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Tips for Pre-Doctoral Grant Writing

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Drea is a Cancer Biology PhD Candidate who wants to help others advance to candidacy

Grant Writing Is A Huge Process

I took a grant writing class the first year of my doctoral program, and it was great. I learned how to write a fundable specific aims page and how to prioritize those aims in the body. The internet is full of excellent information on how to talk about that part of the grant. Admittedly, it is the most important. It's what the reviewers focus on most. But, I am here to talk about the other stuff. Advice on the stuff I wish were online when I was writing an F31.


1. Find The Person At The University Who Will Submit Your Grant

Surprise, although you will be the P.I. of your grant, you will not be the person who submits to the NIH or NSF. There is somebody at your university who will be assigned your grant. My university didn't have a process for this, so I had to find them on my own. The easiest way to do it is to ask your P.I. for the email of someone who has helped them submit their grants.

The research administrator assigned to you is going to hopefully be super helpful. Mine immediately sent me a two lists. One was items she needed by one date. The others were items she needed by the due date. ((IMPORTANT: this does not mean you have until the due date. It takes 3 days for a university to process it to send. Remember to be done at least 3 days before the due date.))

Having these two lists helped keep me organized and know exactly what she would be needing from me.

2. Find Professors Who Can Write You Letters of Recommendation

You will have to obtain 3-5 letters of recommendation for your application. Your advisor cannot be one of them if they are sponsoring your application. The professors I chose were three from my committee and one who had appointed me on a training grant he was P.I. of. I don't know if it mattered who wrote my letters. Ultimately, pick professors who will write that you are the best graduate student they have ever met. I'm not kidding.

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Professors have a lot of work to do already. They don't always have time to write thoughtful letters of rec. You may be asked to submit a draft of a letter to give them. This is normal. It helps the professors understand what areas you want them to focus on and demonstrate to them how capable you think you are to be a great pre-doctoral grant awardee.

Finally, tell your letter writers the due date is three days earlier than it is. They, like you, will likely wait until the end to complete their part. Again, they are busy. Make sure you have the letters submitted. If you don't have at least three, your application will be discarded.


3. Download a biosketch form

If you're lucky, biosketches will be covered in your grant writing class. If you're not, a biosketch is basically a CV, but it has to be in the NIH's format. You have 5 pages total and are expected to include a personal statement, positions and honors, contributions to science and finally a list of relevant classes and what grades you received. Here are some tips from each of the sections.

  • Personal Statement: This isn't where you should write a compelling narrative about why you will be a great scientist. Think of this section as the cover letter. Here I recommend outlining your qualifications, briefly mentioning your graduate school goals and then write out how this fellowship will help you with your future career and aspirations. In the end, you may include your publications.
  • Positions and Honors: This section can be brief. Simply listing your research jobs and honors (scholarships and fellowships and other grants) is fine.
  • Contribution to Science: This is my favorite section. Here you have a lot of freedom. If you care only about science, write all about how your research will impact your field. If you want to help spread and encourage diversity in sciences, add a section on that. If you had a meaningful experience in science that wasn't related to your research such as teaching or outreach, you can include a section on that. Whatever you feel like you have contributed, write about.
  • Additional information: This is where you will list relevant classes to show you are well knowledgeable in your grant subjects. You must include your grades and how the grading scale is at your university. I included both undergrad and graduate classes. You can do what you think makes you look most prepared to be awarded the grant.

4. Get a Funded Template

Do not ever, ever plagiarize. It is unethical and should not be something with scientific integrity does. It is not cheating, however, to find examples. If you know a student in your program who had a fellowship funded, ask them. Encourage your program to start a grant bank so students have more resources. If nobody at your university has been awarded, there are examples online, but they will likely be outdated and/or only include the research plan.

Also, obtain a copy of your boss's R01 submission. Do not copy from them. It is helpful to have information on the lab and resources from someone who likely uses the same working spaces as you. This helps so you don't end up measuring the ceiling tiles and counting for the area of the lab space.

5. Send Your Application to FIVE People To Read

My final word of advice, this grant will take a lot of time. You will have read and re-read and edit and re-edit. All of that time will cause your brain to miss the little mistakes. These likely won't make a difference but if a reviewer is iffy, it may push them to no. It's better to be safe than sorry.

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