Tip #1: The specific aims
I’ve been writing grants for about 20 years. The first one I wrote was as a graduate student. I came up with an idea for a distributed-object system for DNA sequencing data management, and went to my advisor Lloyd Smith with it. He said, “great, why don’t you write a grant proposal to get it funded?”
I didn’t know where to start. I struggled with it, but eventually managed to come up with a plan. I gave it to him, and he reworked it quite a bit, then submitted it to the NIH. It got a decent score on the first round but it wasn’t funded. So we reworked it and resubmitted it. That time it got funded. My career of grant writing was launched.
Fast forward to about ten years later, and I was now at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as an assistant professor in Microbiology & Immunology and Biomedical Engineering. I’d done a reasonable job of getting grants funded up to that point, with a prestigious “genome scholar” K22 award under my belt, and a handful of other grants that I wrote or co-wrote that had been funded.
So it was much to my dismay that the first few proposals I wrote as a new faculty member were failures. I use that strong word intentionally. The sole purpose of a grant is to get your research funded. These proposals I wrote in 2002 and 2003 – to both NSF and NIH – failed to do that. I started worrying.
I managed to get connected with a senior colleague here who is a very successful scientist. He also teaches a rigorous grant-writing class at UNC called “research concepts”. I asked him for help to read over a draft of a new proposal I was cooking up.
His response was, “send me the specific aims.”
What? You only want the specific aims? Why not the rest of it?
“I only want to see the specific aims.”
Ok, I played along. I sent him the specific aims.
A week went by and I heard nothing. Then I got an email. It went something like this:
“I’ve read your aims and we should meet to discuss them.”
Here was a senior colleague who, instead of just marking up the aims and sending them back to me, wanted to meet. It sounded serious. I remember that meeting.
We went for lunch. We sat down with a bit of chit-chat. Then it got to business. He pulled out a copy of the specific aims that he’d marked up with a pen. It was nearly all red, with most of my writing crossed out. He went point by point through my grant’s aims, tearing down nearly everything I had written. I felt both angry and scared. I felt like he was telling me that my work was crap. And in fact, he was right – it was crap.
He handed me a “template” that he gives to his class for how to write aims (want a version of the template? sign up in the box below this post).
He told me to use that in rewriting my aims, and that he’d be happy to review a revised version.
I felt so lame, going back to my computer and using a “template” that he uses with his students to write my R01 grant to the NIH. I was a respected assistant professor at a major university! I shouldn’t need that kind of basic training!
Except that I did. And it worked. (If you’d like a copy of this template and more grant writing tips, sign up in the box below this post).
We went another two rounds with the aims. Only after they were fleshed out did I start writing the rest of the grant, and I found that it flowed incredibly well – much better than any previous grant proposal. That’s because my aims were clear. I knew where I was going, and the destination was known. I was no longer driving in the dark without headlights. That’s what I had been doing previously, before this encounter.
That grant was submitted, and on its first round of submission, it got a score around 5th percentile. My colleague helped me turn my grant proposal from junk into a more than fundable proposal – simply by looking at my specific aims, and nothing else.
That one encounter led to a complete turnaround in my grant writing. Since that time I’ve had about 70% of all my proposals funded. My two most recent R01’s were funded on the first round of submission, with scores better than the top 5th percentile (in the highly competitive years of 2007 and 2008). I just received a rare RC2 award for my genome annotation work. And I can trace all of this to that one encounter with my mentor.
It all starts with the specific aims.
I’ve had a number of post docs over the years. I try to get them involved with grant writing, since it helps them learn about the process. Here’s a key thing I’ve noticed: if left to their own devices, they almost always start writing some other part of the proposal, and leave the aims until last.
It was actually several years after the aforementioned encounter that I realized the problem that this presented. A post-doc and I were working together on a proposal related to our antibiotic resistance work. He would work on the introduction or research design & methodology section, and then after working on those parts, I’d try to summarize them in the aims.
We went round after round of modifying the proposal, then the aims. Then changing the proposal again, then changing the aims again. I should have realized much sooner what I had begun doing in my own work – always starting with the aims.
Until they are completely water tight, there’s no reason to work on any other part of the proposal.
The aims contain three key things about your proposal: why you want to do the work, what you want to do, and how you want to do it. If those things can’t be pinned down within the one-page specific aims statement, they certainly can’t be pinned down in a larger proposal. In fact, trying to write a proposal without those three things having been clearly delineated is just a waste of time. You will spend time, like I did on many occasions, messing around with shifting goals and priorities. You will be driving towards an unknown destination. And the likelihood of success in such instances is quite low.
That is exactly the problem my post doc and I were having. I had given him too little guidance about where to start, so he started where most of us naturally do, by writing the things that are “easiest” first. Writing a water tight specific aims page is actually quite hard. Few people would naturally start there unless trained to do so (I wasn’t until the encounter mentioned above). But at this point, I’ll never proceed to write any other part of a proposal until my aims are so good that they make me excited to want to begin writing the rest of it. And I’m not kidding – a good specific aims statement should generate that kind of enthusiasm.
Back to the post-doc story, the first version of the proposal – which hadn’t started with the aims – didn’t receive a fundable score (though didn’t miss it by too far).
For the revision, I had him start from scratch with the specific aims. That process went much more smoothly than the first attempt. It took about one half of the time, even though it had been completely rewritten. And on that round, it received what would have been a fundable score. Sadly, however, the foundation we submitted that to ran into great financial difficulties that year, and didn’t fund any grants. So despite the improved score, we had no luck.
So the take home message should be clear: start with the aims. Write them, then have your colleagues read them and tear them apart. Then rewrite them. Try to get them torn apart again. And rewrite again. Until it is virtually impossible to poke holes in them. If you’re starting from that platform, writing the rest of the grant is pretty straightforward (though not necessarily easy).
Free template to help you with your specific aims
Dial in those specific aims to be killer (and more fundable). You can get my much sought-after specific aims template, as well as 3 written reports with more grant writing tips by signing up here.