NIH grants – what I’ve learned so far…

So the K grant is submitted, and I’m back at the bench. Well, I’m actually waiting for a gel to destain a bit longer before heading home for the day. I should be updating lab notebooks, but that’s a curse from hell. So, instead, I’m offering up a few random thoughts on my latest grant-writing adventure. Writing this resubmission has, overall, been a good experience…and I’ve learned a ton more this time around than with my first submission. And I thought that, just maybe, one of my readers might actually benefit from the itty-bitty nuggets of wisdom I’ve acquired over the past few months. So here goes…

As many of you may know, NIH recently changed their formatting guidelines. I’m not completely clear on the rationale for the shift, but I understand it had to do with making the grant review process more streamlined, less tedious. Perhaps the biggest change was the page limit decrease (from 25 to 12 pages for the career development “K” grants). Since my first submission was written under the old NIH guidelines, this took quite a bit of time to rework. But it was soooo worth it; the grant is now much tighter than before. I didn’t have room to take the reviewers off-course with needless information…no detours are allowed (or even possible) under this shorter page limit. With no time/space to dilly-dally, my progress report, rationale, and research plan are much more focused. And I’m sure the reviewers will appreciate this. Only give them what they need to know, and you’ll be much less likely to provide them with fluff to get pissy about. As much as this shift was daunting, so it was, IMHO, very helpful.

Another change in formatting guidelines was how the grant should be organized, including the addition of a section on innovation. At first, this seemed like a big pain in the ass to me. I mean, shouldn’t the genius of my science be evident to everyone? I’ve already talked about the significance. This is obviously just another hoop to jump through. After working on this section for a while, however, it became painfully obvious how important it was to go through this exercise. The innovation of my grant wasn’t even completely clear to me…how in the hell could it be seen by a reviewer? So here’s my new way of looking at innovation: tell the reviewer what s/he needs to know about your field (since at least one of your reviewers likely won’t know your specific field nearly as well as you) in order to understand the genius of your grant, not just the importance of the topic. Do not, under any circumstances, count on them figuring this out on their own. In my case, this was explaining how nobody has ever looked at the fate of, let’s say, avocados when they enter the cell…it’s always been assumed that the fate is guacamole. However, if the fate is an avocado margarita*, this could have huge implications for gene regulation, overall physiology, and virulence (this last one being the kicker for NIH). My progress report data show that avocado margaritas and guac are both being made in the cell, and my proposal is the only thing out there studying the avocado margarita angle. So give me some money (and a drink) please.

We’ll see what the reviewers think in October, of course. I could be totally off base. But I daresay this was a much-better grant than my first attempt. And I don’t think the first one was half-bad to begin with.

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*If you’ve never tried an avocado margarita, don’t knock it! Head to Curra’s down in Austin and order one, immediately…it will change your view on the possibilities of an avocado, and maybe even your whole life.

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3 thoughts on “NIH grants – what I’ve learned so far…

  1. Congrats on getting everything submitted. I'm glad to read that you feel even more confident about this submission. How far were you into your post-doc when you wrote your K? It seems like most people I know are at year 2 or 3.

  2. I had a fellowship during the 2nd and 3rd years of my postdoc, and was getting married during the 3rd, so I waited until my 4th year to submit the K grant. It's not a K99-R00, though, but a K22 through NIAID, which is more for posdocs that are already looking for faculty positions.

    I've heard from a couple of people at NIH that the K22's are incredibly competitive compared to the K99-R00. But it turns out that's not necessarily true across the board. And it doesn't seem to be the case for NIAID right now…I know of several microbiologists who have successfully obtained K22s but not K99s. If you're interested in pursuing one or the other, it's a good idea to start thinking about both early on, and talk to your program officers to see which grants in your institute are the best bets since it can vary wildly – those guys are a wealth of good information. 🙂

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