A scientist works in a lab.

Five pieces of advice for applying to NSF’s CAREER program

Rick Page talks with a student in his office.
Successful applicants to the NSF CAREER program, like the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s Rick Page, shown here at right, submit proposals that show how their research and education plans are integrated.

On January 16, OARS sponsored a session on the NSF CAREER program, presented by Liz Nysson. In addition to being a staff member in the Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning, Nysson is also a member of the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. In this session, she covered basics of the program – including eligibility, budgets, and due dates – and offered advice to prospective applicants, some highlights of which we cover here.

1. Earlier is better.

This advice applies to both contacting a program officer (PO) – which Nysson strongly recommended – and submitting an application. With CAREER submission deadlines in July, POs are flooded with requests from prospective applicants in May, so Nysson advised prospective applicants to contact them much sooner. February is not too early, especially this year, when one government shutdown has just ended and another looms. It is advised to have a one-pager ready describing the PI’s intended CAREER proposal. As for applications, Nysson said submitting at the last minute leaves a PI vulnerable to electronic system problems that commonly occur when volumes are heavy. It’s much better to submit a few days early. Not only are problems less likely to occur when system traffic is lighter, but there is also still time before the deadline to mitigate any problems that might crop up.

2. This program is about the PI, not just the project.

Most grant programs, including the ones offered by NSF, are meant to fund specific projects. In contrast, the CAREER program has a strong emphasis on the principal investigator (PI), not simply the project. That means no co-PIs are permitted on CAREER proposals. It also means that some common practices – like using “we” in the narrative – are not recommended. Instead, Nysson said applicants should use “I” when appropriate to keep the emphasis on the PI. Using the first person singular to describe completed activities reinforces the message that the PI has demonstrated their personal ability to carry out the proposed activities. (This is not to say that the PI can’t have help carrying out the proposed activities, especially those in the education plan. In fact, Nysson suggested that the applicant’s budget include salary for graduate students, post-docs, or other support staff.) Because it is so important to establish that the PI has a demonstrated ability to carry out the proposed activities – and because PIs are permitted only three bites at the CAREER application apple – Nysson also said PIs who don’t yet have preliminary data should consider waiting until they do before applying for a CAREER award.

3. The education component is integral, not “extra.”

With some programs – regardless of what the RFP says – education plans are evaluated by reviewers as a nice-to-have component rather than a must-have component. That is not the case with the CAREER program, where reviewers keep a sharp eye out for carefully integrated education plans. CAREER applications in which the education plan is tacked-on or treated as an afterthought will not be successful, so Nysson recommended applicants approach the education plan as rigorously as they approach the research plan. Just like research plans, education plans should include clear aims, objectives, background information, citations, and other critical elements. Just as research plan research design and methods are evidence-based, education plan research design and methods should be as well. Nysson said PIs should also clearly explain how their education plans are integrated with their research plans, and they should be explicit about how the work is integrated with their research as they do it. Activities related to the education plan should be accounted for in both the budget and the timeline.

4. Good grantsmanship is good CAREER grantsmanship.

Nysson emphasized that CAREER is special in many ways, but it is still a grant program with a typically crowded field. Although the competition is stiffer in some directorates than in others, no directorate has had a funding rate above 25% in recent years. PIs can improve their chances of success with effective grantsmanship. Nysson specifically advised PIs to:

  • Review NSF’s note to CAREER reviewers both before and after drafting the proposal to ensure the proposal not only contains what the reviewers are looking for, but also that it makes those things easy to find.
  • Provide context for reviewers who may not be experts in all elements of their research.
  • Establish a clear organizational structure.
  • Articulate explicit connections between aims, hypotheses, research plans, and outcomes.
  • Use headings to distinguish various sections of their narrative.
  • Use bullet points for objectives and items in lists, not only to provide clarity, but also to provide reviewers with reference points for navigating back to specific information in the proposal. (Yes, bullets take up more space, but that space can often be made up by following the advice in the bullet below.)
  • Employ a clear, direct writing style.
  • Include charts, graphs, or other illustrations. As with bullet points, graphics both facilitate reviewers’ understanding and provide them with reference points.
  • Observe rules of standard written English.

5. The departmental letter is not pro forma.

It is critical that the required letter from an applicant’s department chair be personalized and not come across as generic. Letters should be tailored to the applicant and contain the following specific elements outlined in the CAREER program solicitation:

  • A statement to the effect that the PI is eligible for the CAREER program. For non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must affirm that the investigator’s appointment is at an early-career level equivalent to pre-tenure status, pursuant to the eligibility criteria specified above. Further, for non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must clearly and convincingly demonstrate how the faculty member satisfies all the requirements of tenure-track equivalency as defined in the eligibility criteria specified in this solicitation.
  • An indication that the PI’s proposed CAREER research and education activities are supported by and advance the educational and research goals of the department and the organization, and that the department is committed to the support and professional development of the PI; and
  • A description of a) the relationship between the CAREER project, the PI’s career goals and job responsibilities, and the mission of his/her department/organization, and b) the ways in which the department head (or equivalent) will ensure the appropriate mentoring of the PI, in the context of the PI’s career development and his/her efforts to integrate research and education throughout the period of the award and beyond.

The departmental letter must be no more than two pages in length, and Nysson warned that, in this case at least, shorter is not better. Letters less than two pages long may be interpreted by reviewers as a lukewarm endorsement of the applicant by the department chair. Nysson suggested that an applicant may wish to write an initial draft of the letter for their chair to work from or provide their chair with relevant information.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Lab photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of Rick Page by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.



Guest post: Recent changes to NIH R15 mechanism mean Miami faculty are more competitive than ever

Students presenters discuss their poster with an Undergraduate Research Forum attendee.
Highlighting their students’ participation in the Undergraduate Research Forum is one way PIs can demonstrate the excellence of the research environment for undergraduate students at Miami University.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares insights about changes to the NIH R15 mechanism, suggests some tips for writing NIH  grant applications — especially R15s — and offers encouragement for Miami researchers based on his experience.

The major goals of the NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program are to support meritorious research at predominantly undergraduate institutions, strengthen the overall research environment, and provide valuable research experience for undergraduate students. The R15 application is a 3-year award with a maximum of $300,000 in direct costs for the entire project. The R15 guidelines have changed significantly, as described in a new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), PAR-18-714: Academic Research Enhancement Award for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions (R15 Clinical Trial Not Allowed).

Additional changes to the R15 program, including the addition of the REAP program, are coming next year as well.

This fall I was on an NIH study panel that reviewed both R01 and R15 applications. I wanted to share with you some of my experiences from that panel, offer some helpful hints, and encourage more researchers at Miami to apply for R15 funding. First of all, NIH has placed a much greater emphasis on training undergraduate students for R15 applications. This change should have a major impact at Miami University. Researchers at Miami should have a significant advantage with the R15 proposals, since we strongly emphasize and encourage undergraduate research.

The FOA Research Strategy states the following:

Research Strategy: Describe how the proposed plan can achieve the specific aims using a research team composed primarily of undergraduate students. Describe how undergraduate students will be exposed to and supervised in conducting hands-on, rigorous research. Describe how undergraduate students will participate in research activities such as planning, execution and/or analysis of research. Formal training plans (e.g., non-research activities, didactic training, seminars) should not be provided, although a brief description of activities related to enhancing students’ research capabilities and progress (e.g., the use of individual development plans, etc.)  is permitted.

Here are some tips to make your proposal stronger:

  • Make sure that you discuss everything that is listed in the FOA Research Strategy in your proposal. The reviewers of the application are asked to comment on these issues directly.
  • The research team described in your application must be primarily composed of undergraduate students. I would include in your budget salary for undergraduate students during the school year and the summer, as well as salary for a graduate student to train and work with the undergraduate students.
  • In your biosketch and in the proposal, make it crystal clear that you work with undergraduate students in your lab. Dedicate at least half a page in the application to showing that you are training undergraduate students in your lab. In your proposal, I would include the following: “I have been at Miami University for ZZ years and I have mentored XX undergraduate students. These students have published XX papers as co-authors and YY as first authors. I currently have XX undergraduate students working in my lab.”  In the application, you need to explain how students are trained.  Briefly discuss papers that undergraduates have co-authored in your lab and mention what graduate or professional schools your students have attended. This will provide clear evidence to the reviewers that you have a proven track record in training undergraduate students and helping them pursue careers in biomedical sciences.
  • In your biosketch, underline the names of the undergraduate co-authors. Make it easy for the reviewers to clearly see that you are dedicated to conducting research with undergraduate students and that you have plenty of experience in that area.
  • Describe innovative approaches that you are using to engage undergraduate students in your lab. Describe how you will stimulate the interests of the students. Discuss how you will recruit a diverse and inclusive group of undergraduate students to the lab.
  • Make sure you mention that Miami University has a dedicated Office of Research for Undergraduates that provides valuable resources for students interested in research. Discuss all of the outstanding programs that Miami offers undergraduate students who are interested in conducting research, including Undergraduate Research Awards (URA), Undergraduate Summer Scholars (USS), First Year Research Experience (FYRE), and Doctoral Undergraduate Opportunity Scholarships (DUOS). Mention that workshops that discuss all aspects of scientific research are available to students. Finally, have your students present a poster at Miami’s annual Undergraduate Research Forum, held in April. These components of the proposal really emphasize the strength of Miami University and enhance your application.

One of your overall goals in writing the R15 proposal should be for the reviewer to want their son or daughter to conduct research in your lab as an undergraduate student. This is very important. You want the quality of the research work and the training experience to be outstanding in the application.

In addition, here are a few general tips for NIH proposals that are not specific to the new R15:

  • The proposal needs to be strong scientifically; it is not just about undergraduate training. Try to have good preliminary data for each specific aim in the proposal. This will clearly show that you can conduct the experiments proposed in the application.
  • At the very end of each specific aim, discuss outcomes, potential problems, and alternative strategies.
  • Make sure you include a resource sharing plan in the application. Several applications forget to include this.

I strongly encourage faculty at Miami to apply for NIH R15 grants. If any researchers have any questions about this program or other grant applications, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Finally, although NIH funding is still highly competitive, I think it is getting a bit better for researchers. Good luck with your submissions!

Written by Gary Lorigan, John W. Steube Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Miami University.

Photos by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.


A hand holds a set of car keys.

Writing a grant proposal is a lot like buying a car

A salesperson and a customer shake hands in front of a car.

Like buying a vehicle, writing a grant proposal is an important investment worth taking the time to do right. Doing research to ensure you are on the right lot and looking at the type of vehicle that best suits your needs will reduce wasted time and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. From there, all that’s left to do is narrow down your options and negotiate the best price.

Do your research

When shopping for a car, research is important to ensure you find the one that best suits your needs. Does the car offer all the options you need? For instance, do you often haul your children’s furniture from home to dorm and back again? If so, a Mini Cooper likely isn’t your best option. Also, knowing your own constraints (e.g. finances, height, family size) might dictate whether you’ll be shopping for a new car or a used one, a compact or a sedan, a Lexus or a Kia.

The same holds true when searching for a grant sponsor. Do the sponsoring agency and particular program fit your project needs? If you only need $1,000 in materials to carry out your project, you shouldn’t search for a Federal grant opportunity because those are usually reserved for projects with bigger budgets. Instead, look for internal and local sources of funds, such as your department, college, or the Committee on Faculty Research (CFR). If you are going for Federal funding, it’s important to choose the right agency. If your research project is focused on a specific health outcome, likely you need to do your shopping on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lot, not at the National Science Foundation (NSF) dealership. Knowing and understanding the mission of the sponsoring organization is of utmost importance prior to developing your grant application. If missions are misaligned, then you need to find another dealer.

Narrow down your shopping list

With literally hundreds of car makes and models available, how do you decide which is best for you? When considering your purchase, everything counts, from number of seats and doors to size, performance, and cost. The key is to narrow down your search by creating a short list of must-have features, then doing some side-by-side comparisons.

When searching for a sponsor, you may or may not have hundreds of options depending on your project needs. The chart below offers guidelines for narrowing down your search options.

Funding Source Typical Duration Average Award Size Impact
Horizon 2020 1-5 years $50,000-$500,000 National-Global
U.S. Federal funding agencies 1-5 years $25,000-$500,000 National
State agencies 1-3 years $10,000-$100,000 Statewide
Local agencies 1 year $1,000-$5,000 Local-Statewide

Know when the price is right

Once you’ve selected the model, options, and color, it’s time to get serious about price. The key to successful negotiation is knowing the value of the car, the invoice price, and the MSRP. In other words, what is the dealer’s limit? Also, what is your limit? Calculate what you can afford.

When writing a budget, you need to know the sponsor’s limit. Is there a cap or ceiling on the amount of funding you can request? If there isn’t a cap, is there a typical amount awarded by the program to which you are applying? Are there specific items the sponsor won’t pay for, like major equipment or personnel? Also, will your budgetary needs be supported by the sponsor? Ask for what you need and don’t sell your project short. If a sponsor cannot support a major piece of equipment that you need to conduct your research, then you either need to find a way to support that equipment (e.g., internal equipment funds from OARS or budgeting for equipment rental rather than purchase) or find a new or additional sponsor.

Take a test drive

Test-driving can help you make your final decision, so take your time with it and be sure to drive on both city streets and the highway. Don’t feel like you need to rush the process. Instead, use this time to pay attention to the little things: road noise, the number of cup holders and USB outlets, and extra features you hadn’t noticed before. After the purchase, it’s too late, so leave ample time for this important feedback.

The same holds true with grant applications- test drive them with the sponsor. Contact the sponsor early with your project idea. Many sponsors have a program officer who is responsible for answering questions regarding particular programs. The program officer wants quality applications that meet the mission of the agency and program, so they want to hear from you. As soon as you identify a program, contact the program officer and ask if you can share a one-page concept paper that includes your project goals and objectives, along with a little background detailing the need for, and significance of, the project.

Once you have a green light from the program officer, test-drive your application with colleagues both in and outside your area of expertise. Doing this will allow you to fine tune your application, ensuring it is understandable to an informed audience and ensuring an error-free application. Once you submit the application, it’s too late to make changes, so leave ample time for collection of this important data.

Have fun with it

Both buying a car and writing a grant proposal can be harrowing processes. Try to take the hassle out of both by beginning early, doing your homework, reading reviews (or sample applications), and working with people who are knowledgeable about the process. For car buying, this should be a salesperson. For writing a grant proposal, this should be your OARS representative. We are here to help and have years of experience submitting to hundreds of programs while getting feedback and advice from dozens of program officers and grants management folks regarding common pitfalls. Additionally, we can provide information commonly needed to complete forms (e.g., DUNS and EINs), and we can assist with budget development and help route your proposal through the internal approval eSPA system, allowing you to spend more of your time on writing your narrative, communicating with your program officer, and tidying up your final draft.

Just like TrueCar and similar services help take the hassle out of the car buying process, OARS can help take the hassle out of the grant submission process. So give us a call!

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Car keys photo by Negative Space via Pexels. Handshake photo by Legal Tell All via Vimeo. Both used under Creative Commons license.

Algorithmic stair steps carved into a piece of wood.

Maximize grant success with tips from former NIH staffer

These words are written in chalk on a chalkboard: Success. Go get it.

On Thursday, November 3, Dr. Norman Braveman, Miami alumnus, former senior member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) extramural program, and current current President of Braveman BioMed Consultants, spoke with faculty in Miami University’s Department of Psychology about applying for funding from the NIH. This is the second of two reports summarizing Dr. Braveman’s advice. You can read the first one here.

In a presentation titled “Maximizing Your Grant Success: A Strategic Approach to Grant Writing,” Dr. Norman Braveman emphasized the importance of a proposal’s potential impact on advancing the field as a very key element required to ensure proposal success. In addition to lack of impact Dr. Braveman also identified other reasons a proposal might not be successful, including:

  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of original ideas
  • Insufficient experience of PI or research team
  • No proposed safety net in case problems arise
  • Unrealistic amount of work to be accomplished
  • Unclear or unjustified experimental approach
  • Failure to follow guidelines

In order to maximize grant success, Braveman suggested beginning each proposal with an explicit statement on the purpose of the proposed study, beginning,  “The purpose of the proposed study is . . .” Beginning with a brief lead in and moving quickly to the aims of the proposal will help the writer keep focused on the purpose of the proposal and will make the purpose clear to the reviewers.

Following the intro and specific aims (i.e., objectives), should be a hypothesis and an explanation of how the investigator plans to test the hypothesis (i.e., approach or methods). Using the specific aims as a guide, the methods and analysis should flow naturally from the project’s objectives.

One strategy for successful proposal writing Braveman shared is the concept paper. A concept paper will help elucidate the problem/issues to be addressed and can help to identify gaps that need to be addressed. Like the specific aims, the concept paper can help focus proposal writing and can be used as a tool to facilitate discussion with a sponsor prior to proposal submission.

Typical format for a concept paper is 3-4 pages. The concept paper is not supposed to be a complete application, rather it is high-level overview of the problem to be addressed, the purpose (aims or objectives) of the proposed research, the significance or impact to the field, and brief descriptions of the approach to be taken and the capabilities of the research team, following this outline:

  • Project Purpose – What are the objectives of the proposed study?
  • Problem/Background – Why does this topic need to be studied? What gaps or clarifications in the field need to be addressed?
  • Significance – Why is this study important to the field? What impact will the outcomes have on people, processes, and so on?
  • Aims – What hypotheses will be tested to address the problem?
  • Design/Analysis – What approach will be used to test the hypotheses and why?
  • Team – What roles will key participants play and what experience do they have?

Braveman also emphasized good writing as key to success. As William Raub, Past Deputy Director of the NIH, said, “No amount of grantsmanship will turn a bad idea into a fundable one . . . but there are many outstanding ideas that are camouflaged by poor grantsmanship.”

In terms of grantsmanship and writing protocol, Braveman emphasized language, style, and organization in grant writing. “You aren’t writing a poem,” Braveman reminds us. The language and style must match the reviewers’ expectations. Additionally, organization is key. Points should be linear and logical so that the reviewer knows where the writer is going with the proposal and can follow the logic of the argument. Braveman also warned against including extraneous material. “Address only the criteria that reviewers will use to assess your application,” he said. On the other hand, Braveman warns, “If you don’t write it, it doesn’t exist for the reviewer.” In other words, no reviewer can read your mind.

Braveman concluded with these final thoughts on successful grant writing:

  • Peer review is a judgment, not a tutorial. You should not submit a working draft as a final proposal.
  • Always put your best foot forward.
  • Don’t fall in love with your drafts because drafts are meant to be replaced with something better.
  • Rely on colleagues to provide peer review prior to submitting your proposal
  • In the words of William Zinsser in On Writing Well, “Good writing . . . keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.”

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Stair step photo by Jared Tarbell via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. “Success” photo by Gerd Altmann, via Pexels, public domain.