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Grant Writing Coaching Group at Tufts University

Grant Writing Coaching Groups for Postdocs and Junior Faculty

Actively Writing NIH-style Proposals for Trainees

The National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) was created to address the unmet need for greater diversity in the biomedical and bio-behavioral research workforce.  Grant Writing Coaching Groups for Postdocs and Junior Faculty Actively Writing NIH-style Proposals is one of five professional development-training programs that is committed to increasing the number of people from diverse backgrounds successfully obtaining NIH grants.

Program Director

Daniel Jay, Ph.D. Harvard U.
Professor of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology
Director of Postdoctoral Affairs
Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston MA

Rationale & Background

One of the last and most complicated skills a young scientist must develop is the ability to come up with and effectively present proposals to obtain funding for their research. It is so complicated because it is not just about effective writing but rather the combination of: identifying research questions that peer reviewers and funders think are worth studying; crafting an appropriate research design; obtaining preliminary data to establish feasibility; and flawless written presentation in a style that reviewers expect to see and compels them to view it favorably. Ideally, mentors provide the guidance to develop these skills, but too often they lack the time, interest or expertise to actually teach the grant writing process. Workshops and short trainings abound, and many present valuable information, but in our experience, a more sustained coaching process is needed for weeks to months as research ideas evolve and writing is refined. This approach was developed by Dr. Rick McGee over the course of his work at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, the NIH intramural program, at Northwestern University and most recently in collaboration with the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMA). Dr. Jay joined Dr. McGee has his AAMC grant writing program expanded in 2014 and has successfully led two annual sessions thus far. This same approach has been implemented as one of the NRMN Professional Development efforts beginning in June, 2015.

Pattern-based Group Process

Rather than approaching grant writing as ‘just do it’, we have developed a novel approach that displays the typical writing or rhetorical patterns that are common to many NIH-style proposals, and that are particularly effective for conveying what is being proposed and why.  Knowing and writing to this framework has shown to be exceedingly helpful for early stage scientists. Additionally, we have found that a group process over 2-3 months is far more effective for teaching and learning these skills than even individual coaching or mentoring by a single expert. In addition to getting real-time feedback from multiple perspectives, participants master writing skills more effectively and the camaraderie that develops among group members mitigates the isolation and sense of insurmountable barriers that early stage scientists can experience.

Who does it work best for?

Any grant writing process must start first with a clear understanding of the components and style of typical proposals. For example, one can be very accomplished in writing NIH-style proposals and have no idea where to start for National Science Foundation proposals! Thus, the process led by Dr. Jay is framed around NIH-style proposals. It can be adapted easily to other agencies if the format is similar, but it is not universal. To work well, those involved must:

  1. Be actively involved with writing a proposal with a 4-8 month submission window – it can be a new or previously submitted proposal being revised
  2. Be from an institution which can be realistically seen by reviewers as having sufficient resources (technical, scientific, administrative, etc.) to support NIH-level research, or a strong collaboration with one or more scientists at such an institution
  3. Have a sufficient record of prior research training and publications to deliver a convincing argument that they are ready to lead the research proposed
  4. Have sufficient professional time to write the proposal and conduct the research if it is funded
  5. Be willing to commit the time and engage in a writing process with weekly or bi-weekly virtual meetings to go over progress made and provide feedback to other group members
  6. Have sufficiently well-developed research ideas that it is realistic to be initiating a proposal
  7. Be open to working collaboratively and using constructive criticism and advice to improve their application.

How does it work?

The process is modeled after the combined in-person and virtual meeting grant writers groups that Dr. Rick McGee and Dr. Dan Jay lead in collaboration with the AAMC Minority Faculty Career Development Workshops.

For the NRMN version of this activity, individuals selected will come together for an initial 1-day meeting. At that meeting, Dr. Jay will begin with a workshop on the unique approach of deconstructing how to approach writing for multiple levels and types of reviewers at the same time. There will be a focus on writing to the five criteria that reviewers use to assess grant application for their overall impact. After that, Dr. Jay will lead the reading, reviewing and providing feedback on the Specific Aims page of each participant that they will bring to the meeting.

This meeting will have about 10-12 individuals working on NIH proposals with 30 minutes being devoted to each person. This real-time review of sections of proposal early in development has shown to be a powerful way to provide feedback with real-time revision with close attention to the logic for revisions. Dr. Jay will moderate these discussions but invariably other participants quickly provide greater insights than any one person can provide. Input is provided on writing style, content choices and very often research questions being asked and approaches being proposed. Throughout this in-person meeting, many basic questions about grant writing and NIH grants and review arise and are clarified. Depending on timing, individuals may elect to make revisions while still at the meeting to come back for additional feedback. After the meeting, Dr. Jay will meet individually with each person as well to review their Biographical Sketch and discuss any other professional development and mentoring needs.

After the first in-person group meeting, virtual meetings of the group will take place bi-weekly for 90-120 minutes using distance technology such as Adobe Connect. Review of writing will be the same as at the first meeting, keeping focused on the Specific Aims page until it is highly refined, then going on to Significance and Innovation, and the Biosketch Personal Statement. For individuals writing Career Development Awards (such as F32, K99/R00, K01, K08, K23, etc.) time is devoted to other parts of the proposal such as descriptions of prior research, career development plans and mentoring teams. Depending on the nature of the research being proposed and the make-up of the group, review of the Research Plan may also take place. Additionally, if it is determined that there would be benefit to identifying scientific content experts to assist with design or writing of detailed science, efforts will be made to identify such individuals using the resource of the NRMN PDC.

How long does it take and what are the goals?

This process takes at least 2 months and more often 3-4 months to complete up to the actual submission of a proposal–the ultimate goal. Based on past experience, it is not uncommon to get into a group and discover that some are not as ready as they envisioned due to unclear research designs, insufficient preliminary data, and/or a need to complete current work to get publications to demonstrate productivity. In these cases, a person may pull back from continued active writing for a period of time, with the option to rejoin the current or future group.

How do I Apply?

  1. Create a profile on the NRMN website by clicking here.
    • You will be prompted to create a password and answer a set of basic questions to create your profile.
    • When asked, “from which organization did you hear about NRMN?” please select “Other” from the dropdown menu and type in “Administrative Core.”
    • When you reach the end of the questions, you will be given the option of setting up your virtual mentoring profile. This will entail answering some additional questions, and so you may choose the option to log back in and complete this step later if you prefer.
    • Once you’ve completed your registration, you will see a Confirmation page listing your responses. You must click the red button on the lower right-hand side of this page in order to finalize your registration.
  2. Complete the program questionnaire by clicking here and following the instructions.
    • You will be asked to upload a brief biosketch of yourself as part of this questionnaire.
    • Where applicable, take care to ensure that the information you list in the questionnaire is consistent with the information on your NRMNet profile.

How do I get additional information?

For additional information about this grant writing group process, or to determine if it is a good fit for you needs, feel free to contact Abby Cook at

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