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Getting Your First Grant


Getting that first grant is an important and daunting step in a young scientist's career. A new R01 speeds the path to being established as an independent investigator, but it can be hard to come by. According to NIH, the success rate for new R01 grants application in 2007 was 19.2 percent. With a resubmission or two, that success rate gets higher, but is still far from a certainty.

Recently, the average age at which a faculty member receives his or her first R01 has climbed, while at the same time the percent of R01s awarded to first-time recipients has dropped. In 1990, the average age of a scientist at the receiving end of a first R01 was 39, and in 2007, it had risen to 43. Of the 4,000 or so R01 grants approved in 2007, 25 percent went to new investigators, as opposed to 29 percent in 1990.

Adding insult to injury, many young scientists have little training in grantsmanship. "When you start your faculty position, there's a lot of things that you are suddenly asked to do that you weren't explicitly trained to do, or that you never even saw that your advisor was doing before," says Trisha Wittkopp, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. "I think the whole grant process is one of those."

But even without such hands-on experience, Wittkopp successfully received a grant from the National Science Foundation and young investigator grants from charitable organizations. She recently served on a grant review panel — which opened her eyes to that other half of the process. Here, she shares some tips she's learned along the way.

Read lots of funded grants.

When Wittkopp was applying for her first grant, she had never seen a full grant application before. She appealed to colleagues a few years ahead of her for help and asked that they send her copies of funded grants so she could get a feel for how much detail to include.

Be clear. Be concise. Use proper formatting.

Make your application as easy to read as possible — both in content and formatting. "As a reviewer, you're sitting there with a pile of 20 grants, and each one is 20 pages long. You pick up one that has clearly small font with the margins being pushed, it's not very motivating," Wittkopp says.

Sell your work.

Hone your grantsmanship and learn how to play the game. "You have to convince the reviewer why they should care about your system, why your work should be funded over all of the other work," she says. Not only will you be judged on what you include, but also on what you leave out. When Wittkopp applied for an NIH grant, reviewers wondered why she left an experiment off her list that seemed fairly obvious — she had a good reason, but never justified her choice to the reviewers in the proposal.

Be realistic.

Don't include everything. Limit yourself to what you can reasonably accomplish. Don't bite off too much, warns Wittkopp.

Have someone read your work.

You might feel like you are intruding by asking an older colleague to review your work, but do it anyway, says Wittkopp. Feedback is valuable.

Be persistent.

"Grants get rejected and it's not fun. It's not a good feeling, but you've got to resubmit and keep going," she says. After you get your application back, take a look at the summary statement — there's plenty of useful information there. In these statements, she says, program directors and reviewers include the most important points from the external reviewer as well as the discussion by the full review panel. Be sure to focus on these points while making your revisions, she advises.

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