Funding Your Ideas: Advice from the Postdoc Trenches

As a first-generation 305 college student from the Wind River Indian Reservation, I was fortunate to have several educational opportunities (1). My great-grandmother did not have a formal education, but as a child of the American Indian Wars, she was blessed with nearly a century of wisdom and grit. She encouraged us to develop enough self-reliance to leave the reservation and to acquire higher education (that is, learn the ways of the whites) but to never forget our Native American roots.

The Indian Health Services physicians were the most educated and helpful people I knew, so I was drawn to medical research at an early age. Because I enjoyed biology and chemistry, biochemistry seemed like a logical choice for my undergraduate major. However, rapid advances in genetics and molecular biology and several excellent teachers reoriented my career path. Many mentors and years later, I managed to acquire a BS in molecular biology and a PhD in genetics.

With a peer-reviewed “license to research” in hand, I leapt into a new field as a postdoc. Both laboratory experiments and literature reviews quickly progressed, and my head was brimming with fresh ideas. That was when I made a shocking discovery that would change everything. After much painstaking research, I found the ability to pursue ones ideas is dictated by funding and personal connections. (Gasp!)

Gone were my visions of the lone scientist cracking molecular codes with the right combination of test tubes. To be a modern scientist, in addition to being a whiz in the lab, one must also be a skilled communicator and wordsmith. This means “grant writing.” This article, dear reader, is the result of my subsequent research.

The U.S. Scientific Enterprise: A Brief History of Grant Making & Writing

As a graduate student, I was familiar with the grant writing system. My department supported several grant writing seminars and workshops, and one of our classes had a mock grant proposal and evaluation section. Thankfully, my advisor had encouraged me to attend these workshops and to write a grant proposal in addition to my dissertation and other related scientific publications. These were excellent training tools to familiarize me with the torturous maze of websites, the tedious forms associated with funding graduate-level research, and the long hours invested in clarifying research directions.

But one cannot fully appreciate the process until acquiring a few battle scars (such as rejection letters and reviewer’s comments) and maybe even a few medals (grant funded!). So I consulted with several funding veterans and examined the origins of our present-day funding process. I was surprised to learn our current funding mechanism is a relatively recent innovation that is continually evolving.

The scientific profession as we know it and the grant application process have come into being in the course of a single lifetime. Many of the agencies have humble beginnings and only became major funding powerhouses in the last 50 years. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) originated from a Marine Hospital Service created in 1798, although the Research Grants Office was not created until 1946 (2). Since that time, NIH funding levels have climbed from $11 billion in the mid-1990s to over $30 billion in 2012303 . The NSF, on the other hand, was not created until 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.” Many of the large funding agencies we now take for granted are, therefore, relatively recent additions to the scientific enterprise.

In addition to numerous funding agencies, we now have more scientists to carry out the research than any previous time in human history. The rise in scientists is the result of an increased focus on training more U.S. scientists. Some SACNAS readers may be old enough to remember the day the USSR launched the first artificial satellite put into  orbit around the Earth’s. The satellite was called Sputnik and the launch (October 4, 1957) marked the start of the space age and also the dawning realization that U.S. education standards were lagging behind. Since that time, STEM field funding has exploded around the world. Not only are we training more scientists in the 304 U.S., but we are also drawing some of the best scientific minds from around the world. The current overall supremacy of U.S. technology and resources may be short-lived, however, as other countries continue to catch up and in some cases, surpass the U.S. in their ability to produce and retain top scientists. The realization that STEM fields are important to national defense and the economy ensures the worldwide twenty-first surge of scientists will continue indefinitely.

The drawback, of course, is that research-funding applications have become increasingly competitive. Statistics are freely available from federal agencies to give you an idea of the likelihood of receiving a grant. For example, if you applied for an NIH Postdoctoral F32 Fellowship in 2011, your odds of success were 26.2% (603 out of 2,298 applications). Similar statistics can be found for whether or not having an MD, a PhD, an MD/PhD, or other credentials resulted in a grant being awarded (3). The low success rate can be alarming, but with the right preparation you can improve your chances of receiving funding.

With so much money and so many scientists, the hope is that the money will be distributed to deserving researchers solely upon merit. But despite decades of progress in achieving merit-based awards in the funding process, there is still work to be done, as shown by Ginther et al.’s research entitled “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards.” (4, 5). This careful study helped bring to light a disparity in the application process: further studies may help minimize bias in grant applications while maximizing funding for ideas that advance STEM fields.

Building Connections and Refining Your Ideas Step by Step

Access your institutional support: U.S. universities possess many resources for preparing and submitting grants. For example, my current department (UC Riverside, Department of Biology) has an analyst who is responsible for ensuring you have the right forms completed, whereas the Office of Research takes care of the submission process. Each department handles the funding process a little differently, but faculty members often initiate the procedure. Therefore, seeking out and cultivating faculty member mentors is an essential first step to a successful grant application.

Line up your mentors: In addition to submitting the grant, it is important to have a good faculty mentor/advisor to help hone your ideas. Mentors have the experience and the connections to help develop realistic and fundable realities of your visionary ideas. According to National Science Foundation program director in the Division of Earth Science, Dr. Lina Patino, you need to start contacting mentors early in the process. This can take place at professional meetings or through emails. All it takes is a common research connection, such as a published paper, to get the ball rolling. Dr. Cynthia Peterson, a professor at the University of Tennessee suggests that you also need to be prepared to give a concise, clear, and engaging presentation about your work and where it is going to potential mentors at their university or your own. This is a key attribute in establishing personal relationships with mentors who can help you secure funding at different career levels. Once you have a mentor and a few ideas, you are on your way to writing a grant proposal.

Create and follow a realistic timeline: Similar to finding a suitable mentor, one of the keys to generating an outstanding proposal is to start early. At a minimum you should have at least a good outline several months ahead of the deadline, according to Professor Peterson. A year would be best and if you are a new postdoc or faculty member, you have already taken the first steps. In order to capture the essence of your ideas you, hopefully, will already have a few publications or you are in the midst of initial investigations. If there are no publications in your immediate future, you need to start doing a few preliminary studies. Dr. Ricardo Cortez, professor of mathematics at Tulane University, advises that you make a schedule and stick to it. Writing and research will consume a great deal of time, but the time you devote to writing is sacred. During this early phase, be sure to contact more senior colleagues who have had success submitting similar proposals.

Pay attention to detail: Once you find a proposal, read it thoroughly, paying particular attention to the eligibility section and the deadline. As your proposal progresses, continue to read and reread the RFP (request for proposal) for specifics about labeling sections and formatting. If you have not already done so, contact someone at the granting agency (such as a Program Officer) for additional advice. Don’t be shy. You are chatting with a fellow scientist. Now that you understand the proposal and what is involved, it’s time to focus on your idea.

Hone your idea: In order for your proposal to stand out, you must have a clear idea of what you want to work on. Your research objectives must be refined and focused but exciting enough to grab the attention of reviewers. On the other hand, a common mistake of those new to grant writing is to be overly ambitious (6). Instead, focus on the most tantalizing ideas that can be accomplished within the designated time frame and within established budgetary constraints. Your ideas must be explained concisely and repeatedly, along with how you will execute, and the significance of, the research. For example, be sure to explain how this research will contribute to the field, with appropriate references showing you have kept abreast of the literature. Make sure your ideas are succinct, your sections have clear transitions, and your specific aims do not rely upon one another. Be sure to provide visual information (such as charts, figures, tables) in appropriate spots to maximize the impact of your ideas. A great idea with no clarity will fail, but if you have a good idea and have taken steps to show it will work, clear language will keep your proposal out of the rejection pile.

Networking can lead to partnerships: Now that your ideas are down on paper, continue communicating with others in the scientific community. Talk about your ideas through presentations and casual chats with colleagues and mentors. Write to or speak with those who may have advice on your particular topic—and keep an open mind. What starts out as a brief communication may turn into a collaboration or partnership. Some of the same people may even have successful applications you can look at. There is no need to reinvent the wheel if someone you know has a spare tire!

Cross the t’s and dot the i’s: With a final draft in hand, now is the time to sit down and go over it again and again and again. Because you must have all of your questions regarding the submission process answered before you submit your proposal, you need to go through it carefully with someone you trust, according to Director of Native American Outreach at University of Kansas, Dr. Marigold Linton. One typographical or formatting error can send it to the rejection pile. Ask colleagues and mentors to read your application for feedback. The academic world is full of busy people, but it takes no more than 10 minutes to flip through your proposal—and some reviewers will spend less time than that. Regardless of how long reviewers take to examine your work of art, if you have put in the time and effort, they will appreciate the ease with which the ideas jump off the page.

About the Author

Dr. Edward Large is currently engaged in his first postdoctoral application for federal funding. He has been a postdoc in the Maduro Lab at the University of California, Riverside, since fall 2010.

References Cited

1. Williams, Timothy. 2012. “Brutal Crimes Grip an Indian Reservation.” New York Times. May 1, 2012.

2. The NIH Almanac. 2012. National Institutes of Health. May 1, 2012.

 3. NIH Success Rates. 2012. National Institutes of Health. May 1, 2012.

4. Chang, Kenneth. 2012. “Black Scientists Less Likely to Win Federal Research Grants, Study Reports.” New York Times. May 1, 2012.

5. Ginther DK, Schaffer WT, Schnell J, Masimore B, Liu F, Haak LL, Kington R. “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards.” Science. 2011 Aug 19;333(6045):1015-9.

6. NIH Tips for Applicants. 2012. National Institutes of Health. May 1, 2012.

Thanks to the following individuals for offering their insights on the grant writing process:

  • Lina Patino, PhD: Program Director, National Science Foundation, Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
  • Cynthia Peterson, PhD: Professor and Head, Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor of Biomedicine, Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Chemistry, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • Ricardo Cortez, PhD: Pendergraft William Larkin Duren Professor in the Mathematics Department and Director of the Center for Computational Science at Tulane University (New Orleans)
  • Marigold Linton, PhD(Cahuilla-Cupeño): Director for American Indian Outreach in the Office of Diversity of Science Training, University of Kansas.


Related Resources

View the entire summer/fall 2012 edition of SACNAS News