Thursday, December 07, 2006

Going though the NIH review process

One of the most critical things a postdoc in science has to do is get independent funding. Even if your mentor is rich, proving that you can put together a research proposal and successfully obtain funding is a critical career step.

I submitted four funding applications this year, my first year as a postdoc. It's a long, slow process - each funding application has different length and content requirements - ranging from 10 pages not counting references, to 5 including references. By far I found the NIH applicatio to be the most onerous. (The NIH was the only US government agency I applied to - the rest were private foundations.) The application includes a massive, 104 page instuction manual for filling out all the damn forms. And then it takes months and months to go through the whole cycle. I submitted my application in August, and I just got my reviews back. I won't know about a final funding decision until February at the latest.

It was an interesting experience getting these first reviews. NIH fellowship applications are scored on a scale of 100-500, with 100 being the best. (Actually, I don't think they really score proposals that earn a score worse than maybe 300 - the applications considered to be in the worst 40% are 'triaged' and not reviewed further.) Applicants also get a summary of the discussion that took place in the review session, and written critiques from three reviewers.

Each of my three reviewers disagrees with the other two at some point. It's amusing to read some of the examples:

Reviewer 1: "The application is for an average candidate in an outstanding environment..."
Reviewer 3: "This is a very strong application from an outstanding candidate..."

Reviewer 1: "However, there is little discussion of the possible outcomes of each set of experiments, or the possible pitfalls and stumbling blocks that might be encountered if all does not go as planned..."
Reviewer 2: "This specific aim was concise, comprehensive and well-written. It
addresses potential concerns..."

As long and cumbersome as the overall process is, I got fair, good-faith reviews from all the people involved, even though I disagree with some points here and there. My program officer at the NIH (the person handling my application) said I was in the 'maybe' category. The worst part is that I have to wait a few more months (by which time I will have completed my first year as a postdoc) to hear the final decision. And then I may have to do a minor rewrite, and go through the whole damn cycle again. It's a long process for something that's supposed to happen during a relatively short postdoctoral period.

Now that I'm obviously much wiser about this, having gone through the whole process exactly 0.75 times, I have some advice for any grad students who stumble across this blog:

- find a mentor who has excellent grant writing skills and get him or her to give you a ton of advice

- find a postdoc who already has fellowship funding, and get a copy of that proposal. Reading someone else's successful proposal is invaluable.

- keep sending in applications everywhere you can until someone gives you money.

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