Writing a Winning Application—Conduct a Self-Assessment

Funding News Edition: June 03, 2020
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Peer reviewers will scrutinize your application for your credentials, publications, preliminary data, and presentations at scientific meetings to gauge your technical expertise and grasp of the research area.

Credit: NIAID

It’s safe to say that you’ll face some stiff competition when trying to obtain an NIH grant, for example, an R01. With so many investigators vying for a limited amount of funds, standing out from the rest of the field is paramount. That said, how do you distinguish your application from the rest of the field?

In this multi-part series, we provide some guidance to help you do just that. Before we get to the nitty-gritty of writing a winning application, however, we start at the beginning with assessing the field of research for which you are best qualified.

Assess Yourself

When applying for an independent research grant, you'll need demonstrable expertise in a scientific field. Your qualifications lay the foundation for your grant-seeking efforts: whatever you write in your application is immaterial unless your reviewers deem you able to complete the work you propose.

They will scrutinize your application for your credentials, publications, preliminary data, and presentations at scientific meetings to gauge your technical expertise and grasp of the research area. While you may need outside collaborators to round out the technical expertise that your research demands, you will still have to convince reviewers that you understand all aspects of your project.

Take Aim

When picking an area to study, most investigators stay in the field where they are already working or extend their interests to a highly-related field.

Having a proven track record in a specific field builds reviewer confidence that you can conduct the research. For a more experienced investigator, reviewers consider past successes to be indicators of whether he or she can successfully compete in a new area of research. To paraphrase a common saying, “Past performance is an indicator of future results.”

Assess your qualifications to work in a certain area of research by 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.

To help you determine where your research might best fit at NIH, review mission statements of its institutes and centers (ICs) and be mindful that different NIH ICs can have overlapping research priorities. Find this information at NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices.

Highlight Your Credentials

To get nods from reviewers, you'll need significant experience and a publication record (first or last author) in respected peer-reviewed journals. Though it can help to have a history of overseeing projects in your field, nothing—including review articles—can substitute for high-quality, peer-reviewed research papers.

Are you trying for your first independent grant? Be aware that your reviewers also will ask whether you will be able to lead a major research project in the proposed area.

Are you an experienced investigator looking 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. These smaller awards could permit you to generate key preliminary data (especially “proof-of-principle” data) for a later R01. Learn more by Comparing Popular Research Project Grants: R01, R03, and R21 and reading our Small and Exploratory/Developmental Research Grants SOP.

Establish New or More Expertise

If you need more experience or want to change fields, consider getting more training in the new area before preparing a grant application, unless the grant program is specifically designed to attract investigators new to a particular field of research. Such training can come from formal courses offered by (or through) professional societies or hands-on training gained in the laboratory of an experienced colleague.

Additionally, if you're working in an area that's different from your previous one, take the time to publish in this new area, possibly through a collaboration, before applying for a grant.

You also may want to look into our career development awards, which are especially helpful for postdocs, for example, the NIAID Career Transition Award (K22). For other institutes, look into the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00). NIAID makes very few K99/R00 awards, but some other institutes fund a good number of them.

We also support mentored K awards that allow new investigators to develop necessary credentials under the guidance of a more experienced scientist. For more information and a list of mentored K awards, go to Research Career Development (K) Awards.

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Contact Us

Email us at deaweb@niaid.nih.gov for help navigating NIAID’s grant and contract policies and procedures.

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