Ease the pressure of NIH R01 grant writing by getting your lab to help (Part II)

by Tom Hollon

Those who work for you can help you save time in preparing your R01 grant.

This is true even though no one in your lab understands your NIH R01 research plan as well as you do. You’re under tremendous pressure already because of this grant. Don’t make your life harder by not using their help where it makes sense.

Use their help wisely and you can produce a better research plan in less time. And you’ll be more likely to score high and win funding. Even if your lab is just one person besides yourself,  you should consider how they can be used to help you win funding.

In Part I I gave you two ideas for getting your lab’s help in preparing your NIH R01 grant application. (The link to Part I is at the bottom.) Here are a few more ways they can help.

1. NIH R01 grant proofreading – start early

Beginning with your earliest drafts of Specific Aims, Approach, and so on, ask your lab to help you proofread.

Proofreading is not just about getting the science right. It’s also to help you find ways to be concise, compelling, and not confuse reviewers. So I advocate sending your drafts to as many in your lab as possible, even those relatively inexperienced or who’ve been in your lab only a short while.  If they’re intelligent enough to work for you, they’re intelligent enough to help you make your writing clearer and more convincing.

Proofreading your R01 research plan includes:
  • checking spelling and grammar
  • double-checking facts cited from the literature
  • finding unnecessary phrases to omit so you can make the page limit
  • finding sentences to rewrite for greater clarity
  • finding sentences in the wrong part of the research plan
  • finding inconsistencies between different parts of the research plan

For some items, maybe you’ll want the help of your most experienced people. For others, everyone can help.

2. Pizza, prizes, and proofreading out loud

The last week before the submission deadline, gather your entire lab, order pizza, give everybody a slice and a copy of your NIH R01 grant.  Then take turns reading the research plan aloud while the lab listens and reads along.  Hearing may reveal confusing passages that earlier readings may not have noticed. Hearing it may also indicate some sentences are way too long.  Whatever sounds not quite right by ear probably needs a rewrite.

By the last week before deadline you’re going to be exhausted or close to it — and so sick of writing it’ll be extremely hard not to overlook mistakes that any other time would leap out at you as obvious. A pizza n’ proofreading party uses your lab to catch such mistakes when you’ve lost the ability to see your research plan afresh.

Give a prize for the biggest mistake someone caught or the best suggestion for improvement over the entire course of your lab’s help on your grant. Or give two prizes. Make it fun.

3. In-house grant review prior to submission

Do this and you’ll really be treating your junior people like colleagues. Ask the most experienced  to review your grant as if they’re reviewers on your study section, rating your research plan on the 9-point scale NIH uses for Overall Impact, Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigators, and Environment.

When you do this, factor in some of the weaknesses of in-house (or in-lab) review.  First, your people may pull their punches because they don’t want to lose favor with the boss. Second, their reviews may not be as tough if they’re not as expert in your field as you are. Third, grad students and postdocs often focus more on minor technical matters than on overall research strategy.

Nevertheless, they can despite their limitations contribute insightful opinions about your research plan by standing in for real reviewers.


Even if your lab is just you and one other person, you have a little community built to help you succeed. Use it and you can create a better grant application than you can by working all alone. Your life is hard enough already. Don’t make it harder by denying yourself help from those around you.

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