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To Build a Biosketch

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Though it only accounts for a small fraction of a PI's overall grant-writing efforts, the four-or-fewer formulaic pages that make up the biographical sketch component of National Institutes of Health applications can affect a grant's chances of being funded. While a biographical sketch — NIH requires one for every investigator involved in a proposed project — alone cannot make or break an entire grant application, reviewers are beginning to rely on the documents as points of reference for each researcher.

While reviewing NIH funding proposals, "if anyone on the panel raises a question about the grant, or the ability of the investigator to do the project, what you see is everybody around the room suddenly turning back to the investigator's biosketch," says Sara Rockwell, associate dean for scientific affairs at Yale University School of Medicine. "There is that use of the biosketch by the review committee — consciously and unconsciously — to really establish the investigator's abilities and credentials."

Among other changes to its grant applications, NIH amended its biosketch requirements due in large part to recommendations that surfaced as part of the agency's Enhancing Peer Review initiative. In an effort to place more emphasis on reviewers' evaluations of grant applicants, NIH now asks that investigators provide a personal statement — in which they must demonstrate how they are qualified to fulfill their given role in the proposal — and trim their list of selected peer-reviewed publications to a suggested maximum of 15.

While these changes may add to the administrative burden researchers already face when writing grants, they can be a boon to early-career scientists who have little or no past research support. Young investigators can use the personal statement to detail how they plan to use their training experiences to develop an independent research program. Veteran PIs, too, can make use of the personal statement when shifting into research endeavors that are seemingly outside of their expertise.

Though ostensibly it appears to be no more than an administrative chore, this new requirement provides investigators the opportunity to say why they themselves deserve federal research support as much as their project does.

Sell yourself

To be sure, scores assigned to the innovation, significance, and approach of a proposed project weigh more heavily than those related to a group's environment — its institutional support, equipment, and related resources — or personnel. But as funding rates fall, the University of Pittsburgh's Michelle Kienholz says that well-written biosketches — complete with cohesive, compelling personal statements — could help keep a proposal competitive. When assessing a grant's overall impact, she says, reviewers must consider "not only 'Is the work important to do?' but also 'What's the overall likelihood?' In other words … maybe this is the best science they've read all year, but is this the right team to do it?"

Kienholz, a grant writer and research development specialist, says that while such considerations of a group's capabilities "won't swing the [final] score," they could affect it by a point or two. "These days, you can't afford to lose a couple of points," she adds.

By clearly spelling out their specific research roles, investigators lighten the reviewers' workload. Although each participant's purpose is outlined as part of a given grant's budget justification so that "reviewers can figure it out," Kienholz says that the "easier you make it, the better."
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Yale's Rockwell says that when writing a personal statement, "the most important thing is to tailor it to the application and to emphasize the past experiences and activities that prepared you to undertake your specific role in this specific grant." As a researcher who has both written and reviewed several NIH grants, Rockwell has experienced how this requirement can be profitable — it's helpful in "establishing your credentials in research," she says — but also costly. Before, her administrative assistant could submit a biosketch to an interested party on her behalf. Now, Rockwell says, "every one of them has to go through my hands to edit and to update." As every investigator must generate a fresh personal statement for each new proposal, those who are "broadly active in collaborative research are going to be continually updating seven or eight different CVs for the different groups that they work with," she says, adding that this process can be "exceedingly time-consuming."

Indeed, Rockwell says she recently prepared personal statements for biosketches related to the three roles she plays in various NIH-funded projects. As PI on one grant, co-investigator on another, and director of Clinical and Translational Science Awards evaluation on yet another, "it meant that I was writing three completely different biosketch personal statements and putting together three completely different sets of references," she says, adding that each took an hour or two to complete.

Choose wisely

The peer-reviewed publications requirement has also changed; while it once may have been an all-encompassing list tacked on to a biosketch, it has become more focused. In its instructions, NIH suggests that investigators include their most recent, most relevant, and best-known work related to a proposed project. Pittsburgh's Kienholz says that while there are no set rules, she counsels her clients to list at least five publications that are relevant to the application up front. From there, she says, there is some flexibility in choosing the remaining 10 papers. "I usually say, especially for senior investigators, the five most related, the five biggest — in other words, if they had a Nature paper 15 years ago that's been cited 1,000 times — and then maybe the five most recent," so as to establish a track record of research productivity, Kienholz says. In the same vein, senior PIs might also opt to include the total number of peer-reviewed papers they've published as a parenthetic notation, she adds. [pagebreak]
New investigators who've published fewer than 15 papers should include poster presentations, talks they've given, or other related references in order to round out their selection of peer-reviewed publications, Kienholz says.

'Focus on the science,' mind the format

Like all NIH grant application materials, the biosketch "should focus on the science," Rockwell says. In this way, it's best to avoid rhetoric that could cloud the research and detract from its value. When competing for limited funds, "it is very critical that the biosketch be of the highest possible quality," she adds. Typos, grammatical errors, improper formatting, and incorrect references can reflect poorly on an investigator's work ethic. As a reviewer, she says, "you begin to wonder: 'If this person can't put together a biosketch — which is very important to them, because their grant depends on it — how careful are they in the laboratory?'"

Kienholz emphasizes the importance of crafting a compelling first-person narrative, as "the data aren't collecting themselves. This is one time [investigators] shouldn't be modest or shy."

She and Rockwell both say that when compiling a completed grant application, it's imperative that a PI ensure that the statements in each individual biosketch are consistent with the overall proposal, that every claim is justified, and all of its contents add up. Those submitting grants would be remiss to include "a method described in their approach that no one is owning up to" in the group's biosketches, Kienholz says. "With funding levels plummeting in the next few years, keeping it clean is going to be important."

A seamless biosketch, in which "the investigator [has included], in three or four well-selected pages, everything that the review committee needs to know about them," could bear positively on a project proposal, Rockwell says. While less-than-perfect personal statements and publication lists won't hurt a grant's chances too much, Kienholz says reviewers are aware of subtle cues that indicate a group's likelihood for success. "If you don't take advantage of the opportunity to make your research team shine — as a team — I think it sticks out a little," she says.

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