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.


Friday, February 10, 2017

4 tricks you CAN use to save space in your proposal

It was probably unfair of me to give you a bunch of space-saving tricks last week and tell you not to use any of them, so I thought this week I should dig into some that you can use...

Use active, first-person voice:
Scholars and researchers are often trained to use the passive, third-person in their academic writing.

Here's the difference:
Passive, third-person: The experiment will be conducted by the researcher.
Active, first-person: I will do the experiment.

Why do academics want to use the passive, third person? A couple of reasons: first, it alludes to the objectivity of the research and removes the researcher from the written proposal. Second, it sounds more formal, more appropriate for the expert reviewers. But, I argue that the benefits of the active, first-person outweigh those of the former. First off, it's shorter. I cheated a little bit in my example and changed the verb, but either way, it's going to end up shorter. And when you make these changes to all of your sentences, you'll save a lot of space! Second, active, first-person is easier to read. Any good technical writer worth her word processor will tell you that!

Remove hyperbole:
I recently reviewed a grant proposal where the PI described something as "very, very important." Now, I get that it's hard in a grant proposal to really make things stand out, but this is not the way! Firstly, my loyal blog readers have heard me say this before, but I once had a Technical Writing Professor who said that there is never a good reason to use the word "very," and she had long since banned it from her writing. Her point was that it didn't add anything to the sentence. If something is important, say "it's important." Adding "very," let alone, two of them doesn't articulate anything significantly different. Now, I'll take this a step further even and suggest that not only should our PI cut out the "verys," but I would ask, is there a way you can show that this is important instead of just saying it? Is there a way to structure the description to make it clear to the reader that this is important, so that you don't have to tell them? Now, I've made this argument and lost several times before and I acquiesce that sometimes using this hyperbole cues the reader to pay close attention. So, if you must, say something is important or great or incredible, but please don't say it's very incredible.

Cut sentences that don't have a clear purpose:
I mentioned this last week, but when you're running out of space in your grant proposal, you need to be brutal. This means going through the proposal line by line, and cutting sentences or phrases that aren't really making a difference. They may be eloquent, they may be poetic, but if they're not doing the work of making your case to reviewers, they have to go!

Phone a friend:
So, after you've changed everything to active, first-person, cut out hyperbole, and brutally curtailed your proposal and you still can't find enough room for your amazing diagram (that you're keeping at a size that reviewers can see), it's time to call for reinforcements. You need to find a colleague to go through and tell you what's still in your proposal that isn't necessary and where you can condense.

These tips can help you cull a mostly-written proposal, but another thing to do is create a well-organized plan of attack before you start writing your grant proposal. If you can outline and identify what you want to do in each section first, it'll help you stay out of the weeds in your first draft. That way there will be less you need to cut later on!

Top three things to cut from your writing - Kyra Thomsen

Friday, February 3, 2017

5 tricks to save space (that you should never use)

Space limits in grant proposals are one of the most frustrating aspects in grant writing. While you're watching some of your students really stretch to fill paper requirements you give them, you're trying to slim down your compelling case and essential descriptions to meet agency requirements. We all know that culling your words is harder than expanding them (no matter what students think). Here I'll offer the requisite Blaise Pascal quote, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."

So, you may be excited to learn of what tricks I've identified for saving space, but I'll immediately burst your bubble by saying that you should never ever use these tricks. Ah, that Pandora's Box of grant-writing tips! But, here's why you should not use them. Because, reviewers will immediately discover your tricks and be frustrated by them.

So, here they are...

Shrinking the type: Sure, you can fit more words in the smaller type you use, but at what point are you going to give your reviewers a headache? Be sure to keep your type at 11 point or larger throughout the whole grant.

Shrinking the margins: Genius! If you push your margins out by just a smidgen, you can get that last sentence in there. But, what does that do to the layout of your document? Nobody likes reading something that goes right to the edge of the page. Plus, if you check your agency guidelines, there are probably rules against it.

Cutting the white space: Along with shrinking margins, it's tempting to choose a paragraph structure that eliminates white space between them. But, again, nobody likes reading something where there are no visual breaks. You don't want a reviewer to look at your page and have a feeling of dread. White space is necessary!

Making figures/visuals smaller: So, you've done it! You've crafted the perfect diagram to include in your project overview that will very quickly give your reviewer an understanding of your whole project structure.  Only problem is that, to fit in this visual, you've had to make it so small that your reviewer might not be able to read the ultra-tiny labels and text...So, again that will be annoying and not useful. Give it the room it needs to be easily decipherable or cut it.

Cutting headings/guide posts: So, I'm shooting everything down! How about Headings? Those aren't necessary, right? Well, maybe not, but reviewers don't tend to read through a grant proposal from page one, chronologically till the end. I've heard several NIH reviewers say they start with Specific Aims and then go to the Biosketch. So, given that reviewers are using your grant in this way, offering them indicators, guide posts, headings, and references makes your proposal easier to navigate and easier to read. Easier to read = happier reviewers.

A classic, yet brutal, writers' mantra is to "murder your darlings." This refers to the importance of being ruthless when cutting down your writing. If it's not necessary to include, even if you said it so brilliantly, cut it, save yourself the space, and don't be tempted use the tricks above!

Writing Process and Structure - University of Wisconsin Madison

Friday, January 27, 2017

PI's? PIs? POs?

I thought I'd tackle a simple editing question today. This was spurred by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Is 'Mens' Becoming a Word?'" In this article, the author notes how he is starting to see signs and uses of the word "mens" as possessive without an apostrophe. He seems open to our evolving language, usage, and grammar, but the word mens does not sit well with him.

This got me thinking about apostrophes or lack thereof that never sit well with me, and the first thing that came to mind was when I'm using the abbreviation for Principal Investigators in the plural. When I write PIs as plural, I have an urge to include an apostrophe: PI's. Why? Why do I want to do that when I'm not using the possessive? Well, it's because of other uses that I am comfortable with that use an apostrophe for the plural, non-possessive. Phrases like, the 90's or the ABC's. Neither of these phrases are necessarily possessive, but many of us are comfortable with the apostrophe in these cases, right? However, as shown in the APA blog below, we probably shouldn't be using apostrophes in the 90s or the ABCs.

OK, so I won't drag it out any further. The thing to do when you aren't quite sure which way to go or get that uneasy feeling when you make a grammatical decision, is to go to the authority. Who is the authority, you ask? Is it APA, MLA, Chicago, or Turbian? No, in this case the authority is the agency to which you're applying. If you're writing for the NIH or the NSF, go use the search engine on their site to see what grammatical rules they're using, and follow their lead. If you're wondering, like I was, about possibly including an apostrophe in the possessive form of PIs, a quick search tells us. No, neither the NIH nor the NSF include an apostrophe - it's PIs and POs.

Whew, glad I sorted that out! :)

Is 'Mens' Becoming a Word? - Ben Yagoda, Chronicle of Higher Education
Pluralize Numbers and Abbreviations Without Apostrophes - David Becker, APA Style