Monday, June 8, 2015

The psychology of writing your first R01

Two months before the deadline: "I totally got this. I have it all figured out and will be able to whip it up in a month or so to give my readers lots of time to make it perfect."

One month before the deadline: "WHAT IS GOING ON? WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING? It made sense last month. Now nothing makes sense, the pieces do not fit. THIS GRANT SUCKS!!"

Three weeks before the deadline "Okay, if I move this piece and this piece and put them here....and then remove, put this back...remove this other thing....rephrase this...rephrase this....rephrase this..."

One week before the deadline: "It's all useless. This is a worthless piece of crap. The study section will think I'm a loser. I should just skip to next cycle or maybe never write on of these again. What else could I be doing with my life? Maybe it's not too late to go back to school. Would it be a problem for admissions that I'm already a university professor?"

Two days before the deadline: "It's a decent effort, it makes no sense to keep changing it over and over again, so I'll pull the trigger now. At least if it gets discussed I'll get comments back. Need to get to work on the other two grants due in the next three weeks."

And more here, here and here

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What's in an aim? Specific Aims for your R01

Note added after R01 review: Beware of this post. The big picture strategy backfired big time. Find out how here.

"Mirror mirror on the wall, what are aims to win it all?"
Everyone will tell you that most of the time spent on writing your R01 should be spent on the Specific Aims page. You should have an aims page written up to a month or two in advance of the deadline and start shopping your ideas around with the NIH and colleagues. Then you write and rewrite and polish your aims until you submit. Having just completed my first R01 submission, I can only say that I couldn't agree more. Yet, this experience left me completely confused about the whole process.
I have been contributing to someone else's grants for 15 years and writing my own for almost 10, and I still felt I had no idea what I was doing. I had the aims page ready two months in advance and sent it to my senior advisors, who tweaked a couple of things here and there, and said everything looked great. Then three weeks before submission, the s#%t hit the fan. I had been oscillating between two versions of the research approach because I felt that one of my three aims was too descriptive and too much work. If I thought the whole thing was overambitious, the study section was surely going to nix me! So the specific aims kept changing too.
At a loss on what to do, I ended up at one of my old universities, which is much bigger than my current one and has people in my field I can talk to. After talking to various friends, I sent the specific aims page to a colleague who is on one of the study sections that could have reviewed my grant. A study section that is notoriously difficult and that I have been trying to avoid like the plague. He told me bluntly that with aims like that my grant would get triaged and proceeded to point out where things were problematic. What he didn't know is that all the things he pointed out, corresponded to the passages I was struggling with in writing the research approach. The fact that he could tell from just looking at that page where the grant was lacking was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I set up a meeting to talk about things. Decided to drop the grant and move submission to October, then spoke to another mentor, who said maybe I should just change the focus of the aims to better fit the data I have. And so the Great Aim Rewrite began.
What I have learned from it is that everyone recommends what works for them. Throughout my postdoc I had been trained to follow a very basic formula "Our preliminary data show that....leading to our hypothesis that....We will prove this hypothesis by...(using bullets and listing specific experiments)" My mentor who had multiple millions in grant money swore by it. I've had an 80% success rate.
Someone told me to write more experimental detail summarizing the grant, someone else told me to remove all experimental detail and outline the big questions I would answer. Someone said the title of the aims was supposed be like the title of a figure legend. No, a question! Why was it not a goal to reflect the fact that it was an aim? I wrote and rewrote and reformatted. Then I tried tie breakers. I sent an experimental and a non-experimental version to a former mentor who used to have 5 R01s (yes, at once). Which one did she like best? The big picture one. Completely extricating myself from experimental detail literally makes my skin crawl, so I left at least one sentence per aim saying what I was going to do. But most space was taken up by framing the question and the hypothesis, and by saying how the results would push the field forward. With as much specificity as I could muster.
The exercise was very useful because by clearly having to articulate the specific contribution and impact of each aim, I was forced to really think about how everything fit together. I mirrored the structure in the Innovation section with three primary conceptually innovative domains. Then concluded each aim with a big picture summary sentence. Is it going to be enough? Do I feel this is a killer grant? Not in the least. I think that it's a reasonable effort given the data we have at this moment. I hope not to be embarrassed and I'm just trying to get scored.
When I sent the latest version of the Specific Aims to my K99 program officer, she immediately suggested the study section I wanted (not the one I dreaded), which means that my aim is true (pardon the pun). I made the strongest case I could in the cover letter and I secured two institutes for assignment. Now we just wait and see.
My recommendation is to not be bashful and send your specific aims page out to as many people as you can. Don't freak out if everyone has a favorite formula for you. I realized the whole thing is so stressful that it becomes a sort of superstition: "I was wearing this shirt when my team won, so I'll wear this shirt for every game". Whatever format you decide on, I highly recommend the exercise of writing down a sentence on how each aim fits in your field and how it will push it forward. It really helped me think about how to frame everything else.