Grants strategy for the newly minted PI

I’d like to solicit the collective science blogosphere’s opinion on strategy for first grant proposals for the newly minted faculty member.

I learned, back in the day… (ha ha- it cracks me up that I can say that, my teenager would be SO embarrassed)- that the first grant proposal that you submit should be the one for which you have the strongest preliminary data, and that you have published on. This  meant taking the project that you left your postdoc lab with and capitalizing on that data to build your first grant proposal, and had the benefit that you could submit your first grant proposal very shortly after starting your faculty position. We all know how freaking long it takes these days to go through the submission/re-submission process, so I guess I feel like getting an early start at this is critical. But… this approach could have the drawback that newly minted PI is out of the lab writing- basically immediately upon starting their faculty position. They may leave a bunch of new, green personnel, relatively unsupervised for a large block of time at the very beginning- leaving staff without a good foundation.

I realize that this isn’t the only approach to one’s first grant proposal. An alternate approach might be to identify a hot area in the same field, an off-shoot of what you are already doing,  develop the preliminary data for the grant in say the first year or so of one’s faculty position, and submit the first grant after a year or so. This approach might have the benefit that the new PI could take advantage of their single best set of hands (their own!) in the first year and really get an exciting area, and new personnel, off on a solid foundation. The obvious disadvantages are that betting on a publication from this first year, while training new personnel and setting up the lab, seems risky. In addition, by delaying the first submission by one year (or whatever interval) – the clock on the year of waiting in line for review of the first proposal- pushes everything back. Third year reviews come around much more quickly than newly minted faculty can imagine.

What say you all?

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16 thoughts on “Grants strategy for the newly minted PI

  1. Never wait*. Always put your best current foot forward.

    *for good to become fantastoramical. You can wait to make the barely credible into pretty good though.

  2. I’ll echo DM. Don’t keep putting off submission in order to get that “one more piece of preliminary data.” That’s a never ending cycle that will kill your tenure chance. If it’s good, submit.

    Also, try to develop a research program – not a project. A program allows for multiple grant submissions. A project is (typically) just one.

  3. The biggest error of noobs is to throw a 10-15 yr lab *program* into a single R01 proposal. The ill effects of this are magnified in the current A1-only era. Get a local Associate Prof to help you turn that monster into the three R01 proposals that it really is.

  4. Get a local Associate Prof to help you turn that monster into the three R01 proposals that it really is.

    What, not a greybeard full Prof? :-)

  5. The two most prominent errors (*) that I see new PIs make when I’m on study section are (1) that they try to switch topics to a new “hot” area that they have no track-record in and (2) that they try to put a 10-15 year lab program into a single proposal. Error 2 is what DM brings up – a newbie figures that you need an R01 to fund your lab, but R01 grants fund *projects* not *labs*. [whether this is good or bad is a discussion for another day]. Error 1 is that if you don’t have a track record in it, the study section is going to be very suspicious of you. The trick is to find a baby step – something interesting enough to make the study section perk up and something you have experience with enough for the study section to believe you can do it. If you’ve been studying bunny hopping, don’t propose to go tiger hunting.(**) Let the innovation be the experience you already have – it was cool enough to get you a job, it can be cool enough to get you a grant. On the other hand, you don’t want to propose the same bunny hopping project your advisor did. A large part of the trick to grant writing is to walk that line between interesting/novel and experienced/accomplishable.

    * I personally made both of these errors in my first grants, but I have no sympathy for other noobies. I suffered so they should too! (;

    ** Of course, once you get the money, you can use it for whatever you want. If you’re convinced that you can take the bunny hopping expertise to go catch you some tigers, then do it. (Within reason.)

  6. I would submit the grant right away, and spend the time between submission and re-submission getting the prelim so that it’s a slam-dunk for A1. Now, you might say, “why not wait and make it a slam-dunk A0,” but you never know what little things the reviewers will take issue with. This way, you can address all of their concerns, plus show concrete progress and feasibility. As long as they were initially excited about the significance/approach, I think it puts the new PI in a pretty solid position (budget/payline issues notwithstanding).

  7. I suggest submitting as soon as possible. Consider starting with an R21, if your agency allows it. But have an R01 out in the next cycle, and submit something in every cycle after that. Once you get going, it gets easier. And don’t give up.

  8. I have to respectfully disagree with sciencegeek, with a caveat. The R21 is expressly not a starter grant, and you should use it for the intended purpose of the mechanism: higher risk/higher payoff, overcoming a barrier. If you think through aims of the R01 you want to write, and there is something seriously missing that is high risk, then pull that part out for an R21. The caveat is that the advice given above is to put it in, but then go right back to work on the R01. In that case, you can use the feedback on the ideas in the R21 to strengthen the A0 submission of the R01. That said, be sure to tailor the R21 to what you need, and what you can reasonably accomplish in 2 years with $275K. And if you get it, submit the R01 at the end of year 1.

    That said, there are a couple of issues to think about. One is that reviewers want to see that you can produce with your own hands, in your own lab, without your mentor. If you can get even a small paper out, so much to the good.

    About the PI being out of the lab writing–my advice is to set a writing schedule, with blocks of time of about 90 minutes. That way you’re not locked away all day, and if you go longer than 90 minutes, you’re not always productive during that ‘closed door’ time.

  9. New PIs should be writing and submitting their first R01 before they even arrive at their new institution. It should be based on the work they did as a post-doc, and much of the preliminary data may be already published.

    This grant is highly likely to be triaged. But it is still beneficial to to submit it. I will leave it as an exercise for others to explain why.

  10. Ah, CPP, my answer may not be your answer, but here goes:
    - The act of writing that R01 will be highly instructive as to what it takes to get one out the door;
    - the new PI will have gotten one under their belt, and the next one is not so scary;
    - the new institution will view this highly favorably;
    - it’s done and out (on the former mentor’s dime…), so the new PI can concentrate on papers, lab set-up, new teaching when they arrive, etc.; and
    - they have an initial ‘blueprint’ for the lab’s work to help keep everybody focused.

    How’s that?

  11. As a somewhat newly minted PI, I’ve been throwing out smaller private grants. Then an R15 (similar to R21-except better success rate for my area [research and physical location]), and am working fervently on getting the first R01 and manuscripts out the door. There doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day.

    But I agree, you can spend a lot of time spinning your wheels waiting around for the most perfect data evah. Peeps are worried about having just 2 submissions/grant. I say if you can’t morph your project into something newish after 2 rounds, your thinking too small about your stuff….or something like that.

  12. Yup, ah ha. Physioprof is referring to the fact that right now it is very tough to get a faculty position without a grant in hand. It does happen though.

  13. How’s that?

    Pretty good! Also, it gets your grant in front of reviewers in one of the study sections you will be targeting in the future, and lets them know you are now a player.

    Physioprof is referring to the fact that right now it is very tough to get a faculty position without a grant in hand.

    Actually, I wasn’t referring to that at all. Although I have heard that is a factor at some institutions

  14. sciencegeek – New PIs should not waste their new PI status on an R21. In most situations, R21s are not easier to get than R01s (they are often harder *).

    * This does depend greatly on your field and study section. Find out what the primary grant is for your field and go for that.

  15. qaz, ESI status (early-stage investigator, 10 years post PhD or residency) only goes away with an R01 or equivalent.

  16. Everything said was true in the past, but given the A1 thing, you are better off submitting an ok application just to get an idea of what bugs are in the study session butt. You will miss something minor and administrivia like, but you will lose points for it. You have to get a feel for the land.

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