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  • 11 Simple Mistakes That Can Derail Your Grant Application
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11 Simple Mistakes That Can Derail Your Grant Application

Often, the simplest, most basic errors can hurt grant applicants the most. Here are 11 of them:

  1. Failing to allocate enough time to write. Typically, you can assume you will need 120 hours to write, review and revise an NIH application for a three to five-year grant. A smaller, non-governmental grant can take three or four months to complete. Bottom line: Over estimate the time you think you’ll need, and plan all your timelines accordingly.
  2. Skipping the instructions. Do not bend, modify or get creative with them. Follow rules regarding font, font size, margins and word count. Pay attention to details on allowable budget expenses. When in doubt, contact the program officer.
  3. Poor writing. Don’t assume the reader understands your jargon and can follow the compelling rationale or breach the gaps in your logic. Lead the reviewer to logical and natural conclusions. Keep abbreviations, strange acronyms and jargon to a minimum. 
  4. Failing to edit. As mentioned previously, you should edit your proposal yourself and ask others for feedback. 
  5. Inadvertent plagiarism. The NIH runs all grant proposals through plagiarism programs. Before submitting yours, do the same. Programs include iThenticate, Plagiarism Detector and Copyscape. You can even enter sections of your proposal into a search engine to be sure you haven’t inadvertently copied from someone else’s research.
  6. Forgetting the responsible conduct of research plan. You are required to have one for all students (graduate or undergraduate) or postdoctoral researchers who receive a salary from your grant. This ensures appropriate training and oversight. Discuss your plan with your compliance office to be sure you have the right measures in place.
  7. The reviewers did not find your central scientific question interesting. Arguably, the single most common reason for a grant receiving a low score is reviewers’ perception that your central scientific question lacks significance. Reviewer uninterest in your question could stem from your failure to communicate its significance clearly, an overly narrow focus, or a lack of novelty and originality that suggests you are addressing a problem already solved. One way to test your proposal’s significance is to provide a non-expert colleague with a three-sentence If he or she can appreciate why you are doing the work, then you are on the right track.
  8. The preliminary data are weak and call into question your proposal’s feasibility. Or there is an overly large gap between your hypothesis and your preliminary data.
  9. The overall success of your project depends upon the outcome of a key experiment, which you have not performed. There is a natural tendency to organize experiments in a linear and sequential fashion. For a research grant, however, this strategy can be risky. If the succeeding aims all depend on a positive out come of Aim One (which is yet unproven), your whole project depends on that first experiment’s success.
  10. The project’s scope is too ambitious, with multiple hypotheses or rationales that pull the grant in disparate directions. This is called “spaghetti syndrome,” in which every good hypothesis, experiment or reagent in the PI’s pantry is thrown at the problem. This approach rests on the assumption that reviewers will find at least a few good ideas stuck on the proverbial wall, and this will raise their enthusiasm. In reality, this approach diminishes enthusiasm. It suggests a PI is unable to prioritize among the project’s various facets, which can lead to an inefficient deployment of people and resources.
  11. The PI or research team lacks the experience to carry out the proposed work. For first-time and early investigators, reviewers will assess training and accomplishments during the postdoctoral years. For more senior investigators, reviewers will look at past career experience and productivity. If a particular approach is unproven with respect to your lab, the most reliable strategies are:
    • Identifying and soliciting an outside collaborator with a published track record in the method
    • Devoting existing lab efforts to generate the preliminary
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