, learn from it, and try again.

Here are a couple of additional links that may be helpful to you:

Purchase the NIH Grantwriting Bible:

More grantwriting tips from the NIH:

Although I still consider myself an early-stage researcher (which is why I’m part of eSAS!), if I can be of further help to you who are even earlier on the research career trajectory, please feel free to contact me at catherine dot chen at ucsf dot edu. Good luck to all who are submitting grants this year and if you do get funded after incorporating some of my advice, I would love to hear from you.

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