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Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Strategy to Pick a Project   ·   Choose the GrantNext page in Strategy.

Pick a Research 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.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(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.

  1. You can simply create a project in any area you choose and submit an application for what is called investigator-initiated (or unsolicited) research.
  2. You can respond to an NIAID initiative that solicits research in a predefined high-priority area. In this case—called solicited (or targeted) research—you choose the project but not the research area.

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.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)

Hatch a Plan for Your Career

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.

  • Evaluate your training, publications, and presentations at scientific meetings in the field.
  • Be critical: look at yourself through the eyes of your future reviewers.
  • Ask colleagues or advisors to make the same assessment of you.

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.

Find Your Niche

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:

  • Locate the most promising research needs and opportunities in your field.
  • Assess whether you have the skills to make an impact.
  • Look at the other players and judge whether you can compete.

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. You can also find additional advice in our August 20, 2014, Funding Newsletter article “Researching Research Topics and Teammates.”

Look Wide, Dig Deep

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:

  • Request something: advice, help, a reagent.
  • Inquire about the other person's work.
  • Ask questions about the field.
  • Follow up with email.

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.

Assess Your Competitiveness

Ask yourself: do I have the skills to make an impact in this area? For the research needs and opportunities you uncover:

  • Determine whether you would be competent to pursue them.
  • Get opinions on that judgment from people you respect.
  • Make sure your strengths match up with potential projects that can move the field forward.

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.

More Resources

Use an Iterative Approach to Plan Your Project

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.

Use an Iterative Process

Information in the Research Plan works in a feedback loop with other parts of your application.

  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.

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.

1. Within Your Niche, Choose an Important and Unique Project

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).

Icon: Action.Action: Home in on a unique topic where you can create new knowledge.

  • Ask: can the research make a difference, e.g., will it open up a new area of discovery or develop a new approach to a major problem?
  • Get outside opinions—don't assume others, including your reviewers, will consider a research area to have the same priority as you do.
  • Make sure your strengths match up with potential projects, and you are within your area of expertise.
  • When considering projects, get advice from experts, including colleagues and NIH program officers.

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.

More Resources

2. Draft Specific Aims and One or More Hypotheses

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.

Icon: Action.Action: After choosing a topic, develop three aims and one or more testable hypotheses.

  • Create (usually) three Specific Aims you can achieve in four or five years.
  • Make sure they have clear endpoints reviewers can readily assess.
  • Create a hypothesis (or hypotheses) that is well focused and testable by the aims and experiments.

3. Identify a Potential Institute and Study Section

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.

Icon: Action.Action: Find a study section that would appreciate your research perspective.

  • View committee rosters online and find a committee with people who would appreciate your field and share your perspective.
  • See what research they're doing, and review their publications.
  • Identify the three to five people on promising study sections who would probably serve as your assigned reviewers.
  • Ask yourself whether the assigned reviewers and possibly others may be enthusiastic about topics you are considering—the more, the better. Would they view the project as high impact?

When developing an application, it's a good idea to seek advice at different decision points.

Icon: Action.Action: Identify a potential funding institute where you can get help, and talk to your organization's business office.

  • Early on, talk to people in your organization's business office (e.g., Office of Sponsored Research).
    • Find out what help they will give you to prepare and process your application, including editorial assistance.
    • Learn their expectations.
  • Contact NIH program staff in your area of science.
  • Get input from colleagues and mentors at different decision points.

More Resources

4. Outline Your Experiments

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?

Icon: Action.Action: Create an initial experimental design that will achieve your Specific Aims and test your hypothesis or hypotheses.

  • Use our iterative process to make sure all parts track with each other.
  • Check again as you plan that the research is significant and innovative, but not too innovative.
  • Create a running tab of "who, what, when, where, and how much money."

Your Specific Aims and hypothesis work in a feedback loop with the experiments, as follows:

  • Your aims lead to your experiments, which determine your budget and personnel needs.
  • But the experiments you can design are limited by the accessibility of people and resources and the scope of the research you are targeting.

More Resources

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.

Icon: Action.Action: Make sure your project scope is not getting too big.

  • Make sure you plan a project that stays within the time and resources appropriate for you to request.
  • Use a running tab and create a timeline.
  • If you find yourself trying to squeeze too much into your plan, step back and revise.
  • Get advice from colleagues and mentors.

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.

Icon: Action.Action: See whether you have all the necessary resources and expertise to perform the experiments.

  • Plan to hire the number of people that you can afford while staying within the limits of a modular budget.
  • Make sure your team including collaborators has first-hand experience with the science and methods.
  • If you need additional expertise, consider a "team science" approach, being aware of the caveats.
  • If the team is multidisciplinary, make sure NIH has a review committee that will be able to effectively review the application.
  • Check that you have access to necessary equipment, especially large equipment. If not, read our advice in Design a Project in Part 2.

More Resources

6. Rate Your Project

Get input on choosing a truly high-impact and feasible project.

Funding is highly competitive. For example, our R01 success rate in FY 2011 was 17.3 percent (this includes high-priority applications funded through selective pay).

    Icon: Action.Action: Rate the project and decide whether to pursue it. Follow these steps:

    • Ask NIH program officers whether your idea would fit their institute, and get their opinion of it.
    • Ask experts in your institution and other colleagues to rate your idea.
    • Give a presentation on the project and possible research approaches.
    • Based on this input, rate the impact of your topic on a scale from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest), the NIH review scale.
    • Take another look at your NIH peer review committee. Reassess whether your reviewers would think highly of your idea.

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
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Strategy to Pick a Project   ·   Choose the GrantNext page in Strategy.

See the other sections of
Part 2. Pick and Design a Project

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email deaweb@niaid.nih.gov.

Last Updated November 01, 2013

Last Reviewed January 13, 2012