My first NIH grant proposal

nih-logoMy postdoc adviser Mike Miller and I spent several weeks last April writing a grant proposal requesting ARRA economic stimulus money to do some aging research. Mike has written several grants before, so he is a bit of a pro. In contrast I have never needed to submit a NIH grant proposal. I had steady funding all through grad school and my postdoc, so I never needed to ask for money from Uncle Sam. The problem I am facing is that one day I will absolutely need to be adept at writing grant proposals So, I decided to start learning now. Here are some things I picked up along the path of co-writing my first RC1 grant:

* Download all grant-related documents from the NIH and save them in a ‘Instructions’ folder or something like that. In fact, grab as much information as you can from any source you can get your hands on. This means you should get a copy of the original Request for Applications (RFA), SF424 R&R instructions, PHS398 instructions, data sharing guide, and the like. You will be referring to these documents often as you write the proposal.

* Save a day at the beginning just to read the instructions in the RFA. Even though many grants have standard requirements there always seem to be a few unique twists for the one that you are chasing after. Also, the NIH is very specific about how your proposal should be formatted and assembled. Try to bend the rules at your own peril.

* Before you start writing buy the book Guide to Effective Grant Writing: How to Write a Successful NIH Grant Application by Otto Yang and read it. The book will give you a good foundation for how to approach NIH grant proposals. As you start writing buy the book Writing the NIH Grant Proposal: A Step-by-Step Guide by William Gerin and refer to it as necessary. If you get stuck on a section this book will walk you through the problem with excellent comments and examples.

* Iron out a rough sketch of the overall research plan and project budget before you begin. We had to change the number of study participants halfway through and it was a huge pain going through every document to alter a few numbers. Also, understand the differences between direct, indirect, and total costs. This is what caused us to change the number of participants.

* Make a ridiculously detailed outline before you start writing. I try to make an outline of every large writing project before I begin, but never have I gotten so much mileage out of this early step. Use it as a scaffold and just build the application up from there.

* You will go into the writing process thinking that the research plan will take the most time to complete. The reality for us was that all the other documents, like the summary, narrative, human subjects protection, and the like, took a great deal more time to get right. Part of the problem is that they were my responsibility to assemble and it was my first go-round. Still, my subjective impression is that these documents are every bit as important as what you are going to do with the money. Get them done right.

* After you have written the above documents for the first time you will be able to recycle them quite easily for any new grant you write. That is why it is so important to get that first submission out of the way, even if it never gets funded. You will have the template ready to go for any new ideas that come along later. That is also why it is important to write them well the first time.

* Don’t go to Hawaii or make big travel plans two weeks before the grant is due. When you return from your travels you will only have a week left and it will be crunch-time mode for real. I found this out the hard way, although I did get a lot written on the plane.

* Tell your family that you love them before you start writing. This is important. You are about to fall off of the radar of the world for a while.

* Don’t worry too much if you start dreaming about budgets and other aspects of the proposal. My wife told me that I would talk about the grant in my sleep at times. I must have been setting up an animal lab, because I very lucidly said, “No, we have to purchase the cages before we buy the monkeys”. Your mileage may vary…

* Finally, enjoy it. This was the largest writing project I have completed since I finished my dissertation one year ago. Like the dissertation it was long, hard, completely depressing at times, and felt absolutely incredible when we got it submitted. Also, you get to work with others in trying to complete the proposal, which makes things a hell of a lot easier. Misery loves company.

From here we wait around for several months and see what happens. Our chances aren’t very good. There are around 200 funded RC1 positions and the NIH was estimating 20,000-30,000 applications chasing after them. Yikes. Still, Mike and I put in a very strong proposal for a high-priority topic. I think that at the very least we are going to make it past the first cut. Time will tell – here is hoping that good science and bit of luck will make all the difference.

June 10, 2009 • Posted in: CogNeuro, Psychology

3 Responses to “My first NIH grant proposal”

  1. William Gerin - September 26th, 2009

    Excellent piece.

  2. Grant P. Writer - August 25th, 2010

    I just came across this post and it is does an excellent job of highlighting important issues in proposal development. Just curious- did you get the RC1?
    Working at a major university, I put in 6 RC1 applications. 5 of the applicants worked diligently. One waited until last-minute, broke every “rule” of grant preparation, barely met the deadline- and was the only one who was funded! I guess it goes to show that no matter how hard you try, getting funded still comes down to having an innovative hypothesis and a great project idea!
    Aside: My background is in cognitive neuroscience and your blog is very interesting to me! Great work!

    Unfortunately we didn’t get funded. I think that we had a good proposal, it was just that the odds were against us in this case. It is very much like your own story: sometimes it is just luck of the draw. ~Craig

  3. first time grant writer - February 3rd, 2012

    Thank you for this. I’ve just begun down this road, and your writing rang true and made me laugh.

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