Friday, April 21, 2017

K's for the klueless: Components of the proposal

Ok, my second post on K grants discusses but a few of the overwhelming number of parts of the grant application.

I think the big picture thing I learned was to focus on the actual crafting of the application, as opposed to just the research aims. The scientist attitude is that this is a meritocracy, so good science will always win. But it needs to be well presented and address the goals of the funding opportunity: in this case, the goal is development of your career.

Getting your mentoring team together
This should be the first thing you do--it could take weeks to set up meetings with them and to draft their letters and get their biosketches.  In my case, the process involved bugging my PI to assemble some big names from multiple departments for my app. I think in the end this was one of the best parts of the process.  I got to pitch my research to a number of bigwigs who had never heard of me before.

To be perfectly honest, these were random people who I did not know and who had nothing do with my project (yet), but who I now have met and deeply respect, and who I attempted to gracefully shoehorn into my Career Development Plan. There are 6 pages for Mentor Statements, so I rustled up 3 co-mentors, on top of my mentor. Collaborator letters were a different page allocation, so on top of this, I roped in as collaborator someone I did know and I cold-emailed another professor at my U, shamelessly name-dropping all the people who had already signed on.

I’m SURE it’s not a quantity over quality thing, but I’m not totally sure.  As Omar says, all in the game, yo.

Advice I read said to name a specific commitment for each of these people, in terms of amount of time  (ie, meet once every 2 months) and area of mentorship.  Make sure that is prominent in their mentor letters, and make sure that this lines up with what you write in the career development plan.  This will make them look more committed to mentoring you.

Career development plan (CDP)
Apparently, this is the big underestimated section, and it is the lynchpin of the whole application. The great  presentations, that I linked to previously, suggest an unspoken goal of the K proposal.  It can't just be a great junior research proposal, but it has to mesh a research proposal seamlessly with your background, your current position, a few specific areas of learning, and your future plan. The CDP is where this integration happens.

Basically, make it clear how this award will unstoppably lead to your first R01, and even a vague idea of what that R01 will have in it. 

Make this as concrete as you can with a table timelining a plan for each award year including mentor meetings (integrated with the mentor letters), paper submissions, courses, grant submissions, and learning aims.  After working out the CDP, I then went back to the research plan and sprinkled it lightly with sentences suggesting how each research aim would be aided by the different mentors/collaborator, and would teach me something that was described in the CDP.

Demonstrating independence
The program officer suggested that since I was only a bit out of grad school, I needed to emphasize the independence of my line of work. The PO also said best place to do this is in the CDP and the mentor's letter.  This part probably varies a lot depending on your situation.  For me, I did my PhD work in a certain disease, and my postdoc mentor did not work in that disease, and had very different research methods. I wanted to use methods like my postdoc mentor, but on the disease I'd worked on in my PhD.  So this was my statement of independence, and I think it was well backed up by my PhD  background, my mentor's background and the research plan.

Research plan
Well, of all the sections this was the most terrifying, but I'm probably least qualified to give advice about it. All I will say is 1) get the level of detail right by looking at proposal examples and 2) really focus on the writing. Particularly in the background/significance section, you want it to be easy reading and inspiring. My advisor suggested having the computer read your writing out loud to see where things don't flow nicely. 

Pay attention to those piddly little throw-off sections
So... many... sections.  It became an endurance test. After a while it even felt comical... like oh really, NIH?  ANOTHER document?  What is it this time?  Must I certify that I will have appropriate office furniture?

I did read horror stories about submissions being sunk because of apathetically written Ethics sections.  So I took that seriously, but I actually did get dinged a little on a couple of those sections!  Apparently my letter of institutional support wasnt support-y enough and needed to be more customized to the rest of the application.  As a clueless first time grant applicant, I just took my institution person's word for it that this was an OK letter of support, but don't be like me.   It should be easy to get these right, so do that.

Any other suggestions? Please comment!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

NIH Career Development (K) grants for the clueless: Gathering your resources

Well, I decided to submit a my first NIH grant, a K grant, about 6-7 weeks out from the deadline. I started totally clueless. I had never really even been involved in any of my PIs' grants, though I had submitted a few (rejected) fellowship apps. Since I just found out I got a decent score, I feel mildly qualified to share what I learned and hopefully contribute back to the internet.

This post is about resources I found most useful, and my next is about various sections of the application.

So, the first thing I want to say is just do it! Lots of people don't try, and even if you are not ready, you are probably more ready than I was. Yes, success rates are sometimes not great, and it's really a lot of work. Despite the pain, it turned out to be a very worthwhile and educational process. 

Google became my best friend, and, as someone with a digital hoarding problem, I accumulated quite the set of notes and links and downloads, which are summarized here.

Internet resources:
  • Did I mention google? I’d say the internet provided about 80% of the guidance I received. Half of the battle when you start totally clueless is penetrating the deep tangle of jargon. Check out:
  • NIH grant reporter:.  I was applying for a specific RFA (Request for Applications) so I read basically every abstract that had been funded.  This can help both to know your project is the kind they like, and to give tips on how to write that part up. You can also use this site to look up funded applications for successful people related to your field. This might also help you find a relevant funding opportunity. 
  • The actual application: the RFA page took up residency on a browser tab, and I nearly memorized the instruction PDF. From what I read, not really scrutinizing these and not following instructions is a very common problem.

Contacting the program officer (PO)
My PI suggested that I talk to the PO to see if the RFA was a good fit. I was extremely nervous to talk to the PO so I consulted the internet again. 

Apparently, the best approach to speaking with a PO is to write a to-the-point email asking to talk about the program's fit and sending your Specific Aims as an attachment. Treat their time as extremely valuable. Do your best not to ask a stupid question you can find via google/reading the funding announcement. After I emailed, my PO gave me a time slot to talk that week and also asked me to send my Career Plan and Biosketch. This was hilarious because I barely knew what those were at that point!

This document outlines a lot of things to ask in your conversation. I prepared the following questions:
  • Is my project in line with this opportunity?
  • Should I suggest a study section and funding institution in the cover letter, or what were the options? 
  • Any other suggestions of things that stick out as possible problems for me? 
The PO was very nice and the most important things I got from our talk were things I would not have thought of. These were based on the fact that I am a postdoc: I needed to emphasize my independence (see my next post on how I did this), and I needed to make sure that I got an institutional commitment letter that certified that I could work there full time through the end of the award period.

Hoard example applications
As a native English speaker, I’ve been asked periodically to take a look through people’s grant applications, which is how I first glimpsed the horror of the .5 inch margin. I saved all of these (digital hoarding problem!). While an R research proposal is a lot longer than a K, as far as I can tell this is mainly because the project is bigger. I think it’s a pretty similar style (am I wrong?).

Here are some good examples:
Most helpful for me was also getting my PI to send me some of his proposals.  This was extremely important first because I actually understood the content, and second, it helped me with getting an idea of how a computational proposal might work.

Office of Sponsored Research staff at your institution

First, I learned of the existence of an office at my university called “pre-award”,  and their whole job is to help with grant application. Who knew? They were extremely helpful with the budget part as well as with jumping through the various hoops, conflict of interest disclosures, etc, to make it possible for me to submit an approved application. Always be nice to the pre-award staff. Contact them as early as possible in the process so you can find out all the pre-deadline deadlines.

Other scientists?
All good advice says to get a key experienced grant submitter to tear your first draft to pieces.  Well, I did not manage to get much feedback from other scientists.  I sent it to my PI and one other person, about 10 days before the deadline. So I'm sure I didn't help myself by with the rushed nature of my application. Getting better feedback is something that I personally need to work on. Any advice on how to obtain such advice (other than giving them more time, obviously) is welcome!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Peer(sonal) review

Toward the end of my PhD, after many setbacks, I felt like I was clinging to non-failure by my fingernails. I had a few papers, only one of which I was actually proud of, and none of which seemed that close to being published. When the only one I actually liked came back from peer review at a very respectable journal with critical yet not devastatingly critical reviews, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed like I was being vindicated: I COULD do this science biz.  I had produced something of value to the world, and it was basically my intellectually independent work.  I was going to graduate after all. Peer review’s verdict: you're not so bad, old sport.

But as I dug deep into addressing the reviewers’ points, I realized that although they did not hate the paper, they had uncovered a major flaw in my argument. I became terrified that I was about to be unmasked, un-vindicated, needed to retract the work and ditch the project, would have to somehow graduate publicationless. Check out Levi Garraway's story about retracting a submission; then imagine you are not Levi Garraway, but his student, and that the retracted manuscript was the backbone of your thesis. Every day I’d trudge to the lab, desperate to come up with some breakthrough that would save the paper.  If my commute got delayed for some reason, I’d be thankful for a few extra minutes away from what I saw as my inevitable spiral into failure. I cried almost every day. This was the second-darkest period of my PhD.

Every time I’d be about to get new results, my heart would start pounding with the suspense: would this be the moment things would turn the corner, and I’d be back on the path to redemption? I had zero perspective. I realized that I was 100% identifying myself, and my value as a human, with my work, but only on a dim level, and I couldn’t stop it. 

I magically managed to come up with something that got the paper published and I graduated, and I guess the fact that I got through that increased my confidence. But since then, I’ve realized that that mindset is not, for me personally, a desirable or sustainable way to live as a scientist.  For me, it’s so natural to equate my career achievement with my actual worth, that to motivate my work in any other way than as a means to prove myself is like a confusing brain teaser. Is it possible to take my work seriously but not personally? So… I’m supposed to be motivated by the love of knowledge? By the challenge? Do people actually do that?  One of my major goals for my postdoc, in addition to getting some good research done, is to figure out how to be happy as a scientist.  Comments are welcome: Are you able to conduct research without getting overly invested in a particular result?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

First Post

I’ve been feeling pretty emo ever since I started grad school. There was so much naivety and confusion, that it really felt (feels) like a second adolescence: emo seems like the right word.  Grad school became a sink-or-swim proposition and I think the emo-ness was a rational part of my confusion and fear of failure. 

Areas of confusion: Am I smart enough to be a scientist? How do you publish a paper? What is even involved in being a professor? What careers would satisfy my intellectual desires and be compatible with my other needs as a human person?

But I really hoped all this would settle down by the time I finished grad school. I’m now  a second year postdoc, and after much further angst I’ve figured out that I am approximately smart enough, and how to publish a paper. Some of the confusion has been resolved, but despite thinking about it constantly, I still don’t know what I’m doing after this postdoc.  Some of this might be specific to the fact that I am a woman, and that I work in computational biomedical research. I’m hoping I can use this space to document/encourage my progress in figuring out my career and also in negotiating the psychological aspects of being a scientist. 

K's for the klueless: Components of the proposal

Ok, my second post on K grants discusses but a few of the overwhelming number of parts of the grant application. I think the big pictur...