Grant Writing Tips

Published: April 3, 2014

Writing grants and getting research funding can be a daunting task even for seasoned senior faculty. For the ambitious junior researcher, it might even seem impossible. “How exactly are you supposed to eat an elephant?” the adage goes. The answer is deceptively simple: “One bite at a time.” So, it can be done, with patience and determination.

The process first requires a topic, preferably an unexplored topic. This in itself requires a great deal of research. One has to know what has been done and what hasn’t been done. Once a topic is chosen, aims must be established and supported. What do you expect to accomplish in the study? What is your reasoning behind it all? After aims, a team must be assembled and a budget compiled. By the end, you’ll have (hopefully) a decent grant proposal with a chance of getting funded.

Two of the junior faculty here at UNC – Dr. Jin Szatkiewicz and Dr. Jim Crowley – have recently endured this process and were rewarded with a funded R21 (2 years, $275,000 from the NIMH; proposal title: “Finding single gene copy number variants in schizophrenia”).

Dr. Szatkiewicz, a biostatistician, began as a post-doctoral fellow on Dr. Bulik’s NIMH funded T32 training grant. Her mentors were Dr. Patrick Sullivan and Dr. Bulik. Jin was a resoundingly successful post-doctoral fellow who managed to get a K Award on her first submission (a K award is a mentored scientist development award). This grant allowed her to become an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics and transition to faculty as part of Dr. Patrick Sullivan’s psychiatric genetics group. There she teamed up with Dr. Crowley who came to UNC via Duke after earning his doctorate in pharmacology/pharmacogenetics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Considering their complementary skill sets, it was inevitable that they would work together. Jin could conceptualize the statistics and Jim could contribute the molecular biology details. All they needed was a topic. Fortunately, Jin had already laid the foundation in the form of a proposal to a private funding agency. Unfortunately (at the time), her proposal was rejected. Undeterred, at Dr. Sullivan’s urging, Jim and Jin decided to combine their efforts to adapt Jin’s initial proposal into what would become the R21.

When asked how they chose to submit an R21 proposal, as opposed to something like an R03 (a small NIH grant of $50K for 2 years) or an R01 (a large NIH project grant around $500K or more per year for five years), Jim said, “Given that we are junior, we thought we’d have the best chance with an R21 since it’s of intermediate size and duration.” The lesson here is to be aware of your goals and to be realistic about reaching them. Had they submitted an R03, they might have sold themselves short and been underresourced for the science they proposed. On the other hand, submitting an RO1 might have been overly ambitious. The R21 provided an intermediate target, which was better suited for their collective skill sets and experience.

All of this was accomplished under the watchful eye of mentor Dr. Sullivan, with his extensive experience in the field and with successful grant writing.

According to Jim and Jin, it’s important to discuss your ideas with your mentor, but also with anyone willing to talk about them. It also helps to have some more established people on the grant application to ensure that the project will be completed successfully.

As for general advice, Jim says, “Start with specific aims, budget, and team. It’s less daunting and all else will flow from there. And once you have your aims and budget, call the program officer to see if it sounds interesting to them or if you’re duplicating effort.” Finally, he adds, “Start writing early and get as much feedback as you can.”

photo credit: Audringje via Creative Commons