Monday, April 17, 2017

Planning for a Productive Summer

For many faculty researchers, summer looks like a wide open space where one can achieve all of those goals that needed to be sidelined during the busy year. But, oftentimes, come the end of the summer, these same researchers look back wondering "where did the time go?" and feeling disappointed at all the goals they didn't meet.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this sense of regret that faculty feel at the end of the summer is often attributed to unrealistic expectations and a lack of planning at the start of summer. So, as we have the end of the spring semester in our sights, here are some tips for planning a productive summer:

Plan ahead:
This seems obvious, but in truth many faculty put off planning their summer till after their grading is done and the academic year is wrapped up. But, by the time they feel like they've recovered from a hectic spring, weeks of their summer have passed with nothing to show for it. So, although you are in the throes of the semester, try to find time to sit down and map out your summer before it begins.

Be realistic:
Although summer seems like a great expanse of unstructured time, it's not that long. When you start adding up time for vacation, conferences, childcare, planning for the fall semester, you find your summer is whittled down from the start. So, when planning out your summer, first factor in all those things that are going to take time to begin with, identify what you need to complete this summer to feel good and productive about the summer, and work backwards to plan how you will achieve it. Set benchmarks every few weeks to keep yourself on track. If you find you're having a hard time keeping up, revisit your plan and rework it so that you can still feel productive.

Set a rhythm:
For your research and writing time, create a structure or a habit to keep with it in the summer. Identify when you will write or research (best to pick when you are most productive in your day), choose the days and hours you will commit, identify where you'll do your work (e.g., a home office, your university office, or a coffee shop), and use that rhythm to stay at it.

Take time off:
One of the worst scenarios for the academic's summer is they flail trying to get so much done, aren't able to accomplish what they want, and come back in the fall feeling exhausted and defeated. To avoid this, make sure you give yourself some time off, some time to relax and clear your head. You'll actually find that if you have this time, you can be more productive when you come back to your work.

So, as you head toward the end of the semester, take some time to plan for a fun and productive summer.

Making Summer Work - Audrey Williams June
How one Professor Avoided Summer Slump - Audrey Williams June
How to Make Time for Research and Writing - Chronicle of Higher Education

Monday, April 10, 2017

The NIH Review Process

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a complex organization, so understanding the ins and outs of their processes can be daunting. But, fortunately, they provide many resources and insights into their review process. Depending on the program, the NIH will at times create special study sections to review applications, like those submitted for K programs or in response to an RFA. But, today, I wanted to offer a snapshot of the NIH review process that most applications go through and point you to more resources to better understand the process from the horse's mouth.

Center for Scientific Review (CSR)
Once you've submitted your grant application to the NIH, it is received by the CSR. In the CSR, PhD-level scientists check your grant for completeness and direct it to the appropriate study section and institute. You can request the study section and institute to which your application goes in the PHS Assignment form. This form is also where you identify any reviewers who are inappropriate to review your grant as well as any expertise reviewers should have to review your grant. This information used to go in your application cover letter, but NIH implemented this new form last year to streamline the process.

If you're unsure of which study section and/or institute to direct your application, the NIH has a neat tool to help you assess this. Matchmaker is a tool through the NIH's Reporter, where you enter your abstract and the database will produce a report on success levels by related study sections  and institutes based on how similar proposals have fared.

Study Section
Once they initially check your proposal for completeness and identify the appropriate study section and institute to field your application, the CSR passes your application on to the assigned study section. The Scientific Review Officer (SRO) is responsible for managing their study section. The SRO recruits the reviewers to their study section and manages any conflicts of interest. They also prepare the summary statements for applicants after the review.

The review process within the study section begins with each application being assigned to a primary, secondary, and tertiary reviewer. A reviewer assigned to an application is responsible for reading and reviewing the proposal and submitting an impact score from 1-9 (1 is the best). Based on these initial scores, a certain number of applications are discussed in the study section meeting, where as those with the worst scores are triaged and not discussed. For those discussed, during the study section meeting, the primary reviewer gives a brief presentation on the proposal and its strengths and weaknesses. The secondary reviewer shares any additional perspective on the grant, and the tertiary reviewer shares any other points not yet discussed. Then the whole study section (30-40 people) scores the application. The final score is an average of all scores. The NIH offers a video illustrating this process.

Institute Advisory Council/Board
The best-scored applications out of the study sections are sent on to the institute to which they were assigned. Once there, the staff at the institute develop a grant funding plan based on the priorities of the institute. This plan is then reviewed and amended or approved by the institute's Advisory Council or Board.

Hopefully then you receive a funding notification for your project. But, if not, you'll receive a summary statement with valuable advice for revising and resubmitting your application and be ready for the next time.

CSR Director Video - NIH
Grant Process Overview - NIH 

Friday, March 31, 2017

You want a grant, so what?

This week I was reviewing a well-written grant proposal. The PI outlined the project and illustrated what she expected to learn from the project as well as some of the publication products she anticipated. But, as I finished reading it, I had a nagging feeling. I realized that the question I was left with after reading the proposal was "so what?" I wasn't clear on what difference the project was going to make besides just understanding something better.

I realized that building a case for a grant is really about comprehensively answering the question "so what?" To demonstrate the importance of this question, I turn to an expert, George Heilmeier. Heilmeier is the former director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is known in the grant development world as he who created Heilmeier's Catechism for grant writing. He asserted that all good proposals answer the following questions:
  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you succeed, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success? 
The fourth question gets to my "so what?" It asks, who will this project make a difference for and why is that difference important? The National Science Foundation (NSF) core criteria parallel the "so what?" as well. For most proposals to the NSF, PIs must describe their project's intellectual merit or the "so what?" for their field and the broader impacts or the "so what?" for the larger society, nation, and/or world?

So, given how grant funding agencies, such as DARPA and the NSF really stress the importance of the "so what?" I wanted to offer you a simple exercise to better hone your answer to this question.

Step 1: Describe why your research project is important and to whom
Step 2: Based on your response, ask yourself, "so what?"
Step 3: Repeat step 2 until you can't come up with anything else
Step 4: Integrate the key stakeholders and important contributions your research will make into your proposal

You can do this exercise in your head, or have a colleague ask you the questions and they can vary the "so what?" type questions based on your answers. But, make sure to capture your responses so that you can use them when you're writing up your case in your proposal.

The Heilmeier Catechism
How not to kill a grant application: The facts of the case thus far - Science

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tips for writing your Specific Aims

I probably don't need to talk about the importance of the Specific Aims section of an NIH grant application, but I will. Remember that when your proposal is reviewed by an NIH Study Section, there are usually three reviewers assigned to read and review your application, but a group of 30-40 reviewers in the study section that score your application. That larger group will usually only see your Specific Aims.

Aside from this, reviewers report they read the Specific Aims first in an application and they often know from the Specific Aims page if they will like the rest of the proposal. The Specific Aims then is the overview of your entire proposal. It's where you first make the case for your project. It's your chance to leave a good first impression.

So, below are some tips to help you strengthen your Specific Aims:

Create a hook:
Start your Specific Aims with a bang. Grab the attention of your reviewers fast. One strategy for doing this is to illustrate the severity of your problem. Often, PIs think that everyone knows how bad the disease they study is. But the truth is there are probably reviewers who don't know. So share the statistics. How many people die or are afflicted by your disease/problem? Or, what are the current costs of addressing it? You want to use your hook to evoke a feeling in your reviewer that something needs to be done!

Describe the state of the field:
Now, if the disease/problem you're studying is so bad, other people have probably been working on it. Briefly describe what other researchers are doing to address the problem, to offer context and to show that you are steeped in the cutting edge research.

Show the gap/need:
After describing the current research, you need to make a case for your project, and this is best done by showing the need or the gap in the research. What has not been done yet that needs to be done to make significant gains against the problem or disease?

Present your solution and show how it meets the need:
After you've shown this need and made the case for it, you're ready to present your project in terms of stating your hypothesis or hypotheses and outlining your specific aims that speak to your hypotheses. Also, as you describe the state of the field, the gap or need, and your project, you also need to show that you or your team is the ideal group to meet the need you describe.

End with your vision:
In many of the Specific Aims pages that I review for our faculty before submitting, I often see them end with their last specific aim. I suggest to them and to you that this is a missed opportunity. People tend to remember what they read first and last, and in a document as important as the Specific Aims, you want your concluding statement to be powerful so that it will stick. So, sum up your aims and then in one or two sentences show the larger vision of your project and your research. 

As you develop your Specific Aims, reach out to colleagues and read as many examples as you can. Note what the author does that is compelling or distracting and integrate the best strategies into your own work. Below are some other articles to help you strengthen your Specific Aims approach.

The Anatomy of a Specific Aims Page - Bioscience Writers
Crafting a Sales Pitch for Your Grant Proposal - Robert Porter

Friday, March 17, 2017

A tribute to the Oxford comma

This week I read the CNN article, "An Oxford Comma Changed this Court Case Completely." The article discusses how laborers won a dispute against their employers when their contract was deemed ambiguous because it was lacking an Oxford comma. The Technical Writer in me just loves a story where punctuation or lack thereof makes the difference in something big!

But let me back up. Some of you may be wondering, what is the Oxford comma? The Oxford comma is simply the last comma before the conjunction (the "and" or "or") in a series. Below, I draw on an example from grammarly blog:

Without Oxford comma:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

In this example, I seem to be saying that my parents, whom I love, are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

With Oxford comma:
 I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

Here, with the oxford comma, I am just listing figures that I love, which include my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

The consequences of leaving out the Oxford comma when I'm simply listing things I love, could be that I'm inadvertently referring to my parents as Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty, and I doubt they would appreciate their new nicknames!

Beyond the Oxford comma, commas, generally, are important. As an example, I'll draw on one of my favorite punctuation books, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. This book uses a short scenario to show how meaning changes with and without any commas.

A panda bear walks into a bar.

Without commas:
He eats shoots and leaves.

In this first example with no commas, we imagine a bear heading into his local bar for his favorite lunch: shoots and leaves.

With commas:
He eats, shoots, and leaves.

This example creates gorier picture. This disgruntled panda walks into his local bar, and after eating, opens fire and then walks out!

Case closed! Commas and comma usage is important. And, now, in case I haven't yet proved what a nerd I am, I will leave you with a picture and quote I have saved on my desktop from the late Alan Rickman.

An Oxford Comma Changed this Court Case Completely - CNN
What is the Oxford Comma and Why Do People Care So Much About It? - grammarly blog

Friday, March 10, 2017

The NIH K vs. the NSF CAREER

On Tuesday, ORDE offered a seminar on the NIH Research Career Development (K) award versus the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. Surprisingly, we had a lot of folks who were interested in learning about both of them although they're quite different. So, I thought I'd write today about some key differences between these two grant programs for early career investigators.

What they're about?
As mentioned, both the NIH K and the NSF CAREER programs are early career development programs, however, the NIH K award is a mentored award, meant to give the candidate space/time to develop through training, mentorship, and research into an independent investigator who is competitive for an NIH R01 or similar award. The other thing to note is that there are a variety of different K awards for different types of researchers.

The CAREER on the other hand, is geared toward already independent investigators to help them hit the ground running in their nascent research careers. No Co-PIs or mentors are allowed on the award, whereas mentors are required for the mentored K award.

Who they're for?
As you've probably guessed from the section above, the K award is for Postdocs or faculty members who are in need of 3-5 years of mentoring and research career development, but who can show the potential to be a competitive independent investigator (capable of getting an R01) by the end of the award.

The CAREER is oriented toward independent early investigators looking to integrate their research and education. Despite the common misunderstanding that the CAREER is the first award researchers should apply for from the NSF, in truth, NSF reported that in 2014, just over half of awardees receiving the CAREER were first-time NSF awardees. This means that about half of CAREER awardees each year, have received previous research funds from the NSF.

In terms of eligibility, you must hold a doctorate. For the K, you must need mentoring and be a new investigator (have not received an R01 or another significant, independent award). For the CAREER, you must be a tenure-track Assistant Professor (untenured as of October 1st).

The criteria for both awards include some of the staple criteria from their funding agency, but also have some unique aspects for the award.

K Criteria:
  • Candidate
  • Career Development Plan
  • Research Plan
  • Mentors
  • Environmental and Institutional Commitment
CAREER Criteria:
  • Intellectual Merit
  • Broader Impacts
  • Integration of Education
  • Integration of Diversity 

As you work toward the deadline for the NSF CAREER or the NIH K award, be sure to remember to give yourself as much time as possible to develop your project, seek letters, reach out to Program Officers, write your grant, and have colleagues review it. Remember that most people will be submitting their grants the day they're due, so there will be high traffic and things can go wrong at many levels. We suggest submitting before the due date!
K Due Dates: June 12, October 12, and February 12
CAREER Due Dates: July 19, 20, or 21 (depending on directorate) 

NSF CAREER vs. NIH K prezi - ORDE 
NSF CAREER Presentation - NSF
NIH K Kiosk - NIH 

Monday, February 27, 2017


If you're a faculty member in the Sciences or Education, you may be aware of the Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award through the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER grant is a prestigious award offered through all directorates of the NSF. The grant is meant to infuse early career investigators with funding to hit the ground running to develop them as researchers and educators.

ORDE offers a toolkit for those interested in the CAREER, which we've just updated. Below is some initial information:

All NSF directorates participate in the CAREER Program, designed to support junior faculty in their dual roles as teacher-scholars. CAREER Awards provide recipients the opportunity to enhance their professional career development, better integrate their research and education responsibilities, and build academic leadership abilities. While all NSF directorates make CAREER Awards, the number of awards varies significantly by directorate.

The CAREER Award deadlines for 2017 are July 19, 20, or 21 – depending on the NSF directorate to which you are applying. Specific deadline details are found in the CAREER Award program announcement.

Three areas emphasized by NSF program officers and CAREER awardees are:

·         Begin work on a CAREER Award proposal early. This is a very competitive program; NSF is estimating it will make just 450 new and continuing CAREER awards per year for Fiscal Years 2017, 2018, and 2019. It is also unlike any other proposal you will submit to NSF because it involves planning your career objectives and illustrating how the CAREER Award will contribute to your professional development over the next 5, 10, and 20 years.

·         CAREER Awards represent a true balance between your faculty research and education roles. The required educational component may focus on any level: K-12 students, undergraduates, graduate students, and/or the general public. When planning this component, design innovative outreach efforts that go well beyond what you normally do in your faculty role.

·         Partnerships, especially industrial partnerships, are considered a positive aspect, but keep in mind that no co-principal investigators are allowed on CAREER proposals (see discussion under Budget Details on page 5). International collaborations are also encouraged.