What's the Secret to Getting Grants?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 24, 2013

Two new faculty members, both from top graduate programs, start as assistant professors. A few years later, one has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in external grants, while the other has won only a small internal award. What was Professor No. 1's secret?

As a university grant officer and occasional Chronicle columnist, I've talked with senior professors at my own institution about how to kick-start a successful research career.

They said that Professor No. 1, who received lots of external money in just a few years, probably focused on a topic that was a priority for grant agencies. The less successful researcher may have attempted to satisfy his or her own curiosity without considering the needs and interests of the grant makers. In graduate school, you may have studied an arcane topic that fascinated you. It got you a Ph.D., but it won't necessarily get you a grant. You may have good research skills, but you need to apply them to timely topics that people want to support.

"Look at what the national needs are," said Joan Peckham, chair of the department of computer science at the University of Rhode Island and a former program officer at the National Science Foundation. "If you can't link it to what's going on out there, you won't be successful. You need to look at society and government because that's where the needs are." Explore how your knowledge can be applied to the questions that government and other nonprofit agencies want answered. If you don't have all the answers, work with people who can help.

"'Interdisciplinary' is a big buzzword today," she said. Look at the expertise on your campus and think about ways to collaborate on problems that agencies want to solve. Be imaginative when considering how to apply your knowledge to current scientific issues. Peckham gave an example of a transportation engineer who began a successful career studying hurricane evacuation because she was able to relate her initial area of expertise, traffic flow, to the movement of humans out of an area in the path of danger.

Senior professors also emphasized the importance of thinking in terms of the larger goals of the scientific community. New faculty members need to develop scientific maturity and consider their projects in a broad context. Keep the reviewers in mind at all times, and read program announcements carefully. The military states exactly what it wants, so applicants need to respond to those specific needs. It can be a little harder to read the mind of a National Science Foundation reviewer, so frame your proposal in terms of solving an important problem. Focus on a hot topic rather than a peripheral one, and propose to do more than a simple extension of current work.

You don't need to watch C-Span to know what federal agencies consider important. Go to their Web sites and read the program announcements. Then look in their award databases to see which projects have been financed. That will give you a good picture of each agency's priorities.

Don't forget the human angle. A senior scientist suggested attending carefully selected scientific meetings. Instead of just going to the big national meetings, try attending small conferences that focus on your area of expertise. You can meet potential reviewers in your field and make a good impression on top scientists.

In the field of behavioral health, James O. Prochaska has received millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health. But in the current budget-cutting climate, he said, it is difficult for even the most talented new researchers to get a foothold. He recommended a structured approach to the grant-application process. New investigators should first get copies of successful proposals. "Those are just invaluable," he said.

Next, find a mentor. "I strongly recommend folks be looking for one collaborator if not more," he said. "With NIH, almost everything requires collaboration. It's a stressful, lonely process. Collaborators are support folks as well."

Start with small grants and work up to large ones. Approach foundations as well as the NIH to give yourself more chances for success. Also, Prochaska said, consider whether more than one institute at NIH might support your work; there is some overlap in their missions.

Current NIH guidelines give an investigator just one chance to revise a proposal and resubmit it. With that limitation in mind, Prochaska urged applicants to find someone to review the proposal before submission. His research center runs weekly meetings that provide proposal critiques. If you don't have access to a review group, try organizing one yourself, or see whether you can get your dean or department chair to pay for a review by an outside consultant. A rigorous review before submission is particularly important in fields where there is not much scholarly consensus.

Above all, don't give up, he said. If after two tries your proposal still gets rejected, rewrite it. Make significant changes and try, try again.

Zahir Shaikh, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rhode Island and director of a major NIH grant, reiterated the importance of submitting a polished proposal to the agency the first time. "Don't send it just for comments," he said. "The first shot should be your best."

Still, however much you prepare, an element of luck is involved in getting a grant, said one seasoned faculty member. Patricia Burbank, an inventor and NIH-supported professor of nursing at Rhode Island, noted that members of review panels change. What one panel liked, another may not.

"I've submitted a grant that was rejected but with a pretty encouraging score including indicating high impact, followed all of the recommendations completely, resubmitted, got a different review panel, and got a poor score with low impact, and very few comments," she said. "So my conclusion is that there are minimum requirements, but after that, it's like winning a lottery. The more tickets you buy, the more chances you have."

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island's research office.