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By Valerie Virta, PhD

On July 22, 2011, postdoctoral fellows from NICHD, NIDCR, and NHGRI attended an engaging workshop entitled "Writing Your NIH Grant Application." Dr. David Morrison, a faculty member and former chair at the University of Missouri, led the event. Dr. Morrison and a colleague developed the workshop material in response to new faculty hires lacking grant-writing skills, but the information conveyed during the session was useful for anyone writing a research proposal.

Writing a grant is not for the faint of heart, and it should certainly never be done alone! Always remember to make use of every resource possible, such as your PI and the Office of Education. And, while it may seem like common sense, carefully reading and following instructions is the most important lesson from the workshop!

When beginning the proposal, the applicant must meticulously construct the specific aims portion of the grant application. One can then recruit peers and mentors to give feedback on the logic of the aims. Once the specific aims are fully polished, the rest of the application can be written much more easily.

Next, the proposed study must be placed in a larger context. This includes verifying that the proposed studies haven't already been done---that's a sure fire way not to get funded! A thorough literature review is important in this step.

Following the literature review, the applicant must explain how the specific aims will be accomplished. The most common pitfall is including too much detail, or making experimental plans that are unrealistically expansive.

Once the entire proposal is written, it is best to get more feedback. To ensure that colleagues will have time to review the proposal, ask them a couple of months ahead of time rather than waiting until the proposal is finished, when a tight deadline may be looming and calendars may already be full.
Finally, although a cover letter may seem optional, it is something you should carefully write and include. The purpose of the cover letter is to ensure that the grant proposal is sent to the appropriate study section for review. Thoroughly examine the study section website to construct the explanation for why the proposal should go to the chosen section. While specific people cannot be requested as reviewers, the cover letter is the place to request that specific people NOT be shown the proposal.

The workshop contained many more helpful details about grant writing than can be mentioned here (all the more reason to attend next time). Much of the information presented is included in the coveted "Grant Application Writer's Workbook," a 195-page, up-to-date reference, given to workshop participants.