How Can I Win Federal Grants Without a Track Record?


A Summer Summary

Dear GrantDoctor

I am an associate research professor without a "recognized" history of obtaining grant funding. For over 12 years I have devised and written significant sections of a [program project] grant (which has been successful through many renewals). My question is this: At the associate professor level I am not eligible for "junior faculty" grants. However, when applying for federal funding my apparent lack of a track record for obtaining funding significantly handicaps me relative to competitors who do have a successful record. Are there any mechanisms available to me, or is it time for a career change!!


Dear Frustrated,

Don't chuck in the towel just yet, and don't start scrutinizing the classifieds either. Although I sympathize with your ordeals, there ARE some positive things you can do to improve your chances of winning federal funds.

I spoke with an official at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who made it clear that the federal agency does not rate grant applications according to titles or positions held. But it does allow dispensation for "new" investigators. So, what you need to do if you're applying to the NIH is to figure out whether or not you would fall into that category. Check out NIH's definition of "new investigator" and, if you fit the bill, don't forget to check the box on the standard NIH grant application form to let reviewers know your status. But you have a dozen years research experience, and you have shown that you can write and help win grants that are headed by other investigators! In light of this, another NIH official tells me you should explain, perhaps in a cover letter or an addendum to your application, why you think you may have been unsuccessful in the past and why 12 years on you are now applying as a new investigator. It sounds tough, but the more questions you answer up front, the more you'll do to assuage any doubts that reviewers might have.

You can also use a cover letter to highlight the benefits of your current research environment. If, for example, your colleagues possess equipment or expertise that you'll need to use to further your research objectives, then perhaps you can include with your application letters of collaboration from those individuals. It makes sense to highlight your research environment because this is one of the criteria reviewers consider particularly carefully. On the other hand, perhaps you need to change your entire research focus: Discussing your research with a group of your colleagues may yield some fresh insights.

If you've submitted grants before, then I must assume that you've heeded the reviewers' comments before resubmitting or sending your proposal elsewhere. You can learn a lot from reviewers' opinions and can better rewrite your application. And if anything is unclear, then you should be willing to go over the reviews with your assigned program officer. In fact, it's a good idea to call a program officer before you submit an application to explain your situation and what funding opportunities match your needs.

As for specific opportunities out there at the moment, have a look at NIH's Research Training and Career Development document that summarizes their awards. And you should also visit the National Science Foundation's Overview of funding opportunities; the NSF is also a good source of federal funds for beginning and established investigators. GrantsNet is another useful source of information.

And once you've targeted some specific awards, improve your chances by checking out the Grants and Grantwriting articles in the Career Center, such as How To Write an NIH Grant Application and our on-going series, How Not To Kill a Grant Application.

But please consult with a program officer--at the NIH or NSF, or both--and get advice on what your next step should be. Your next grant application could be a winner!

I hope this helps; please let me know how you get on.

--The GrantDoctor

Welcome back to school! Or college; or university; or the lab! I hope you all had a splendid summer!

I certainly have. ... In fact, your questions have been keeping me very busy. So, for those of you who've been away sunning yourselves (or whatever), here's a summary of a few of the columns you might have missed during your break. ...

An Italian student wanted to know how to do a postdoc in the States without being a citizen; Gwendolyn from New Jersey wanted my help finding grantwriting workshops; and a graduate student wanted to know about grants for graduates.

A single parent wanted to know about resources to help them during their Ph.D. studies and Oded wanted to know about grants that support gene therapy research.

On top of that, it was my birthday! All in all--a great summer. Feel free to drop me a line about any grantwriting or funding questions you may have! Here's to the new academic year!

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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