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Early Career Psychologist Column

First in a series of articles on how to successfully achieve external funding

By Sarah Tragesser and Kelly Dunn

Grant Writing Basics

This article marks the first in a series directed specifically toward how to successfully achieve external funding. Securing external funding, especially at the level of the R01, is considered to be the hallmark of what it means to achieve success as an independent investigator. Even in academia, most research institutions expect or require their faculty to aspire to this goal. Furthermore, the possibilities for high-impact research are much greater with external funding.

The following is a list of things you can do during your pre or postdoctoral position to better position yourself for writing successful grant applications:

  1. Work under someone who has an active lab with a history of securing external funding. Being mentored by someone with a strong history of grant funding serves a number of important purposes. First, some funding mechanisms (e.g., NIH K awards, pre-doctoral fellowships) explicitly ask for information about the quality of the mentoring and training environment. Second, working under a mentor or in a lab with a strong history of funding provides opportunities for you to receive feedback and training in all aspects of research that relate to competitive grant-writing. Your colleagues may also serve as informal reviewers for your grant applications, providing feedback and tips, and can provide examples of successful applications for you to review.
  2. Write publications that demonstrate your ability to participate in a fundable, programmatic line of research. In addition to the scientific approach you describe in the proposal, review panels will also pay close attention to the qualifications of the principal investigator. Having a strong track record of publications, particularly first author, is one of the best ways for you to demonstrate expertise, competence and a high level of productivity.
  3. Develop a good research idea that promotes your interests and that is consistent with the goals of the funding agency. Good ideas are those that advance the field vertically, pushing the envelope in a new direction, rather than expanding a field horizontally, such as adapting an old idea to a slightly different population or focus. In the age of limited funding, this level of novelty and innovation is important. Yet, it must be balanced by sufficient evidence or rationale to convince the reviewers that the idea has merit, and that it is consistent with the mission and goals of the funding agency. It is highly recommended that you contact a program officer and discuss your idea to determine whether the agency would be interested in pursuing that research. Their feedback is critical and can help you better refine your research idea before you begin the laborious process of grant writing.
  4. Once an idea is formed and a grant is written, find ways to adapt the proposal to a number of different funding mechanisms. Most people who successfully earn grants apply for many of them on a regular basis. They find ways to take advantage of all of the different funding opportunities presented to them. An efficient way to do this is to learn to use one idea and adapt it to a variety of mechanisms to save time and energy.
  5. Cultivate and participate in interdisciplinary collaborations. Many funding agencies are requiring evidence of interdisciplinary collaborations. Seek out opportunities by offering your unique set of skills or expertise to projects under development. You can begin this process by establishing connections with investigators from other disciplines and making your area of expertise known via presentations and publications.