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!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your generosity in sharing these great resources. I am on a K01 now, and when I was working on my application I did a lot of internet searching too. I can identify with your journey. I am at an institution with lots of resources and experience with NIH funding, but mentors at my institution don't have the time to convey the wealth of information and experience they have. The K process itself is a test of whether you have enough initiative, drive, and ambition, and ability to self-teach to become an independent researcher.


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