April 2012

Navigating the NIH grant-application process


Strategies for planning a grant
Write an outstanding application that will appeal to reviewers, who serve as judge and jury. Write from the perspective of a screenwriter and not from the perspective of a novelist. A grant is presented to a panel of peer reviewers by one primary person and two helpers, so you want to write a script that will facilitate presentation of your proposal to the rest of the panel.

There are eight main steps to follow when planning your grant.  

  1. 1) Check out the competition and see which projects in your field are being funded. Search the NIH RePORTER database at http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm.
  2. 2) Evaluate yourself: How do your strengths match the topics found in step 1? Can you capitalize on your expertise and fill in gaps with mentors, collaborators or consultants? Do you have a niche? If not, find one!
  3. 3) Determine available resources and support from your school.
  4. 4) Brainstorm with colleagues and mentors, and have knowledge of the relevant literature!
  5. 5) Write a hypothesis for your proposal in 25 words or fewer; edit, edit and then edit again.
  6. 6) Give yourself time to write and rewrite the application.
  7. 7) Utilize any form of pre-peer review that you can find (e.g., a mock study section, a class).
  8. 8) Follow all instructions to the letter: Poor formatting, illegible figures, wrong fonts and poor grantsmanship will turn reviewers off!

Writing a solid hypothesis
Most top-notch grant applications are driven by strong hypotheses rather than advances in technology. Applications should ask questions that prove or disprove a hypothesis rather than use a method to search for a problem or simply collect information. If your application is not hypothesis-based, state that it isn’t and give your reasons why the work is important (e.g., X-ray crystallography, or perhaps it’s a training grant). Choose an important, testable, focused hypothesis that increases understanding of biological processes, diseases, treatments or preventions. A strong hypothesis should be based on previous research. Reiterate your hypothesis throughout the grant using different wording.

Planning your application
Ask yourself these questions: Why is this project important? Why are you the right person to conduct this research?

Required sections of a grant are “Specific Aims” (one page long) and “Research Strategy” (the new format has a 12-page maximum).

“Specific Aims” should include the following:  

  1. 1) One to two paragraphs that develop the conceptual framework of the proposal. These should describe previous studies in the area, identify the gaps the research will address and end with a statement of your hypothesis or overall objective.
  2. 2) A set of aims designed to answer the questions posed by the hypothesis. The important word here is “specific”! Each aim should be a specific test of the overall hypothesis. Organize and define your aims so that you can relate them directly to your research strategy.


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Excellent summary of important information!



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