Dear Stressed-Out Assistant Prof

Dear Labby,

I am in the third year of my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor. I have established what I believe is a good beginning research lab by recruiting a lab technician, a graduate student, and a postdoc. Regrettably, I just learned that my third application for an NIH grant was “Not Discussed” just like the previous two. I am starting to panic. I still have some funding left from my start-up package, and I have obtained two smaller grants from local funding agencies. But I know that I must score support from a national granting agency to advance my career and obtain tenure. Unfortunately, my department chair is super busy and has not provided a great deal of advice on how to overcome the hurdle of getting my first big grant. I had thought that I had addressed the deficiencies pointed out in the reviews of my first applications, but, obviously, I missed something important. Did you ever have grant trouble early on? Can you offer any advice to help me in this situation?


Stressed-Out Assistant Prof

Dear Stressed,

Congratulations on your faculty appointment and on establishing your lab group. Getting that first federal grant is indeed a major goal. Labby has had many rejected applications. Don’t give up and no need to panic. The most important thing you need is solid, helpful advice from experienced colleagues who can critique your applications in detail.

Have a heart-to-heart talk with your “too busy” department chair. A good chair puts a high priority on fostering the success of early-stage faculty. See if your chair will move advising you to this higher priority. In addition, reach out to other researchers whose grant applications have been successful. Labby has found that the best approach is to recruit a small but formal advisory committee of experienced faculty, both close to and outside your research area. First, solicit feedback about your specific aims. Next, get the group together to present your planned application and the experiments you are proposing. Keep the meeting short, no more than one hour. Labby has found that meetings lasting longer than that will inspire people to find excuses to avoid future ones. Then, send out a full draft of your application to your committee and reassemble them to act as a mock review panel. This approach may sound too formal, but it is incredibly useful. To make this plan succeed, it is essential to start early and set yourself a strict timeline for each step. Ideally, you should have your mock review panel a month before your application deadline.

Your second essential resource is the NIH program officer (PO) assigned to your application. Most want applicants to engage with them, but you must take the initiative. Contact your PO as soon as you receive the summary statement for your application. Ask specific questions about comments in the summary statement. Hopefully, your future applications will be discussed. If the PO was present, you can get a good idea of the mood of the panel beyond what was included in the summary statement. Even if your application was not discussed, the PO can still provide important insights. Of particular importance, did the panel concur that the significance of your aims was very high or merely incremental? This information lets you know if you need to revise your aims.

There are additional sources of more generic help in writing an application. Some institutions have embedded grant writers who can assist in preparation and editing. Of course, there are also guidebooks and limitless advice on the internet. Several commercial services will edit your application for a fee, but results can be mixed. Labby cannot ignore the impact of artificial intelligence in the preparation of grant applications. But be careful! AI bots are prone to significant errors. Labby’s current approach is to ask the AI to edit a paragraph or two of science writing for clarity and impact. Labby then appraises the results, phrase by phrase. Labby incorporates only those suggestions that maintain accuracy and improve the precision of the text.  

While you are working on the science, address the other parts of the application. Get examples of the accessory sections such as facilities and data management plans from your colleagues and revise and tailor them to your own application. If possible, delegate preparation to your office of research administration. Delegating as much as possible saves you time to generate more preliminary data and work on honing the science parts of your application.

Finally, keep track of program announcements from the NIH. Sign up for email lists that go out to investigators. Take advantage of early-stage investigator status. Don’t focus solely on the NIH. If your research field is appropriate, consider the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. Also, explore funding opportunities from large private foundations such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. Sign up to receive their announcements. Your success may require many “shots on goal.” But don’t give up. You have been successful with smaller grants, so expect that success will follow with sources of larger support. Grant writing is difficult, but well worth it for developing your research career and reflecting on your scientific goals and ways to achieve them.

Sincerely, Labby

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