The current financial situation is characterized by aging grantees, competitive and uncertain funds, and evolving ideas for national research resource allocations. These factors mean that aiming for the right grant is essential. Aiming for the right grant means choosing the right research project. There are several simple rules for choosing the right project. First, avoid a research project that is interesting but unfundable. While this sounds like common sense, many junior faculty still fail to heed warnings from colleagues about this. Second, the research project must be interesting to the researcher. A mentor or forceful colleague may present a compelling set of ideas, but a young investigator must be able to say no if the project is not interesting (see passion, above). Third, the research project must pose a new question: a search of the NIH grant database and (as always) a thorough reading of the literature determines novelty. Fourth, the research project must suggest a meaty set of studies. The successful project will be a multiyear endeavor that sustains an inquiry with greater detail and focus over time. A proposal in which only studies for the first year are easily designed is bound for failure. Fifth, the project must be practical for the local scientific environment—people who have expertise in the methods and instruments, cores or clinical resources that will support the proposed studies should be in proximity.
The final 2 rules in choosing a research project are less dogmas than mantras: discuss, discuss, discuss and (with Thoreau) simplify, simplify, simplify. A research idea must be discussed thoroughly with colleagues and mentors. It is useful to bounce the Specific Aims page off of senior colleagues, as the whole grant may demand too much time for thorough review. Simplify the grant in formulating the actual research plan. The grant should be written with direct and well-conceived studies, which have logical and simple relationships to the hypotheses/aims, and easy-to-understand limitations and work-arounds.
Once the right research project is identified, choosing the right grant can be broken down into 2 time epochs: very early stage (1 to 1 ½ years after residency/postdoctoral fellowship) and early stage (after this period but before major grant support). Very early stage is the period before the data and projects are well-developed. This stage is often premature for assembling a full package of studies and career development that are required in a K award. With only one resubmission it is important to not blow a good research project by submitting too hastily. At this very early stage the young investigator can focus on foundation, industry, and institutional grants, such as those from the American Heart Association, American Federation of Aging Research, pharmaceutical companies, and disease-specific foundations. The NIH F32 grant (postdoctoral grant) is also an option but places the investigator fully under a mentor. Grant search engines may help in identifying some of these perhaps more far-flung but still important funding opportunities: Community of Science, Grants.gov, Grantsnet, and the Illinois Researcher Information Service. An important element in this process is that, though a grant may not be funded, a good grant is reviewed by senior scientists who are associated with all of these funding agencies. They will remember the name of the investigator and the quality of the ideas and science. This is a bit of networking that will help in future manuscript and grant submissions. This networking aspect to the junior faculty transition extends beyond grant applications. Data abstracts at meetings, talks, and in symposia all help with establishing a link with more senior scientists to one's work.
Early stage grant applications should include mentored career development awards: K08 and K23. These are well-discussed on the NIH Web site and in FAQ pages.15
These grants provide the first chance to be principal investigator on a grant, although associated with a mentor. Successful K applications require a strong institutional commitment, including a Chair's letter, training plan, and concrete commitment of space, and with recent competition in this grant category, usually a recent primary research publication is necessary.