How to Get a First Grant

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One of the greatest challenges a young investigator faces is writing a grant and obtaining the first funding. Biophysical Society members Robert Clegg, Steve Harvey, Suzanne Scarlata, Lynn Marie Thompson, and Andrea Yool, who have served on study sections and have well established research programs, provided invaluable insight into the process of writing a successful grant. Some of the key points and suggestions made during the discussions are highlighted below.

Preliminary experiments

Don't hesitate to send out a grant, if there is enough data to support the hypothesis and feasibility of the proposed research. Even if the grant is not funded in the first round, feedback from the reviewers can be very helpful.

Controversies in the field

It is important to directly address existing controversies. Don't try to bury them. Reviewers do pay attention to these inconsistencies, so make sure you do a thorough literature survey in the area of proposed research. The best way to address controversy is to show how the proposed research would help clarify the  inconsistencies.

Proposed research

The grant should be simple and not overambitious. A first grant from a young investigator  should have two to three specific aims. Parallel specific aims are sometimes advisable because the success of the second aim does not depend on the success of the first. On the other hand, there are some excellent proposals where specific aims are hierarchical. One pitfall of sequential aims, however, is that if the first aim is flawed then the proposal is less likely to be funded. In either case, it is essential to think through all the possible problems that might be encountered in the proposed research and outline alternative strategies.

Where to apply

There are many sources of grants including private, state, and federal agencies and foundations.
While federal funding is often preferred, smaller grants from state and private agencies may have significantly higher funding rates. For first time investigators, there is no conflict in simultaneously submitting the same proposal to several agencies as long as one lets each funding agency know what is pending elsewhere. If all get funded, take the more generous grant.