Successful scientists are inevitably effective writers.
“The point of every research proposal is to capture someone’s interest with a clearly formed idea,” said Rick McGee, PhD, associate dean for faculty recruitment and professional development. “It is essential for young investigators to learn how to communicate what they need to say effectively.”
For the past five years, McGee has facilitated a novel grant-writing program that helps guide groups of junior faculty through the process of writing National Institutes of Health (NIH) K and R award applications. With new groups of up to 25 researchers beginning four months before NIH deadlines, the weekly 90-minute sessions provide guidance in real time.
Reviewing portions of two to four proposals each session, program participants engage in peer feedback as a way of learning the necessary framework of grant writing.
“Because it is often difficult to recognize gap’s in one’s own work, participants learn how to make their writing better by offering feedback on what is unclear in each other’s proposals,” McGee said. “We also walk participants through and track the specific patterns in successful NIH-style grant writing. It’s a learnable skill that we help impart.”
Breaking into subgroups of three to eight investigators, based on award type and if it is a new proposal or resubmission, faculty develop and revise their work throughout the process.
“I really enjoyed the small group setting where people who were writing R01s could exchange their specific aims and critique each other’s work. It helped me gain perspective on critical thinking,” said Lei Wang, PhD, assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and radiology, who used the group to help write three applications at the R01 level. “The help that I got from this activity was critical in getting two of them funded, with the third one in the resubmission stage. To me, this was an invaluable service.”
Supplementing group sessions are a number of online resources meant to help teach the patterns of NIH proposals. Going as far as to breakdown each sentence of a researcher’s specific aims, the most important page of a proposal that summarizes the project, the grant-writers group works to create better communication by evaluating the reason behind every statement made.
“Knowing the architecture and recognizing the patterns of a good proposal is extremely helpful,” McGee said. “This group differs from listening to a seminar because we are actually practicing the skillset. But it’s more than just writing. We work to develop the entire approach and way of thinking.”
Having helped more than 220 faculty members develop new proposals or work on resubmissions, McGee has tracked 35 NIH-funded projects.
The grant writers groups are supported by the Faculty Affairs Office and the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. Faculty members interested in joining the next session, which begins mid-March, should should email McGee at: firstname.lastname@example.org.