A successful grant application is dependent on making your science and your message clear, says Viviane Callier.
Guest Contributor Viviane Callier
For many new investigators, applying for and winning grants is one of the biggest hurdles that will determine success on the tenure track. As federal grant budgets tighten, all investigators — and especially new investigators — are struggling to find ways to finance their research.
Obtaining federal grants is the criterion for obtaining tenure at research universities, according to David Lowry, assistant professor of plant sciences at Michigan State University. The pressure to obtain funding is even larger than the pressure to publish. “Grantsmanship — the ability to write a simple, compelling grant — is hands-down the single most important skill for assistant professors starting out,” says Alexander Shingleton, a tenured associate professor of biology at Lake Forest College, Illinois.
That said, there are many funding opportunities out there, said Melissa Wilson Sayres, an assistant professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. So it’s worth the time to look at the foundations and societies in relevant research areas. “Getting a grant is a numbers game,” says Shingleton, “so you want to diversify the way you’re applying for money, particularly when you’re starting out.” But private foundation grants usually provide less money than a federal research grant, warns Wilson Sayres. “You have to figure out which ones are worth your time.”
The biggest chunk of a research grant goes to supporting students and postdocs. Many early-stage PIs are struck by how much it costs to pay the salaries, benefits, tuition, and overhead for their trainees; generally upwards of $50K/year to support one graduate student at most US research universities, explains Wilson Sayres. “The numbers look different now than they did when I was a graduate student,” she says. Early stage investigators on the tenure track need to be strategic.
Working with more established investigators with a strong research record can increase the chances of winning a grant, and collaborative grants and research attract more resources. “Participating in a collaborative grant can also be useful from a grant-writing perspective. Young researchers can see how others write grants,” says Shingleton.
Early-stage investigators should also apply for early career grants offered through private foundations or federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), or the Department of Energy (DOE). The grants ensure that young investigators are not competing with more established ones, including their former mentors. “The early career grants have some prestige to them,” says Wilson Sayres, “so receiving those can help make a new investigator more competitive for future grants.”
“Money attracts money,” summarises Shingleton, who received a NSF CAREER award as an assistant professor and several more since.
Tak Sing Wong, assistant professor of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, won an NSF CAREER award and a DARPA award for young investigators during his early years at Penn State. “One of the keys to success was to reach out early to the program officers at the funding agencies and take opportunities to serve on grant review panels,” he says.
Shingleton’s experience on grant review panels taught him it’s critically important to create a clear and compelling narrative. “You’ve got to enthuse and excite the reviewer, which means your grant has to tell a really nice story,” he says. Although details, contingencies, and nuances are important to scientists, focusing on these may cause the writer to miss the goal of delivering a compelling story that motivates the research program. “As scientists, we’re trained to be very precise and thorough, but in a grant you want to make sure you’re not doing that at the expense of clarity and a good story,” he says. “Having a senior mentor who provides feedback and guidance on grant writing can be very helpful for developing a clear story.”
The grant should be well laid out. The easier it is for the reviewer to read, the more likely they’ll advocate for it. Other critical aspects of a successful grant application include evidence of productivity (publications) and convincing preliminary data.
In the end, it’s about making it easy for the reviewer to understand the importance of your project. “If the reviewer has to re-read a section to work out what the heck it means, he’s not going to feel good about it,” says Shingleton. “Just remember that the person reading the grant is a human being.”
Viviane Callier is a freelance writer and contractor at the National Cancer Institute. She has a Ph.D. in biology from Duke University.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: