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July 7, 2010

Feature Articles

Opportunities and Resources

Advice Corner

Other News

New Funding Opportunities

Feature Articles

How to Pick a Project

This is the third article in our New Investigator Series.

In the first two articles of this series, we talked about how to be ready for independent support and how to choose a grant type. Here we focus on how you go about picking a research project for your application.

Being overly ambitious is a common mistake: proposing more work than you can do within the award time or work that exceeds your resources or expertise.

Hatch a Plan

Before you choose a project, it's a good idea to have a plan for your future research goals based on the research you have been doing.

First, pick an area of research. Successful academic investigators generally focus on one area with the goal of becoming the expert in a field, for example, understanding the immune evasion of TB. Most choose an area that continues work they are already doing.

You'll need to assess whether you can be competitive in the area by conducting searches of the scientific literature.

  • See where there are gaps no one is filling, and assess whether you are competent to do that work.
  • Allow yourself to benefit from serendipity: follow new scientific leads even if they take you in a different direction.
  • Recognize that this exercise can take a considerable amount of research and time.

Next, create a plan that sets out a series of research goals you'd like to accomplish during the next ten years or so. When that's done, you'll be ready to divide the goals into small components that you can achieve in three to five years each—the length of a grant award.

Doing this exercise can help you home in on the big picture first, keeping you focused on your principal idea for a significant period of time. Then when you divvy up your goals, you will have taken the first steps toward creating segments that have a limited enough scope to be doable for a three- to five-year project.

Why is this important? One of the most common mistakes of new investigators is proposing too much: a Research Plan that has too many Specific Aims, work that is too complex for their skill level, studies that require resources they don't have access to, work that is too much to accomplish within the timeframe of the award.

Plot Your Strategy

Though limiting the scope of your project is key, you'll need to take into account these other factors too when choosing a project.

1. Choose a topic where you can make a high impact on a narrowly focused area.

  • Reviewers will judge your application's ability to move the field forward. The impact of your research on the field—which includes the likelihood you can get the work done—is the primary basis of your score.
  • The more focused your project, the easier it is to avoid being too ambitious and avoid overlap with a future application.

Icon: Action.Action: Choose a high-impact project.

  • 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 an outside opinion—don't assume reviewers will consider a research area to have the same priority as you do.
  • Learn how reviewers assess your application.

2. Assess gaps and opportunities in your field.

  • Carve out your own space. Avoid crowded areas where it's harder to make a difference.
  • Choose a research problem that's important, e.g., developing an AIDS vaccine, addressing a critical gap or barrier to progress in the field.
  • Find an interesting problem that you are likely to solve.

Icon: Action.Action: Identify important and unique problems you could address.

  • Read the scientific literature to understand state of various problems and to avoid research that has already been accomplished.
  • Get help from others. Brainstorm with colleagues. Then check the literature again to see what's been done and what remains to be done.

3. Be an expert in the field.

Reviewers expect you to be an expert in the area you propose to investigate. Be sure to have first-hand experience with the science and most of the methods; you can recruit collaborators to fill some gaps.

Your experience, achievement of Specific Aims from a previous grant, and career level determine reviewers' comfort level with the research you propose.

Icon: Action.Action: Determine what work is feasible for you to accomplish based on your experience and resources.
  • Assess how your strengths match up with various potential projects.
  • Know which awards your institution will allow you to apply for.
  • Read review articles, talk to experts.

4. Assess the importance of potential research areas to NIH.

  • To stay within your area of expertise, many people choose an investigator-initiated application, where you pick the topic.
  • Know how you can capitalize on Institute priorities even with an investigator-initiated application. For NIAID, look at our concepts and opportunities. We give you more details on this subject in "Application Approach: What Are Your Choices?", the next article of this series.

Icon: Action.Action: See whether your expertise lends itself to an Institute priority.

5. Write a sentence showing how your project is well focused, can make an impact, and has a testable hypothesis.

Make sure you can accomplish your aims within your award period and with the level of resources you are requesting.

Icon: Action.Action: Make sure your project is doable.

  • Its hypothesis is testable using your proposed aims and methods.
  • Its science can be tied to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, or cure of human disease.

6. Rate your project.

Ask an NIAID program officer for an opinion of your idea.

Ask experts in your institution and other colleagues to rate your project.

If it rates poorly, this is the time to step back and rethink the idea—don't wait until you've spent months writing the application.

Icon: Action.Action: Get advice on the merits of your project.

  • After you speak to a program officer and experts in your institution, 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 to 9, the NIH review scale.
  • If it scores poorly, go back and rethink the idea to find another topic.

7. Ask yourself how your reviewers might view the impact of your project.

When you write the application, target the reviewers likely to review it. See the links below to read more about making sure the right people evaluate your application.

Icon: Action.Action: Get out of your skin and into the skin of the reviewers.

  • Identify three to five people who would probably serve as your assigned reviewers.
  • When you write, target the reviewers likely to be assigned to your application.  Even if you end up with different ones, you will have addressed people who have similar expertise.

As part of your strategy, do not neglect your image. To some extent, your success depends on what your peers—including peer reviewers—think about your work. Even though you are busy at work and writing applications, keep up with publishing papers and presenting and interacting at scientific meetings.

Related Links

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In the Court of Appeals, Revision Is the Verdict

Generally, we advise you to redo the application and submit again rather than appeal.

If you are submitting a new application after running out of resubmissions, you'll need to decide what to do if the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) rejects the application as insufficiently different from the previous one.

As we wrote in our May 12, 2010, article, you can overhaul the application and submit it as new or go through an appeals process.

You'll need to weigh the merits of redoing the application against the time it takes to appeal CSR's decision.

Generally, we advise you to redo the application and submit again rather than appeal. If your application didn't make it through CSR's referral office, its staff judged that the science is too similar to that of your old application.

You may or may not agree. Though you have the right to appeal, be aware that appealing can take time that you may put to better use redoing the application.

How Appealing Works

If you do decide to invest the time and believe your application is significantly different from your old one, understand CSR's three-level process:

CSR's Division of Receipt and Referral (DRR) assesses your application.

If DRR staff cannot decide or if you appeal its decision, they consult senior CSR staff on their A2 Committee. This committee consists of a chairperson, ex officio representative from DRR, and senior staff from all CSR's review divisions.

If you decide to appeal the committee's decision, the case goes to an Arbitration Board comprising members across NIH. The board gives its decision to the CSR director, who contacts you.

The length of the appeals process varies depending on the issues involved and the time it can take for either you or NIH staff to respond to inquiries. Generally, each step takes one to three weeks.

Avoiding an Appeal

Keep your new application fresh by writing it from scratch—don't reuse any of the phrasing from the previous application.

Always keep in mind that NIH expects to see significant changes in both the direction and approach in all sections of your Research Plan.

To head off having your new application rejected in the first place, read:

"What's New? Maybe Your Next Application," May 12, 2010

April 15, 2010, Guide notice

What Qualifies as a New Application? in the Strategy for NIH Funding

CSR's How CSR Evaluates Applications for Overlap or Exceeding Resubmission Limits

Opportunities and Resources

ARRA Is Starting to Make a Lasting Impression

NIH's summer learning supplements were so successful that NIH plans to make them a permanent opportunity.

It's too early to assess the legacy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), but we can see one long-term benefit already.

NIH's summer learning supplements were so successful that NIH plans to make them a permanent opportunity. We’ll keep you posted.

On another note, expect NIH to incorporate more features of ARRA into its funding activities and reporting rules.

If you have a story about how ARRA helped you, your lab, and your research, it's not too late to share it with us. Just fill out our simple form at How Have ARRA Funds Helped You? and we'll put your experience on ARRA Success Stories.

Related Links

NIH's Administrative Supplements Providing Summer Research Experiences for Students and Science Educators

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Get Help from NIH to Repay Your Student Loans

NIH's Loan Repayment Programs can help you pursue your research career by repaying qualifying educational debt.

NIH's Loan Repayment Programs (LRP) may repay up to $35,000 of your educational debt each year if you commit at least two years to conducting qualified research and you're an eligible doctoral-level clinician or researcher. 

Your repayable debt can include most undergraduate, graduate, and medical school loans.

To qualify, your research needs to be funded by a domestic nonprofit organization or domestic government agency. NIAID supports the Clinical Research LRP and the Pediatric Research LRP; for these programs, at least half your time needs to be spent performing clinical or pediatric research.

The next application cycle begins on September 1, 2010.

Related Links

NIH's Loan Repayment Programs

NIAID's Loan Repayment Programs

For help, email AITrainingHelpDesk@niaid.nih.gov

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Check Out These New RePORT Features

NIH's RePORT, which houses public data on NIH awards, has two freshly minted offerings for you.

NIH Awards by Location and Organization (Beta). View award maps and find which organizations received awards in a given area. After it's out of beta, this resource will replace the three older reports shown at Funded Organizations.

A redesigned and updated NIH Data Book now has information on graduate students and postdocs. Export functions for the graphs and data tables can help you create presentations and do your own analyses.

Use the search in RePORT Expenditures and Results to find collaborators or identify emerging trends and techniques.

You can view a variety of Reports or download the categorized data at Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC).

The handy RePORT Expenditures and Results (RePORTER) tool lets you search by project, investigator, scientific concepts, keyword, and more. Use its search to find collaborators or identify emerging trends and techniques.

Learn more about what the site has to offer through the RePORT Tutorial. Go to Reporting Considerations When Writing Your Application for tips on including terminology in key parts of your application so your research falls into the proper RCDC category.

Advice Corner

News Flash: Resolve Bars to Award Quickly

Help get bars to award lifted as soon as possible to avoid a restricted award.

It's only the start of summer, but our fiscal year is ending soon—so if you have a bar to award, get your paperwork in now.

Send the documentation to your program officer right away. Sooner is better—here's why:

Both NIH's Office of Extramural Programs and Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare may need several months to review our requests.

Since NIAID must fund all American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) awards before September 30, we can't process non-ARRA actions as quickly as usual.

If you send in your paperwork at the last minute, you could be unable to spend money until December or later since NIH's step may take months.

On the last point, if we can't get your bar lifted before the end of September, we'll need to give you a restricted award that prevents you from spending in the barred area until you can resolve study section concerns. If you think this could happen to you, talk to your program officer or grants management specialist.

Keep in mind that for ARRA grants, we aren't making any restricted awards. If you can't get your ARRA bar lifted in time, we won't fund your application at all.

Related Links

NIH's portal for Research Involving Human Subjects

NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare

NIAID's Bars to Grant Awards SOPs

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Reader Questions

Feel free to send us a question at deaweb@niaid.nih.gov. After responding to you, we may include your question in the newsletter, incorporate it into the NIAID Research Funding site, or both.

"A new and early-stage investigator will be the PI on an upcoming renewal application, replacing the PI of the original grant. Will the ESI retain his new status and receive the related benefits?"—an anonymous reader

Yes. The PI will keep his new status and the advantages that go along with it, such as higher paylines. Investigators retain their new status if they become the PI of a grant they did not apply for, e.g., they are assigned to be the PI of an existing grant.

For more on advantages and qualifications of being new, see Are You "New"? in our New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding.

Find additional resources at our Early-Stage and New Investigators portal.

"I replaced the PI on an existing grant. How do I find out who my program officer is and what study section was used for the application?"—an anonymous reader

You should be able to find this information in your eRA Commons account or on the summary statement for the grant application.

"Does NIAID still support the Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplement program?"—an anonymous reader

Yes, we do. To learn more, see Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements.

Other News

News Briefs

Watch CSR's New Peer Review Videos. In these videos—which include a review by a mock study section—see how peer reviewers review NIH grant applications: "NIH Peer Review Revealed" and "NIH Tips for Applicants." To learn more about the topic, go to CSR's NIH Peer Review Revealed and our own Peer Review portal.

Final R15 and T32 Paylines. We posted our final FY 2010 NIAID Paylines for Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA, R15) and Institutional Training Grants (T32) at overall impact scores of 22 and 28 respectively. All final FY 2010 paylines are now in. For other recent news, read the June 9 article "More Final Paylines for FY 2010."

Coming Soon—NIAID P01 FOA. Watch for the first NIAID-specific program project (P01) funding opportunity announcement in the next few months. Once we release the FOA, you will need to cite it in your application.

Funding Opportunity Links

PAS-10-226, Advancing Novel Science in Women's Health Research (ANSWHR)

RFA-AI-10-014, Ancillary Studies in Immunomodulation Clinical Trials

RFA-AI-10-009, Martin Delaney Collaboratory: Towards an HIV-1 Cure

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated January 12, 2012

Last Reviewed October 18, 2010