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Strategy for NIH Funding
Strategy to Pick a Project · Choose the Grant
Pages of Part 2. Pick and Design a Project
On this page, get advice and an approach for finding your unique research niche that builds on your expertise.
Then follow an integrated strategy to identify a project within that niche.
Learn how to assess your preliminary design for a project to ensure that it will excite your reviewer audience and to make sure they will view you as qualified to perform the research.
If you are not sure how your research fits in at NIH or whether you are qualified for an independent research grant, read Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding before proceeding.
While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of our advice is useful for other grants.
(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)
NIH gives you two basic ways to approach picking a research project.
Learn more about those approaches in Choose Approach and Find FOAs.
For in-depth advice on choosing a research area and project for an R01 application, continue reading below.
(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)
If you are considering a new topic or are a new investigator, we strongly recommend taking time to plan, investigate, and get feedback at every step.
If you're beginning your research career, it's a good idea to start planning your goals before you choose your first project. But first, test your qualifications.
Conduct a self-evaluation. To see whether you qualify to apply for an independent research grant such as an R01, read Ready for Independent Support? in What Funding May You Qualify For? in Part 1.
Then consider your organization's expectations, for example, the level of position you need to qualify to apply for different types of grants.
Your qualifications lay the foundation for your grant seeking efforts: your peer reviewers—your application's audience—must deem you qualified to complete the work you propose.
For an R01, you'll need significant experience and a publication record (first or last author) in respected journals, or a history of overseeing projects, in your field—for example, TB research.
To assess your qualifications, we suggest following these steps.
If you're a seasoned grantee wishing to enter a new field, you may want to start with a small grant type such as an exploratory/developmental research grant (R21) or a small grant (R03) before trying for an R01.
Anyone needing more experience or wanting to change fields should also consider getting more training in the new area.
If you are still developing your career, take the time to learn about different fields.
If you want to change fields, consider doing a postdoc in the new area. Or you may want to look into our Career Development Awards (K), which are especially helpful for postdocs.
Create a plan. Focus on a single research goal you'd like to accomplish during the next ten years or so. Then divide that goal into objectives that can become projects you could achieve in three to five years, the length of a grant award.
Even if you're still a postdoctoral research associate, get started. There's no need to wait until you are in an academic job to begin writing your first application.
Starting now lets you tap the knowledge of people who are familiar with your work and in the best position to give you feedback. And the experience of writing an application will increase your chances of future success, even if your first attempt fails.
Getting a head start also helps you avoid running down the start-up support you should negotiate when you get your first academic position.
Be sure to negotiate enough support to tide you over the long application process. After applying, it can take two years to get a grant, even longer if you have to start over with a new application.
Don't expect your first application to succeed—most people must resubmit (try again) before they get funded.
Successful academic investigators generally focus on one niche area (for example, understanding the immune evasion of TB) with the goal of becoming the expert in it. For an independent research grant such as an R01, your reviewers will expect to see expertise in either a scientific niche or a technology.
Your niche is an exclusive corner of your field where you could conduct research for the next, let's say, 10 years.
When picking a niche, most people stay in the field where they are already working as reviewers want to see a proven track record there.
Finding your own niche area takes you on a quest:
Your two means to achieving these objectives are networking with people who are in-the-know and searching the literature and people online.
In the More Resources section below, we give you links to useful research tools for completing those tasks.
To find a unique area where you can create important new knowledge, review the literature to see what research has been done and what remains to be done in your area of interest.
Then talk to colleagues and meet new people at scientific meetings to get more ideas. Listen to the buzz and brainstorm ideas with the experts.
Take notes as you gather information about the research interests of people in your field—some of them may end up as your reviewers!
As you interact, make an impression, so people will remember you, for example:
You want to begin networking as early in your career as you can, while still in school if possible. That way, you can start matching your experience, interests, and abilities with opportunities in science.
After you have some ideas to follow, review the literature again to learn more about them and possibly get more ideas for hot topics in your field.
Ask yourself: do I have the skills to make an impact in this area? For the research needs and opportunities you uncover:
It's important to carve out your own space, so explore opportunities in empty spaces, but be aware of the caveats.
While it's usually a good idea to bypass crowded areas where it's hard to compete with established investigators, make absolutely certain that the area is important to your field—some niches are untouched because they are inconsequential.
In making your decision, get help from colleagues, mentors, and an NIH program officer.
Below we list some Web sites that can help you find a research niche.
Though you may need to spend more time planning than writing your application, careful planning will save you time in the long run.
Our iterative approach outlined in the box below helps you ensure that the research you are planning is both important to its audience (your peer reviewers) and feasible in their eyes.
Information in the Research Plan works in a feedback loop with other parts of your application.
If you hit a failure point, return to that step, and go back through the process until you succeed.
Whether you are considering a new topic or are a new investigator, we strongly recommend taking the time to plan and get feedback at every step of the way.
Your objective is to find an important and unique problem that you are likely to solve.
In other words, your research must be 1) significant, i.e., addresses a critical gap or opportunity, 2) innovative, i.e., can create new knowledge, and 3) feasible, i.e., your reviewers will assess that you are qualified and have access to the necessary resources.
Together, these factors create impact, the basis of each application's review outcome, its overall impact score. In this step you will look at your project's significance and innovation (feasibility comes later).
Action: Home in on a unique topic where you can create new knowledge.
To stay within their area of expertise—which is critical—many people choose an investigator-initiated application, where they pick the topic.
You could also review our priorities—you may be able to capitalize on one of them even with an investigator-initiated application. Look at our concepts (potential future initiatives) and opportunities, and understand how you can benefit from them. Read more at Choose Approach and Find FOAs in Part 2.
Thinking high level, ask yourself what objectives you could achieve within the timeframe of the grant. Your goal is to create aims that are achievable in four to five years and have clear endpoints your reviewers can readily assess.
Some people write their Specific Aims first and then develop a hypothesis; others do the reverse—use the approach that works best for you.
You can create one hypothesis for the entire application or one for each Specific Aim.
Action: After choosing a topic, develop three aims and one or more testable hypotheses.
Identify a study section that has reviewers who would be interested in the problem you identified. Assess their research and publications to see how close their research and scientific perspective is to yours.
Then see which NIH institute would likely fund your project, and discuss your ideas with a program officer there.
Action: Find a study section that would appreciate your research perspective.
When developing an application, it's a good idea to seek advice at different decision points.
Action: Identify a potential funding institute where you can get help, and talk to your organization's business office.
As you develop your research design, keep the following questions in mind: What are the anticipated outcomes of my planned experiments? Will they be able to conclusively accomplish the aims, which test the hypothesis?
Action: Create an initial experimental design that will achieve your Specific Aims and test your hypothesis or hypotheses.
Your Specific Aims and hypothesis work in a feedback loop with the experiments, as follows:
5. Assess Feasibility
You'll need to make sure that the scope of the project (number of experiments, complexity, money) is appropriate to your demonstrated skill level (relevant preliminary data and publications).
Since it can be hard to make that determination, you may want to get advice from your program officer or other respected sources.
One fact to consider is that most new investigators stay within a modular budget, limited to $250,000 dollars in annual direct costs. The running tab will help you make sure your project stays within a reasonable scope.
Action: Make sure your project scope is not getting too big.
Continue the iterative process to assess feasibility in terms of expertise and resources.
Ask yourself: do I have the necessary resources and expertise to execute the research?
Find out whether your institution may give you support to purchase equipment. It's fine to request money in the application for small equipment or items that are usually shared. Big expenses are another matter.
If you are a new investigator, choosing highly experienced people to be on your team will help build reviewer trust in your future success. But know the caveats of using collaborators and consultants.
Action: See whether you have all the necessary resources and expertise to perform the experiments.
Get input on choosing a truly high-impact and feasible project.
Funding is highly competitive. For example, our R01 success rate in FY 2014 was 18.6 percent (this includes high-priority applications funded through selective pay).
Action: Rate the project and decide whether to pursue it. Follow these steps:
If the idea doesn't fare well, now is the time to rethink—don't wait until you've spent months writing an application.
Repeat the process from Step 1. Within Your Niche, Choose an Important and Unique Project until you get a positive result.
Strategy for NIH Funding
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Last Updated March 30, 2016
Last Reviewed January 13, 2012