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New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding

This document outlines strategies for gaining an NIH grant and explains basic funding concepts and processes to new and would-be principal investigators.

Table of Contents

Starting Out

Shaping Your Strategy

Grant Writing for New Investigators

Programs for New PIs

Web Resources

Other Resources

Starting Out

About This Guide

NIH and NIAID are looking to fund new scientists.

This guide gives you an overview of relevant topics and links to more detailed information.

Find definitions for NIH terms in our Look It Up section at right.

NIH and NIAID are looking to fund more new scientists and have created special programs and funding approaches to meet that goal.

This online tutorial gives you an overview of NIH, grant writing, and the application process, linking to more detailed information.

If you are ready for an independent grant, read this document, and use our New and Early-Stage Investigators portal for links to helpful resources.

If you are at an earlier career stage, go to Starting a Research Career below. Not sure? Read Do You Qualify for Independent Support? below.

You can find answers to common questions such as When is my application due? in our Quick Facts on Research Grant Applications.

Test Your NIH Savvy: Self-Quiz

Every granting agency has its own culture and processes, and NIH is no exception. Understanding how NIH works can go a long way toward helping you succeed.

Take this test to assess your knowledge, then review the answers below.

True or False? Answer
1. New investigators have a hard time getting funded. True
2. NIH funds people and their careers.

Largely false

3. I should have a faculty-level position and my own lab before I try for independent support such as an R01. Typically true
4. To submit an application, I need to identify an NIH institute.

False

5. To qualify for a training grant, I need to be an American citizen or resident.

True

6. NIAID funds most applications by scientific priority. False
7. New applicants should stay in their field of expertise rather than search for an initiative.

True

8. NIAID supports research into all pathogens.

False

9. The most important audience for my application is the initial peer review group.

True

10. My topic needs to be relevant to science but not necessarily to health.

False

11. To figure out what grant type I want to apply for, I need to review the activity codes on NIH's list.

False

12. Assuming I receive a fundable score in peer review, it may take a year or longer from application to award.

True

Self-Quiz Answers

Statement Answer with Explanation
1. New investigators have a hard time getting funded.

True. Lack of experience, a high learning curve, and stiff competition make it tough to get a grant.

On the positive side, NIH and NIAID are trying to make success easier for new investigators applying for their first independent grant, for example, with a higher R01 payline—go to NIAID Paylines.

Even with that advantage, you'll need to write an outstanding application. Find help here and in our Strategy for NIH Funding.

To see if you qualify as an NIH new investigator, go to Are You "New"? in this tutorial.

2. NIH funds people and their careers.

Largely false. In general, NIH funds research projects, rather than people (there are exceptions, for example, fellowships). Although peer reviewers assess the investigator and environment, they do so in terms of the feasibility of the project described in the application.

And as we tell you in Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding in the Strategy for NIH Funding, institutions, not principal investigators, are the grantees for most grant types. Read more in Getting to Know NIH.

3. I should have a faculty-level position and my own lab before I try for independent support such as an R01. Typically true. You also need to find out what awards you are eligible for from your institution's perspective. For more information, see Do You Qualify for Independent Support? in our Strategy for NIH Funding.
4. To submit an application, I need to identify an NIH institute.

False. You do not need to identify an institute, though you may choose to, and your research must be within the mission of an NIH institute.

We recommend that you contact program officers in several institutes to see which one is most enthusiastic about your research area and discuss potential topics. Then when you apply, request assignment to that institute.

For advice on finding an institute, go to What Funding May You Qualify For? in the Strategy for NIH Funding.
5. To qualify for a fellowship, training, or career grant, I need to be an American citizen or resident.

True. You need to be an American citizen or resident (have a "green card") to qualify for a fellowship or career grant (except the K99/R00) as well as to be a trainee on a training grant. For more information, go to our Training and Career Awards portal or contact AITrainingHelpDesk@niaid.nih.gov.

Most other grant types do not require either U.S. citizenship or legal residence.

6. NIAID funds most applications in pre-defined areas of science. False. NIAID funds most applications by their scientific merit as determined by peer reviewers rather than by pre-defined, high-priority areas of science. However, to do well in peer review, you must choose a topic that is likely to make a high impact on its field. Read the next question and Perspective on Peer Review below.
7. New applicants should stay in their field of expertise rather than search for an initiative.

True. It is extremely important to stay within your area of expertise. Often this means submitting an investigator-initiated application, which allows you to choose the topic that best fits your expertise.

With other approaches, you address an institute's priorities, which may take you farther afield. Read more in Choosing an Approach in our Strategy for NIH Funding.

8. NIAID supports research into all pathogens.

False. NIAID supports research into pathogens related to human health, including basic biological processes that could relate to medical advances. USDA supports research of pathogens that affect livestock and plants.

NIAID's mission is to conduct and support basic and applied research to better understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.

9. The most important audience for my application is the peer review group.

True. The most important audience is the group of peer reviewers who assess your application and give it an overall impact/priority score. That score is the basis for NIAID's decision whether to fund your application. See Perspective on Peer Review below.

Institute staff are a secondary audience. A high-priority application may get a small funding advantage; however, funding for most applications is based on the results of initial peer review.

10. My topic needs to be relevant to science but not necessarily to health.

False. Congress appropriates NIH's funds with the goal of finding solutions to important public health problems, and your reviewers will discuss the health impact of your research.

Even if you plan to conduct basic research, you will need to state its relevance to improving public health in the Project Narrative section of your application. Read more in NIH's Mission—Why It Matters to You in this document.

11. To figure out what grant type I want to apply for, I need to review the activity codes on NIH's list.

False. Because this area is so complex, you should not try to determine award type by yourself. NIAID supports many grant types appropriate for different career stages and different types of research. Requirements can differ by institute or even by funding opportunity.

Get help from a program officer to choose the grant type that's right for your career stage and your goals.

You can see a list of grant types at NIH Types of Grant Programs. Also read What Award Should You Apply For? and What's an R01? below.

12. Assuming I receive a fundable score in peer review, it may take a year or longer from application to award.

True. For a new investigator, plan to spend two months or more of dedicated time to prepare an R01 application.

Assuming your application succeeds on its first try, it can take from 5 to 20 months after the receipt date to get an award (three months less for AIDS applications).

Time to funding can vary depending on when in the fiscal year you apply and whether your score is within the payline. Our R01 Planning to Award Timeline by Review Cycle shows you timeframes for the main steps.

Getting to Know NIH

Fundamentals

New and early-stage investigators can benefit from special programs.

Our mission is to expand scientific knowledge to improve public health.

Outside scientists review applications.

NIAID funds the best research projects assigned to it as judged by peer review.

With a budget of over $31 billion in FY 2012, NIH is the federal government's main agency that supports biomedical and behavioral research to improve public health.

Most of NIH's money funds grants to research organizations throughout the U.S. and, to a smaller extent, other parts of the world.

Like any large bureaucracy, NIH has a unique mission and culture. Understanding these characteristics can help you succeed:

  • NIH's mission is to create fundamental knowledge about living systems and apply that knowledge to reduce human illness and disability. Read more at About NIH.
  • NIH funds most grants by the scientific quality of the applications it receives rather than by pre-defined, high-priority areas of science.
  • Funding strategies vary by institute.
  • Application quality is determined by initial peer review, performed by non-NIH scientists.
  • NIH's scientific and administrative staff can help you at each stage of the application process—read Communicating With NIAID—How to Get Help.

Find more information online:

Starting a Research Career

If you are not ready for independent support, you could 1) become part of someone else's grant or 2) apply for a training or career award.

Most of this tutorial is geared to people who are making the transition from postdoc to independent investigator.

Independent research project grants are generally for doctoral-level scientists in faculty positions.

Get advice on launching a career of independent research and picking a research area in  Hatch a Plan for Your Career in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

In this section, we back up and touch on earlier career stages.

Early Career Options

If you are not ready for independent support, you have some alternatives: 1) become part of someone else's grant or 2) apply for a career award or fellowship or become a trainee on a training grant.

Conduct research as part of another grant. Do you have senior-level collaborators who are submitting a multiproject application, e.g., a program project grant? You could ask about the possibility of leading a subproject as part of their application.

You would not be an independent principal investigator (PI), but you would have your own project. Read more about these grants at Guidance for Preparing a Multiproject Research Application.

Another avenue is to ask PIs in your institution to include you in their application as an investigator (again, not as a PI) who will work on their project.

Could you hitch onto an existing grant through a research supplement?

We support several types of supplements that add money to active research grants. A supplement can pay for your salary and other expenses, making you part of an established research team.

See if you meet the requirements for our Diversity, Primary Caregiver, or Reentry supplements. Then find a grantee who would be willing to apply for you, since you cannot apply.

Training and career awards. At each step, NIAID supports awards to help new investigators along their career paths. For the progression of awards from graduate student through independent investigator, see our two graphics:

Visit our Training and Career portal for help such as Advice on Research Training and Career Awards, which describes awards for investigators at different career stages.

Keep in mind that trainees do not apply for training grants, which are for senior-level investigators who lead a training program. To find out how you may be able to become a trainee on such a program, contact the grants business office (Office of Sponsored Research) in your institution.

Also all training and career awards require U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status except the K99/R00 (we make very few of those awards, though other NIH institutes fund more).

For help at this stage, you can contact our training office at AITrainingHelpDesk@niaid.nih.gov, and find more information online.

Find program announcements and other information:

Find more resources on our Training and Career portal.

Read about other funding opportunities at Broaden Your Horizons in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

In NIH's intramural divisions, the NIH Visiting Program has opportunities for foreign scientists to train at and collaborate with NIH.

You may also want to check out:

Putting Grants in Context

Fundamentals

Grants provide financial assistance. For most types, NIH is not involved in the research.

The bulk of NIH's research budget pays for grants to outside organizations.

Most research NIAID supports is investigator-initiated, i.e., the PI picks the topic.

Grants give you flexibility for your research.

As you make the transition to independence, you'll likely seek grant funding. It's important to understand what a grant is.

Our definition—

Financial assistance award for peer-reviewed research. Grantees are responsible for the research with little or no government involvement.

NIH generally awards grants to institutions, which must comply with all terms and conditions of award and meet NIH requirements.

About 90 percent of NIH's research budget goes to outside research organizations for extramural research—grants and, to a much smaller degree, contracts. The remaining 10 percent is for intramural research conducted in NIH's in-house labs.

Unlike a contract that spells out definite requirements in detail, a grant is not a prescription that needs to be followed precisely throughout its entire life.

Instead, a grant gives you the leeway to follow new leads as they arise—to be the “scientist in the sandbox.”

Note that although the PI usually writes most of the application, the official applicant is the research organization, for example, the university where he or she works. After we make the award, you and your institution will be bound by the grant's terms and conditions.

At that point, you will be assigned a program officer and grants management specialist who will help you meet all your requirements.

Find more information online:

Perspective on Peer Review

Fundamentals

NIAID decides funding by scientific merit, based on the review outcome.

Reviewers are the applicant's scientific peers.

They judge applications using NIH's and their own standards.

In the majority of cases, NIAID decides which applications to fund based on the scientific merit of the proposed research. We do not give money to investigators just for being established or well known.

Scientific merit is determined by peer reviewers during initial peer review and is reflected in the overall impact/priority score they assign.

Used for funding decisions, that score stems from your reviewers' judgment of the impact your topic will make on its field.

Here's how the process works.

Before a review meeting, reviewers with relevant expertise are assigned applications to read thoroughly and write a critique. They also assign preliminary scores for each review criterion and an overall impact/priority score.

These scientists usually come to NIH in Bethesda, MD, from research institutions around the country to participate in the meetings (some meeting are held virtually).

At the meeting, reviewers discuss the quality of each application, evaluating each project based on NIH review criteria and their own ideal of an outstanding application in the field.

The end result is an overall impact/priority score and a summary statement, which highlights the discussion and shows the score.

Your reviewers are your application's audience. To make a high impact, your application will need to meet their expectations:

  • Have a project that addresses a highly significant problem.
  • Show how:
    • Your research will advance your field.
    • The work is new and unique.
    • It will fill knowledge gaps (you will need to show you are aware of opportunities, gaps, roadblocks, and research underway).
    • Your research meets NIH's mission to improve human health through science.
  • Convince reviewers you have the expertise and resources to perform the research.

Each application also undergoes a second-level review usually by NIAID's main advisory Council.

That process looks at administrative problems, e.g., human subjects or research animal concerns, and special circumstances, such as applications from foreign organizations.

Find more information online:

Our Mission—Why It Matters to You

Fundamentals

NIAID supports basic and applied research to understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.

While reviewers assess an application in the context of its research field, they and institutes also look at the relevance of the research to the NIH mission when making funding decisions.

Your project must fit with the mission of the institute likely to fund it.

At NIAID, we support basic and applied research to understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.

You'll notice that our mission is health related, the reason your application will include a section on how your research will improve human health.

Congress appropriates NIH's funds with the goal of improving public health, and most institutes were founded around a health topic largely because advocacy groups pushed for their creation.

Find more information online:

Do You Qualify for Independent Support?

Fundamentals

Know what it takes to qualify for an independent research project grant.

New PIs have benefits such as lower reviewer expectations and special paylines and funding programs.

While NIH does not specify qualifications for PIs for most grants, you must convince your peer reviewers that you can accomplish the research you propose.

To succeed in peer review, you should meet the following criteria before you seek an independent research project grant, such as an R01:

  • Hold an advanced degree appropriate to the research (in most fields, this means a Ph.D. or M.D.).
  • Have a level of position that your institution allows to be a PI (often assistant professor or higher).
  • Have a publication record (first or last author) in respected journals or a history of overseeing projects in the field in which you are applying.
  • Work at a research institution that has the resources—equipment and lab space—you will need and committed space for the project.

Talk to people in your grants business office to learn what level you need to attain to be able to apply for independent funding in your institution. Ask about internal procedures and timeframes, including for electronic submission.

You will also need some preliminary data for the basic research project grant, called R01.

If you don't have preliminary data or are not published in the field, read the next section What Award Should You Apply For? below and Choose the Grant in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

You may also want to look at Support by Career Stage—Ph.D. Track or Support by Career Stage—M.D. Track to see where you may fit at NIH.

For more help, go to these resources

What Award Should You Apply For?

If you have sufficient preliminary data, apply for an R01.

From this point in this document, we assume you are a new investigator seeking independent funding. If not, go back to Starting a Research Career.

Even if you are just starting to seek independent funding, you should not necessarily ask for the smallest grant type. NIH uses dozens of grant types—large and small, simple and complex.

We recommend the following:

What's an R01?

NIH awards this standard research grant to all types of organizations.

NIH's standard "plain vanilla" and most popular research project grant is called the R01.

Many first-time independent researchers take the plunge and try for this mature award, and we recommend this route too.

Here are some of its features—read about the advantages in Why You Should Consider an R01 below.

  • You can apply in any topic as long as it fits the mission of at least one NIH institute. Talk to program officers in several institutes to gather that information and discuss award type.
  • You can ask for any dollar amount or length of award (up to the five-year limit), though as we advise in Creating Your Application, "less is more" for a new investigator's budget and scope.
  • NIH awards R01s to organizations of all types, including universities, small and large businesses, and foreign organizations.

To see examples of exceptional funded R01 applications, go to Sample Applications and Summary Statements on Samples and Examples.

You will apply using the R01 Parent Announcement.

Find more information online:

Why You Should Consider an R01

Not sure what choice to make?

Talk to colleagues in your institution, and call an NIAID program officer. Go to Communicating With NIAID—How to Get Help

For many new and early-stage investigators, it makes sense to try for an R01. Here are the reasons:

  • NIAID sets a more liberal R01 payline for new and early-stage investigators, so it's more likely to get funded.
  • You can get a full four or five years of support, enough time and money to launch your research career.
  • Reviewer expectations are lower.
  • Read more below at Are You "New"?

Keep in mind that you will need some experience, data, and publications in the field to have credibility with reviewers (if you don't, go back to What Award Should You Apply For?).

Another plus for a new PI: your R01 application has a better chance of qualifying for an R56-Bridge award if it does not succeed.

That award can act as a springboard to funding in that it gives you short-term funds to gather preliminary data for improving and resubmitting your application. Almost 90 percent of R56-Bridge awards ultimately convert to a full R01.

Drawbacks for Smaller Awards

Be aware that NIH did not design smaller awards—such as the Small Grant Program (R03) or Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award (R21)—to help you establish a research career.

While they do help some investigators, there is no evidence they create a path to independent research. Read R03 Is Small and Should You Apply for an R21? in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Also note the following caveats.

Caveat one. If you're an early-stage investigator, you would need to pay attention to the number of years you spend on the small award. You could lose your ESI status if too many years pass after training since you qualify as an ESI for only 10 years. See the advantages of ESI status at Are You "New"? in this tutorial.

Caveat two. Following a two- or three-year award, it's hard to gain an R01 without a funding gap. It generally takes at least a year to do the studies and analyze the data from the small award. Then you need time to succeed with the R01 application, which often takes longer for new PIs. As a result, a small award can end long before we could fund your R01.

Caveat three. You don't benefit from the higher R01 payline for new and early-stage investigators. And at NIAID, applications for small awards are not eligible for our R56-Bridge award or selective pay programs.

Here's another consideration: no matter what award you apply for, you need to consider where your support will come from during the interval it takes to apply for and receive an R01. Read more in:

There is a plus side, though: having any grant is better than having no money at all.

And even just applying helps! Data show that writing an application and applying for any grant increases your chances of eventually succeeding with an R01.

That interesting tidbit highlights the importance of grantsmanship—knowing how to write an outstanding grant application—in giving you that critical edge.

You can find a full set of grantsmanship tools in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Are You "New"?

See definitions of new investigator and ESI under How to Qualify for New and Early-Stage Investigator Status.

When applying for your first independent NIH research grant, new and early-stage investigators get some breaks:

  • Higher paylines.
    • NIH sets target numbers for funding new and early-stage R01 investigators.
    • As a result, NIAID must use a higher R01 payline, making it easier for new and early-stage investigators to get an award. Go to NIAID Paylines for current information.
  • Initial peer review.
    • Peer reviewers look more at potential than achievement—they weigh your academic and research background heavily.
    • Reviewers may expect new R01 investigators to have fewer preliminary data and publications than more established researchers do.
    • When feasible, new and early-stage investigator applications are not interspersed with those of established investigators at the review meeting.
    • You get at least one month to revise and resubmit your R01 application for the next review cycle. You receive your summary statement no later than March 10, July 10, or November 10, and instead of following the standard resubmission deadlines, you can resubmit by April 10, August 10, or December 10, respectively.
  • Selective pay and R56-Bridge awards.
    • If your R01 application scores above the payline, NIAID may still fund you through one of two programs, selective pay and R56-Bridge awards.

How to Qualify for New and Early-Stage Investigator Status

ESI is a subset of new investigator status. ESIs must have completed a terminal research degree or medical residency within 10 years of applying.

NIH has two types of special status for people applying for their first independent R01: new investigator and early-stage investigator (ESI).

New investigator defined. To qualify as a new investigator, you cannot have been a PI on certain NIH grants that you applied for. See the next section, Previous Award Status, for information on exceptions.

You can still qualify if you become a PI on a grant you did not apply for, e.g., if your institution assigns you to be the PI of an existing grant.

ESI defined. A subset of new investigator status, an ESI is a scientist who is within 10 years of either of the following:

  • Terminal research degree.
  • Medical residency or equivalent.

You can request an extension of your ESI status past the 10-year window due to special circumstances. Read more below on How to Extend the Early-Stage Investigator Window.

Previous Award Status

Once you apply for and receive certain NIH grants, you no longer qualify to be a new investigator or an ESI.

See the list of exceptions in the NIH Definition of a New Investigator. For R21/R33 and phase II small business awards, pay attention to the "Note regarding transitional grants" at the bottom of the section.

If an award isn't on that list, you would lose your ESI or new investigator status as soon as you receive a grant.

Caveats for multiple PI applications. Multiple PI applications have big consequences for new PIs:

  • If your application includes an established PI, it will not qualify for the new investigator payline. You'll qualify for it only if all PIs are new.
  • Once the multiple PI application is funded, you can no longer apply as a new investigator—you'll lose your new PI status.

If you are added to a multiple PI grant after award, it doesn't affect your new PI status.

Identify Yourself!

Enter degree and discipline-specific training dates in your Commons profile.

That information will enable NIH to identify new investigators and ESIs. Also make sure your biosketch states that you are a new investigator or ESI.

Once you've entered your information, it's important to check your Commons profile to make sure your new or ESI status is in order. That's because even though the system uses data you put in, it has its limitations.

If your status isn't correct, contact the Commons Help Desk and ask that they change it. In your email, include your name and the application number.

Find more information online:

How to Extend the Early-Stage Investigator Window

If you feel you may have a valid reason, apply for an exception.

You can request an extension of the 10-year early-stage investigator period. Read How to Request an ESI Extension in the box below.

In some cases, NIH lets you extend your ESI period for the amount of time that you would have spent on research but could not. Here are some examples of valid reasons to receive an ESI extension:

  • Extended periods of additional (non-degree) research training.  For both M.D.s and Ph.D.s, time spent receiving formal relevant instruction. (Note: If you earn another degree after your doctorate, enter its dates in the eRA Commons. Do not request an extension.)
  • Family care. Time away from research because of family care responsibilities such as the birth or adoption of a child or the care of sick or disabled family members.
  • Disability or illness. Time lost due to your illness or disability.
  • Extended periods of patient care during post-residency clinical training. For M.D.s, time spent on clinical care instead of research.
  • Active duty military service. Time in active duty military service.
  • Clinical loan repayment requirements. Time in clinical practice as a condition of a federal loan repayment program.
  • Natural or other disaster. Time your laboratory was shut down or relocating as a result of a catastrophic event.
  • Other valid reason. Time you lost for another reason that could have otherwise been spent on research.

The list above shows examples only. If you feel you may have a valid reason, apply for an exception.

How to Request an ESI Extension

  1. Complete a Form for Requesting an Extension on NIH's New and Early Stage Investigator Policies. Justify your request with details. Request an extension equivalent to your time away from research in whole months, rounding up.
  2. Send additional documentation if the Extensions Committee requests it.
  3. Within about two weeks, the committee emails you its decision. If it grants you an extension, you'll see the new date in your Commons profile.

To further help you out, NIH posted Frequently Asked Questions About the NIH ESI Policy. Read more details in NIH's December 31, 2008, Guide notice, and send questions to ESINIH@od.nih.gov.

See definitions of new investigator and ESI above at Are You "New"?

Shaping Your Application Strategy

Working with current colleagues lets you tap the knowledge of people who are familiar with what you're doing.

To succeed in getting NIH funding, you'll need a strategy.

You should be aware that you do not have to wait until you officially begin an academic appointment to write your first application.

Instead, get a head start by beginning toward the end of your postdoc, even though your new employer will submit the application.

Working with your current colleagues lets you tap the knowledge of people who are familiar with what you're doing and are well positioned to help you choose a topic and give you feedback on the application.

And application writing is great practice: our data show that writing any grant application increases your chances of success for future applications.

The other part of the equation is NIAID. Because we fund all R01 applications that rank within the payline, the key to success is writing an application that appeals to its judge and jury: the peer reviewers who will assess it.

  • Good grantsmanship is critical.
  • Plan to spend time learning what to do, and get help planning your strategy and writing your application.
  • Use our iterative process—see Think Strategically—to pick and design your project.

Find more information in the Strategy for NIH Funding:

How Long Will It Take?

Plan for 8 to 23 months start to finish. Build in extra time for items you cannot control since surprises are sure to arise.

When planning your application, figure the journey from planning to funding to be from 8 to 23 months, longer if you don't succeed on the first attempt.

Such an extended time span makes a strong case for careful planning and execution at every stage.

Perfect the steps you can control. These include choosing a project that's right for you and creating as impeccable an application as you can.

Expect the unexpected. Build in extra time for items you cannot control since surprises are sure to arise. For example, your mentor may recommend major revisions to your draft, or one of your collaborators may back out at the last minute.

Find more information online:

Plan Ahead for Electronic Application

Fundamentals

Identify the players in your organization early on.

Learn your organization's application time frames.

Get an eRA Commons account right away—at least a month before you want to apply.

Find out how your organization expects you to apply electronically.

Well ahead of your application date, contact your organization's business office.

Find out about procedures and timelines for electronic application. You'll need to know your contacts—you'll be interacting with them before and during application.

Request an eRA Commons account from NIH at least a month before you want to apply. Ask your Commons signing official to register you and associate your profile with your organization.

You will also need to find out who is your organization's Grants.gov authorized organizational representative (AOR).

Typically someone in your business office, your AOR—not you—submits your electronic application to Grants.gov. (You submit electronically for most grants, e.g., an R01 or R21; some complex grants, such as program projects, P01, use paper.)

Note that NIH's guidance describes how to apply if your organization applies directly to Grants.gov. But yours may use a different approach, so be sure to find out. Learn more at Get Ready Now to Apply Electronically in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Find more information online:

How Funding Opportunities Work

Apply through a funding opportunity announcement in Grants.gov.

Read the NIH Guide announcement and the Application Guide.

You will fill out the forms and apply using a funding opportunity announcement (FOA), a Grants.gov notice of a federal grant opportunity.

For NIH, FOAs can be program announcements or requests for applications.

Each one has its own grant application package. Most use the standard Grant Application Guide, but NIH also issues an NIH Guide notice with more information.

Always read the FOA's Guide announcement to get key information you'll need to apply. The easiest way to find FOAs for NIAID is on our NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

For investigator-initiated research—a topic you chose yourself—apply through a parent program announcement, e.g., the R01 Parent Program Announcement. Go to NIH's Parent Announcements list.

Read more in the next section, and find information online:

Choosing an Approach

Fundamentals

Learn about the benefits of targeted versus investigator-initiated research.

Try using a high-priority topic for an investigator-initiated application.

If you consider an initiative, be sure to stay in your area of expertise.

Since you can't send NIH the same application for multiple purposes, you have to choose whether to submit an investigator-initiated application—on a topic of your choice—or respond to an institute initiative.

Investigator-Initiated Research

We generally advise new investigators to prepare an investigator-initiated application—propose a high-impact project in your area of expertise—and it's the approach used by most applications we fund.

The big advantage of going this route is that it keeps you in your area of expertise.

Staying grounded in what you know best is a critical ingredient of success, especially if you have an unknown track record.

As long as the topic fits our mission, NIAID will fund an application whose overall impact/priority score is within our payline and funding policies.

  • Investigator-initiated research enables you to capitalize on your strengths.
  • To find a great idea, brainstorm potential topics with colleagues.
    • Concentrate on ideas that are in your area of expertise and would make a high impact on its field, e.g., open up a new area of discovery.
    • Spend a few days checking out the literature to make sure your topic fills a research gap.

Read more in Pick a Research Project in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

High-Priority Topics—Institute Initiatives

When you respond to a request for applications (RFA) or Institute-specific program announcement (PA), you are addressing a need NIAID has identified as high priority.

Using this approach has drawbacks and benefitsRFAs can be highly competitive and you must stay within your area of expertise. Read more in Choose Approach and Find FOAs in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Find more information online:

Application Essentials

Fundamentals

Show the high impact of your research question and the ability of your approach to answer it.

Explain how you and your colleagues are qualified to do the work.

Prepare an application that's complete, organized, and well-written.

Meeting the NIH mission and proposing science that can move the field forward are essential but not enough.

Must Haves

To get a fundable score in peer review, you will also need to meet the following basic requirements.

Ability and means to do the work. Reviewers will assess you and your institution, considering these questions:

  • Are you—the PI—and your colleagues qualified to do the work? Don't be shy about enlisting collaborators to fill in missing expertise.
  • Does your institution have equipment and personnel to support you?
  • Will your institution allow you enough time to accomplish the research?

High-impact topic, right approach. You will need to show reviewers that your research question can make a high impact on its field, and your technical approach to answer it is appropriate.

Try to carve out new space and address critical questions in your field.

Make sure the research you are considering can make a difference: create new knowledge, open up a new area of discovery, or develop a new approach to a major problem. Get outside opinions on that judgment.

First-rate presentation. Reviewers must be able to comprehend your application.

  • Make sure your application contains all the information they need to judge it.
  • Write and organize the application so reviewers can readily grasp your meaning and find information they seek.

Find more information in the Strategy for NIH Funding:

Think Strategically

Go through our iterative process repeatedly as you plan and design your project.

  1. Staying in your niche, propose a project that:
    • Addresses a highly significant problem.
    • Is innovative—can create new knowledge.
  2. Outline draft Specific Aims and one or more hypotheses.
  3. Identify a potential funding institute and a study section that would likely embrace your research.
  4. Outline experiments.
  5. Assess feasibility.
    • See whether you have access to all needed resources and expertise.
    • Make sure the project is not growing too big for your targeted time and budget.
  6. If you hit a roadblock, go back to the failure point and revise your plans.

As you design the experiments, keep a running tab of "who, what, when, where, and how (much money)." You'll need that for planning and when writing your application.

Plan your Research Plan.To test your hypothesis, create Specific Aims—the concrete objectives you will accomplish with the time and money you plan to request.

Then start planning the experiments you will perform to accomplish each aim.

Understand innovation. Design a project that is a bit outside of the box—but not too far.

  • Think of innovation as what your project will contribute to your field if it succeeds.
  • If you are a new investigator, strive for significant incremental progress, not a giant leap forward.
  • It's enough to show how the work you propose is new and unique and will add significantly to existing knowledge.

Determine the scope of the work and how much time you can put into it. Figure out how much work you can accomplish with the time and resources you request.

  • Limit scope. Avoid being too ambitious. Create a project of limited scope that is doable within the time and resources appropriate for you to request.
  • Budget accurately. Significant over- or under-estimating indicates that you don't understand the scope of the work.
  • Think about effort. Make sure you have enough time to effectively manage and oversee your project.

Plan your design understanding that research often takes more time than you may think.

Even if you are a new investigator, it's okay to ask for the maximum number of years (five for an R01) as long as you can fill the time productively.

Determine whether your application will be affected by policies for sensitive areas, e.g., human subjects, vertebrate animals, and rDNA.

It's best to avoid these areas if possible; read more at Will Your Application Involve Policy Areas With Special Requirements?

Will You Have the Resources?

Feasibility counts: an overall impact/priority score reflects the likelihood that the research will make a high impact on its field.

To create a successful application, you'll need to convince your peer reviewers that you have the resources and expertise to conduct the research.

The basis of the overall impact/priority score they give your application is the likelihood that the research will make a high impact on its field—can you actually do it?

After you determine your needs, find out which resources and level of support your organization can give you; then assess what additional support you'll require.

  • Do you have a budget from your institution to purchase needed equipment?
  • Will you have access to necessary equipment, especially large equipment (for example, costing over $10,000) that you can share?
  • If not, can you collaborate with someone who has that access?

Find more information in the Strategy for NIH Funding:

Make Sure You Have the Necessary Expertise

Don't be shy about letting other people fill in gaps in your expertise.

As we said under Application Essentials and Choosing an Approach, be sure you have the expertise needed to get the work done.

Enlist consultants and collaborators. If you can't do it all, choosing highly experienced people to be on your team is another good way to build reviewer trust in the future success of your project.

You can expand your pool of expertise by including consultants and collaborators, especially those who are known and respected in the field. Reviewers may recognize their names, which can be helpful if study section members haven't heard of you.

A well-established collaborator is helpful if you do not have a well-known mentor or a string of publications.

  • A mentor or other adviser can help you plan a study design that enables you to analyze your data, test your hypothesis, and achieve your goals.
  • Collaborators can fill gaps in your expertise and resources and will impress reviewers if known in the field. It helps to choose a mentor or collaborator who is well known and respected; reviewers may recognize his or her name.
  • Experts can execute any of the technical and analytical aspects of the project.
  • They can also help develop detailed information for the application on such items as sample size estimates, sampling and research design, data definitions, and analytic models.

While collaborations are common, there are drawbacks. For example, you will not have control over the execution of that part of the research, such as the timing of your collaborators' actions. Or something may come up and they may back out at the last minute.

What's the difference between consultants and collaborators? Collaborators generally play a more significant role on the project and are paid a salary from the grant, whereas consultants usually provide advice or services for a consulting fee.

Imminent promotion? Are you slated for an important promotion, for example, to assistant professor?

Include the date it is scheduled to happen in the personal statement of your biosketch. While NIH does not require any particular title, your status may affect how reviewers view your qualifications.

After submitting, you can inform the scientific review officer up to 30 days before the meeting.

Find more information in the Strategy for NIH Funding:

Should You Be One of Many PIs?

If your application includes an established PI, it will not qualify for the new investigator payline.

Another way to beef up expertise—or create a research team—is to be part of a multiple PI application.

But consider all aspects before you decide to go this route. And before making up your mind, get advice from a mentor or other experienced investigators in your institution as well as your program officer.

Here are the main caveats.

As a new investigator, it's important to establish your own identity, which may be more difficult with a multiple PI application.

The approach must fit the science. The multiple PI option is for collaborative, usually multidisciplinary, research also known as team science. To succeed, each PI must play a key role executing the studies or making critical intellectual input into the project.

Know the consequences for new PIs if you get a major grant type (e.g., the R01) with multiple PIs:

  • If your application includes an established PI, it will not qualify for the new investigator payline.
  • Once the application is funded, you will lose your new PI status.

Before you opt into a multiple PI application, there are other factors to consider. Read more in Are You "New"? above.

If you are added to a multiple PI grant after award, it doesn't affect your new PI status. For more information online, see the document list in the section above.

Decide the Parameters of Your Request

Design a project with few research aims, and prepare a small budget—but big enough to get the work done.

While you are planning your application, think about its scope.

Generally new applicants should propose less. Keep your project simple and narrowly defined..

Reviewers are more inclined to give you a fundable score if you keep the scope and complexity narrow, limit the amount of work, and request a small budget.

That usually means no more than three, highly focused, Specific Aims in your Research Plan—the most important step in keeping your budget small.

And though your budget request should be modest, always ask for enough money to get the work done within the award period, so your project can succeed.

A more complex proposal often requires more documentation. Learn about requirements while planning your research.

  • Will you study animals or identifiable human information or specimens?
  • Will you use stem cells or select agents?
  • Will you use a modular or nonmodular budget?

Find more information online:

How to Plan an Appropriate Budget

Figuring out how much money to request can be a tough call for new investigators.

The main points to consider are:

  • Ask for the amount of money you need to perform the research—no more, no less.
  • But try to keep the request modest. Reviewers may be skeptical if you ask for a lot of money.
  • Use an iterative process to plan your research.

Most new investigators request a modular budget of $250,000 (or less) a year in direct costs.

The graph below shows amounts new R01 applicants were awarded. For single-year direct costs, the median in FY 2009 was $250,000 and the mean was $258,100 with 75 percent of awards between $225,000 and $250,000.

Graph. The data are described in the paragraph above.

For more NIH award data, go to NIH's Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORT). Fill out the form to select variables that filter NIH's existing reports.

Find more information online:

Staying Informed

Stay alert for changes to NIH's application process.

At all stages of planning and even after you become a grantee, you will need to stay informed of important policy changes that may affect you.

We suggest that you subscribe to or access at least some of the following resources:

NIAID

NIH

Grant Writing for New Applicants

Grant writing is a skill you can learn. When starting out, get as much help as you can. Read our advice below, and get more detailed help planning and writing your application in our Strategy for NIH Funding.

Find more information online:

Getting Oriented

Fundamentals

Write for your peer reviewers, your application's audience.

Get help writing and editing your application.

Find experts to help with technical matters and fill in gaps.

Before you can begin writing, you'll need to know your audience.

Your application's audience is the group of peer reviewers who review your application and give it an overall impact/priority score, the most important determinant of its success.

NIH will assign primary and secondary reviewers (plus at least one reader) who are experts in your field. Before the meeting, they will read your application thoroughly, write a critique, and assign preliminary scores.

At the meeting, the primary reviewer will present your application's topic, strengths, and weaknesses to the group, and other assigned reviewers may comment.

Note that all 20 reviewers will score the application—even those who didn't read it or are not well versed in your field.

In the Strategy for NIH Funding, we tell you how to write your application for all your reviewers, create a hypothesis-driven Research Plan, and win reviewers' hearts by organizing so it's easy to find information.

We tell you how to use CSR’s Roster Index for Regular Standing Study Sections and Continuing SEPs to find a study section that would appreciate your science, tailor the application to that study section's members, and request assignment to that study section.

When you write, you'll want to highlight the significance and innovation sections, which are also peer review criteria reviewers use to assess the importance of your application.

To plan effectively and keep all parts in sync, you will use the iterative process we described in Think Strategically.

Find more information in the Strategy for NIH Funding:

Creating Your Application

Fundamentals

Make it clear that you have your own resources.

Show that you understand the literature.

Provide as much data as possible.

"Less is more."

New and early-stage investigators must work harder to sell themselves.

  • Stay small. Keep the goals of the project simple.
  • Make sure your potential shines through the application, showing that you:
    • Have your own resources and institutional support.
    • Are independent.
    • Are able to lead.
  • Reveal your independence as an investigator through your publications—first and last authors are more impressive than those in the middle.
  • You'll need some preliminary data. It's okay to use data that are not yours as long as you identify your source.
  • Impress peer reviewers by showing your understanding of the literature and the strengths and weaknesses of your methods.
  • In your resources section, describe your institution's investment in your success, including startup funds, lab space, and mentoring.
  • Include letters of support from mentors, your department chair, or others who have read and advised you on the application, stating that you are ready to conduct an independent project.

"Less Is More"

  • Reviewers expect early-stage investigators to have less preliminary data and fewer resources and publications compared to established PIs. Write your biosketch so it shows you have all the qualifications needed to lead the project.
  • Show reviewers that you can handle the work and that your project's goals are achievable. Limit Specific Aims so you can accomplish them within the planned timeframe.
  • Leave out all nonessential information. Do not try to impress reviewers with a lot of background information—they may know more about your field than you do.
  • Drive home the big picture. Since your assigned reviewers (e.g., primary and secondary reviewers) may read in spurts, remind them of your goals and research questions in every section of your application.

Find more information online:

Submitting Your Application

Never put other support in the application.

As a new investigator, you have only one special action: make sure your institution sets up an eRA Commons account for you about a month ahead of time.

For guidance on submitting an application and passing validations, read Strategy for a Successful Submission and Prepare to Submit in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

You can find answers to questions about application details such as When is my application due? in Quick Facts on Research Grant Applications.

Not all required information goes in the application.

You will send some items to NIH just-in-time, i.e., only if your application is within the range of possible funding. This approach is used for other support and some human subjects and animal research documents.

Do not submit other support (called current and pending support in the Grant Application Package) with your application. If you do, NIH may delay processing or return your application to you without a peer review.

Other support is not research support, which is part of the biographical sketch. Read Prepare Your Just-In-Time Information in the Strategy for NIH Funding to learn how the two differ.

Find more information online:

Using Your Application More Than Once

Every project NIH funds must be unique. By law, NIH cannot support a project already funded or pay for research already done, so you cannot have overlap with your other applications.

In some cases, NIH allows you to reuse the same application. Read more in Which types of unfunded applications may I reuse, and how do I proceed?

Though you may not send the same application to more than one Public Health Service agency at the same time, you can apply to an organization outside the Public Health Service (go to Agencies and Programs) with your NIH application.

NIH will not fund it if you get that award.

Programs for New PIs

Both NIH and NIAID have programs to help new and early-stage investigators. Also see Are You "New"? in this tutorial.

NIAID Selective Pay and Bridge Awards

New and early-stage investigators who have top-quality applications are strong candidates for NIAID's selective pay or R56-Bridge awards. We use these approaches to fund some applications with percentiles that missed the payline by a small margin.

You cannot apply for either program; your NIAID program officer must nominate you. Your program officer will let you know if this is likely and, in any case, advise you on your next steps.

For both programs, we choose applications based on high relevance to our mission as well as scientific merit. Read more in our Selective Pay and NIAID R56-Bridge Award SOPs.

Educational Loan Repayment Programs

NIH's Loan Repayment Programs help M.D.s and some other doctoral-level professionals pursue research careers by repaying up to $35,000 a year in qualifying educational debt.

For more information, visit NIAID's Loan Repayment Programs or NIH's Loan Repayment Programs. Contact AITrainingHelpDesk@niaid.nih.gov for help.

Web Resources

You can find lots of helpful online information on the application process from NIH and NIAID.

NIH Resources

NIAID Resources

Last Updated October 23, 2014

Last Reviewed March 21, 2012