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Grantsmanship for Graduate Students and Postdocs

Grantsmanship for Graduate Students and Postdocs
Reported by
Megan McFarland

Posted December 09, 2014

Presented By


Over the past 15 years, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the sciences have faced increasing pressure to obtain independent funding to finance their education and research. Meanwhile, applications to NIH grant awards have outpaced the numbers of funded pre- and postdoctoral positions. In 1998 the success rate for NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowships was nearly 50%; by 2013, it had declined to 30% as applications increased more than threefold. In this competitive funding environment, graduate students and postdocs who are effective grant writers have a distinct career advantage. On October 9, 2014, Science Alliance presented a seminar on best practices for grant writing and fellowship applications. Grantsmanship for Graduate Students and Postdocs featured a talk by Jaime S. Rubin, director for research development in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, and a panel of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have successfully applied for several types of funding.

Rubin began with an overview of the funding sources available for junior investigators and guided the audience through the grant application process. She outlined common reviewing criteria, the main components of an application, and mistakes often made by applicants. Both she and the panelists pointed to simple but crucial practices in grant writing: start the application process early, be organized, follow instructions to the letter, and be your own best critic. "Think of every nit-picky thing a reviewer will pick out, and address it," Rubin advised, emphasizing that each application is in competition with thousands of others. "Unfortunately, [reviewers] try to find something that's wrong," she said. "You want to be the one person left with a great application."

Funding sources include U.S. government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as professional societies, nongovernmental organizations, and foundations. Rubin focused on individual fellowships such as NIH grants for graduate students and postdocs, which tend to be nonrenewable and usually provide a stipend, but not a salary. NIH institutional training grants (T32) are awarded to the institution, which then recruits and selects students to support. Such grants define the number of positions supported, usually in a specific research area such as diabetes. NIH individual fellowships (F31 and F32) are awarded directly to pre- and postdoctoral applicants, respectively.

NIH grants are the largest source of funding for graduate students in the sciences. Three or four reviewers score NIH grant applicants in five areas: fellowship applicant; sponsors, collaborators, and consultants; research training plan; training potential; and institutional environment and commitment to training. Other funding sources use similar reviewing criteria. At NIH the overall impact score for all review criteria is most important, ranging from 10 (exceptional) to 90 (poor). NIH scoring areas focus on the subject of the project and the student's potential for, as the application states, "an independent scientific research career"; scoring does not focus on the needs of the mentor. "It is all about providing the student or the postdoc with a research [project] and research training environment," Rubin said. "Is that research project exciting and appropriate for somebody at that career stage and [for] that time frame?" Reviewers consider whether the project will support the student in moving to the next career stage. "For postdocs," she explained, " 'transition to independence' is a phrase that you will see over and over again; for the student, it would be 'transition to the postdoc level.' "

Yet reviewers' perceptions of the student's sponsor, or mentor, are also important. Reviewers must be convinced that the mentor and the institution are committed to the student's training and will provide adequate support. In most cases, Rubin explained, the mentor must be NIH-funded, because this demonstrates that resources are available to support the direct costs of the research project, such as equipment and core facilities.

The NIH evaluation system uses a 9-point rating scale. Each reviewer submits an overall impact score; the mean of all reviewers' scores is multiplied by 10 to derive the final score. (Image available at Interpreting new application scores and critiques.)

Two components "can either make or break a fellowship application," according to Rubin, and are common to most applications: the personal statement and the research plan (which includes a statement of aims and research strategy). The panelists agreed that well-crafted objectives ("aims") are central and should be written in close collaboration with the mentor. "Everything follows from the aims," Rubin said, including the all-important title and abstract—the first and second things that reviewers will read.

Research aims should be hypothesis-driven: "You're asking an exciting, important question, and you're answering it in an exciting, important way, and it's paradigm-shifting, and you're going to move your field forward," Rubin said. She advised the audience to avoid jargon and be specific, and cautioned against expecting reviewers to make inferences. Bhama Ramkhelawon, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Medicine, advised students to start by asking mentors to review a draft of the research aims. "There has to be one coherent theme that defines your entire project," she said. She has found that some reviewers are critical of projects that are too broad, with "three or four aims [that do not all] come together in one coherent, long story."

The research plan should be complete but not overly ambitious. Aakanksha Singhvi, a postdoctoral fellow from Rockefeller University who received a grant from the American Cancer Society, received such feedback from reviewers, who asked her to revise and resubmit the application. "I was ... giving my whole postdoctoral plan and how I was planning to take this further, so you have a broad vision of my research," she explained. "But they were looking for: What can you do in the next two to three years?" Thus, students need to exercise critical analysis and seek feedback. Jieling Zhu, a graduate student at Columbia University, went through two rounds of editing with her mentor before submitting an NSF fellowship application. "You have to push yourself to be able to ask a professor for help," even when unsure about the state of the draft, she said. Rubin also reminded the audience that small oversights—such as text printed in a minuscule font or low-resolution, unclear images—could tip an application into the "do not fund" pile. Similarly, it is important to use all the space on an application form or write to the maximum page limit or word count.

Students should also consult examples of successful grants, such as grants submitted by their mentor and other researchers. Students can review parts of other student applications or ask administrators at their institution for samples. The NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT) website is a searchable database that includes information on grant funding and application success rates.

Key lessons for grant applicants. (Image courtesy of Jaime S. Rubin)

Following Rubin's presentation, the panelists shared advice from successful grant applications. The first step is networking to learn about available funding. Such networking can involve attending conferences, consulting university resources, and talking to students in other labs. The panelists reported that connecting with other applicants also helped them navigate grant writing and handle the stress involved. "Knowing someone who's been through the process was immensely helpful," Singhvi said.

Citing the complexity of the application process, panelists said applicants should stay organized, compile documents earlier than seems necessary, and ask for help. Rubin suggested creating a spreadsheet of funding opportunities and deadlines and asking for recommendations soon after deciding to apply. Singhvi concurred, recalling that in her experience, "everything took twice as long" as expected. Jessica Rios, a graduate student at Gerstner Sloan Kettering, created a detailed to-do list and daily schedule for completing an application.

Ramkhelawon ended by sharing advice from her mentor: "Give the best you can while you are writing, and then you won't regret if you don't get it. Some part of the grant—like 70%—is you, but 30% has nothing to do with you." Control what you can and "you will be better at dealing with the 'no,' " if unsuccessful. The panelists agreed that the exercise of writing a grant is in itself invaluable practice for an academic career, notwithstanding a few rejections.

Use the tabs above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentation available from:
Jaime S. Rubin, PhD (Columbia University)



Academy Friend

Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, MSKCC


Columbia University. Funding and Grantsmanship for Research and Career Development Activities. National Institutes of Health.
NIH grant information from Columbia University course directed by Jaime S. Rubin.
A common website for federal agencies to post discretionary funding opportunities and for students to find and apply for grants.

National Institutes of Health. Office of Extramural Research. Grants & Funding.
The Office of Extramural Research provides the corporate framework for NIH research administration, ensuring scientific integrity, public accountability, and effective stewardship of the NIH extramural research portfolio.

National Institutes of Health. Office of Extramural Research. Grants & Funding. F Kiosk — Information about Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Individual Fellowship Funding Opportunities.
Information about F30, F31, F32, and F33 grants.

National Institutes of Health. F30/F31/F32/F33 Review.
Example of an NIH type-F application critique.

National Institutes of Health. Office of Extramural Research. Grants & Funding. Frequently Asked Questions: NRSA Fellowships. 2014.

National Institutes of Health. Office of Extramural Research. Grants & Funding. Guidelines and Fill-able Templates for Reviewers.

NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT). NIH RePORTER.
The RePORTER website provides access to reports, data, and analyses of NIH research activities, including information on NIH expenditures and the results of NIH supported research.

NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT). Funding Facts.

Partners in Information Access for the Public Health Workforce. Grants and Funding.
A collaboration of U.S. government agencies, public health organizations, and health sciences libraries. Opportunities for fellowships, grants, and other awards, including awards from members of the Partners project.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Institutional Research Training Grant (Parent T32).
Information about T32 grants.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service. SF424 (R&R) Individual Fellowship Application Guide for NIH and AHRQ.
A guide developed and maintained by NIH for preparing and submitting individual fellowship applications via to NIH and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) using the SF424 application form (R&R).


Jaime S. Rubin, PhD

Columbia University

Jaime S. Rubin holds MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Toronto, Canada. Her PhD thesis, published in Nature, described the first molecular identification and characterization of a human DNA repair gene. Since 1985, she has held several senior positions at the Columbia University Medical Center, where she is now the director for research development in the Department of Medicine. She founded and teaches the graduate course Funding and Grantsmanship for Research and Career Development Activities and started and codirects the Medical Center's course Responsible Conduct of Research and Related Policy Issues. She has served as the associate program director for the Doris Duke Clinical Research Fellowship Program and as associate director for career development on a number of NIH-funded pre- and postdoctoral training grants. She has also served on the advisory boards of Columbia's Patient-Oriented Research (POR) Master of Science Program and Clinical and Translational Science Award (Education).


Somdeb Mitra, PhD

Columbia University

Somdeb Mitra is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University with a fellowship award from the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Bhama Ramkhelawon, PhD

NYU School of Medicine

Bhama Ramkhelawon is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University School of Medicine with a fellowship award from the American Heart Association.

Jessica Rios

Gerstner Sloan Kettering

Jessica Rios is a graduate student at Gerstner Sloan Kettering with a fellowship award from the National Institutes of Health.

Aakanksha Singhvi, PhD

The Rockefeller University

Aakanksha Singhvi is a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University with a fellowship award from the American Cancer Society.

Jieling Zhu

Columbia University

Jieling Zhu is a graduate student at Columbia University with a fellowship award from the National Science Foundation.

Megan McFarland

Megan McFarland is a Master of Public Health degree candidate at New York University, where she is focusing on U.S. health care policy. She is an editor, writer, and book publishing professional, and has researched and written on policy at UNICEF and the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.