In my last post, I blogged about the different types of grants that are available to early stage investigators (ESIs) and the benefits of these awards. If you are like me, you were overwhelmed when you saw the list the first time. There are too many grants to write as a new principal investigator (PI), so I have developed a series of questions that helps me decide which ones to pick. As always these days, n=me.

The caveats: I am a year and a half into a tenure-track position in a clinical department at an R1 medical school. I have a good start-up and a fairly expensive wet lab research program. I am not an expert in time management and I have a small lab, so the amount of data and publications are limited. I still work at the bench a bit, and my main focus is covering salaries rather than supplies. I was awarded a K99/R00 as a postdoctoral research fellow, so I have an established track record of funding and additional funds in the laboratory. My goal, therefore, is to establish stable funding in the lab before I fall off the K cliff. Your priorities may be different, and the answers to these questions may weigh differently in the final calculus of whether to write an application.

The questions: When I am notified about a new request for applications, either through my institution, an email from relevant foundations, or the NIH, I work through the following questions:

Is this grant a priority? A large part of being a PI is identifying research priorities. If you have been submitting grants and reviewers keep commenting on a lack of senior author publications or quantity of preliminary data, your time might be better spent completing papers and pilot experiments. The point of a start-up package is getting your research program launched, and that includes getting the first couple papers out and completing pilot experiments with ready-to-use funding. In my R00 transition documents, I included a timeline for submitting my first R01, and I met that goal this year. Whether the reviewers will share my enthusiasm for the project, or criticize my productivity on the K99/R00, remains to be determined.

Am I eligible and in research scope? Some of these grants have very specific eligibility requirements, so confirm you satisfy all of the eligibility criteria. These grants can also have a very defined research focus. As wonderful as the ESI MIRA (R35) through NIGMS is, my research is not of interest to the NIGMS.

How big is the award? I am looking for multi-year project funding. In general, I do not apply for smaller, yearlong grants. When my start-up is gone, I expect I will be much more interested in the smaller, pilot-level awards. Decide whether these smaller grants satisfy your needs, for example establishing a track record of funding, before applying.

How long is the application? The more involved the application, the longer the funding period needs to be and the larger the award. If the grant is very very competitive, but the application is short and easy, I will apply, regardless of how small the odds.

How many applications will be awarded? The smaller the number of grant awards, the tighter the applicant pool needs to be. For example, if there will be one award made for studying Terrible Disease, I probably will not apply. If, however, there is one award being made for studying Super Important Signaling Cascade by a Lab Mouse in Terrible Disease, I will probably apply. I use this criteria to justify applying for some of the very prestigious awards, like Searle or Pew, where they are funding a limited number of applicants, but the applicant pool is quite small too.

Is there are an early investigator pool? This should be a no-brainer. If you are competing with every Terrible Disease researcher as an ESI, you are unlikely to be given the award. I am saving these grants for when I am more established.

Is the application re-usable? Some applications have a very unique format (like the MIRA or DP2) or a very specific research focus. If I am unlikely to submit the application anywhere else, I think carefully about whether I want to invest the energy in a grant whose parts will only be used once, maybe twice.

Will I get feedback? I do not rule out grant applications that do not provide feedback, but I am likely to submit the same idea somewhere else that does provide feedback. It is impossible to gauge interest in your research ideas if reviewer comments are not provided. If these are your first grants, make sure you are getting some feedback on the grants you submit.

Is this a place I can get more money in the future? I am a big believer in building relationships with funding agencies. Even though some of these prestigious foundation awards give you money and make your CV stand out, not all of them have grants for mid-career faculty. I am more interested in building my relationship with the NIH, which will hopefully fund me for many years to come.

Are there predoctoral and postdoctoral grants? I am also thinking about the future of my trainees. If I establish a funding reputation at a foundation, I want to know that my trainees can benefit from my establishment there when it comes to mentored awards in the future.

When is it due? There are a large number of grants due in September and October. Be kind to yourself and do not submit all your grants for the year in a two-month period. Submitting many grants in the same time period is stressful, but more importantly, it raises the very real possibility of multiple grant rejections during a short time frame. As new PIs, we are still working on thicker skin, so spread out the potential rejections.

The one question I do not ask: I never ask myself if I am competitive for a grant. I apply and let the reviewers decide.  I have been in this game for too long to believe what anyone tells me when it comes to what a grant awardee “looks like.”

In an ideal world, I would write all the grants. In the real world, grant writing competes with laboratory work, training, mentoring, and paper writing, which are very important parts of successful grant applications. I am sure other new PIs have different strategies and more senior PIs will have their own opinions too, but this has been my attempt to keep sane. Feel free to share yours in the comments. Stay tuned for more tales!

 

Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail pipette.protagonist@gmail.com

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2 Comments

Hi,
I just discovered this site…man I have been missing out. The content here is fantastic. I am slowly going back through all the past post, but do enjoy the ones you do specifically. 
I am not sure if it has been done before, but wondering if any advice on how to slowly transition from a mentored role to an iindependent investigator? 
I am a clinician doing basic science research in a field where a majority do more clinical-based research so my stuff depends on having a lab and what not. I just started a K08 so have been doing work with my mentor and obviously in his lab. The mentorship has been great and I feel I have a firm direction of where I want the science to go. I think the biggest issue aside from thinking about the big R01 in a year or so from now, is:
1. Trying to secure my own dedicated lab space
2. Breaking off from my mentor, I imagine for my first R01 he would be on it for some effort which is good since I still think I would need the training wheels (also he is an MD/PhD so it def helps). But at what point should I start to think about breaking off? I do feel I am in a good place with multiple first aiuthors with him as senior so it has been a nice symbiotic relationship so worried about rocking the boat.
 

Glad you are enjoying the posts!
On the basic science/translational science/PhD side, most of us gain our independence by accepting a faculty position, which can be mediated by a career development award. The point of the K award is to develop your career, so this is your training wheels time (not in an R01). As you move through the K award, you should become more and more independent with senior author publications, representing your research program (and not your mentor’s!). The general consensus that I have heard on K mentors being on R01s is not to do it! This is supposed to be your independent research program, and keeping a mentor on it can make the review committee nervous that you are not an independent scholar. As always there are exceptions to this, but your mentor likely already knows he should not be on your R01 and can help you navigate your first submission without formally being on the grant. It’s part of this job as a K award mentor, after all. The space issue is challenging. On the PhD side, most of us are awarded space when we accept a faculty position. The physician-scientists side I am only familiar with through watching friends, who where given space when they started their new appointments. Either way, a competitive R01 requires the resources to successfully complete the research, and part of that will be institutional commitment (like space, protected time). I would look back on your letter of commitment from the K award and see what the institution/department agreed to do, as well as talk to your Chair. The other option, of course, is to look for a position that includes research time/space. A new position, at a different institute, will also go a long way to separate you from you mentor and demonstrate your independence. I realize this is challenging with clinical practice, but sometimes it is the only way to be given space, start-up, and protected time. Good luck!

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