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Top tips for early career research grant applications

Dr. Ken Santora
Kenneth SANTORA,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)

One of my favorite roles in my job is getting to be both advocate and coach for early-career scientists as they navigate the complex world of applying for NIH grant support. Based on the average scientist’s career path, we define the early-career stage roughly as the period from when you receive your primary graduate degree (usually an M.D., Ph.D., or similar) through the first 10 years of research career.

I was privileged recently to virtually present some tips for this important career stage at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting. For the full details, bookmark and view the full-length video of my talk at your own pace and I’ll hit some highlights below.

Know your eligibility status before you apply

Each funding opportunity announcement (FOA) has precise eligibility criteria based on an applicant’s educational and career paths and previous NIH funding history. Knowing your status is crucial to avoiding common mistakes that can disqualify an application out of the gate. This is especially true for the K and F career and fellowship grants.

Categories of early-career status for which you may be eligible are the early-stage investigator (ESI) or new investigator (NI), which are a little different, but basically include all researchers who haven’t yet received substantial independent NIH funding. NIA, like many of the other NIH institutes and centers, has separate — typically higher! — pay lines for ESIs and NIs than the average applicant, so know your status and apply accordingly.

Read the full FOA before you apply and submit early

The second point here is essential in grantsmanship and life in general. FOAs are a lot like cooking a new recipe or assembling semi-disposable Swedish furniture: It’s smart to first read and understand the entire context before beginning.

The NIH application system is complex and includes a lot of supporting materials and detailed instructions. If you aren’t careful, you could encounter an error message or other issue that would thwart your submission. Know the FOA due dates and apply as early as possible to allow yourself plenty of time to address any issues.

General grantsmanship tips

Following are some other top tips designed to help you build the best possible application for funding:

  • Never write a grant in a vacuum! Collaboration and mentorship are a huge help. Ask colleagues, peers, and professors who have successfully applied for NIH support to read your application and give you constructive feedback.
  • Tell a succinct, coherent story and stay focused. Reviewers may evaluate hundreds of applications each year, so it’s important to understand how they see things. Some of the most common criticisms we hear are “the application is unfocused/diffuse” or “the application is overly ambitious.” Make sure yours isn’t likely to get the same criticisms. Your application should tell a story that is laser-focused on aligning with the FOA’s goals and clearly detail how your project will be both significant and novel to the topic.

Lean on us!

Once you’ve carefully read a FOA, reach out to the contacts listed at the end of the announcement. These are the program and scientific review officers that would be managing your grants and conducting the review of the applications, and they are terrific resources. Contact them for advice or to ask questions prior to finalizing your application. Before you do, don’t forget to access the wealth of resources available on NIA’s website and across other NIH Institutes and Centers, like sample applications, tip sheets, and other guidelines.

My video goes into a lot more detail on the wealth of opportunities available for ESIs and NIs. To stay on top of the latest funding news, check out the NIA grants and funding webpage to learn about NIA funding lines and policies. And don’t forget to subscribe to receive weekly announcements from the NIH Guide. We wish you good luck as you progress through your career!

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