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This is Grant-Writing Week at GradHacker! Check back every day for a new post on applying to some of the major research and professional development grants open to graduate students.

Lesley McCollum is a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has successfully received an F31 Individual Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @lesleyamccollum.

This article provides tips that I learned during my experience of applying for an NIH NRSA Individual Fellowship (F31). Please follow all guidelines in the application guide and check for requirements specific to the NIH institute you are submitting it to.

With the next NRSA application deadline looming less than three months away, now is the time to jump start your application if you haven’t done so yet. Even if you aren’t required to apply for funding, there are many reasons why compiling a grant application is still worth doing. The process gives you early experience in the inevitable task of grant-writing (if your future career is in academia), and the potential boost to your CV if successful is invaluable to show future post-doc employers that you are capable of securing your own funding.

Still deciding when would be a good time to apply? Keep in mind that some NIH Institutes have requirements that students have passed qualifying exams or advanced to candidacy before applying. Also, you will need a solid research hypothesis and plan for the application. I found that a great time to apply was just after advancing to candidacy. My hypothesis and research plan were well thought out and I had feedback from my committee to polish it into an NRSA proposal.

So, you’ve decided to apply for the next deadline. If the 172-page application guide hasn’t sent you running, then you’re off to a good start. But now what? I’ve written out a few tips that I learned along the way as I wrote and submitted my application.

You’ve heard it before: Start early

It’s easy to underestimate the feat of submitting an NRSA. Prepare to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to completing the application, at least 3-6 months. With the decline in research funding and resulting increase in competitiveness for grants, there are fund-worthy applications that still don’t make the cut. Any sloppiness in preparation such as typos, or not following a step buried in those 172 pages, will end up being costly.

That said, filling out the application is an overwhelming task and it’s hard to even know where to start. Talking to other students in my program and asking to borrow an example of a funded application was one of the most valuable things I did to get started. Next, I got organized. With so many pieces to the application, I found it helpful to make a list of the documents that I needed to write, and what I needed from others. This gave me a checklist to help me plan my time and keep track of my progress. Then, I dove in. Start working your way through the application guide. While its size may be daunting, it walks you through the process, step-by-step.

Get to know your funding agency

One decision you will need to make early on is the NIH institute where you’d like to submit your grant. Your mentor will be able to help with this. Once that is established, find a contact for their training office to talk to someone about your project. A good approach is to send an email first to introduce yourself and what you’d like to talk about, and then ask to schedule a phone meeting. The training offices welcome this type of inquiry and can help determine if your project fits within their mission.

What don’t you know?

Contrary to what I thought for my first submission, it’s not all about a great research plan. The F31 (or F30 for MD/PhD students) is a training grant, and to that aim, grant reviewers want to know how you will be trained, and who will be training you. So while the usual approach to an application is to focus on your accomplishments and all the ways you’re qualified, they want to know what you still need to learn. Detail carefully in your training plan the technical skills as well as the conceptual knowledge you will be gaining. For example, complement your lab training in bioinformatics with a workshop offered on its theory and practice by an expert in the field. The reviewers want to see how this application will impact your career development as a scientist and add to your training beyond what you would receive by remaining funded through your mentor’s R01.

Be realistic

Particularly in the earlier stage of graduate school, when it seems like there are a hundred ways we could take our projects, it can be tempting to squeeze several aims into your proposal. Reviewers will be less impressed with your ambition however, and more wary of your ability to successfully complete the project. Try keeping your number of specific aims limited (a maximum of 3 is pretty standard). This keeps the application focused and demonstrates your depth of knowledge on the subject. These grants provide research support for up to 5 years (though 2-3 years is typical), so while your project still needs to have an impact on your field, it should be able to be reasonably completed in the number of years requested for funding. This not only shows that the research project is practical, but also that you are familiar enough with what you are proposing to devise a realistic timeline.

Conquering the research strategy

Six pages for a research strategy may sound feasible, but getting all the necessary information to fit is no easy task. Take advantage of organizational charts or diagrams to illustrate an explanation. And although it takes up precious space, leaving white space can make the document much more readable by breaking up the flow of text into logical sections. Overall, clarity is key. The reviewers around the table may not all be experts on your favorite protein, so rules for avoiding dense jargon and explaining your research to a broad audience can still apply here.

In addition to well-thought out research experiments with convincing justification (provided by background information and literature citations), reviewers want to know that you have thought about all aspects of your study. What are some possible roadblocks and how would you address them if they arose? What do you expect to find, and what would any alternative outcomes mean? Addressing these points in the research strategy demonstrates a well-developed understanding of your project and experimental design.

Know your department policy

Each university may run the submission process a bit differently, but typically grants are submitted internally before their final submission to the NIH. Contact the office that manages grants at your university early to find out their policy for submitting an F31. It’s likely they will require additional documentation and have an earlier deadline to account for internal processing time.

Finally, submitting an NRSA application is a lot of work—try not to go at it alone. Outline your training plan and research strategy with your mentor, borrow an example from another student who was successfully funded, and tap into the wealth of support offered by the NIH and others online. Check to see what kind of resources your university offers as well—they may have a graduate fellowship office, or offer workshops on writing your proposal. Once it’s done, take an evening/afternoon/day off (or whatever your mentor will agree to) and try to make the best of the post-grant submission stupor.

Have you submitted a funded NRSA application? What advice do you have from the application process?

[Image via Flickr user with an eye and used under a Creative Commons license]