Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship

Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship

Spend less time struggling for funding and more time doing science by learning how to write winning NIH R01 grants with grantsmanship coaching from Tom Hollon.

Tom Hollon, PhD 

Dear Young Scientist,

Winning a NIH R01 grant for running a lab and making discoveries is harder than ever.

NIH used to give you three tries to win funding with the same idea. Now you get two. Then NIH cut the page limit for R01 research plans in half. And wrangling in Congress threatens to cut NIH grant budgets across the board.

With competition for grants so fierce, do you need help preparing a winning R01 application and learning the NIH grantsmanship skills survival requires?

Introducing the Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program…

Hi, I’m Tom Hollon, owner of ScienceSherpa. I help scientists win grants so they can get on with their real work –- doing science and making discoveries. Are any of these NIH grantwriting problems true for you?

  • Do you worry your writing understates why your research is significant and innovative?
  • Do you have trouble getting to the point about what makes your work unique and important?
  • Do you struggle to shoehorn your research plan within the tight page limit?
  • Do you worry you haven’t anticipated reviewers’ questions and objections?
  • Do your senior colleagues not have time to mentor you in grantsmanship?
  • Has your application been rejected once already, so you have just one more shot?
  • Do friends critiquing your research plan read it superficially instead of combing it line by line?

If you answered yes to one or more, the Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program may be right for you. This one-year program has two goals:

  • Grant Funding Success: This of course is the ultimate objective — to help you win NIH R01 grant funding.
  • Learning Grantsmanship Faster. I’ll coach you in persuasive NIH grantwriting so you learn grantsmanship in months — not years. Once you understand the fine points of presenting your work and put them into action, you’ll have an indispensable skill for building your career and winning grants for years to come.
To accomplish these objectives, here are just a few of the grantsmanship principles you’ll learn and apply to your research plan:
  • How to write from the reviewers’ point of view –- anticipating what they want to know and when — so that by pleasing them you can score high and win.
  • How to explain why your work is significant and innovative. You must spoon-feed reviewers so carefully they accept your reasoning as their own. Never let them think for themselves about significance and innovation. That’s dangerous. Head off their objections and win them over with Significance and Innovation sections that are interesting, enlightening, and rigorously logical.
  • How to systematically identify weaknesses in your research plan so you can fix them. Reviewers can’t penalize you for weaknesses they can’t find.
  • How to streamline your research plan by eliminating needless verbiage; this makes fitting the page limit easier and gives you more room for words of persuasion and substance.
  • How to use cue words to make reviewers slow down and pay close attention.
  • How to write the Introduction if you’re applying for the second time.
  • How to write so reviewers are less likely to get confused; to confuse your reviewers is the royal road to low scores.

Example of fixing a weakness. To make this list more concrete, here’s an illustration of anticipating reviewers and fixing weaknesses. Say the key experiments in your Approach section use Method A when most people in your field would use Method B. You should anticipate reviewers will see choosing A as a red flag, a sign you don’t know what you’re doing. The fix is to explain why A is justified for your particular experiments.

Even when mistakes are minor, they matter a lot.NIH instructs reviewers to consider strengths and weaknesses in scoring Approach. Teensy, piffling mistakes can be the difference between scoring a 2 or a 3 on Approach, which, these days, can be the difference between being funded and not.

The same is true for scoring Significance, Innovation, Investigators, and Environment: reviewers consider strengths and weaknesses, so minor mistakes can cost big time.

This is why, if you’re accepted into the program, you’ll find I care just much about teaching you how to track down and remove every single weakness in your research plan as I do about teaching how to emphasize what makes your work novel and important.

Because, if you can make the strengths of research plan stand out and remove every possible weakness, it is just about inevitable your grant review scores will go up, maximizing your chance to make payline.

What makes the Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program different?
  • First, it’s about writing to score high, because high scores are what win. Grantwriting is not about elegant prose.It’s about getting to the point, being clear, avoiding confusion, anticipating what reviewers need to know to give you high scores, and then giving it to them. That’s how you score high.
  • Second, learning is to be applied. This is not a coaching program where you learn for learning’s sake. I expect you to apply what you learn to make your application stronger. If you can’t do that, this program isn’t for you.
  • Third, to tell the best story about your research you’re capable of telling, we’ll use every tool of persuasion to which you are legitimately entitled — but not more. I don’t teach exaggeration or writing beyond what the data supports. Reviewers are not fools.
  • Fourth, I’ll coach grantsmanship based on examples from winning R01 grants. Anybody can get a model research plan to read. But how many actually analyze successful research plans for their lessons? That’s what we’ll do.
  • Fifth, it’s about improving how you use your grantwriting time and how you get your research plan critiqued prior to submission. So much is beyond your control in the review process, doesn’t it make sense to use the things you can control to have an edge over competitors? Proper time management and properly done prior-to-submission critiques can give you that edge.
Topics the Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program will include…
  • Overview of the NIH R01 grant review process: Why every reviewer is a Jekyll-and-Hyde: part angel, part killer; how to study Study Section rosters; contacting NIH Program Officers; the Center for Scientific Review; the review and scoring process; triage vs. discussion; NIH grantwriting and funding opportunity resources; getting help from your local Office of Research Support.
  • How to schedule your time for grantwriting: Poor use of time kills more grants than any other single thing.
  • Writing Great Titles and Abstracts: Formulas to make it easier.
  • Specific Aims and Overall Impact: The engine concept; why failing to be persuasive here will kill your grant immediately.
  • Writing about Significance and Innovation: How they work in tandem; dealing with reviewer snobbery about innovation; the write-your-own-grant-review concept.
  • Preliminary data and Approach: Present your research strategy, not protocol minutiae; explaining what you’ll do if things go wrong; what if your Specific Aims don’t work out; best practices in presenting figures and tables.
  • Applying the second time around: Analyzing your Summary Statement and devising a strategy to revise your grant; writing the Introduction; should you reapply immediately or skip a round?
  • Principles of scientific writing: Ways to enhance clarity, avoid confusion, and omit needless words; tips for using MS Word expressly for grantwriting.
  • After the first draft is done: A systematic approach to highlighting strengths and eliminating weaknesses in your research plan.
  • Before you submit: How to boost your chances of success by getting written (not oral) reviews of your research plan prior to submission.
BONUS: Publishing More of Your Best Work in the Best Journals

Winning grants isn’t the only challenge to building your career. Getting published is certainly another. Maybe you’ve felt the disappointment of publishing in journals whose prestige is less than your papers deserve.

While some of this is inevitable, it’s also true that papers frequently wind up in less prestigious journals because of mistakes authors could have avoided.

Truth be told, there is no miracle technique to magically throw open the doors to the top journals and roll out the red carpet. But there are strategies that make tough journals less like impregnable fortresses.

I’ll teach you publishing strategies used by researchers in the top echelons of science to get their work into the top journals.Then, by using what you learn, you’ll prepare better manuscripts, better cover letters, better rebuttals to reviewers, and your best work will appear in the best journals more often.

Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What’s the difference between this program and a grant workshop?

A. Workshops provide great information, but  for some scientists workshops aren’t enough. They need grant help and advice after the workshops are over or workshop information doesn’t stick.

We’re different because our main goal is not imparting information but getting you funded. So when our workshop ends, our work with you is just beginning. We stay with you for months afterward to help you put what you learn in practice and create a research plan that can win.

Q. What’s the difference between this program and having my friends review my grant before I submit it?

A. Your friends and colleagues mean well and want to be helpful, but will they spend hours pouring over your research plan line by line, tracking down every weakness that might give reviewers doubt? Will grant mentors at your school do this? More often than not, we think there will be a serious gap between the amount of time they’ll give you and the amount  of time you need.

In this program, your research will be reviewed thoroughly prior to submission. Line by line. With us, you’ll get the help you need.

Q. Do you have a scientific background?

A. I have a PhD in microbiology and I did postdoctoral work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and at NIH in Bethesda. In 1998 I started a science magazine for the American Chemical Society and I’ve been a writer, editor, and consultant ever since.

I’ve helped clients with grants and contract proposals since 2003. My first success was writing a proteomics grant for a client that reviewers ranked in the top 15 out of 120 applications. It was funded for $2 million.

What this means is I will understand and sympathize with the challenges you face. You can talk to me scientist-to-scientist about your research, grant application, and career goals.

Q. How can you help me emphasize strengths and remove weaknesses in my research plan if you’re not a specialist in my field?

A. In helping scientists emphasize the importance and novelty of their research, I usually draw on my experience as science magazine editor and journalist more than my research experience in molecular biology. I have a keen sense of when something important can make an even stronger impact on reviewers if it’s rephrased or moved to a different part of the research plan.

As for fixing weaknesses, I probably will not be qualified to judge the technical details of your experiments, so we’ll discuss finding people who are qualified to do that for you. (NOTE: If you have an interdisciplinary project, you need someone of genuine, unquestioned expertise for the discipline you’re weakest in; otherwise a technical mistake you cannot catch on your own may ruin your grant with an Approach section score of 5 or worse.)

Beyond this, there are many common flaws in research plans regardless of discipline, and here I can definitely help you find and fix mistakes in how you present your ideas.

For example, if you overlook describing key controls, or alternative experimental approaches, or explaining how you can interpret your data critically, or what you’ll do if a hypothesis fails, I’ll probably notice right away and warn you.

This is only one of the ways in which I’ll help you spot and fix weaknesses before reviewers can pounce on them.

Q. Your grantsmanship coaching program seems geared for assistant professors. Is this only for them?

A. Assistant professors will be especially interested in this program because they have more to learn about NIH R01 grantsmanship than more established professors. However, the program can help any associate or full professor who needs an edge against the competition.

Q. Do you help clients with grants other than NIH R01s?

A. I advise scientists and science companies on all sorts of NIH grants, NIH contract proposals, NSF grants, SBIR grants and grant applications to other federal agencies. You can ask me about my availability by email. Generally, I’ll be booked well in advance of your grant deadline, so ask early.

The Structure of the Program:

1. Two Grantsmanship Mastery Group Sessions by teleconference (and often webinar) per month. Each meeting is approximately 90 minutes long. Sessions will be recorded as mp3 files in case you miss a session. Sessions will be at 3pm on Wednesdays, Eastern time.

2. One or more small R&B group meeting per month with 3 or 4 program participants. We’ll place you in a R&B (not Rhythm & Blues; it stands for Review & Bulletproofing). Your R&B group is for sharing your problems and progress in writing your research plans and supporting one another in the task of getting funded. In particular, you will critique and score each other’s research plans with the same 9-point scales NIH uses.

Your R&B group will accelerate your understanding of grantsmanship far faster than you’ll go working alone. And with your group’s help you’ll alert to major weaknesses in your research plan before you submit, so you have a much better chance to make your plan bulletproof.

3. A minimum of one individual meeting with Tom Hollon by telephone each month. Typically a call will be 60 to 90 minutes. Depending on what you are working on, we may schedule them more often.

4. Feedback on research plan sections, summary statements, and answering questions by email. Tom is available for you throughout the program for anything you need.

5. A Grant Progress Report sent to Tom every month describing your progress in getting ready to submit. This simple tool is a powerful way to keep you focused, on track, and accountable.

6. A 3-day intensive NIH R01 Grantsmanship Mastery Workshop (see below).

Three-Day “NIH R01 Grantsmanship Mastery Workshop”

The workshop will be held not long after our work together begins. Over the course of three days, the workshop will cover grantsmanship and grantwriting fundamentals and advanced topics that include:

  • How to schedule your time for grantwriting
  • The NIH Review Criteria Scoring System
  • Grantsmanhip: major reasons research plans are persuasive
  • Grantsmanhipwreck: major reasons research plans fail to win
  • Writing to sell your ideas: Title, Abstract, Specific Aims, Significance, Innovation, and Overall Impact
  • Writing to prove the risk of failure is low: Preliminary Data, Approach, Environment, and Investigator(s)
  • Summary Statement analysis and resubmission strategies
  • Writing the Introduction to a resubmission application
  • Easy ways to edit your writing so fitting the page limit is easier
  • Ways to highlight information on the page
  • Better use and positioning of figures and tables
  • Systematically making the strengths of your plan easier for reviewers to notice and understand
  • Systemically removing reasons for reviewers to doubt you will succeed
  • Dos and Don’ts for getting a pre-submission review of your research plan
After the workshop

The rest of the program in the months that follow will have us working together so what you learn in the workshop sticks and gets implemented. We want to make a winning research plan a reality, not a theory. I will support you in following through and making it happen.

Is this program a good fit for you?

“Glück, Geduld, Geschick und Geld.” Do you know this phrase? Paul Ehrlich (who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the first effective syphilis treatment) called them the four Gs for success in research: Luck, patience, skill and money.

My coaching program for Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship is about luck, skill and money.

  • Lessening the need for luck. I wish I could tell you luck has no role in winning grants, but that would not be true. What this program can do is lessen how much luck you need, so the merits of your proposal can still shine through even when reviewers are tired, cranky, distracted, under the influence, or otherwise less than alert.

Recall Pasteur’s saying about the role of serendipity in discovery, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Chance likewise favors the superbly prepared research plan.

  • Acquiring a vital skill faster. Through step-by-step coaching, I’ll teach you grantsmanship much faster than your senior colleagues learned by trial and error back when NIH was more forgiving of mistakes.
  • Winning money for discovery. The ultimate aim is to help you win your NIH R01 grant. I’ll help you apply grantsmanship principles to your current research plan, making its strengths stand out more clearly and removing weaknesses, so higher scores are inevitable.

To sum it up, this is a program for the scientist willing to self-invest to acquire an advanced skill for lessening the need for luck in the relentless struggle for money. This grantsmanship coaching program is not for everyone, but it’s definitely right for the right person.

Invitation to a free NIH R01 Grant Strategy Session

Would you like to spend less time struggling for funding and more time making discoveries? Then let me offer you a free one-hour R01 grant strategy session to discuss your needs and whether Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program can help you.

To set up a free strategy session, click on the button at the bottom, which will take you to an appointment page with some general questions about your grant situation.

Your answers will help me help you in two ways.

First, so we spend less time speaking generally and more time on how you can be helped, your answers will help me understand the specifics we should discuss about your grant.

Second, your answers will help me understand whether we may be a good fit to work together. If we don’t seem to be a good fit, then I’ll let you know by email and explain my reasoning.

What happens after the Strategy Session? At the end of the strategy session, if you feel this program is right for you, then we can discuss the price, my risk-free trial guarantee, and when to begin working together. You can then sign up immediately or think it over for a day or two. Whatever feels right for you.

Risk-free trial guarantee

To make trying the program easier, try the Mastering NIH R01 Grantsmanship Program for a full month with your money back if you’re unsatisfied for any reason. I’m sure you’ll know quickly whether this coaching program is right for you. If it’s not, you can leave, receive a full refund for the month — and owe nothing further.


Then I look forward to hearing from you. Contact me by email to find out more.

May you always score above payline,

Tom Hollon, PhD