Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Cardinal Rule of Biographical Sketch Personal Statements

Although the personal statement section of the biosketch is still relatively new, I believe there is one simple rule that will help to ensure your statement is helpful to your application.  The rule is:
Your personal statement should NOT be a summary of everything that comes after it in the biosketch document.
It may seem intuitive to use the first paragraph on the page to provide an overview of what is to follow.  After all, this is what is expected of you in other sections of the proposal.  However, you are missing a serious opportunity to sell yourself if you only reiterate your degrees and past grant awards.  Reviewers should come away from your personal statement feeling as though they understand you as a scientist - your motivations, the questions that drive your passions, and the expertise you offer that makes you the perfect person for this project.  A list of your degrees will not serve this purpose.  Take a lesson from some of the more aggressive infomercials on television, and sell yourself in a way that is convincing and persuasive.  Here is some inspiration from Pajama Jeans:
If they can sell thousands of pairs of ridiculous looking pajama pants that look like jeans, you can certainly sell yourself as an accomplished and capable scientist.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I Want to Be the Cristiano Ronaldo of Grant Proposals

In case you were wondering why all U.S. soccer fans collectively uttered curse words at around 7:45 yesterday, Portugal scored in the last minute of the game to tie the U.S. 2-2 and stay alive in the World Cup.  The goal was made possible by a beautiful assist from Cristiano Ronaldo, who was previously rated FIFA World Player of the Year and is known for having one of the most expensive soccer contracts worldwide. 

When it comes to grant proposals, a lot can be learned from Ronaldo.  His style of play is consistent and calculated.  His presentation style is impeccable.  He is reliable, and can be counted on to get the job done.  Even if it takes the whole game, he will take his time and come through with perfection for the win.  Despite knowing his value, he is still in there working hard and getting dirty, just like all of the newer and younger players.  These analogies can all be applied to writing your grant proposals. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

World Cup Soccer = science at its finest

OK, when I mean "at its finest", I am not talking about the reported good looks of the Italian team.  Rather, I am referring to all of the recent scientific discoveries surrounding soccer.  For example, one study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, examined soccer players and assessed the impact of heading the ball.  The researchers found changes in the white matter of the brains of these soccer players that was consistent with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries.  Perhaps, like American football, this study will someday lead to a requirement for soccer players to wear helmets.  Another study, led by Harvard University scientists, examined the most common diseases in Brazil, in an effort to provide a guide for clinicians and visitors to the country for the 2014 World Cup.  More interesting science related to soccer and the World Cup can be found here

Font does matter

It seems that every so often, I encounter someone who insists on using a font in NIH grant proposals that is not approved by NIH.  People tend to get hooked on certain fonts, and asking them to use a different font is like asking them to write in Greek.  Why does font matter?  From a reviewer perspective, the fonts that are allowed by NIH have been chosen to be easier to read and more uniform than others.  Could you imagine having to read an entire research plan that looks like this?
So, which fonts does NIH allow?  There are only 4 to choose from, specified in the PHS 398 guide. These include:
  • Palatino
  • Georgia
  • Arial
  • Helvetica
No matter which one you choose, the size needs to be 11 point or greater.  If you try to cheat and use 10.9 to squeeze in a few extra words, you run the risk of your proposal being rejected for not meeting the formatting requirements.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What does that "Status" tab mean in the era commons?

This video does a great job explaining what the Status tab is from the PI perspective.  If you are working on an R01 resubmission for the July 5th NIH deadline, this will help you understand how to find your previous submission so you can make sure to adequately address all of the reviewer comments.

Friday, May 30, 2014

NIH is planning to change the biosketch requirements - again!

In case you missed the May 16th notice, I will fill you in.  NIH has been piloting a new type of biographical sketch with modified requirements for some RFAs.  They are now planning to expand the pilot, with an ultimate goal of permanently changing the requirements for all biosketches.  According to the notice, the new requirements "will extend the page limit from four to five pages and it will allow researchers to describe up to five of their most significant contributions to science along with the historical background that framed their research.   This description can outline the central finding(s) of their work, the influence of those finding(s) on their field and how those findings may have contributed to improvements in health or technology.  For those involved in team science, it will allow the investigator to describe their specific role in the described work.  Each of these descriptions can be supported by listing up to four, relevant peer-reviewed publications.  In addition to the descriptions of their contributions, researchers will be able to include a link to a full list of their published work as found in a publicly available digital database".  This will require investigators to pay more attention to their biosketches, instead of handing them off to assistants or post-docs for updating.  However, considering how many people have still not adjusted to the Personal Statement and PMCID requirements, I wonder how long it will take for this type of major change to become ingrained in the minds of scientists. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Your Research Administrator is your friend

It seems that lately I have encountered several situations in which research administrators and principal investigators (PIs) have difficulty communicating.  Perhaps some of this results from poorly worded, difficult to decipher email requests due to the alphabet soup of acronyms that is the world of research administration.  Perhaps some of this results from the PI not considering the research administrator to be an important member of the proposal preparation team.  No matter what the reason, it is very important to the success of every proposal to have a good partnership between the PI and research administration staff. 

Imagine that you create the perfect R01 proposal.  The proposed research is groundbreaking, and you have assembled a top-notch team of experts.  All of your materials for the grant are final and have been approved by your organization's central grants office.  All that remains on June 5th is to push the button, and you are on your way to hitting the grant jackpot, right? 

Except there is a problem. 

It turns out that your research administrator was not aware of the importance or existence of key letters of support for your application.  These documents are vital, as they demonstrate that you have access to the specialized data you need to complete the work, and an ongoing partnership with a key organization.  Without these letters, reviewers will be left scratching their heads, wondering why you did not include the letters of support that you referenced in the text. (You did remember to reference them in the text, right?) 

There is another problem. 

The Request for Applications (RFA) to which you applied includes instructions for a specialized type of biosketch in a format that is different from the ones you have included.  Now in addition to looking like you forgot to include your letters, you are also showing the reviewers your inability to follow the directions and meet the requirements of the RFA. 

Perhaps these examples are not issues that will be enough to completely sink a grant.  However, do you want to put the idea into reviewers' minds that you are not thorough and did not care enough to read and follow the instructions?  Given that we are in a funding climate where a grant that ranks in the 14th percentile may not be good enough to receive funding, every point counts.  Reviewers need to take away an overall impression that you know what you are doing.

Then there is another problem.  The grant was uploaded using a version of Adobe Professional that does not work well with  When your proposal was uploaded, the first page of your Research Strategy was cut off.  The reviewers will not be able to see that fantastic introduction or background that you wrote.  Because you handed off the grant to the research administrator and figured she would "take care of it", you did not think to log into the era commons and check to make sure that your grant uploaded correctly.  Now the error correction window has passed and you are out of luck. 

All of these issues, and many more, can be prevented by having regular communication with your research administration staff.  Having a friendly relationship, where you can pick up the phone and ask a quick question if need be, is important for all PIs.  In the examples mentioned above, if the research administrator had been involved in some of your proposal development meetings, he or she would have understood the need for the letters and known to include them.  He or she would also have likely reviewed the RFA more closely and walked you through it in a sit-down meeting, if you had made yourself available for such a meeting.  Finally, the research administrator would have been accustomed to being in more regular communication with you, making it likely that he or she would have sent a quick note reminding you that your grant was submitted and should be reviewed in the system. 

Research administrators may not be responsible for the scientific portions of your grant proposal, but their errors or inattention to detail can sabotage your entire project. Develop a relationship with your research administrator in which he or she feels like a member of the team.  This will make him or her less afraid to correct you, or even your entire research team, if you are not correctly interpreting instructions.  Invite your research administrator to some of your research team's meetings, allowing for at least a basic understanding of your research goals.  Finally, develop a relationship in which the research administrator feels empowered to do his or her job without fearing your wrath. Just because you are unhappy with institutional policies and procedures does not mean he or she can bend or break the rules for you. 

For more about research administration, visit the Society of Research Administrators International.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New Video Produced by NIH

This video provides a great overview of the NIH grant proposal process.  The NIH Grants Process: The Big Picture is a must-see for those who are new to the application process as well as veterans who are seeking new funding. Check it out!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Are you complying with the NIH Public Access Policy?

Despite the fact that the NIH Public Access Policy has been in existence since 2008, many federally-funded researchers still seem to know very little about the policy.  The policy was created to ensure that the public has access to the results of federally-funded research.  In other words, the people who pay the taxes that support your research should be able to see the results of these expenditures.  Historically, results were primarily available only by paying fees to journals for subscriptions or access.  The policy led to the creation of PubMed Central, which is a separate database from PubMed.  According to the Public Access Policy, scientists must submit the final manuscripts of all publications arising from NIH-funded research to PubMed Central immediately upon acceptance for publication.  This will result in the publication eventually being assigned a PMCID, which is the number that is required in the Publications section of your NIH biosketch.  Confused?  Visit the NIH Public Access Homepage, which provides step-by-step instructions and helpful information.