Featuring: Jaime S. Rubin (Columbia University)Presented by Science Alliance
Reported by Hallie Kapner | Posted February 22, 2017
As university budgets shrink and competition for external funds becomes increasingly fierce, the ability to write a compelling grant application is as crucial as lab or clinical skills for today's STEM graduate students. On November 2, 2016, the Academy's Science Alliance presented a seminar, Grantsmanship for Students and Postdocs, focused on the individual pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships in the biomedical fields—including the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) F30, F31 and F32 funding programs. Jaime S. Rubin, vice chair for investigator development in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, provided an in-depth overview of these grants and offered guidance for each step of the application process, while a panel of pre- and postdoctoral fellows shared their experiences and lessons learned from navigating the grant application process.
Rubin began by noting that a new business model for funding junior investigators is emerging: rather than mentors supporting students through their own research funds, young researchers wishing to pursue an academic career are encouraged to apply for individual fellowships. There is broad support for these fellowships, not only as a mechanism of preparing students and postdoctoral fellows to transition to independent academic careers, but as a way to tap what is viewed by some as a vital source of innovation. Referencing data showing that published papers with a young first author are far likelier to focus on new ideas and "hotter" subjects than those of older colleagues, Rubin quipped that "having students and postdocs involved in biomedical research leads to hot results." The number of competititive applications for NIH fellowships is quite large and the success rate for funding has consistently been below 30% for many years. Rubin argued that a well-prepared application is just as important as the proposed science in rising above the noise.
Snapshot of NIH spending on training grants versus individual fellowships.
Rubin reviewed the eligibility criteria for government and private fellowships, described the review process for NIH grants, and explained the reviewers' scoring system.
The NIH, as well as professional societies, private foundations, and voluntary health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, all offer individual fellowships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences. Rubin described the NIH's F30 and F32 grants, which support dual-doctoral degree candidates (such as MD/PhD) and postdoctoral fellows, respectively, and the F31 grant for pre-doctoral students. Government grant applicants must have U.S. citizenship or permanent residency, while private grant-making organizations often require neither.
The F30, F31, and F32 grants provide a stipend, health fees, tuition and travel for a single student working with a mentor or mentors on a specific project for a multi-year period. As the grants provide no funds for the mentor(s) or for research, Rubin explained that having a well-funded mentor is a crucial element of a compelling grant application. "Otherwise, you'll show up on day one and you won't be able to do anything because nobody has any money," she said.
The review process for NIH fellowships is long—a full nine months from submission to earliest start date, with the time divided between initial scientific review, weigh-in from the individual institute's advisory council, and setting the payline and awarding the grant. Every grant submitted to NIH is assigned to a Scientific Review Group, or study section—a peer review panel with a specific area of expertise—whose members read and score the applications on a scale of 1–9, with lower numbers denoting the strongest scores. Scores are pooled to generate an overall impact score, which is the mean of the reviewers' impact scores multiplied by ten (thus a ten is a perfect score.)
"There's a lot you can do to get your grant application into the most appropriate hands." — Jaime Rubin, Columbia University.
Study section members meet to determine which applications will be passed on to the advisory council, and Rubin noted that a full 50 percent of applications are never discussed. "They want to focus their time on applications that are most likely to get funded," she said, noting that even if an application is not scored or discussed, the applicant still benefits from a unique feature of the NIH application process—a "pink sheet," or list of reviewers' comments provided to all applicants.
"This is particularly important if you were denied funding, so you can improve and resubmit a revised application," Rubin said. "That's a nice thing about NIH—a revision isn't treated as a de novo application, and if you address the reviewers' comments well, you'll score better. It doesn't guarantee funding, but it helps."
In addition to the overall impact score, grant applications are ranked by percentile in relation to the last three rounds of grants reviewed by that study section. Many NIH institutes publish the minimum percentiles or overall impact scores needed to get funding.
Rubin strongly advises applicants to take steps to ensure that their submission is assigned to an appropriate study section by researching the members of several study sections. This information is publicly available on the NIH's Integrated Review Group website. "You should recognize some of the names, or your mentor should, and if nobody is familiar to you, it might not be the right group for your application," Rubin said. Once an appropriate study section is identified, applicants can—and should—request that group on their grant application. Applicants should also scan NIH RePORTER, the online grants database, to view the abstracts of grants that successfully passed a particular study section. "There's a lot you can do to get your grant application into the most appropriate hands," said Rubin.
The review criteria for the F30, F31 and F32 fellowships fall into five main areas, each of which is ranked for strengths and weaknesses: Fellowship Applicant (biosketch), Mentor and Collaborators, Research Training Plan, Training Potential, and Institutional Environment and Commitment to Training. The application also includes letters of reference and support, and all sections have strict page limits. "This is why you can't just sit down and write, you have to prepare yourself to write," said Rubin, encouraging applicants to make requests for letters of recommendation early in the process and allow time to strengthen preliminary data that may enhance the application. She suggests formulating a timeline and a checklist to keep track of which tasks need to be completed and when, and an initial outline of content to include in each section of the application. Reviewing successful applications is also helpful, and mentors are often happy to share them.
Common problems with F30, F31 and F32 applications.
Katherine Xu, an F31 awardee who is a doctoral student in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, advises starting with the biosketch, not only because many applicants find it to be the easiest part of the application, but because it can be done solo. "A lot of the application requires the help of others, so whatever you can do on your own first—do it," she said. Rubin agreed, saying that the personal statement and biosketch are crucial parts of the application. "This is where you sell them on yourself," she said. "The science is important, but they're not funding the research, they're funding you. If they don't feel like they know you after reading those pages, you need to rewrite them."
The research section should be completed with a mentor's help, with greatest emphasis on the specific aims of the research. Two elements that strengthen an application are taking a hypothesis-driven approach and including preliminary data that support the proposed project. Xu reminded prospective applicants that "the more preliminary data you have, the better ... and you can include data that came from the results of others in the lab working on your project." Margaret E. Warren, a doctoral student in the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University, whose F31 grant has been funded, agreed but offered a cautionary counterpoint that "it's better to have no preliminary data rather than include something that doesn't build your case. You should also paint your capabilities appropriately, because this is a training grant. You're qualified, you're capable, you have the potential—but there's room for training," she said.
Reviewers give considerable weight to the strength of an applicant's mentor(s) and the institutional environment. Rubin reiterated that these fellowships provide no research funds, so having a mentor or mentors with ample funds and time is crucial. "You might be wonderful, but the reviewers want to be sure you're in the right lab," she said. "Has your mentor successfully mentored other students? How many people are they supervising? If there are 30 other people in the lab, you're not getting much face time." The application should also demonstrate that the institution is committed to students and postdocs, and has the facilities and career development resources to help a student become an independent investigator.
Rubin believes that mentors as well as other faculty members and peers who have successfully obtained funding can provide valuable feedback, and encourages applicants to seek guidance and comments throughout the writing process. In addition to sound science, a solid team, and thoughtful, realistic goals, a winning application should be clear and concise, and any tables or graphs should be well-designed, labeled, and easy to understand, even if printed in black and white. Most importantly, the applicant should never assume the reviewer will infer a crucial point. "If it's important, say it, and if it's important in more than one section, say it more than once," said Rubin.
A set of common problems plague unsuccessful grant applications. Among them are unfocused or overly ambitious work that is out of step with the funding agency's mission or inappropriate for the applicant's current skill level. Maomao Zhang, a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was asked for revisions on an F32 application for this reason. "The scientific logic was fine, but I proposed experiments my lab didn't have expertise in, and the reviewers want to make sure you have the tools you need and can work with the data you're getting," she said. Warren agreed, and mentioned that adding a co-mentor and a support lab to bring added expertise to the project was key in revising her recent F31 application. Some challenges may be averted given enough time and opportunity for feedback from mentors and other advisors during the writing process. Xu planned to write her grant over a month's time, but quickly realized two months would have been more appropriate. "I was idealistic, and even though I was really organized, I wish I had started earlier and allowed more time for feedback," she said.
Rubin concluded with an image of the NIH mailroom in the 1980s, stacked floor-to-ceiling with boxes representing a single round of applications. And while today's piles are virtual, competition for funds is tighter and the bar for standout applications is higher. Rubin explained that most grant applications are "fine," and it's often the subtleties that influence funding decisions. "They can't fund everything, so they have to find something wrong with most applications," she said. "You want yours to be the one they can't find anything wrong with—you want to be the last grant standing."
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Presentation available from:
Jaime S. Rubin, PhD (Columbia University)
How to cite this eBriefing
The New York Academy of Sciences. Grantsmanship for Graduate Students and Postdocs: F30, F31, F32. Academy eBriefings. 2016. Available at: www.nyas.org/Grantsmanship2016-eB