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Early Career Grant Writing, the true "Scientific" rite of passage?

Posted By Connections Editor, Friday, February 27, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Eugenia (Kena) Flores-Figueroa1, Karin Klauke2, Stephen Sykes3

1.Oncological Research Unit at the Mexican Institute of Social Health, Mexico City, Mexico. 2. European Institute for the Biology of Ageing (ERIBA), Section Ageing Biology and Stem Cells, University Medical Centre Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen 9700 AD, the Netherlands. 3. Fox Chase Cancer Center Blood Cell Development and Function, Philadelphia, USA.

Whether it is killing their first lion, surviving in the wild or simply reaching a certain age, the “rite of passage” symbolizes the defining moment where the younger members of society shed their dependence and transition into adulthood. In science, the transition from student to researcher is certainly not reached by age, but is only attained upon completing the rigors of a PhD program, where the publications made during this time represent our “rite of passage”.

OK, so now we can design and carry out well-controlled science that we bundle up into nice publications. BUT are we actually prepared to face the “true rite of passage” that all academic scientists, young and old, must meet…getting funded?

Writing grants is a skill that does not come natural to most and often requires a lengthy fostering process. Therefore, the sooner you start the better chance you have of mastering it.

For those of you who are early in your career, our goal here is to provide you with some key starting points for writing concise, solid and well-assembled grants. In order to do so, we have polled several of our expert ISEH members for advice on grant writing and summarized some of the main funding sources for junior researchers from around the world. Read and learn!

1. Start early in your career

Dr. Hind Medyouf, Georg-Speyer-Haus (Institute for Tumor Biology and Experimental Therapy), advises to “start by applying for fellowships during your postdoctoral training. When writing an early career grant as a post-doc, clearly formulate your aims and how this grant will help you move forward to a more independent position”. Even if the grant does not get funded, just the experience of writing will be beneficial. According to Dr. Mary Dinauer, (Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University and Director of the Children’s Discovery Institute), “the process of writing a grant is a good learning experience and also good for critical thinking and planning of a research project”. In the beginning, many young investigators experience hesitation in submitting grants. Echoing this point, Dr. Teresa V Bowman (Assistant Professor, Department of Developmental and Molecular Biology and Department of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine) says, “Many are often discouraged feeling their story is not ready and that chances of getting funded are low. A well thought out grant on an interesting topic can be funded, but only if it is submitted”. Reinforcing this point, every grant writer must embrace the mantra “Do not fear rejection”, as stated by Dr. Bowman.

2. Plan ahead

Once you have chosen a funding source to apply to, you should “start planning your grant application early so that you give yourself plenty of time to get valuable feedback on your proposal from experienced faculties in your division and/or mentors. What you might think is a perfect proposal might well have obvious deficiencies that can be easily spotted by others.” advises Dr. Michael Milsom (Junior Group Leader, Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine). Dr. Louise Purton (Associate Director, St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research) also recommends that you ask your mentor(s) or more senior colleagues for copies of their grants to use as guidelines. “This is very useful, especially if you do not have much experience in writing a grant”. Planning ahead also provides you with a time buffer to protect against unforeseen problems. “Unexpected things (such as illness) can arise at any time and the more prepared you are in advance the more you can cope with anything that is unexpected”, Dr. Purton commented. Remember to “Start [early], because writing a good proposal takes time” added Dr. Sofie Singrant Söderberg (Dept. Molecular Medicine and Gene Therapy, Lund Stem Cell Center).

3. Write your own grant

Another great practice that can help you prior to writing your first grant is to help others, such as post-docs or students, with their grant proposals. This will give you a taste of the grant writing process without the full-blown time and intellectual pressures that come with writing your own grant. However, when it does come time to write your own grant, Dr. Louise Purton encourages young scientists to write it by yourself, and “don't let your supervisors write it for you. You can let them read it and come with suggestions, but try and write it yourself!” You will never learn how to write a grant if you don't practice.

When outlining your initial proposal, Dr. Teresa Bowman advises to focus on the key elements of a grant: logic, topic and data. “Grants must be logical and easy to follow for reviewers who are not always experts in your field. The topic is important to ensure your subject is appropriate and interesting for the review panel. Lastly, but definitely not least, is preliminary data. Combined with a cogent argument, preliminary data establish feasibility for the project you have proposed”.

Once you have finished your grant, Dr. Hind Medyouf suggests that you read your proposal as unbiased as possible and ask yourself the following questions: are my objectives realistic? Is my proposal feasible within the grant period and with the resources at your disposal (models, primary samples, equipment, expertise)? If you cannot adequately evaluate these aspects, you are unlikely to be expert enough to carry on the project successfully, she added.

4. Built a solid CV

Consider that reviewers will also look on your accomplishments, Dr. Gerald de Haan (Scientific co Director, Group Leader of Ageing Biology and Stem Cells, European Research Institute for the Biology of Ageing) urges, “you have to make sure you have ended you PhD with (several) good papers”. Dr. Hind Medyouf, also reminds us, that “you also have to convince your reviewers that you have the scientific maturity it takes to successfully lead a project. So don’t hesitate to put forward any mentoring experience, corresponding authorship, prizes/awards you had in the past, etc”.
One common assumption made by junior researchers is that you need to have experience abroad in order to apply for an early career grant (and that may be the case for some specific grant agencies) but as Dr. Mary Dinauer, highlighted, “good training/experience can be found in many places, so ‘abroad’ per se is not relevant”, so do not be discouraged if you do not have it, just look for grant opportunities that do not require “abroad experiences”.

5. Avoid common mistakes

When writing a proposal you should also pay attention to avoid common mistakes, six of which our experts have warned us on below:

1. Risky proposals

Often the proposal is written with a progressive research plan, which relies on the early specific aims being successful in order for the latter work program to be meaningful or attainable. Always try to build in a fall back plan in the case that early steps in the work program are risky. Or, alternatively, use plenty of solid preliminary data to convince the reviewers that your work program will not fall at the first hurdle.
Dr. Michael Milsom

2. Diffuse Proposals

Avoid diffuse aims. Clearly state the hypothesis and provide the rationale that supports you hypothesis. Then proceed to describe the experiments that you will conduct to address the hypothesis. Finally and extremely important is to always state how the results will be interpreted and what scientific insights will be gained.
Dr. Mary Dinauer

3. Over-ambitious aims

One of the most common criticisms that young grant applicants receive is “This proposal is overambitious”. Of the many grant proposals that I have reviewed, the aims are often far too ambitious. Researchers want too much in too short of a time period. Try to avoid this, and be realistic.
Dr. Gerald de Haan.

4. Poorly structured applications

Lengthy and poorly structured applications are every reviewer’s nightmare. Therefore I recommend you stick to the guidelines, abide by every rule of length and format and make every effort to highlight the most innovative aspects of your proposal. Reviewers are requested to evaluate many applications and often have little time to do so. So try to make their job as easy as possible.
Dr. Hind Medyouf

5. Not knowing your “audience”

Not knowing the scientific background of the people is an often-made mistake. Are the reviewers going to be experts in the haematopoietic field? Or are your assessors more broad in scientific range, such as a group of researchers that each has expertise in different cancers? It is important to write your grant proposal in a manner that suits all audience members. If your audience is not specialized in your field, make your grant proposal more simplified so that someone who is not an expert in the field can read it, understand your hypothesis and aims and what you are aiming to achieve. If the assessors cannot understand the importance of your research they are unlikely to fund you.
Dr. Louise Purton

6. Fatal flaws.

“Fatal flaws” can be tricky to detect. The most common fatal flaw is when a proposal has two or more specific aims and the aims are dependent upon one another. Meaning that if Specific Aim 1 fails then all other aims are rendered irrelevant. This “house of cards” scenario can be the kiss of death in the realm of grant writing. Discussing the Specific Aims of your proposal with colleagues as well as having more experienced grant writers read your proposal often prevents the submission of grants with fatal flaws.

“On the shoulder of Titans”, final thoughts

Invest the time during your post-doctoral training and write a grant; take any opportunity to practice and build on your proposal with the help of colleagues and your mentor. Work on your CV, plan ahead and start early, be realistic and not over-ambitious, know your audience, and structure your application well are the main things to keep in mind when you write an early career grant.
As you have now (almost) completed your ‘rite of passage’ and finished your PhD, we hope that this ‘connections in hematology’ might help you to stand on your own feet (as an independent, funded, young scientist) but also “on the shoulders of Titans” to conquer your “true rite of passage”.
Good luck with writing your first early career grant!

We want to thank our interviewees, Dr. Teresa V Bowman, Dr. Mary Dinauer, Dr. Gerald de Haan, Dr. Hind Medyouf, Dr. Michael Milsom, Dr. Louise Purton, Dr. Sofie Singrant Söderberg, and  ISEH members that shared their time and knowledge. Special thanks to the New Investigator members that assisted with  interviews and with the grants information for the table.
Country Type Agency Eligibility Areas Proposal Preparation Budget Preparation Proposal submission Grant amount Time Option to renew
Europe Early career ERC starting grant Researches of any nationality working in the European Union or an Associated Country. Between two and seven years of post-doc experience. All areas of science Requires proven track record of excellence plus an innovative project. 100% direct costs and 25% indirect. once a year (for 2015 this is 3rd Feb) €1.5 to 2 million 5 years No
Europe Postdoc EMBO Postdocs with European nationality that are in international exchange. Molecular biology 1500 words None Twice a year 2x ~ USD 52,000 Up to 2 years No
Japan Early career JSPS(government) Researchers under 39yrs of age (excluding students) working in goverment accredited institutes in Japan Any area of science Same requirements as any proposal. Usually 25% of indirect costs once a year (September-October) (A) 5million yen to 30milion yen or (B) under 5 million yen (1million yen is roughly 9000USD) 2-5years No but can get accepted twice until age limit
Japan Very Early career JSPS(government) For researchers just graduated and starting up as post-doc or just returned from a long maternity leave Any area of science Requires track record but the assessment is more lenient Usually 25% of indirect costs once a year (May) 1.5 million yen 2 years No
Mexico Early carreer Conacyt Reserachers working in Mexico who are younger than 40 years old. Any The same requirements as any proposal, but better if the proposal focus on an area that is a priority for the funding agency it does not allow to pay posdocs or technitians, the money for equimpent should up to 30% of the total once a year on a specific date ( by mid august) 14,000 USD 3 years No
Netherlands Early(VENI), Mid (VIDI) and Late carreer(VICI) NWO (government) Researchers of any nationality, working on that particular grant (at least for a few years ) in the netherlands any Requires proven track record of excellence plus an innovative project, professional experience abroad is a BIG plus depends on what grant, VENI VIDI VICI once a year 0.25-1.5 million 4+ years Yes
Netherlands Postdoc Rubicon PhDs from a Dutch university (within 12 months of graduation), preferably performing postdoctoral research abroad. Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Life sciences 1700 words Very basic Three times a year 2x ~ USD 78,000 2 years No
Singapore Early career NMRC (national) New investigators working in medical institute in Singapore (CS-NIG for Clincian scientists, CBRG-NIG for researchers in basic science) Medical Requires track record but no substantial reseach experience. Must not hold other national grants. 20% indirect costs Once a year (December) Up to 200K SGD 2 years No
Sweden Early career VR (government), SSMF, Wallenberg, Söderberg Researchers of any nationality setting up their own research group at a Swedish university (a bit variable, but normally within 7 yrs of getting your PhD) Some are all areas of science, some are medical Requires proven track record of excellence plus an innovative project, postdoctoral experience abroad is a plus Variable, but generally around 20% Once a year (April-May) Up to 2 miljon SEK per year 3-5 yrs No
US Postdoc Helen Hay Whitney Postdocs with <1 year experience. No nationalilty requirements. Biomedical sciences 5 pages Very basic Once a year (July) 3x ~ USD 52,000 3 years No
US Postdoc Life Sciences Research Foundation Within 5 years of PhD graduation, postdocs at US institution Life sciences 6 pages None Once a year (October) 3x ~ USD 60,000 3 years No
US Postdoc (Fellows Scholar Award) American Scoiety of Hematology Research must be conducted in a US institute and applicants must be a citizien of US or Canada or hold a valid US visa (non-citiziens are eligible) and must have fewer than five years of post-doctoral experience. Normal and Malignant Hematopiesis 5 pages Basic Once a year (LOI: May 1st and Full Application August) USD 100,000 2 years No
US / Canada Postdoc Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Any nationality, <2 years postdoctoral experience Blood malignancies 6 pages Very basic, max indirect cost 5% Once a year (October), letter of intent (July) 3x ~ USD 55,000 3 years No

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