Writing your annual progress report is both an art and a science. T. Alp Ikizler, MD, mentor of so many early career faculty trainees he’s lost count and winner of the 2016 Award for Excellence in Mentoring Translational Scientists at Vanderbilt, shared his thoughts on how to put your best foot forward to your funding agency.

Stakeholders Want You to Succeed

Stakeholders in your grant include your Program Officer, your mentors, your lab group, and your institution. None of them are looking for ways to reject your progress report and refuse you the next year of funding. Dr. Ikizler has never seen a progress report get rejected, though EFS sources have seen PO’s come back with questions before accepting the report.

This is not to say funders will be uninvolved. Your funding agency’s level of involvement in your report and your career in general depends on the institute or agency, the type of science you do, and the PO’s personality and level of interest. Know your PO and what he or she expects. Only hearing from you when you turn in your annual report, quarterly check-ins, monthly phone calls? Give this person what they want, at the level of detail they want, and when they want it.

Consistency Is Key

For most progress reports, the first page contains the original aims from your application. If you’ve changed these aims, or anything else planned in your application, your most important job is to explain these changes. An aim may evolve because an experiment produced an unexpected outcome or a technique didn’t work like you thought it would. Maybe your primary mentor changed institutions and you had to find a new one. Perhaps a class you planned to take was canceled. Explain what happened and how you have adapted your plan to accommodate the changes. None of this is “your fault” and you won’t be penalized as long as you show you have adapted appropriately.

However, if you’re making changes of your own volition, the progress report is not the first place your PO should learn of them. Before engaging in a new collaboration, changing the direction of your research (unless you hit a snag), taking a new job, or becoming a co-investigator on someone else’s grant, speak with your PO.

This report should align with any other reports you send to your funder, such as quarterly DSMB reports or anything you put in ClinicalTrials.gov.

Maintain Focus

This report tells your stakeholders that you’re making progress on what you said you would do in your application. Note whether you’ve met the milestones you laid out in your career development section (or if not, then why not).

Don’t overexplain how your time is allocated. Simply state, “I have 75% [or more, if accurate] of my time protected for research, training, and career development activities.” List key career development activities you’ve done this year, then note that other activities are proceeding as planned. No need to get into the minutia of your clinic schedule, teaching load, or how much time you spend on any given activity.

Carefully consider how to address new collaborations and activities. These become more acceptable in later years of your career development grant, as you submit and resubmit applications for independent funding. It’s always helpful to explicitly link the things you’ve done in the past year with your plans for independence.

Avoid discussing activities that steal focus from your research and career development. Taking on administrative roles, for example, is rarely viewed favorably.  (Slightly different advice for VA CDA awardees: Taking an administrative role at the VA—preferably towards the end of your CDA—can increase your chances of receiving a VA Merit award.)

Document Everything

Note when you had mentoring committee meetings this year and who attended. If these meetings weren’t on the schedule you originally proposed, explain why.

Document Responsible Conduct of Research training (we suggest using this form). Remember this includes not only seminars or classes, but activities like training a new lab member in data management and recordkeeping, discussing authorship with colleagues, or asking your mentor for advice on a conflict of interest.

Include all your publications from the past year, even if they don’t directly relate to the science of this award; a career development award is a training grant and your publications reflect your career success, so they matter.

For NIH grants, all publications must have a PMCID.

Include links to any place your research has been covered in the media, including in press releases by your institution.

Include awards! Trainees often leave off prizes for posters or presentations. Your PO wants to know about them—your success makes the funding agency look wise for betting on you.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Edit your report thoroughly. Make sure your citation format is uniform and correct. Then send the report to your mentors. (A trainee progress report should never reach a funding agency without being seen by a mentor.)

Do you have tips for writing progress reports? Share them below.

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