Lessons Learned While Building a Career: Grants
I’ve written lots of grants. Some of them even got funded! Here are some things I learned in my journey from foundation grants to K08 to R01.
Grants beget grants
I was fortunate to have a T32 fellowship during my post-doc, after my clinical training. This helped me gain additional skills in experimental design and statistics. Unfortunately, though, my primary project had a negative phenotype in vivo. I pivoted my research to studying cell-free hemoglobin in lung injury and needed to build a dataset to serve as the foundation for my K08 application. Based on advice from my mentors, I started small and applied for one-year grants from research foundations. These applications are usually more straightforward to put together and can sometimes need less data to be competitive. My first application for a research grant from the American Thoracic Society was successful, which allowed me to hire a research assistant. The extra hands helped me get the preliminary data I needed and strengthen my upcoming career development award applications. Based on the success of my ATS-funded work, I applied and was awarded a Parker B. Francis Fellowship. At that point, I had successfully competed for at least three grants; although small, this bolstered my credibility and experience as I started to prepare my K.
Take advantage of grant writing resources
The first big grant is the hardest. I hadn’t seen many specific examples of funded grants and was overwhelmed by the number of documents it required. My mentors and near-peer colleagues were willing to share their grants. I also looked at several K08 applications from the funded grants library at my institution, and I enrolled in a grant writing workshop at my institution geared at planning for a K application. This gave me a step-by-step process for crafting a strong and unified application and helped me pace out the work over several months. These institutional resources and network connections were incredibly helpful and made getting my first big grant out the door much more feasible.
Grants require strategy
If you read my last post, you know I have two amazing mentors, Drs. Lorraine Ware and Julie Bastarache. While I consider them equally important to my career, at the time, Julie didn’t yet have major R01 funding, so we decided to have Lorraine serve as my primary K08 mentor with Julie in a co-mentor role. I initially felt terrible about this, because I worried that Julie wouldn’t get credit as my primary mentor, but both assured me that this strategy was essential to turning in the best grant that I could. We worked together to craft an application with strong sections on candidate accomplishments, career development planning, and discovery research. I had specific roles for each member of my advisory committee too.
As I started to plan my first R01 application, it was great to really dig into the mechanistic science. I had so many ideas and too many Aims to include. It was a struggle to decide what the final draft would be. I hadn’t quite realized how important it was to work out the science earlier in the grant writing process. The budget is usually due two weeks before the grant goes in. You have to turn in subcontract budgets two or three weeks before that. It turns out that you can’t write a budget if you haven’t settled on the science. Your budget also affects how much science you can do and who you can do it with, so you need to understand the details early on. Money matters and a realistic budget is key to the success of a project.
Understand the grant review process
After my K, I had some experience with the numerous components of a training grant. I worked over the next several years to develop a project to lead to my first R and was working on selling my science. I was selected to participate in the NIH’s Early Career Reviewer program. Not only is it fun to read other people’s science—they’re doing cool stuff and you learn a lot—but it’s really helpful to see other styles of grant writing. I found that grantsmanship really affected how well reviewers could summarize a grant. As you may know, three reviewers are assigned to each grant and read the whole thing. These three scores determine whether your grant gets discussed or not. The other 25 or so people in the room listen to the discussion, look at the figures and bolded words, and their scores get you funded.
(Shocking, right? But true.)
This experience taught me to really focus on the audience for your grant proposal. Consider what you can do as a writer to make the reviewers’ job easier. The more you can repeat key information across the grant, the easier it is for Reviewer 1 to present it to the rest of the study section so they understand what you want to do, get excited about it, and ultimately want to fund it.
Seize opportunity, but do so smartly
Towards the end of my K08, my research was mostly ARDS focused and my clinical work was dedicated to lung transplant. I was hoping to merge these interests with future grants. Then, I learned that a company was planning a longitudinal study of transplant patients that would require biospecimens and clinical data uploading. I jumped at the chance to participate, knowing that this would facilitate transplant-related sample collection that I could use (and reuse) in the future. Even better, the company paid for my time and my study coordinator’s time!
I felt like I was starting to get the hang of this physician-scientist pathway. Then, there was an NIH RFA for a series of U01 grants to develop a Lung Transplant Consortium. This was perfect! An opportunity to network with leaders in lung transplantation and a big grant. However, the U01 mechanism meant splitting the money among institutions. While it would pay for the study, it wouldn’t be sufficient to support my lab or my non-human research. If funded, this would prevent me from using my Early Stage Investigator status for a traditional R01. I talked with my mentors (remember my last post on how fantastic they are?) and we decided that I should be a co-I on the U01 proposal with Dr. Ware as the site PI. This was the perfect balance of Lorraine’s expertise, our shared science, and keeping doors open for my other grant considerations. The grant was funded and it turned out to be a fantastic career opportunity for me.
Follow your passion
You need grants to fund your lab or group. But you also need to really love what you study. I love studying injured lungs. But I really love studying lung transplantation. For various reasons, I’ve mostly studied lung transplant-adjacent fields, through which I gained valuable skills and knowledge, but my dream was to have my clinical and science worlds collide. In late 2020, the Katz R01 mechanism was announced. This grant is for investigators who’ve never had an R01 and are studying something new to them, and it doesn’t allow preliminary data. This was my opportunity to write my dream grant – half human studies, half animal modeling, all on donor lung injury. Although some people around me cautioned against submitting—it would be a lot of work and these grants are unpredictable—I decided to turn it in anyway. If it didn’t get funded, I could get the preliminary data and put it in as a regular R01. I took the (calculated) risk…and then it paid off with a funded R01 (thank you Dr. Katz!).
Don’t get discouraged
I’ve been very fortunate with my early career grant funding. I haven’t told you about the proposals that weren’t funded. Shortly after my first R01 application had a non-fundable score, I was discouraged. I had a meeting with a very senior mentor from my institution who shared with me that they also had a recent grant given a similar unfunded score. We all put in grants that don’t get funded. We all get negative reviews. Most grants need resubmission and many ideas take years to refine into funded projects. It’s the nature of the game, and we can’t take it personally. Always try to find the silver lining in the critiques. I promise you it’s there if you look for it. Get the scores, look at the comments, laugh a little, then put your head down and get back to work.
I’m far from a grant writing expert. It’s still hard and I still need tons of advice. The journey has been fun so far. I have some money to help my lab group continue our discoveries and I’m now learning about managing grants. Every day is an adventure…stay tuned for my next post on advice for an early career scientist.