No. 131: Combating Interruptions for PI’s

Do you get interrupted all day long?

Roughly every eight minutes, someone or something stops the average PI in her tracks, according to Don Wetmore of The Productivity Institute. Here are five techniques that can help improve the situation.

Check out our infographic here: Stop Those Pesky Interruptions: An Infographic for PI’s 

1. Establish a log

One successful time-management technique is to analyze your interruptions. That means getting a notebook, and logging who did it, the reason, how long it took, and how long it took you to get back on task.

At the end of the week, “tag” each interruption according to a formula — high-priority, average, low and worthless. Expect to learn that 80 percent of your interruptions are low priority or worthless. That should add up to an hour per day of savings — if you just say no to them.

This is a great idea, and it works — as long as you do it. But it also presents some challenges:

  • For at least one week you double your interruptions: the time for the interruption, plus the time to log it.
  • PIs tend to question assumptions, so you likely will take more time wondering about a taxonomy that doesn’t address why something has become such high-priority. It was smoke last week, but now it’s a brush fire. Consequently, you wonder what counts as a “worthless” interruption.
  • It doesn’t address internal interruptions and your own distractions.
2. Review your personal communications tool settings and policies
You should distinguish between internal interruptions and external ones, says Janice Russell, a professional organizer with Minding Your Matters in Cary, N.C. Both will cost you valuable minutes that can add up. And some interruptions are a combination of external and internal — something catches your interest, and you follow it. Communications, for example, are usually such a combination.Example: You’re writing up a quarterly report for your grant Program Office. You enabled pop-up windows for an e-mail account “just in case something important comes along.”  A pop-up shows a Linked-In connection request from Bob, a former colleague. “Gosh, what’s Bob been up to?” You click on the window, and you’re down the rabbit trail learning more about Bob — leaving your report behind.Suggestions: Disable your e-mail pop-ups. Instead, plan to check e-mail at specific times each day, and consider delaying the “send and receive” settings. Also, keep your cell phone on vibrate to avoid disrupting calls and texts — and check it only after it vibrates. In addition, you can use caller ID and set a personal policy that you’ll answer only for specific people.

3. Become aware of self-distractions that interrupt your work

 You can lose a lot of time both following the distraction and regaining focus. Intrusive thoughts are a big interrupter and energy-drainer.

“Even the most disciplined PIs will not focus completely on a task for a full eight-hour day,” says Russell. “And it’s not reasonable to expect you will.”

Example: The highest priority is to finish your grant application. But three of your best students need letters of recommendation and so does a colleague. You have a meeting to prepare for, and there’s a conference presentation coming up. As you collect the data for your application, your thoughts interrupt you about each of these other tasks.

Suggestion: Plan and schedule blocks of time to accomplish each of these tasks. Setting aside specific time for the assignments should settle your mind and lead to a stronger focus on the task at hand because you know when you’ll handle these other issues.

4. Ask if you’re susceptible to perfectionism

 Most PIs find attention to detail is what got them where they are. You can lose time, however, if you make “the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Example: “You have X, Y and Z tasks for the day,” explains Russell. “Say X is a report, and you like to write in the morning. You find that you want to express something in a certain way, and you’re having trouble finding the words. You keep at it until you’ve exceeded your scheduled time.”

Suggestions: Decide how much time you will work on it, and stick with it. If you find yourself hung up on words or a single aspect of the project, add it later on in your schedule, if possible. This will keep you on your timetable, but more importantly, it will help you avoid Y and Z from becoming high-priority tasks the following week.

5. Remember boundaries, choices and habits

 How much you get interrupted ultimately boils down to setting boundaries, choosing to honor those boundaries, and reinforcing habits that arise from repeating those choices. With repetition, you will automatically think about what constitutes a boundary-breaking interruption, and that the next thing you do is a choice.

Example: “You are a morning person and set a boundary that you won’t answer the phone from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. unless it’s a family member or your boss,” explains Russell. “That should free you up to finish your report. But if someone calls, and it’s not important, you can choose to either honor the boundary and ask them to call back. Or you can give yourself a five-minute break to handle it.”

Suggestion: Choose to honor the boundaries (as much as possible) until you are in the habit of setting aside uninterrupted time and not getting distracted. One way to determine if you should break a boundary is to ask yourself the following questions:

How important will this be in a week, a month, a year or five years?

  • What will the impact be if I answer this e-mail or take this call?
  • How long will it take?
  • How long will it take me to get back to what I was doing before?

Sources: Janice Russell, certified pofessional organizer in chronic disorganization at Minding Your Matters in Cary, N.C.,, 919-467-7058; Don Wetmore, The Productivity Institute in Stratford, Conn.,, 203-386-8062. 

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No. 130: Am I Eligible for the NSF CAREER Award?



Reader Question: I work at a public-private non-profit organization.  Am I eligible for the NSF CAREER Award?

Expert Comments:

The answer is yes but, of course, that institution has to meet these five eligibility criteria.

The Five Eligibility Criteria:

  1.  Your organization doesn’t offer a tenure track.
  2.  The research you’re doing must be supported in an area that the NSF supports.
  3.  You have to have a long-term appointment here.  They’re looking at something that’s  going to last at least for the proposed five years of duration of this grant.
  4.  You have to have educational responsibilities in some way.  Let’s suppose you’re  hired just as a pure research professor with no educational responsibilities, that won’t  work.
  5.  Your position and your work have to be aligned to your career goals and the organization goals.

Additional Details:

The types of institutions that are eligible are: four and two-year colleges such as Community Colleges, Non-Profits and Non-Academic Institutions like museums, professional societies, or observatories. All of this would need to be carried in a letter of support. And again, always double check with the program officer by calling him or her just to receive an absolute, final confirmation.

Want more information about the NSF CAREER Award? Check out our infographic on NSF Directorates here: The NSF CAREER Award: Which Directorate is Right for You?

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No. 129: R01 or R21: Which Would You Recommend for an Early Investigator?

Reader question: I am a new investigator and I am having difficulty deciding if I should submit an R01 or a R21. Could you please tell me how to choose between the two of them?

Expert comments:

Keep these in mind before deciding:

Major Differences

The R01 is NIH’s standard independent research grant designed to provide support for a “specified,” “circumscribed” project for which you generally need preliminary data. You can request up to five years, and depending upon your budget type, up to $500,000 per year in support. (Note: If you do request more than $500,000 per year in support you will need the Program Officer’s permission to apply.) The R01’s Research Strategy is 12 pages in length.

In comparison, the R21 is an exploratory/developmental funding mechanism, and your proposed research should have a “WOW!” factor – meaning it could lead to a research breakthrough or new methodology. The R21 is a one- to two-year grant, and preliminary data is not required. Applicants can request up to $275,000 for the two years combined, and the Research Strategy should be no more than six pages long.

Preliminary data

The rule is NIH does not require preliminary data for an R21. But it’s nice to have, according to Dorothy Lewis, PhD, professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “Reviewers are human beings, and they like to see some evidence that what you propose is going to work. The best evidence of that is usually preliminary data.”

For the R01, preliminary is required. Lewis recommends you have at least one piece of data to support each aim that you propose. (Note: If you already have a lot of data and apply for an R21, reviewers may say, “This isn’t exploratory.” In that case, you may not have a choice other than the R01.)

Length may decide for you

The amount of time you need to accomplish your research project will play a key role in determining which grant is the best fit. For example, if you need three years of recruitment for your project, then applying for an R21 doesn’t make sense.

Ask yourself: What is the length of the project? If it is shorter term project that is novel and exploratory – and you don’t have much preliminary data- then the R21 is likely your best bet.

Do not make the mistake of thinking the R21 will be easier to write because it has fewer pages than the R01. Having only six pages for the R21 project description creates a challenge. “In those six pages there has to be an amazing, clear description, but you have lost room to delve into the detail you want,” says Kenzie Cameron, PhD, research assistant professor in the Departments of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University.

 Budgets weigh on the desicion

When establishing your budget, NIH states you should count 60 to 80 percent of your total request toward salaries. So, keep in mind with the R21 “if most people do $150,000 in the first year and $125,000 in the second year, that’s not much money. So you can’t have a huge scope,” says Lewis.

 In comparison, the R01 budget is more flexible, and the money is spread out over a longer period of time. You can request up to $250,000 a year if you choose a modular budget. “What that means is, you don’t have to have individual justification for budget items,” says Lewis.

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No. 128: The Scope of Your Research Plan: Find the Best Way Up the Mountain
By Christopher Francklyn, PhD

Before making the climb towards completing your NIH grant application you must map out your basic strategy which includes defining the scope of your project. Adhere to this advice when demonstrating your proposal’s scope.

Before you start writing any NIH grant application, you must map out your basic strategy. One core element of your overall approach is defining the scope of your project.

Climb the mountain

When considering your proposal’s scope, think of your project as a mountain climbing expedition, and the grant as a plan for the climb. In this metaphor, reaching the summit stands for answering the principal research question driving your work. And like climbing a mountain, there may be multiple routes to the summit.

Your Specific Aims represent the potential routes to the summit, and collectively, they describe the project’s scope. When choosing each route, consider what technical approaches you have immediate access to, and what additional ones potential collaborators might bring to the research.

You may also have to predict whether you can reach the mountain in four to five years or if it will take 10. But this doesn’t mean that you should reject all research questions that might take 10 years to address definitively. Choosing a 10-year question is not necessarily a fatal flaw — if you can convince reviewers that the waypoint you hope to reach in 4-5 years will still pay scientific benefits to people outside your immediate scientific community. You may even win points for being realistic.

Essentially, scope strictly defines the extent of science you hope to accomplish during the proposed award period. Fixing your application’s scale early is a critical aspect of grantsmanship because you have to strike the correct balance between proposing enough work to achieve significant impact — is the mountain high enough? — and not suggesting so much that reviewers think you overly ambitious — too many routes, or won’t get high enough to make a difference.

How broad should scope be?

Keep in mind also that your “expedition” has a fixed budget that will allow you to hire only a set number of “climbers.” This means you have to think carefully about the “routes” (the Specific Aims) for your personnel. Your scope should move the field forward (up the mountain) rather than sideways. If other researchers have made an interesting observation in your field in one organism, don’t assume that reviewers will be excited if you simply attempt to validate the same observation in a related species — particularly if the proposed work only takes your understanding to the same reported level of detail.

On the other hand, examining the same research question in a different species could be useful if that system has unique features — better genetics, easier to screen phenotypes and easier biochemistry — that allow you to obtain more detailed data than the original system. Remember, reviewers are trying to uncover the new information’s perceived value. Will it provide novel insights that your competitors in the original system won’t arrive at tomorrow?

Scope should also provide depth to your research plan and insurance against any one approach’s failure.

Experienced reviewers know that — despite the most detailed plans — experiments don’t always go as planned, and approaches fall short for unanticipated reasons. Thus, your proposal should include a built-in redundancy, and no single aim should depend on another’s success. Reviewers typically spot — and frequently reject — this as a “linear” proposal where each aim represents a technical milestone that relies on a prior aim’s success.

Instead, employ a “parallel” strategy where your individual aims represent individual climbers. Accordingly, if one goes spectacularly well, you may want to re-deploy the efforts of the others. Thus, in your proposal design, you should always “expect the unexpected,” and convince your readers that you’ve engineered your plan — while directed toward the summit — to be flexible and responsive to the results that you obtain.

Limitations on scope

NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) advises new and early-stage investigators to keep their scopes fairly conservative. A key point NIAID repeatedly stresses is to avoid at all costs the dreaded “overly ambitious” reviewers’ critique. The agency also writes, “Be innovative, but be wary,” and “As a new investigator, your goal should be significant incremental progress, not a ‘giant leap forward.’” This advice is somewhat problematic because reviewers usually use the term “incremental” in a pejorative context.

In my experience, there is no such thing as a totally risk-free, high impact, outstanding application. Rather, you should propose just enough risk — both in intellectual novelty and technical capability — to excite the reviewers, but not lose them regarding feasibility.

In addition, you should consider the principal limitations on scope, namely those imposed by resources and your technical background. With an annual $250,000 grant, you likely will not be able to hire more than three or four full-time researchers.

Consequently, the resource limitation imposes a feasibility test on each aim. Can one full-time worker complete the work in a four- or five-year time period? If your plan is overly detailed with a long experimental sequence with numerous forks and contingencies, reviewers likely will score it as unrealistic. You’re better off proposing fewer and better described model experiments, particularly ones for which you have technical precedent.

The other major limitation is your technical background. If you do not have expertise in a particular area, reviewers probably won’t accept your research plan’s appropriateness and feasibility. If you are a relatively new investigator, you may not have established an extensive track record in more than a few techniques, and reviewers may judge your proposal as suffering from an overly narrow focus.

The obvious solution, which experienced investigators employ universally, is to recruit one or more external collaborators with defined expertise in techniques outside the PI’s field of strength. This is particularly important if experts in the field consider the additional approaches as the best way to attack the problem.

The value of experienced collaborators is at least threefold:

  1. strengthen the research plan
  2. add credibility to the investigator team
  3. justify a larger budget.

Before going this route, new PIs should understand that a larger team means more administrative responsibilities and potentially delicate negotiations regarding leadership, authorship and control over the project’s strategic direction.

Consider These Scope Do’s and Don’ts

When considering your project’s scope, keep the following in mind:

  • Before writing up your detailed research plan, DO spend time carefully deciding your research’s scope.
  • DO carefully match scope with the project’s proposed costs and your technical capabilities.
  • DO use scope to achieve depth, redundancy and flexibility in your research plan, so you can accommodate unexpected outcomes.
  • DON’T try to fix your research plan’s scope until you’ve carefully defined your central research question.
  • DON’T fall into the classic trap of proposing every experiment you can think of on the system.
  • DON’T finish fixing the research plan’s scope until you’ve considered the proposed budget and your own technical limitations.

 Dr. Francklyn is a veteran reviewer for NSF and NIH and served as an NIH study section chair. He is a professor at the University of Vermont, where his scientific expertise is in protein synthesis and RNA-protein interactions. He is also assistant editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of NIH & NSF Funding Advisor monthly newsletter.

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No. 127: Get Your Foot in the Door With a Winning Letter of Inquiry

Don’t get passed over for foundation funding before getting your foot in the door. Know what to include and exclude in your next letter of inquiry and how to make your best first impression count.

A single email can mean the difference between scoring foundation funding and going home empty-handed.

That’s because many foundations ask you to email a letter of inquiry before submitting a grant application. This allows them to ensure your project is an appropriate match before they take the time to read a lengthy proposal.

Cynthia Duncan, PhD, is a former program director at the Ford Foundation, where she was in charge of 15 program officers (POs). And she says they all required a written inquiry before talking to a PI.

“Write a strong, one-page or half-page letter about your research,” she says. “In your email, say you will follow up with a call the following week. This gives a PO time to think about your proposal.”

What to include in a letter

According to the Foundation Center, your letter of inquiry should be no more than three pages. And it should contain the following:

  • An introduction. Include your organization’s name, the amount of funding needed, a project description, your methodology, a timetable for completion, and your staff’s qualifications.
  • A description of your organization. Explain why your institution is the right environment for the project. Include a brief history and account of current programs.
  • A statement of need. Convince the foundation there is an important demand your project can meet.
  • The methodology. Describe the project, including major activities, names and titles of key project staff, and your objectives.
  • Other funding sources you approached.
  • A final summary, in which you restate your project’s intention.

Sell yourself and your project

Your letter should convince the foundation of your credibility in your research area, says Peter Feibelman, PhD, Senior Scientist of Energy Sciences at Sandia National Laboratories. Feibelman is the author of “A PhD Is Not Enough: A Guide to Survival in Science,” which includes a chapter on getting funded.

 You should also explain how your research will make a difference in your field, according to Doris Parent, Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Gallaudet University.

“Make it seem like your project is replicable, it’s going to have major impact outside of a particular community, and other communities and universities can pick up this model and move with it as well,” Parent says.

Keep it brief

Your letter of inquiry should be similar to the Project Summary/Abstract portion of an NIH grant proposal, according to Erik Dent, PhD, Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. In 2010, Dent received a $225,000, three-year grant from the Whitehall Foundation to research the role of dynamic microtubules in dendritic spines.

Dent says your letter should include a little bit of background. Highlight relevant previous findings, and tie them in with your project. Then, briefly outline what you plan to do.

“Don’t provide too much information,” Feibelman warns. “You don’t want your ideas to be spreading far and wide without any benefit to you.”

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No. 126: How to Craft a Winning Title for Your Research Proposal

The title of your grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is your first chance to win over peer reviewers with an innovative, creative idea that they’ll want to champion for funding.

A title that stands out from others and virtually compels reviewers to read your application adds one more advantage to your chances of achieving a high score (if the substance of your proposal is top-notch).

This significant piece of information must be a unique, relevant and intriguing description of your research plan — all packed into about 80 to 100 characters (depending on the agency). In this limited space, you must strive to convey:

  • What you will do
  • How you will do it
  • And, most importantly, what the results will be.

Public agencies and private foundations want to fund work that can seriously impact society or advance science.

“Point to the outcome of the research in your title,” advises Lisa Chasan-Taber, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.

“It should inform the reviewer of the essence of the project,” says Dr. Mario Inchiosa, professor of pharmacology at New York Medical College at Valhalla.

Tips for creating successful titles for NIH and NSF grant applications include:

  • Be original and relevant. How? Make sure yours differs totally from those of already submitted applications or from funded research. Agencies want fresh, innovative projects. Review databases of existing applications and awards at and and contact the appropriate NIH scientific review officer or NSF program officer to ensure that your title is not redundant or closely similar to another.
  • Be accurate and use agency-friendly keywords that help officials direct your proposal to the appropriate study section. “It’s important to have terms in the title that will make it clear which study section should see it,” says Chasan-Taber. “For instance, using the term ‘epidemiology of’ will help the application go to an epidemiology study section.”
  • Find out which themes are mission-relevant, in priority areas for research, or are emerging as future priorities. For the NSF, these include ecosystem impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, decontaminating dangerous drywall, robotics, energy alternatives, climate change and its impacts, nanotechnology, improving science, math and engineering education and commercialization of biosciences. Go to for more information. NIH themes getting attention include cancer, HIV/AIDS, pediatric and adult obesity, and aging-related topics. Information is available at
  • Use results-driven words instead of those that describe your process. Here are some examples (find more at
    • Testing Direct Effects of Reproduction on Stress and Mortality Via Ovariectomy
    • Is Tolerance an Enabling Factor for Greater Alcohol Consumption?
    • Neonatal Neurobehavioral Impacts of Iodine Insufficiency and Pesticide Exposures
  • Be authoritative. That means let reviewers know that you know what you’re talking about. For instance, if you’re a researcher focusing on behavioral science, obesity and nutrition in specific population segments, your grant title could be: Culturally Appropriate Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs for Hispanic Families (An actual successful NIH grant proposal title).
  • Keep agency criteria in mind. NIH criteria are: significance, innovation, investigators, approach, and environment. NSF criteria are: intellectual merit and broader impact.
  • Use plain language. Notice the simplicity, directness, and economy of words in this successful title: Public Health Preparedness and Response for Bioterrorism. A wordy, awkward, dramatic way of saying the same thing would be: Will Public Health Authorities Be Ready When and If the Horrors of Bioterrorism Unfold in Their Cities?
  • Follow the rules. NIH limits title length to 81 characters, including spaces and punctuation. If longer, your title will be cut arbitrarily, stripping away meaning and impact. An agency may request a specific reference as part of a title when issuing a solicitation. For example, the NSF may specify that a title begin with NSCC/SA, which stands for National Security Conflict and Cooperation/Small Award. Agencies may also require specific fonts and type sizes.
  • Use active, forward-thinking verbs, such as predicting, mobilizing or empowering, that tell readers your project points to results, such as Enabling TV Meteorologists to Provide Viewers with Climate Change, Relevant Science Education and Predicting Placebo Models Across Disease States, and Empowering U.S. Universities for Discoveries at the Energy Frontier.
  • View your title as a work in progress. Your final one may differ from your initial one because a proposal’s specifics typically change during the writing process. Write a provisional title that you’ll finalize when you’ve completed the application.
  • Get input from peer scientists and individuals outside your field, preferably an English professor or an editor for proofreading and language use. Colleagues with grant-writing experience can be especially helpful.
  • If you’re resubmitting, keep your proposal’s original title so it’s recognizable to agency officials.
  • Finally, proofread your title before hitting the “send” button. Don’t rely on your spell-check program. Use a dictionary. Terminology must be spelled correctly. An insignificant error could wreck your chances of winning funding.


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No. 125: How to Develop a Beneficial Dialogue With a Program Officer

PIs have to be more than just strong grant writers to get their research funded. They also should have certain relational skills that allow them to successfully establish an ongoing dialogue with NIH and NSF program officers (POs) to seek advice, find out about funding trends, and determine time and funding limits.

The main reason that you contact the program officer is to make sure your ideas are in tune with the agency’s current funding trends, says Dr. Charlie Senn, director of proposal management, Office of Research at the University of Tennessee. “You are looking for signals that you might be heading down the wrong path. You don’t want to put hours or weeks of effort into a proposal when a five-minute conversation would let you know you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Experienced PIs reach out more

Program officers couldn’t agree more.

 Most phone calls come from experienced PIs who need the least
help, says Dr. Harold Perl, senior lead PO in behavioral research,
dissemination and training, Clinical Trials Network at NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“They know how important it is to establish and maintain a relationship with a PO. So it’s not only permissible to call us to ask basic questions, but encouraged.”

How can you plan for and initiate that dialogue? Consider the following:

1.    Reach out when you’re just formulating the idea

 “The best time to call a PO is when you’re just thinking of an idea,” says Perl. “That’s when the most experienced ones call us. When the application deadline is two weeks away, it’s usually too late for us to help.”

Reasons: “We can give you direction, advice — even suggestions for potential collaborators,” says Perl. “We may know someone nearby — sometimes at your own institution — who could be a viable collaborator.”

2. Consider a ‘‘concept paper’’

Although some PIs may call POs they know with the germ of an idea, both Perl and Senn say writing a concept paper is a good idea, too. Use it to structure and clarify your thinking on how your research will mesh with the agency’s goals. The advantage is that it gives the PO something in writing, making it easier for them to follow your thinking, get all the details and suggest any revisions. Offer to send it to them after an initial e-mail contact.

In this simple paper, “state the problem,” explains Perl. “Begin with a brief rationale, add a few sentences about your basic research question and how you plan to answer it. It’s essentially the abstract of your NIH application — but with a little more detail on methodology.”

This also assists the PO to stay abreast of the latest developments: “Even if I’m an expert in a particular area of science, I would presume the applicant has more knowledge about the specifics of his research, and I want to get up to speed on what his ideas are,” says Perl.

3. Identify the right PO

“Sometimes, you don’t know whom to contact,” says Perl. “We are frequently asked for help in getting to the right person.”

Two suggestions:

  • Ask your colleagues doing similar work who their POs are or who at the agency they typically work with, says Perl. Even if that’s not the right PO for your project, it’s a starting point. “It might be the PO down the hall, but I can direct you,” explains Perl.
  • Look at the NIH ( or NSF (www. Web site to get within range of the right person. For example, each NIH institute or center has a list of contacts for researchers. On the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Web site, for instance, you can click on “NCI Contacts for Applicants,” which takes you to a contact list broken down by area of research.

“Every NIH institute has a different mission,” says Perl. “Look at the mission statements and organization charts to determine which institute addresses your area of science.” Perl notes, however, that you still need to follow up with contact to make sure you have the right PO. “A lot of time, PIs are doing multidisciplinary work, and there may be some overlap among institutes or POs. Directly ask, ‘Are you the right person who manages this area of science?’”

And once you find the right person, make the first contact. Both Perl and Senn recommend the same approach. “Write an e-mail and ask for a convenient time for a follow-up call,” says Senn. Offer to send the concept paper and set up an appointment.

4. Look for any signals that you’re not quite on track

Listen to questions the PO may ask. They won’t give you a definitive answer, Senn says, but they will offer suggestions, advice and ask questions to see if what you’re doing meets the agency’s approval criteria. These questions will also give you a sense of where you might tweak your idea.

Example: “Say there’s an NSF solicitation out there, and the agency is looking for transformative ways to teach stem cell education in high school,” says Senn. “You may have done previous research in that area and would like to expand on it. The PO might ask you: Does the expansion of your research qualify as transformative?”

“You may get signals that the PO is concerned that your idea might be more incremental than transformative,” Senn says. One such signal might be in the form of a question like this: “How would this transform the field — as opposed to adding to what’s already being done?”

5. Remember that the official documents and Web material aren’t always the final say

Although you certainly do want to review an agency’s published material as a starting point, be aware that some things may have changed since it was written.

“There are always micro-adjustments, such as what funds are available, the current state of the agency’s portfolio,” explains Perl. “For example, say an institute is already funding 20 projects in one slice of science. They are unlikely to fund another. They would rather look at something that is complementary to balance out the portfolio.”

Perl suggests you directly ask the PO a question like: “Are there any new considerations? What area of science is your branch really focusing on right now, or the next fiscal year, or the next two years?”


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No. 124: Lead Your Diverse Research Team While Managing Effectively

Researcher Question:

I know that inspiring researchers who come from diverse backgrounds can be difficult; but successfully meeting this challenge is crucial to a project and its overall level of accomplishment. How can I more effectively lead my research team, providing timely motivation and vision that will impact the project in the most positive way possible?

Expert Comments:

Providing effective leadership in today’s modern laboratory is indeed challenging; it requires technical knowledge and “people skills,” and a successful leader needs a balanced blend of both to be effective. His ongoing challenge is to be an effective, inspirational example while successfully managing the practical day-to-day operations in the lab.

Expert Rick Parmely, who has lead multiple technical projects and obtained remarkable results, notes this about leadership and the technical manager:  “Without a framework of effective leadership, no amount of technical prowess will provide consistent, sustainable research team results.” Why? “In addition to technical ability, leadership of diverse researchers requires several skill-sets: great communication skills, effective application of fundamental leadership and management techniques, and the ability to successfully manage a limited calendar,” notes Parmely.

How does one successfully develop these skill-sets and still manage to complete all the other essential technical tasks each day? Where does a conscientious investigator begin to hone the skills needed to lead research teams to top-notch research results?

First, effective leadership is inspirational. “Inspirational leaders communicate the big strategic picture while nurturing a trusting relationship with team members. A true leader regularly expresses appreciation for his team, and seeks to clearly explain to each individual his projected contribution to the overall goals of the project. Therefore, good communication skills are fundamental,” states Parmely. He suggests asking the hard questions: “How effective am I in communicating my vision in practical terms? How well do my researchers understand their individual contributions to the overall goal of our research? Do I regularly take time to paint that picture?”

Second, effective leaders are personally well-organized. “How much time you invest each day in organizing your team is directly proportional to how well your team will use time,” says Parmely. “Time management skills of the effective leader result in a well-organized, highly-predictable research environment. Within this stable environment, decisions are made, direction is set, and equipment allocation and other resource sharing takes place, all without serious conflict.”

Third, inspirational leaders develop trust from the very onset of a project. Genuine trust is crucial to the success of any team project; therefore, the effective leader seeks to build such trust, not only between individual researchers and the PI, but also among the team members themselves. Rick Parmely notes, “Trust is built as the leader communicates honestly, demonstrates his integrity, and gives credit for the good work others do.”  How can trust be eroded or destroyed? Parmely notes that dishonesty, failing to give credit where credit is due, and failing to set a good example personally as a PI are just a few of the many ways trust can be seriously undermined.

Expert comments provided by Rick Parmely.

Rick Parmely is the founder of Polished and Professional LLC, a training company that specializes in improving the communication skills of presenters everywhere, from the individual investigator
to large groups of trainers.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Polished and Professional provides communications coaching and mentoring on-line as well as on-site to groups as diverse as
Merck & Company, Yale post-doctorial research fellows, Restek Corporation staff members, and scientists attending conferences like the Pittsburgh Conference.  PnP provides one-on-one coaching to individuals or to larger groups at
a convenient time and location, in an atmosphere conducive to learning.  They also polish written communications and professional oral presentations, readying them for “prime time,” whether they are targeted for investors, or for local, national, or international audiences and meetings.


To learn more about inspirational leadership, effective management of time, and building trust on your team…

Join Rick Parmely at Pittcon 2014 on March 1-3 in Chicago for three hard-hitting and practical workshops: “Powerful Communications: Public Speaking for Scientists,” “Inspirational Bench Leadership,” and “Time Management.” 

For more information about how these three topics can be life-changing for you and your team, listen to what the presenter has to say by clicking on the video below:

We hope to see you at PITTCON in Chicago, March 1-3, 2014! 


No. 123: Specific Aims—The Logical Framework That Holds Your Grant Proposal Together
by Christopher Francklyn, PhD

If you think your abstract is the most-read part of your grant application, think again. Reviewers who don’t read your entire proposal will usually flip to your Specific Aims page to ascertain your project’s purpose. That’s because panelists can quickly peruse it and grasp your research’s key features. A good reviewer should be able to read the page and decide whether your application is potentially fundable or contains a major flaw that undermines its overall merit.

What Specific Aims should do

Specific Aims describe the relationship of your work to current biomedical problems, outline critical areas where knowledge in your field is lacking, and establish your project’s purpose. Include the basic questions and hypotheses driving your work, and state the project’s goals and objectives. Also, outline the experiments you will perform.

Your aims should provide readers with a glimpse of the long-range goals that drive your research (your “10-year question”). And they should focus on the questions you can address during the grant period (roughly five years).

To design compelling aims, you must have your finger on the “pulse” of your field. This comes from attending scientific meetings, reading recently published papers and speaking with colleagues. Grasping what others in your field deem important is critical. Issues that only matter to you won’t meet the reviewers’ requirements for significance.

What you should include

You may want to consider using a standard format for your Specific Aims to ensure they all include the necessary information. Principal Investigator Association’s manual, “NIH R01 Grant Application Mentor,” recommends using the following subheadings to structure your aims:

  • Rationale — In this section, describe what you are trying to show and why. This is also the place where you defend the specific approach you plan to use, consider alternatives and begin to describe your logic in designing your experiments.
  • Experimental Approach — Here, detail how you will perform the experiments, and convince reviewers you can do them. An established investigator can highlight key papers in his bibliography that support his experience in the proposed techniques. A new investigator must either show preliminary data demonstrating such familiarity or recruit collaborators with widely acknowledged expertise in the method.
  • Outcomes and Alternatives — Use this section to describe your experiments’ potential results and their implications for your proposed model(s).

Aims must be related but independent

Ensuring aims are connected creates logical structure for your project. If the connection is weak or defective, it doesn’t matter how compelling your opening paragraphs are.

Aims should also be independent of one another. If experiment B depends upon experiment A’s outcome, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, structure your aims so the results can provide a synergistic attack on the main problem.

Five mistakes to avoid

  1. Writing more than one page. If you can’t communicate your aims in a page or less, you are either providing too much detail or proposing too many aims.
  2. Creating aims that are vague with respect to rationale, approach or significance.
  3. Failing to clearly explain the central question or how you intend to answer it.
  4. Using jargon and acronyms unknown to non-experts.
  5. Not including a general model or interpretative framework to understand the results. (Caveat: There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if the value of the data you plan to collect is so interesting and unique that people are willing to forgo a hypothesis.)

Discussing your aims with a program officer

Keep in mind there are two distinct sets of reviewers:

  1. The study section, which will include your peers in the field.
  2. Institute program officers (POs), who will look at your work through the lens of “programmatic considerations.”

POs respond to institute-specific strategic imperatives, many of which appear on their web pages in the guide of Requests for Applications or Program Announcements. These reviewers assess how your application fits with the institute’s overall grant portfolio. And they pass this information on to the institute director, who makes the final funding decision.

That’s why you should discuss your aims with POs before submitting your application, particularly if you don’t have a funding history with that institute. This
allows you to introduce yourself and your research, and you can ensure your application is in line with strategic program interests.

Expert comments provided by:

Christopher Francklyn, PhD, has been a funded NIH investigator for nearly 25 years, and reported discoveries related to protein synthesis and the genetic coding in leading journals such Nature, Science, Cell, Molecular Cell, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His work on the molecular recognition of transfer RNA is routinely cited in most standard biochemistry textbooks. He has been a regular NIH reviewer for the last decade and a half, served as the founding Chair of the Molecular Genetics A Study Section, and served on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. During the period of 2010-2011, he served as a regular columnist for the Principal Investigator’s Association Study Section Insider newsletter. He is proud of the many former graduate students, post-doctoral students, and junior colleagues that he has successfully mentored in the process of capturing their early career awards.


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1st Edition of NIH R15 Grant Application Mentor: An Instructional How-to Manual Now Available

October 4, 2013—Bonita Springs, FL. Principal Investigators Association (PIA)
recently released the 1st Edition of the
NIH R15 Grant Application mentor: An
Educational How-to Manual.

The 8-section how-to manual has been designed to help scientists submit more
competitive applications for the highly-sought R15 grants awarded by the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), the federal government’s biggest funder of medical
research. The 1st edition includes everything you need to know to craft a superior
proposal, maximizing your chances for R15 funding.

Each section instructs on a separate, essential part of the R15 grant application
process. This includes expert
advice for developing the Project Summary/Abstract,
Biographical Sketch, Environment section and Research Plan. Insider strategies
will also help ensure the Research Strategy addresses the project’s Innovation,
Significance, Approach and Overall Impact successfully.

Up-to-the-minute advice on budgets and compliance, as well as the examination
of the NIH review process are also included in this new manual.

What else is included in this R15 Manual, 1st Edition?

The 1st Edition contains 313 pages of how-to education in digital format (PDF). The 1st Edition also includes two MP4 recordings entitledNIH R15 Grant Mentor: R15 Overview and Distinctives” and NIH R15 Grant Mentor: Unique Components of an R15 Application.” Both MP4s are presented by R15 recipient and manual co-author, Dr. Stephen Matheson, and are included free of charge with the manual purchase.

The R15 Manual is currently available at an introductory rate until Oct. 11th.  To learn more about this new manual, please click here.

A print version is also available. Print versions will be fulfilled starting October 14, 2013. You may pre-order your print version at the introductory rate.

Note: PIA has been the home of the best-selling NIH R01 Grant Application Mentor Manual for 3 years in a row. This new guide is the R15 edition of the R01 manual. If you already have the R01 manual and are interested in this newly released R15 guide, please contact PIA at 800-303-0129 ext. 506 or email them at [email protected] for more information.

PIA is an independent organization that helps scientists in all fields master their operational and financial challenges.


This instructional manual is independent and not connected with, or endorsed by, NIH or NSF. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and not of any agency or government official.