Friday, August 18, 2017

Early Career Investigator Grants

I'm happy to announce that ORDE has just posted our newest e-book: Research Opportunities for New Investigators. So, I thought I'd post some questions to consider for those researchers interested in early career grants...

How does the agency define new investigator? 
If you're a new investigator, you're a new investigator, right? Well, maybe. Different agencies define new investigator differently. Some are looking at how many years since you received your terminal degree(s). Some are looking at how long you've been in your research position. And, some are looking at whether or not you've received major funding previously.

Is it a mentored grant? 
Some new investigator programs are the same sort of research-focused programs as those that are not for new investigators. And others are considered mentored awards, where in your proposal you must address your own career development plan, and also identify a mentor who will work with you throughout the award period. The NIH Career Development or K awards are generally framed in this way. While K applicants must identify a research project in their proposal, the larger focus is on the candidate, their mentor, and their career development. On the other hand, the NSF's CAREER program is research-focused. While applicants are wise to show how their CAREER project fits in with their and their department's larger research goals, this is peripheral to the research project itself. Other agencies run the gamut.

Do your past grants affect eligibility? 
At some agencies, the new investigator programs are targeted at bringing very early career investigators and their research up to speed. Thus, if you have shown that you are competitive for major funding previously, this could make you ineligible for some new investigator awards. For instance, at the NIH, if you have secured major funding as the PI, e.g., received an R01, you lose your new investigator status and would not be a good candidate for a K award. But, for the NSF CAREER program, about half of CAREER awardees have received previous awards from the NSF and it puts them in a better place to compete for the CAREER and certainly does not make them ineligible.

What are the goals of the program? 
The questions above really all lead to this question. Before you decide whether or not to apply for a new investigator grant, you must first understand the goals of the agency and the new investigator program. Is the agency hoping to create new independent investigators with their program by funding career development? Or is the agency looking to promote those newer investigators who have already proven that they are independent and productive researchers? When you understand the program, you can consider if it is a good fit for you at your current stage.

Research Funding Opportunities for New Investigators - ORDE

Friday, August 4, 2017

Preparing for your first years as an independent researcher

As we get close to the start of another academic year and new faculty orientations are upon us, I thought I'd offer some advice for brand new and returning early career investigators based on that suggested by seasoned faculty researchers. From our vantage point in ORDE, we often see new faculty set aside their research for the first year, which then sometimes slides into continued avoidance in the second year. This is understandable, given the loads that most faculty are carrying, but it's also dangerous to set aside your research for that long. So, in order to help you to focus in on your research as soon as possible, we offer the following tips.

Do what counts:
There are so many opportunities as a new faculty member that it can get overwhelming. So, spend your time doing what really counts. Perform mini (return on investment) ROI assessments on all tasks and ask yourself, is this where my time is best spent. Is this going to get me where I need to be for tenure and to be the kind of researcher I want to be in 5-10 years?

Be ready to say no:
Along these same lines as doing what counts, researchers must get used to saying no. Inevitably, you'll be asked to be on a slew of committees. And, yes, service is necessary, but as a new tenured faculty and budding researcher you want to say no to most of these requests. Now, you can be apologetic and cordial while saying no, but say no, nonetheless. Folks will understand you're trying to protect your time and focus on your research and writing early on.

Develop a mentoring network:
Because you may feel overwhelmed, you want to have a network to support you. Identify what kind of support and guidance would be most helpful. Then, be on the lookout for people who fit that bill. And make a point to invite multiple people to be part of your mentoring network instead of looking for one person to be everything.

Meet the right people:
If you're at a new institution, figure out who the major players are. Who has money? Who has influence? Seek them out and introduce yourself. Look for opportunities to invite them to lunch. Perhaps these folks become part of your support/mentor network.

Be kind to yourself:
Most faculty researchers don't accomplish what they set out to in the first year or two. But, beating yourself up about not meeting goals that may have been unrealistic doesn't help your productivity. Take time to reflect on your goals and if they are realistic. Forgive yourself for goals not reached and move on. Certainly feeling bad about your work will not help you to be any more productive.

Lastly, always remember that your friendly Office of Research Development and Education (ORDE) and Office of Research Services are here to support you so don't hesitate to reach out!

I survived year 1 as a tenured professor, and you can too! - Tenure, she wrote
Advice for new assistant professors - Chris Blattman
Advice for your first year on the tenure track - Karen Kelsky

Friday, July 28, 2017

First steps in applying for a grant

Starting the application process for a new grant can be daunting. There are so many rules, requests, and criteria to wrap your head around, it can be tempting to set it all aside and get back to it a little closer to the deadline, but resist that urge! ORDE recommends that PIs spend six months developing their project and then their proposal. So, usually you do not have time to waste!

So, instead of giving in to a mild panic attack at the thought of beginning a grant proposal, consider using the following solid steps to get you started.

Create a timeline and work plan:
Once you've found the deadline and requirements for a grant application, create a timeline. Mark the deadline on your calendar and prepare to have the application finished a week ahead of time. Then work back week by week. When do you need to get a polished draft to your internal reviewers? How long will it take you to revise? When will you have each section drafted in enough time to set it aside and then come back to it with fresh eyes? Putting together this timeline and work plan can help you stay realistic about what you need to accomplish when and can help you chop up the seemingly insurmountable proposal into smaller, manageable tasks.

Read everything you can find:
When you've read the program announcement and guidelines for the proposal, go back and read them again. Then start reading everything else available. Go through the sponsor's website. Read the abstracts of past funded projects. Read the sponsor's strategic plan. Read the FAQ page. Read their "tips for success" page. Watch the old webcast they've made available to you. Then, go back and read the program announcement and guidelines again. Also, consider reaching out to past funded PIs and ask them if they're willing to share their proposal.

Create a proposal template:
Before you start to write, it's a good idea to go through the program announcement and guidelines and pull out the requirements and/or criteria in the call and to make those the sections of your project description. Oftentimes, when reading a call, you find yourself going through a series of requirements they want you to address, whether this list is a series, separated by commas or a bulleted list. The sponsor is telling you what they want you to respond to in your proposal and what they'll be looking for. So, take the hint and format your project description to respond to requests explicitly.

Secure letter writers and internal reviewers:
Usually, grant applications include requirements of letters of support or something like it. Identify what the sponsor wants in these letters, who they want them to be from, and identify your letter-writers as soon as possible. Reach out to them to make sure they're willing to write a letter. Offer to draft the letter for them that they can revise.

In addition to contacting letter writers, you also want to secure internal reviewers. Folks in your discipline or even laypeople who can give you valuable feedback on a polished draft of your proposal. ORDE suggests that you have three people review your grant, including one layperson and two people in your field. Ask these folks early if they will review your proposal and agree on a timeline for this review, i.e., when will you send them a draft and when can they get feedback back to you.

If you bear in mind these things to do as you get started applying for a grant, it can help you to get past that feeling of being overwhelmed and set you up for success right away!

ORDE Proposal Development Timeline
On the art of writing proposals - Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Writing and speaking (two different skills)

Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about a scholar we both admire, whose talks just blow people away every time. And, I found myself thinking, "Man, I really wish he wrote like he spoke!" as I remembered slogging through his last article. That made me think about the folks I know whose thinking and research don't quite translate from their oration to their writing. To be fair, it goes both ways. I once went to hear author Richard Foster speak, and was excited for what I thought would be a mind-blowing talk after reading one of his books. However, the talk was humdrum and unimpressive. I was surprisingly disappointed.

I could go on recounting instances, but the truth is that public speaking and writing are both skills that don't necessarily translate. Some folks possess both. Some possess one or the other. And, some possess neither. Although both skills are important in academia, I would suggest that writing is more important. I would say it's essential, but then I'd be ignoring the fact that so much academic writing by successful academicians is bad.

Yet, going back to my pining thought of great speakers writing like they speak, why can't they? I think that maybe they can, but they need to do a few things to make this happen. Below I suggest a few things you can do if you're great speaking/teaching doesn't seem to translate to your writing.

Disabuse yourself of academese:
As a long-time student, as many of you have been, I've found myself re-trained to meet the writing rules of professor after professor. This is an interesting process for me, because as a Technical Writer, I'm partial to my own writing rules. Yet, I play along and translate entire papers into passive, third person or delete headers because an instructor insists that they are a crutch where writers should be writing transitions (apparently having both transitions and headers isn't an option). So, it's no wonder that academic writing ends up so muddled when former students, now academics, write trying to follow the sometimes contradictory and sometimes ineffective writing rules of their teachers.

Thus, many scholars should take a hard look at their writing and work to understand what rules they're following that are unnecessarily weighing down their prose and making them incomprehensible in some cases. Once you realize what you're doing and that it's creating a barrier to clarity, start re-training yourself. Disabuse your writing of these unhelpful notions.

Pinpoint the magic in your speaking:
If you are a talented and compelling speaker, try to identify what you're doing in your talks that makes your thinking so clear and compelling. Then, try to emulate that in your writing. If you have copious notes for your talks, try using the same system to write a speech down and use that as the foundation for your next publication. Or, if you don't use a lot of notes, record your next talk and transcribe it to see if that can give you a jumping off point for your writing. I recently gave a talk that was very well received. Although it was for a lay audience, I had still incorporated citations into my PowerPoint along the way to keep it academic. After a few requests for the presentation, I realized that my talk really could be easily translated into an article outline. So watch out for opportunities in your speaking that you can seize for your writing.

Consider your audience:
Even though writing and speaking are different skills, they both require the writer or orator to understand and deliver to their audience. Thinking through or finding out what the audience expects, what they already know, what would be most useful for them, and what is the context in which they will encounter your writing/speaking, are all important questions to answer before one designs their talk or their writing.

Of course, you may find that all of these strategies lend themselves to one another. For instance, the magic in your speaking may be that you really understand your audience and their needs. But, trying any or all of these strategies may allow you to use your speaking skills to push your writing to a new level.

10 tips on how to write less badly - Michael C. Munger

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Proposal formatting can feel like a nuisance. If you're like many folks, you develop a proposal using your preferred Word format. Then when you're getting close to the deadline, you start to copy and paste it into the agency's template online or reformat your original document to meet what they're asking for. It's at this point that you start to realize you hadn't noticed some of their formatting guidelines and you are confronted with some options. 1-You can shoehorn your current proposal into their format, 2-You can rework your proposal to best respond to their guidelines, or 3-You can throw out their guidelines and do it your way...

If you've read my blog before, you've probably guessed that option 2 is the "right" answer, but you may also realize that in the time crunch and pressure that often accompanies proposal development, you may be tempted to opt for 1 or 3.

Here's why you shouldn't.

Although it may seem that agencies put together formatting guidelines to make your life more complicated, they've actually done it to make their lives easier. When reviewers are going through proposal after proposal, preparing for a review meeting, they come to expect the flow of the required format. They know where to go when they want to flip back to your biosketch or your budget after reading your abstract. If you move things around on them, they will not appreciate it.

Proposal guidelines are developed to give you direction and a better understanding of what the agency wants and how they want it. We all know that funded proposals respond well to the call and the guidelines. So, if that's a given, your chances for funding are much better if you truly understand the call and guidelines from the beginning.

Although you may think that some agencies will appreciate your creativity with formatting, they won't. If they wanted creative formatting then they wouldn't have painstakingly developed their formatting guidelines.

Convinced? Great, here are some tips to help you out.

  • The first thing to do is read the call for proposals and the formatting guidelines and then read them again.
  • Before you start writing, create a template based on the call and the required format.
  • Don't try to sneak your proposal through with a smaller font or no paragraph breaks.
  • Once written, return to the guidelines to make sure your proposal meets them all.
  • If you're unsure about the call or guidelines, ask. This is an opportunity to engage a Program Officer (just make sure you couldn't find the answer to your question in any of the agency's documentation or website, otherwise the PO will know you didn't do your homework).
Remember, even through formatting feels like a pain, it can actually provide you more insight into what the agency is looking to fund and what they think is important, based on required sections and space allotted to those sections. So, please, take formatting requirements seriously, because we know that funding agencies do!


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Making syntax work for your writing

Continuing our summer series on Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, I must admit I was not enthused to read the syntax chapter, replete with sentence diagrams. However, it did remind me of many of the syntax tricks I use in my own writing that I outline below. Although I won't be showing you any word trees (you're welcome), I will abbreviate some of Pinker's discussion to offer you some quick tips for maintaining good syntax.

Asking too much of your reader
One of the most common syntax faux pas is when a writer asks the reader to keep the subject of a sentence in their mind while leading them through tangential clauses before they conclude with the predicate. For example:

My best friend, Brian, whose sister's birthday was last week and wanted to go to dinner with their family, is busy on Thursday.

Here, I'm trying to say "Brian is busy Thursday," but to say that I lead my reader through a twisted and unnecessary path and ask them to bear the subject, Brian, in their mind until I get back to my original point and offer my reader a predicate, is busy on Thursday. Even though my example is silly, I encourage you to not test your readers' memories in one sentence. Find ways to write things where you're not placing the subject and predicate of your sentence far apart.

Coordination, when it comes to syntax, refers to the aligning of tenses and plurals in a sentence. So when I say, The choir sing nicely, something sounds off and we realize that I have not coordinated my subject and my verb and it should be The choir sings nicely because choir is singular. This seems easy enough, but it's amazing how complicated it becomes when a sentence gets longer, with more clauses.

Take this NIH abstract example:

Lastly, we will assess the role that delinquency case dispositions (i.e., condition of probation) plays in the relationship between behavioral health service utilization and criminal recidivism.

In this example, plays is our verb in question. Do we see coordination in this example? The trick we use to check on coordination is to first figure out to what noun the verb is referring. When I first read this sentence, I thought it was referring to the role, in which case we're good, because the role plays is correct. But then I looked closer and decided that plays was referring to dispositions. We would never dream of saying dispositions plays because dispositions is plural.

What makes this example extra tricky is the parenthetical phrase condition of probation, which puts a singular noun, condition the closest to the verb in question, plays. Yet, using our trick of identifying which noun goes with our verb, we can then create an abbreviated sentence to check if we're using the right verb form, and in our example we're not. It should be play cause it's referring to dispositions.

Who vs. whom
I had a friend in high school who, when asked for on the phone, would reply, This is she. At the time, I thought it sounded pretentious, but of course (many) years later, when asked for Naomi on the phone, I reply with This is she, because my friend was correct. Figuring out the proper pronouns gets more difficult when we're talking about who and whom. Going back to our phone conversation, is it correct when someone says, Who's calling or what about Who are you trying to reach?

The trick to use for who and whom is to first categorize who and whom with like pronouns, as shown here:

Who: he, she, they
Whom: him, her, them

Next, we answer the question with one of the pronouns.

Who's calling? She is.
So, since she is in the same category as "who," "who" is correct here.
Who are you trying to reach? I'm trying to reach her.
Oops! Who and her are in different categories, so we need to correct our question to say, Whom are you trying to reach?

Using these syntax tricks can make your writing more readable and keep you out of trouble with the people who are always on the lookout for a grammar mistake. Below are a couple of resources. I downloaded the Grammarly App and so far it's been catching errors, although I noted that in our NIH example, it thinks that plays refers to condition. So, of course, we can never rely on these tools, but we can let them help us. The blog referenced below is a good place to go for quick and dirty grammar explanations. Happy, error-free writing to you!

Grammarly App
Grammar Girl Blog

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What's in an abstract?

This week I was working with a PI on her proposal, and found myself considering what exactly should go in a proposal abstract. This may seem a question with an obvious answer, but oftentimes a PI will write their abstract as an afterthought to their larger proposal. The trouble with shirking an abstract is that although it might be the last thing a PI writes (which makes sense), it is the first thing that reviewers see. So, even if you wrote the clearest, most compelling proposal in history, if your abstract is lackluster, the reviewers will have a bad taste in their mind when they get to the main body of your proposal, if they even get that far.

Hopefully that's enough to convince you to give your abstract some serious thought. To help you with this, I thought I'd identify some dos and don'ts (in reverse order) for your abstract based on the errors and strengths I commonly see in proposal abstracts.


  • Make the intro to your proposal and the abstract the exact same language. Remember, the reviewer who just read your abstract will now start reading the body of your proposal. It looks sloppy if you just do a cut and paste, even if it's using brilliant prose
  • Give extraneous details/examples: remember you don't have much room. Make every word count
  • Include an equation: Even if it's the key to your entire project, an equation cannot be fully explained in an abstract to justify its use
  • Use jargon/excessive acronyms: Remember, even if your proposal has to be very technical, the abstract should still be understandable by the layperson
  • Describe the problem you're trying to address and how bad it is
  • Show how your project will help solve the problem
  • Give a brief summary of your project and your goals
  • End with the vision or broader impacts of your project
  • Use the first and last sentences of your abstract to drive home the importance of your project
I first learned to write an abstract in my freshmen biology lab. I remember our TA telling us that lab reports were not mystery novels, and that we needed to lay everything that was important out in the abstract, including our results. Don't treat results like the surprise ending to a novel; tell your reader the conclusion right at the start. This was good advice that I still remember today, and I share it with you to encourage you to put all you have into your abstract, so your reviewer is excited to read the rest of your proposal!