7 dos and don’ts of NIH grant writing and submission

Photo of Cristel Camacho, PhD, looking through a lab microscope

Cristel Camacho, PhD, looks through a lab microscope at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Thanks to a professional development allowance from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I recently attended a grants seminar in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was an incredible opportunity to learn directly from experts at the National Institutes of Health about what does (and doesn’t) make a good grant. I’ve curated some of the most valuable and pragmatic pieces of advice I received below:

1. Do start your grant-writing process early.

I was surprised at how far in advance of the deadline the NIH suggests writing. You should start really thinking about your specific aims and data collection a year to eight months before the deadline.

Eight to two months before the deadline is when you should be writing, editing and writing more. Two months to a month before the deadline is when you should try and convince your peers to hold a mock study section for you. (St. Jude actually does this regularly as an institution.) You should begin the submission process a month before the deadline.

2. Don’t wait until the deadline to submit your grant.

It’s better to be early than to wait until the day of and discover you are missing some crucial administrative component.

3. Do talk to the NIH before submission.

While this isn’t required (except in special circumstances), NIH highly recommends contacting them before submitting so you can get a better idea of what the various institutes are actually looking to fund.

4. Don’t assume your overall score has any mathematical relation to the individual criteria scores.

This was actually new information to me, as I had always assumed that the individual scores for Significance, Investigator, Environment, Innovation, and Approach were somehow averaged to get the overall score. Instead, they are merely guidelines, with Approach and Significance being the most important and Innovation being more like a bonus.

5. Do look beyond the R01.

NIH has a variety of grants suited to different projects and types of research. The NIH representatives went out of their way to point out that the grants with less money attached to them should not be viewed as “mini R01s,” but instead fulfilling entirely different functional needs.

For example, the R03 exists specifically to get preliminary data for an R01 application, while the R21 is for pilot/exploratory/proof-of-concept projects. You should also consider the R35, which instead of funding a specific project, funds an investigator who can demonstrate contribution to and a vision for their particular field that is exceptionally compelling.

6. Don’t try and cheat the page limits.

Things like excessive appendices, using the vertebrate animals section to explain experiments, and making the entire grant one giant figure to get around font size limits are frowned upon (and yes, these have all happened).

7. Do check your grant attachments prior to submission.

Things that have been accidentally been uploaded and submitted include homework, tax information, kid’s artwork and a recipe for cranberry margaritas. Not even the margarita recipe was funded (though reportedly very tasty). At St. Jude and many other research facilities, the Grants and Contracts office and individual department administrators make sure that doesn’t happen.

As a scientist early in my career, the experience in New Orleans was invaluable. The grants process can seem Byzantine when you first approach it, so it was beyond helpful to be walked through the process by experts at the NIH. The NIH website also has a specific grants site with more information.

About the Author

Clay Christian
Clay Christian, PhD, is a former postdoctoral fellow in the Hematology Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.