10 Tips on Writing Your First Grant
If you are a junior faculty looking to do research in an academic setting the question will inevitably arise: How do you get funding? You may have a fantastic research idea, but without money to back it, it is hard to get anywhere. Funding is becoming more difficult and more competitive to obtain. This guide will present 10 tips to help you through the daunting task of applying for and writing your first grant.
1. Figure out what you want to research
This will be a combination of your personal interests as well as what is feasible in your setting, and what is fundable. A project may be interesting to you, but if no one will fund it, then it won’t go anywhere. Additionally, if you work in an urban academic setting in a major city in the North East, for example, don’t propose a study on snake bites. You just won’t have enough patients. Your research will become a large part of what defines your academic niche. See what your department has already, and see what it lacks. Ideally your niche should be individual, but fit in well with the rest of your department’s strengths.
If this is your first project, think small. Over-ambitiousness is one of the major grant-killers. If you propose to do an international, multi-center randomized controlled trial with a budget of $200,000 and 2 years, it shows you do not have an appreciation for what is possible given your budget and timeline. The more you can focus your project and have well-defined aims, the better. If this is a pilot project, then the aims may be feasibility of enrollment and retention of subjects.
2. Find a mentor (or team of mentors)
Your mentors will be the most important people to guide you through successful grant-writing. If your project is interdepartmental, you will probably need a mentor in each department. Your mentor should be someone with research experience, who has successful applied for and received grant funding in the past. The person who is a Nobel prize winner and star researcher may be the best known person in your institution, but may not make the best mentor. They may not have time to devote to helping you through the process and going through your application multiple times. A good mentor will be able to help you find sources of funding, and help coach you through the process. Make their life easier by doing as much as you can first, though.
3. Find funding agencies
Funding can come from federal agencies, specialty groups, private foundations, institutional grants, and many more places. The single biggest funding agency is the NIH. Within this there are 21 institutes. There are also other offices and centers within NIH. The newly-formed Office of Emergency Care Research cannot supply any funding, but may be able to help you navigate the system and find some appropriate grants, or put you in touch with the right people at the right institute. You can search for grants on the NIH site, but it tends to be enormously daunting simply because there are so many. Plus, if you are a beginner researcher, you should apply for an appropriate ‘entry level’ grant. Do not expect to get an R01 grant to do a multi-site study with a budget in the millions as your first grant. You have to first demonstrate your ability to perform research on smaller projects. Some earlier awards might include K grants, which are generally career development awards. These require not only a good research plan, but also a professional development plan to show how the funding will help you develop as a researcher. The R series of grants tend to be larger, with the exception of the R03, which is a small, 2-year grant meant for pilot or feasibility studies. This could be a good place to start. Most of the grant naming will seem like alphabet soup when you first start learning about the process. Going to a grant-writing workshop like the day-long one offered at SAEM is one place to get more familiarity with the different types of grants and how to apply. Some institutions also hold grant-writing workshops, and the NIH also holds seminars/webinars.
If the NIH is not the place for you, there are plenty of other funding agencies out there. Depending on your research interests, it could fit in with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American College of Toxicology, or one of many other similar organizations. There are also many private foundations that provide research funding. SAEM and the Emergency Medicine Fund (EMF) also supply research funding targeted to early career physicians. The Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is also a potential source of funding for pilot projects. Ask around from more senior people in your field either at your institution or at national meetings like SAEM to find out what the best funding avenues for your project would be.
4. Find out what the funding agency is interested in
Funding agencies often have particular areas in which they are interested. It may help you to find out what are high priority topics on their radar. If you are applying to an institute in the NIH, you could contact the person in charge of that grants office to find out. For example, for certain grants the NIA (National Institute on Aging) may have a particular interest in projects that address falls in older adults. The NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) may have a particular interest in alcohol abuse in teens for certain grants. If you are applying for a foundation grant, find out what that foundation is interested in. Call and talk with the grants administrator to find out what kinds of projects they are looking for. It is no good applying for a grant to look at the molecular markers of a disease if the grant is specifically designed to look at patient-centered outcomes.
5. Find out how the grants are evaluated
Learn about what happens to your grant after you submit it. What are they looking for? At the NIH (and most other funding agencies), grants are judged on 5 different areas:
Several reviewers will rate your grant in each of these areas based on their reading and on discussion with a larger group. The scores are then averaged to give a final “Impact Score”. It is worth taking 15 minutes to watch what this process looks like.
6. Collect preliminary data
Many grants will require you to have preliminary data. Even if your specific grant does not require it, having preliminary data shows that you have put in the legwork to start the project. If you are collecting data, you will first need IRB approval. The preliminary data may be needed to demonstrate that your ED sees sufficient patients to enroll in your study. For example, if you are proposing a study on patients experiencing threatened first trimester miscarriages, you may want to do a chart review to see how many patients your ED sees each month with that presentation.
7. Read other people’s grants
The single most helpful thing you can do before you start writing your grant is reading well-written grants from other researchers. This will give you a sense of how to write, as well as what sections to include, and how to structure your application.
8. Write a draft and have it torn to pieces. Put it back together, and repeat.
Once you have read one or two other successful grants, you can start drafting your own. Usually this will involve writing a specific aims page, a one page summary with two or three specific aims for your project, and a research strategy that will contain the significance, approach, data analysis plan, etc. You should then send these to your mentors. Ideally the mentors will dissect your work and have many comments and suggestions. If they do not have any changes or suggestions, then they are not improving your work. Some academic institutions have courses you can take to improve your grant writing through reading each others’ work and providing feedback and criticism. While the specific aims and research strategy are the core of your application, many grants have additional requirements such as: statements about resources and environment, enrollment of underrepresented minorities, budgets and justifications, biosketches, letters of recommendation. Putting all these together takes a significant amount of time and effort.
9. Apply, then make use of your time while you wait for an answer
Once you are done and you submit the grant, there is often a long waiting period until you find out your score or whether you will be funded. You can use this time to apply for other funding, to get IRB approval, and to collect more preliminary data. If you have enough preliminary data consider presenting it at a poster session to start interacting with others in the field. Joint the ACEP or SAEM group that your work most applies to. Attend a grant-writing workshop if you haven’t already.
10. Get IRB approval
If your grant does receive a good score, you will usually have to show that you have IRB approval before you can receive final funding approval, so working on IRB approval beforehand is a smart idea. Depending on your project, approval could come quickly, or could take weeks. In order to apply for IRB approval, you will need to have all your survey forms and data collection instruments completed. That is where the “rubber meets the road” in terms of fine-tuning the details of what you want to measure and how. So take the time while you are waiting to hear back about your grant to design good data collection instruments and complete any other requirements (such as ethics training) for IRB approval.
Getting funding these days is difficult and extremely competitive. Give yourself the best possible chance with a good project, good mentors, and a grant that is a good fit. Do your homework by researching what the funding agencies are looking for and how your grant will be evaluated. Don’t start writing until you have read at least one or two successful grants from other researchers. Find mentors who will give you honest and detailed feedback on your work. Try to carve out as much time as you can to write and re-write your grant to get it ready for submission. After submission, think about other funding options, get IRB approval, and if you have enough preliminary data, start putting yourself out on the national research stage through posters and presentations.
- The NIH grant-writing guide
- NIH 5 minute tips for applicants video
- ACEP primer on Emergency Care Research
- NIH grant writing tip sheet
- NIH Sample R01 and R21 grant applications
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